Fbi covert Operations and Suppression of Ku Klux Klan Violence, 1964-1971

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FBI Covert Operations and Suppression of Ku Klux Klan Violence, 1964-1971
(copywrite John Drabble, 2007)


Between 1964 and 1967, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a number of intensive criminal investigations of highly publicized murders, bombings and other acts of intimidation undertaken by members of Ku Klux Klan organizations. Information developed through these investigations and courtroom testimony from FBI informants was crucial to the eventual success of three Federal conspiracy prosecutions during 1965-1967, in Deep South locales where authorities had condoned or sponsored Klan violence and where juries had previously refused to indict or convict white supremacist vigilantes.1 Given dismal prospects for obtaining convictions, as well as the exponential increase in Klan violence that occurred during 1964, also undertook a domestic covert action program called COINTELPRO-WHITE Hate, which exposed, disrupted and neutralized the activities of militant Ku Klux Klan organizations.2

FBI agents provided embarrassing information to journalists, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and other molders of public opinion, and mailed fake, often scurrilous communications to Klansmen, which accused Klan leaders of immorality, embezzlement and informing. These journalistic exposés and notional communications defined Klan vigilantism as disruptive to a patriotic struggle against Communist subversion, and associated Klan ideology with Black Nationalism, Communism, and Nazism. Klan leaders were said to indulge private vices by sanctimoniously invoking religion, patriarchy, and patriotism to fleece naïve Klansmen of hard-earned income.3 Other operations thwarted Klan efforts to influence nonviolent anticommunist and anti-integration organizations, and prodded conservative groups, veterans organizations, unions, corporations, and small employers to purge Klansmen, or force them to leave the Klan.4 Clandestine informants stirred up dissention over all these issues, creating confusion and aggravating factionalism, which facilitated disruptive organizational splits and provoked purges. Disillusionment, frustration, and fear spread among rank and file Klan members, prompting mass resignations and the disbanding of hundreds of local Klan units across the South. In combination with criminal prosecutions, COINTELPRO helped to vitiate all the of the large Klan organizations of the 1960s.5

Based primarily on FBI files, this article analyzes interrelationships between FBI-facilitated criminal prosecutions of individual Klansmen, preventative domestic-security operations against Klan groups, and COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE.6 Augmenting the work of sociologist David Cunningham, it argues that FBI domestic-security operations and COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE actually played a role in helping to suppress Klan violence. Bureau administrators took care to prevent these operations from impairing federal Civil Right prosecutions, even while facilitating Treasury Department investigations of individual Klansmen for weapons violations and selective tax investigations against Klan organizers by the Internal Revenue Service.

Most significantly however, COINTELPRO facilitated and prodded suppression of Klan activity by local law enforcement agencies, facilitating a process described by legal historian Michal Belknap, by which Southerners themselves ultimately decided to suppress vigilante violence.7 In areas where local or state authorities were more eager to prevent interracial violence and defined vigilantism as terrorism, FBI agents provided critical information that enabled them to suppress Klan organizing and to selectively arrest Klansmen on misdemeanor charges unrelated to Klan activity. To forestall violence in areas where racist vigilantism received official sanction, FBI facilitated media exposés of law enforcement complicity, and withheld intelligence and crime-detection facilities from recalcitrant police agencies. They exposed Klan sympathizers among city and county police agencies on a routine basis, compelling law-enforcement agencies to purge Klansmen from their forces.8

This article also confirms that COINTELPRO operations facilitated expulsions of Klan leaders who advocated violence, resulting in reductions of violence and potential for violence in particular areas. As Cunningham argued however, COINTELPRO targeting decisions were also dependent upon whether a given Klan unit was part of a nationally organized umbrella organization, and COINTELPRO ultimately aimed to suppress Klan organizing, not only by eliminating, but by attempting to control Klan organizations through the use of informants.9 Before historians can assess the full effects of COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE on Klan violence then, they must determine whether FBI informants who achieved positions of power in Klan groups, actually held down violence by other members.10 Control of informants was tenuous, and agents-provocateur activity rife under COINTELPRO-NEW LEFT, while COINTELPRO-BLACK NATIONALIST HATE GROUPS sparked murderous internecine violence, which agents exploited it for disruptive purposes.11 This article concludes that evidence concerning informants who achieved positions of power in Klan organizations points to a mixed record.

