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Mississippi Politician’s Obits Skirt Unpleasant Truths

Former legislator had less than stellar record on race

When Charles Wilson Capps Jr. died on Christmas Day, obituaries lauded the former Mississippi legislator — the longest-serving member in that state’s House of Representatives — for his leadership and likeability. One state legislator recalled a man with “a big heart” and said “his legacy is one for the ages.”

Capps’ son even told a story about how his father, while serving as sheriff of Bolivar County in 1964, told a Klansman that if he caused any trouble, he was putting him in jail.

Left out of the rose-colored accounts of Charlie Capps’ life was his less than stellar record on race. During the height of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Capps was president of one of the segregationist groups known as “White Citizens Councils” that future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall famously described as “the uptown Klan.” Capps also had numerous dealings with the State Sovereignty Commission, created by the Mississippi Legislature in 1956 to thwart integration and black voting rights by spying, often illegally, on citizens. The commission — which was abolished in 1977 — investigated thousands of people suspected of supporting civil rights and even provided critical information on three civil rights workers to police officers who were later implicated in their murder.

In 1959, according to the commission’s own now-unsealed records, Capps asked what the agency knew about two African Americans of interest to him. He was told that one of the men headed a “front organization” for the NAACP. Three years later, Capps, at the time a farmer and insurance man, attended a meeting with a commission investigator and others “to determine the activities of … outside agitators,” the records show.

After he was elected sheriff of Bolivar County in 1964, Capps expressed support for Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey after Rainey’s arrest in connection with the murder of the three civil rights workers. Also while sheriff, he asked the Sovereignty Commission at least twice to provide him with an informant. The first time was because Capps said that “people in the area were very much disturbed by the agitation of outsiders,” according to commission records. The following year, he again asked for, and received, an undercover agent’s help. His reasons for making the request are not clear from the documents.

Much more recently, while a powerful state legislator in 1994, Capps wrote to the prosecutor in the Byron de la Beckwith case, saying that “the indictment and proposed trial of Mr. Beckwith has done great and irreparable harm to our state.” De la Beckwith is the white supremacist who was finally convicted in 1994 of the murder 31 years earlier of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

It also was in 1994 that Capps, then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he was opposed to spending state money to unseal the records of the Sovereignty Commission. He said that opening the files “will achieve no purpose but [to] open old wounds that are 40 years old or over and have been forgotten.”

They were wounds that Charlie Capps himself helped inflict.