FBI Versus the Klan, Part 2
The KKK marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1927.
The FBI Versus the Klan
Part 2: Trouble in the 1920s
The Roaring Twenties were a heady time, full of innovation and exploration—from the novelty of “talking pictures” to the utility of mass-produced Model Ts...from the distinct jazz sounds of Duke Ellington to the calculated social rebellion of the “flappers”...from the pioneering flights of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to the pioneering prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.
It was also a lawless decade—an age of highly violent and well-heeled gangsters and racketeers who fueled a growing underworld of crime and corruption. Al Capone and his archrival Bugs Moran had formed powerful, warring criminal enterprises that ruled the streets of Chicago, while the early Mafia was crystallizing in New York and other cities, running various gambling, bootlegging, and other illegal operations.
Contributing to criminal chaos of the 1920s was the sudden rise of the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. In the early 1920s, membership in the KKK quickly escalated to six figures under the leadership of “Colonel” William Simmons and advertising guru Edward Young Clarke. By the middle of the decade, the group boasted several million members. The crimes committed in the name of its bigoted beliefs were despicable—hangings, floggings, mutilations, tarring and featherings, kidnappings, brandings by acid, along with a new intimidation tactic, cross-burnings. The Klan had become a clear threat to public safety and order.
|Read the Memos:
Matters were getting so out of hand in the state of Louisiana that Governor John M. Parker petitioned the federal government for help. In a memo dated September 25, 1922, J. Edgar Hoover—then assistant director of the Bureau—informed Director Burns that a reporter had brought a personal letter from Parker to the Department of Justice. “The Governor has been unable to use either the mails, telegraph, or telephone because of interference by the Klan … Conditions have been brought to a head at Mer Rouge, when two white men … were done away with mysteriously,” Hoover wrote. He also said that the governor was seeking assistance because “local authorities are absolutely inactive” and because he feared judges and prosecuting attorneys had been corrupted.
The Department responded, immediately sending four Bureau agents—A. E. Farland, J. D. Rooney, J. P. Huddleston, and W. M. Arkens—to work with the Louisiana attorney general to gather evidence of state and federal crimes. The agents soon found the bodies of the two men and pinpointed members of the vigilante mob that kidnapped and brutally murdered them. They also identified the mob’s leader—Dr. B.M. McKoin, the former mayor of Mer Rouge
|Gov. John M. Parker|
The agents’ work put their own lives in danger. On November 13, 1922, an FBI Headquarters memo noted that “confirmation has just been received of the organized attempt of klansmen and their friends to arrest, kidnap, and do away with special agents of the Department who were in Mer Rouge.” To make matters worse, the plot was “stimulated by the United States Attorney at Shreveport,” reportedly an active KKK member. The U.S. attorney had already ordered the investigating agents, detailed from the Houston Division, to leave the area or be arrested because he thought they had no business investigating those matters. “Only their hurried exit saved them,” the memo said. Still, the agents continued their work.
In 1923, McKoin was arrested and charged with the murders of the two men. Despite National Guard security, witnesses were kidnapped by the Klan, and other attempts were made to sabotage the trial. The grand jury refused to return an indictment. Other KKK members, though, ended up paying fines or being sentenced to short jail terms for miscellaneous misdemeanors related to the murders.
Despite the Bureau’s work, the power of the KKK in certain places was too strong to crack. But as revelations of leadership scandals spread and figures like Edward Young Clarke went to jail, the Klan’s membership dropped off precipitously. By the end of the decade, thanks in part to the Bureau, the KKK had faded into the background—at least for a time.
- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 3
- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 4
- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 5