Domestic Security Investigations and the Prevention of Racial Violence, 1958-1964

Klan groups organized to suppress African American freedom movements and maintain white supremacy. Given the localized nature of civil rights campaigns between World War II and the early 1960s, Klan groups were also highly localized. Between 1960 and 1964 however, as direct action campaigns for civil rights accelerated across the South, they were met with interstate Klan organizing and an increase in vigilante violence. In areas where aspirations to attract industrial plants and capital investment motivated white moderates to break with massive resistance and seek compromise, law enforcement authorities viewed Klan violence as terrorism, repressed it, and harassed Klan organizers. In recalcitrant areas, politicians and law enforcement authorities responded with inaction, tacit support, or active collaboration, and local citizens refused to indict or convict white supremacist vigilantes. This situation would not change until Federal authorities intervened to boost black voter registration, providing accommodating politicians with a large enough political base to shift toward moderation. Only after successful implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act reduced the amount of political capital to be gained from resistance, did authorities in the Deep South moved to repress Klan vigilantism.12

As U.S. Justice Department officials debated the extent of federal jurisdiction over civil rights violations in the American South after World War II, the White House accepted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s reluctance to investigate cases of police brutality and vigilante violence. In response to an increase in Klan-type terrorism between 1957 and 1964 however, the US Congress passed anti-bombing and civil rights legislation, forcing the FBI to change. Justice Department officials prodded a reluctant FBI into monitoring and infiltrating Klan-type groups, and assisting local authorities that chose to launch criminal investigations.13

The FBI provided information to an interstate agency set up by twenty-eight Southern mayors to exchange information and evidence in response to scores of bombings that had targeted schools and religious institutions since 1957-1958.14 The Bureau conducted seminars for police officials, provided laboratory services, and began selected investigations of Klan-type groups to determine whether their members were involved in bombings, shootings, assaults, intimidation, and harassment.15 Agents investigated Klan relationships with law enforcement agencies,16 and advised local officials about Klansmen on the force.17

As legal historian John Elliff has observed however since such operations aimed at preserving internal security rather than on protecting civil rights, “organizations received dominant attention at the expense of comprehensive knowledge about specific obstacles” to desegregation or voting rights.18 While the Justice Department became more concerned about police violence during 1961-1963, concern about maintaining cordial relations with local police, as well as high conviction rates to maintain Bureau prestige, meant that sustained efforts to combat police brutality was not forthcoming.19 As late as July 1961, Bureau provided information about “possible violence or other disturbances” to police agencies regardless of whether they were “trustworthy,” reliable, or whether they would “properly fulfill [their] responsibility” to maintain law and order.”

Information concerning Klan membership by law enforcement officers working for unreliable agencies, was furnished to State Governors or “appropriate” local authorities,20 but since left in their hands, problems. In Birmingham, Alabama for example, police-Klan conduit Gary Thomas Rowe was also the FBI’s most important informant in the Klan.-date of bus beating and trace policy change?? 21 Such intelligence operations, which merely helped to identify suspects after crimes had occurred if locals wished

The Bureau expanded intelligence operations against the Klan in late 1963, in response to political pressure from liberal politicians and federal bureaucrats, who came to view organized white supremacist violence as an internal security threat. Once Klan terror was framed as a threat to internal-security, the Bureau began to take steps, albeit halting and hardly visible ones, to thwart Klan violence.22 When agents determined that some Charlotte, North Carolina police officers had attended a Klan meeting in November 1963, they became “very circumspect about distribution on information about potential violence within its jurisdiction” so as to protect their informant.23

During civil disturbances in Florida during November 1963, and again in May 1964, for example, agents began issuing alerts to Bureau headquarters on “possible outbreaks of racial violence.”24 In May-June 1964, Bureau executives stepped up efforts to predict and contain outbreaks of racial violence, instituting complete informant coverage of all Klan meetings, in order to anticipate violence. No longer focusing investigations upon particular criminal offenses, intelligence gatherers had begun to use informants and surveillance to identify Klansmen and to determine the crimes for which they might be responsible.25

