And Justice for All, 1954-1971

When nine black-robed Supreme Court judges sat down behind their mahogany bench on spring day in 1954 and declared that a separate system of schools for blacks and whites was not really equal after all, turning Jim Crow on its ear, the winds of change began to blow across America.

They’d blow harder still when a 42-year-old black woman named Rosa Parks, after a long day at work, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on the first day of December in 1955, and when a young, then unknown Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., took up her cause and led a successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

“We shall overcome,” blacks and whites alike soon began singing, and what they hoped to overcome was the deep-seated prejudice and injustice that existed towards African-Americans in this country for far too long. Thomas Jefferson had penned the classic phrase, “All men are created equal,” nearly two centuries earlier, calling it a self-evident truth. But the question was, did we as a nation really mean it? Could we deliver justice for all? The civil rights movement aimed to find out.

Wrapped up in this struggle in the ensuing years would be the FBI. It had cut its investigative teeth on civil rights crimes; a dozen of the first 34 special agents were experts in “peonage”—the modern-day equivalent of slave labor. The Bureau had begun battling the KKK prior to the 1920s, and for years it had handled so-called “color of law” cases involving brutality or other civil rights crimes by state and local authorities.


Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1955. National Archives photo.
Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr.
in 1955. National Archives.
Firebombed greyhound bus in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961 used by freedom riders to challenge the refusal to enforce U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ruled segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
A Freedom Riders bus is set on fire in Alabama, on May 14, 1961.

In 1947, for instance, after a local sheriff and his deputy stood by and watched a mob dressed in Klan robes burn crosses and beat a handful of blacks in Georgia, the FBI’s investigation led to the conviction of both officers. The federal grand jury singled out the work of the special agents in the case, resolving that “…by their great fidelity and singleness of purpose in developing the information in the Dade County, Georgia, conspiracy trial [they] have gone far beyond the line of duty to aid, assist and protect the citizens of the United States and to further the cause of equity and justice in America.”

Crowd of people at a Ku Klux Klan cross burning.
A KKK cross burning

Still, the FBI had its jurisdictional limits. Lynching in those days was not a federal crime, nor were bias-based attacks and most murders (to this day, hate crime is not a specific federal offense). States guarded their rights jealously, and local authorities often loudly complained if the FBI interfered in race-related crimes in their communities. Even when the Bureau did have jurisdiction in civil rights-related cases, that didn’t guarantee the cooperation of witnesses. And in the Deep South especially, white-dominated juries all too often disregarded the facts and evidence Bureau agents and others put together, letting the guilty go scot-free in remarkable miscarriages of justice.

A good example of the FBI’s limitations—and the prevailing state of justice below the Mason-Dixon line—came in August 1955, when a visiting black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till reportedly whistled at a white woman in a Mississippi country store. Till was kidnapped, beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a large fan tied to his neck. The woman’s husband and his half-brother were accused of murder, but an all-white jury acquitted them both. The FBI was prevented from investigating by the Department of Justice, which ruled that no federal laws had been broken despite the horrific nature of the crime. In 2004, when times (and laws) were different, Bureau and Mississippi officials reopened the case, but with the main culprits long since dead and credible evidence against others hard to come by, no charges were filed.

As the 1950s turned into the early 1960s, the backlash against blacks by the Klan and like-minded racists became increasingly violent as the civil rights movement gained momentum. In 1961, angry white mobs repeatedly attacked busloads of “freedom riders” who traveled to the South to help integrate public facilities.

Joe’s Barbeque Cooks the Mob 

Joseph Valachi Testifies on the Mob (AP Photo)

Joseph Valachi testifies before the Senate on October 1, 1963, showing how he was initiated into the Mafia by having to burn a crumbled ball of paper in his hands while taking the mob oath. AP Photo.

On a mid-November day in 1957, a soft drink bottler named Joseph Barbara hosted a get-together at his rural estate in Apalachin, a small town just west of Binghamton, New York. He called it a soft drink convention. It was anything but.

Sergeant Edgar Croswell of the New York State Police was intensely interested in the gathering. He’d observed suspected criminals at the house before and was suspicious. With smoke rising from Barbara’s outdoor grill, Croswell and Trooper Vincent Vasisko began to take down the license plate numbers of the luxury cars jammed in the driveway.

Suddenly Barbara’s guests noticed…and panicked. Some fled to the woods; others dashed for their cars. Sergeant Croswell ordered an immediate roadblock and soon had detained 62 guests in order to check their identification. Among them were Joseph Bonanano, Russell Bufalino, Carlo Gambino, Vito Genovese, Antonio Magaddino, Joseph Proface, John Scalish, and Santos Traficante—a veritable Who’s Who of what is now called the “Mob,” the “Mafia,” or “La Cosa Nostra.”