In June 1964, after Georgia Klansmen killed black soldier Lemuel Penn and Mississippi Klansmen killed three civil rights workers in Neshoba County Mississippi, President Johnson pressured the FBI to actively suppress Klan violence. In response, FBI executives launched an aggressive internal security investigation, comprised of surveillance, infiltration, aggressive interviewing and harassment, against the most active Klan groups in the South.26 The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to set up a special clearing house of information on Klan membership, intra-Klan relations, Klan recruiting, support, growth and attrition, and to review and recommend action against organizations whose members were acting to violate federal statutes.27 The FBI began only providing information on Klan infiltration of law enforcement to State Governors, and to “responsible local authorities.”28

The 1964 Civil Rights Act also created new responsibilities. In July, the FBI provided Justice Department prosecutors with photographs of vigilante attacks on civil rights activists who were testing the new law, but they also provided intelligence on Klan plans to cooperative local police, who in turn thwarted Klan activity.29 During violence that swept St. Augustine Florida that summer, FBI executives authorized a microphone surveillance of both NAACP leader Robert Hayling and local Klan leader Halstead Manucy because

in view of the tense racial situation and the possibility of future violence . . . [surveillance] may possibly be instrumental in saving lives as well as obtaining the necessary information to fulfill the Bureau’s responsibilities in racial matters.30
The decision to target Manucy reflected a new FBI policy aimed at “aggressively seeking out persons addicted to violence even though they have not violated a federal law as yet.”31 Under this larger policy FBI executives moved responsibility for the Klan and other "hate groups" from the General Investigative Division, which focused on crime investigations, to the Domestic Intelligence Division, which had heretofore been preoccupied with subversion.32

The Justice Department established (when?) an Information Review Unit, a clearinghouse for information on “Klan and Klan type groups and acts of violence and intimidation of the nature found to be encouraged by the Klan.” This unit “maintained lists of Klan membership, Klan federations and Klaverns, and relationships between Klan groups.” It monitored “Klan leaders” and “trends toward growth or attrition, recruiting activities, and changes in support for the Klan movement” in local areas, reviewing and making recommendations against Klan organizations where evidence indicated that Klansmen were “acting to violate federal statutes.”33 FBI agents did not investigate everyone who regularly attended Klan meetings until 1967, when they began to compile “details of Klan rallies and demonstrations.”34 By 1968, agents investigated “aims and purposes” of “white militant organizations,” and compiled information on “leaders, approximate membership” and “militancy.”35 By 1971, they investigated anyone whom the local Special Agent in Charge judged to be an “extremist.”36 Active Klansmen, whether accused of a crime or not, had become subjects in government dossiers.

When FBI executives launched COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE in September 1964, they instructed their local field office agents to focus attention on “action groups” composed of
relatively few individuals in each organization who use strong-arm tactics and violent actions to achieve their ends. . . . Often these groups act without the approval of the Klan organization or membership. The Bureau considers it vital that we expose the identities and activities of such groups and where possible disrupt their efforts. These groups should be subjected to continuing counterintelligence action.37
Within a year, FBI executives could cited expulsion of "potentially violent" and "dangerous" individuals as a "tangible result" of the operation.38

Prevention of violence remained a priority throughout the life of the counterintelligence program. In summer 1966 for example, FBI executives reiterated their instructions on COINTELPRO, clarifying to field offices that

Our objective in counterintelligence is to reduce membership in the Klan and hate organizations and to prevent potential violence. Insure that Special Agent personnel handling this area of counterintelligence afford our objectives continued and enthusiastic attention.39
In a typical communication to FBI headquarters confirming that field office agents responded to this enjoinder, Birmingham agents reported that "although there were numerous instances of racial demonstrations by pro-integration groups” in spring 1966, no white supremacist groups had “caused any trouble or disturbance."40 In a final, July 1970 recommendation to continue the White Hate program, FBI executive C. D. Brennan asserted that COINTELPRO "has been effective in toning down Klan violence."41

The most violent Klan organization of the 1960s was the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Highly secretive, this hierarchically organized group of militant white supremacists embodied the quintessential model of a criminal conspiracy. FBI agents warned Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers that his members were under surveillance, and that he would be subjected to constant surveillance if he did not rescind recent orders to commit violence, and targeted one of his more active Klansmen for harassment. In general Klansmen who renounced violence and were left alone, but militants were threatened with prosecution and pressured to provide information.42

Such “aggressive interviewing” proved a very effective counterintelligence technique against Klan organizations that contained violent members. In Bogalusa Louisiana, agents interviewed members of “wrecking crews” for the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and then subsequently performed overt background checks on other members of these crews, in order to sow mistrust.43 This caused Klavern meeting attendance to fall significantly in the Klan strongholds of St. Tammany, Washington and Franklin Parishes.44 Using information acquired through FBI intelligence operations, the Justice Department obtained an injunction against the Original Knights of the KKK and thirty-eight individual Klansmen.45 A Federal Court forced the Klan leader to produce a membership list, causing rank and file Klansmen to criticize the Klan leadership for having cooperated with the inquiry.46 Informants reported that OKKKK leaders, fearful of police pressure and anticipating more federal pressure, Klan leaders instructed their units to avoid violence and to keep their financial records straight.47

As opposed to the White Knights and the Original Knights, both of which were eventually destroyed through a combination of federal prosecutions, covert action and police repression, the FBI could not prove that leaders of the much larger United Klans of America commanded their followers to commit violence.1 An interstate confederation of more or less democratically organized local units, the UKA was a legally incorporated organization that elected its officers, held public rallies and published a monthly newspaper. Although individual members of the UKA committed acts of violence, the Imperial Wizard never openly sanctioned this, and even claimed that Klansman convicted of criminal activity would be expelled.2 The Imperial Wizard was a prime target of COINTELPRO, even though he “did not condone violence” or “support bombings.”48 COINTELPRO also targeted North Carolina UKA Grand Dragon J. R. Jones, who held down violence by his followers, because he was Shelton’s most effective UKA organizer.49

Aggressive interviewing was also effective. Agents determined the identities of all Alabama State Klan officers and local unit leaders, and interviewed them to alert them that their Klan affiliations were known, and to dissuade them from violence. To deter Montgomery Alabama Klansmen from violence, agents openly conducted surveillance, and followed them whenever they got into their automobiles, creating concern about of surveillance and fear about potential prosecution.50 North Carolina agents interviewed Klansmen "to have them realize they will be under suspicion if violent activity develops,"51 and instructed informants to keep track of violent statements and plans in Klavern meetings.52 In Tennessee, aggressive FBI interviews aggravated factionalism and convinced Klansmen to purge a troublesome, yet effective Dixie Klans organizer, causing a membership decline.53

Indeed, aggressive interviews had disrupted Klan organizing before the formal launch of COINTELPRO. As early as 1963, FBI interviews of Klan members regarding the assassination of President Kennedy, and in connection with bombings in Birmingham, Alabama had caused disruption in Tennessee and Georgia, because Klansmen came to suspect that only Klan leaders could have provided agents with information used to formulate penetrating questions. In Alabama, the interrogations caused fear and led Klansmen to accuse each other of informing.54 A Klavern in Texarkana Arkansas, became completely inactive.55 An early 1964 FBI bombing-investigation in Jacksonville Florida created factionalism among competing Klan groups as well as the National States Rights Party.56

In Chattanooga Tennessee, where FBI agents had conducted interviews regarding both the Kennedy assassination and a series of bombings, Klan leaders instructed Klansmen to stay away from civil rights demonstrations and integrating schools, and not to advocate, or engage in discussions of violence.57 When a more militant Klansman threatened to take over that organization in August 1965, FBI agents briefly debated providing support so as to bring discredit upon the Klan, but ultimately used aggressive interviews, disruptive informants, pressure on local police, and covert action to bring about his resignation.58