Croswell’s important detective work exploded nationally. The FBI, for its part, immediately checked the names taken by the officers. It had information in its files on 53 of the mobsters; 40 had criminal records. Croswell’s discovery led the FBI to intensify its interest in these figures (not begin it, as some have speculated) and to arrest mobsters who violated federal law. In part because of events at Apalachin, the FBI realized that local and regional crime lords were conspiring and began to adjust its strategy accordingly.

That strategy had taken shape four years earlier, when the New York office—facing rising mobster activity—had specifically asked to open intelligence files on 30 top hoodlums in the city to get a general picture of their activities and to keep an eye out for violations of federal law. On August 25, 1953, the FBI launched a national “Top Hoodlum Program,” asking all field offices to gather information on mobsters in their territories and to report it regularly to Washington to build a centralized collection of intelligence on racketeers.

It’s important to understand: at the time, most racketeering activities—including gambling and loan sharking—were beyond the Bureau’s jurisdictional reach. Still, the FBI needed to build a bank of information to better understand the threat and to be prepared if federal laws were broken.

With the extra exposure provided at Apalachin, this program ultimately produced a wealth of information about organized crime activities. And in 1963, thanks in part to the FBI, the first major Mafia turncoat—Joseph Valachi—publicly spilled the beans before a Senate subcommittee, naming names and exposing plenty of secrets about organized crime history, operations, and rituals.

But the Bureau still needed legislative tools to get past the small time crooks and connect them with those barons of the underworld. Congress powerfully delivered, with illegal gambling laws that unlocked Mafia financial networks and with laws like the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968 and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970. All of this helped the FBI’s campaign against the mob turn a corner, setting the stage for some important victories in the coming years.


Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, flanked by FBI agents, is brought to court in October 1964 in connection with the Mississippi Burning murders. AP Photo.
Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, flanked by FBI agents, is brought to court in October 1964 in connection with the Mississippi Burning murders. AP Photo.

The next year, violence and riots erupted when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. In May 1963, Birmingham police commissioner “Bull” Connor—a known KKK member—unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors. The following month, a leading black civil rights activist named Medgar Evers was shot dead in the driveway of his Mississippi home. Three months later, four young black girls were killed when a powerful bomb exploded in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The FBI investigated the Evers murder and the Birmingham bombing, but it had no jurisdiction in the case of Connor’s actions.

A turning point came in 1964 at the start of “Freedom Summer,” a massive campaign to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. Three young civil rights activists—two white, one black—were brutally murdered by the KKK there, with the full cooperation of local law enforcement. The FBI quickly identified the culprits in a case that came to be called “Mississippi Burning,” arresting 21 men in Mississippi by early December. Martin Luther King responded to the news by saying, “I must commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the work they have done in uncovering the perpetrators of this dastardly act. It renews again my faith in democracy.”

He spoke a little too soon, as justice in the courtroom was a different matter. Most of the men went free or were convicted of lesser charges; it took until 2005 before Edgar Ray Killen, one of the chief conspirators, was convicted of manslaughter. Still, the outrage at the killings helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 less a month later and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the following summer.

The 1964 law in particular—which banned segregation on a wide scale, including in schools, public places, government, and the workplace—made a number of civil rights violations federal crimes for the first time and gave the Bureau the federal lead in combating them. Today, protecting civil rights is one of the Bureau’s top priorities, and, using its full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities, it works closely with state and local authorities (in ways not possible decades ago) to prevent and address hate crime, human trafficking, police brutality, and other crimes that take away the freedoms of the American people.

Escape from Alcatraz

   Alcatraz Prison in 2008
   Dummy Head in Alcatraz Escape
   Guard Examines Hole Made by Alcatraz Escapees
Top: Alcatraz today. Middle: The fake head that fooled the guards.
Bottom: The hole made by the convicts to escape their cell.

In its heyday, it was the ultimate maximum-security prison.

Located on a lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz—aka “The Rock”—had held captives since the Civil War. But it was in 1934, the highpoint of the nation’s war on crime and gangsters, that Alcatraz was re-fortified into the world’s most secure prison. Its eventual inmates included dangerous public enemies like Al Capone, criminals who had a history of escapes, and the occasional odd character like the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

In the 1930s, Alcatraz was already a forbidding place, surrounded by the cold, rough waters of the Pacific. The redesign included tougher iron bars, a series of strategically positioned guard towers, and strict rules, including a dozen checks a day of the prisoners. Escape seemed near impossible.

Despite the odds, from 1934 until the prison was closed in 1963, 36 men tried 14 separate escapes. Nearly all were caught or didn’t survive the attempt.

The fate of three particular inmates, however, remains a mystery to this day.

On June 12, 1962, the early morning bed check turned up three missing convicts: John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris. In their beds were cleverly built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair that apparently fooled the night guards. An intensive search began.