Under COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, such “intensive interview programs” not only continued to quell advocacy of violence, and create distrust but reduced Klan membership, especially outside the Deep South.59 Baltimore agents used such interviews to “immobilize the more timid,” by creating an impression that “the FBI is tapping their telephones and keeping them under constant surveillance.”60 Perhaps because no Klan murders and few other felony crimes occurred in North Carolina, FBI agents found that “harassing type interviews” were not “effective in reducing Klan membership . . . among ‘hard core’ members and those who might resort to violence.”61 Interviews did cause a lot of resentment however, as Klansmen complained that interviews at places of employment were causing firings.62

In Virginia and Tennessee, less committed Klansmen either curtailed their Klan activities, or even quit after being interviewed by FBI agents. This led to the total collapse of some local units.63 In Virginia, agents interviewed prospective Klan members, convincing “numerous” applicants to “decide against associating with the Klan due to their interview by FBI agents or the possibility of FBI agents contacting them or their employers in the future.”64 Agents interviewed more than 15 Klansmen in Sevierville, Tennessee in connection with a bombing investigation. Informants later confirmed that many of the Klansmen withdrew from the UKA because they did not want to be associated with an organization under investigation with the FBI. Sevierville Klansmen also removed one of their officers due to his failure to attend meetings in the wake of these interviews.65

Using interviews to facilitate distrust, Memphis based agents "periodically contacted" a "high ranking West Tennessee Klan official" in late 1965, to "inflate his ego to the point where he will talk and brag concerning his activities." They reasoned that

periodic contacts will tend to deter him from engaging in or condoning any acts of violence. Likewise, the mere presence of FBI agents with [Bureau Deletion] from time to time will undoubtedly come to the attention of lesser-ranking Klansmen and tend to deter some of their activities since there will always be some doubt in their minds as to just how much [Bureau Deletion] is talking with the FBI about Klan activities."66
Agents also interviewed numerous UKA Klansmen from Sevierville, Maryville and Knoxville in connection with a bombing investigation.67 Numerous Klansmen quit, because they did not want to be associated with an organization under investigation with the FBI.68 Interviews in Harriman caused that unit to disband, and interview of one Kingsport Klan organizer created such paranoia that organizing ceased.69 Numerous members of the Maryville Klavern #1 became suspicious of each other, enabling agents to launch a “snitch-jacket operation, which caused the70 ouster of a Klan officer from his position.71

Tampa Florida-based agents used interviews, to “compound existing suspicions” that a local Klan leader was informing, and to thwart Klan organizing.72 To cause “confusion, distrust and general demoralization”73 South Carolina agents interviewed twenty-five individuals, including eleven Klavern officers and three Realm officers,74 to “place suspicion” on [5] during an ongoing power struggle.75 Members of the Columbia klavern began suspecting one of their members, who had received a letter at the Klan-operated Heritage Garment Works, of being an FBI informant.76

Upset by the tactic, Shelton advised that when interviewed, Klansmen identify themselves, but never identify any other member of the UKA. Preferably Klansmen should not allow themselves to be interviewed, lest they inadvertently provide information. He came up with a plan: Klansmen should secure the interviewing agents’ name and identification number, photograph him, and tape-record the interview. He should commence to argue, demand that the agent leave, and then call police to arrest him.77

As these examples illustrate, preventative law enforcement and counterintelligence overlapped. KELLER

Directory: drabbs
drabbs -> But Klansmen whipped a Columbus County woman in 1951
drabbs -> With the complicity of
drabbs -> The fbi, cointelpro-white hate, and the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, 1964-1971
drabbs -> 2 From October 1871 into 1873, mass arrests and federal prosecutions “broke the back of the Ku Klux Klans” after which Southern violence took on new form
drabbs -> Tennessee was traditionally moderate on racial issues, reacting to
drabbs -> 2 From October 1871 into 1873, mass arrests and federal prosecutions “broke the back of the Ku Klux Klans” after which Southern violence took on new form
drabbs -> The fbi, cointelpro-white hate and the Decline of Ku Klux Klan Organizations in Mississippi, 1964-1971
drabbs -> Chapter ? ‘A negative and Unwise Approach’: Private Detectives, Vigilantes and the fbi counterintelligence, 1910-1972

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