The FBI was immediately asked to help. It set leads for offices nationwide to check for any records on the missing prisoners, interviewed relatives of the men, and asked boat operators in the Bay to watch for debris. Within two days, a packet of letters sealed in rubber and linked to the men was recovered. Later, some paddle-like pieces of wood and bits of rubber inner tube were found. A homemade life vest was also discovered washed up on Cronkhite Beach.

The FBI, the Coast Guard, Bureau of Prison authorities, and others began to find more evidence and piece together the ingenious escape plan, aided by a fourth plotter who didn’t make it out of his cell in time and began providing information.

Investigators learned that the three escapees had carefully planned their escape. They used crude tools—including a homemade drill made from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner—to loosen the air vents at the back of their cells. Once through, they made their way down an unguarded common corridor and climbed to the top of their cellblock inside the building, where they set up a secret workshop. There, they used a variety of stolen and donated materials to build what they needed to escape, including makeshift life preservers and a 6x14 foot rubber raft made out of more than 50 stolen raincoats.

On the evening of June 11, the Anglin brothers and Morris got into the corridor, climbed up and out through the ventilator, went to the prison roof, and gathered their gear stored there. Then, they shimmied down the bakery smoke stack at the rear of the cell house, climbed over the fence, snuck to the northeast shore of the island and launched their raft.

What happened next remains a mystery. Did they make it across the Bay, get to Angel Island, and then cross Raccoon Strait into Marin County as planned? Or did the wind and waves get the better of them?

The FBI officially closed its case on December 31, 1979, and turned over responsibility to the U.S. Marshals Service, which continues to investigate in the unlikely event the trio is still alive.

The civil rights movement ultimately began to unleash pent-up racial frustrations across the nation. Not all protests during the ‘60s were peaceful, as vocal groups like the Black Panthers that advocated armed resistance and police brutality (both real and perceived) began touching off more hostile confrontations, including a decade-long string of violent riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and many other cities. In the first nine months of 1967 alone, more than 100 people were killed in rioting in more than 60 cities.

At the same time, opposition to the Vietnam War was growing, largely on college campuses but also among vocal leaders, including Reverend King. The conflict united many anti-establishment groups with a common goal, and non-violent protests calling for an end to the war were held nationwide. A new counterculture movement started taking shape, linked to and often led by folk and rock music and other forms of artistic expression. It was a time of high idealism, with many Americans advocating peace, freedom, individual rights, and a more open and tolerant society.

The movement, however, had a dark underbelly—namely, drugs, more radical protests (like the student takeover of Columbia University in New York in 1968), and violent attacks by some fringe groups. In 1970 alone, an estimated 3,000 bombings and 50,000 bomb threats took place across America. Violent left-wing radicals like the Weather Underground bombed a series of government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. On August 24, 1970, two students at the University of Wisconsin—where antiwar sentiments ran high—joined two other men in using a powerful homemade bomb to blow up Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Mathematics Research Center. One graduate student was killed and three others injured. The FBI quickly located three of the bombers; the fourth remains wanted to this day.

During this time the FBI was playing a key role through its criminal and national security cases. It took the lead in investigating the high-profile assassinations of national leaders like President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert Kennedy. It also investigated the Kent State shootings and other related incidents and attacks.

In this period no specific guidelines for FBI agents covering national security investigations had been developed by either Congress or the Justice Department (and none would be until 1976). The FBI therefore addressed domestic terrorism threats from militant left-wing groups as it had from communists in the 1950s and the KKK in the 1960s—using traditional investigative and intelligence techniques.

Director Hoover meets with President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy in February 1961. AP Photo.
Director Hoover meets with President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy in February 1961. AP Photo.

One such operation was “Cointelpro,” short for Counterintelligence Program. Approved by the National Security Council in 1956, Cointelpro initially focused on disrupting the activities of the Community Party of the United States. Five years later it was expanded to include the Socialist Workers Party. The KKK was added in 1964, the Black Panther Party in 1967, and other leftist groups in ensuing years.

The goal of the operation was to get a better handle on domestic threats facing the nation and to prevent attacks by these organizations and their members. But some Cointelpro tactics went too far for the American people, who began to learn about the classified program after an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, was burglarized in 1971 by radicals and information was leaked to the press and Congress. In some cases, FBI agents had infiltrated groups, sowed discord among their members, and attempted to discredit their efforts—even when there was little or no evidence of unlawful activities. Hoover formally ended all Cointelpro operations in April 1971.

Though fairly limited in scope (about two-tenths of one percent of the FBI’s investigative workload over a 15-year period), Cointelpro was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the country for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons. The upshot—as you’ll see in the next chapter—was stronger and much needed guidelines and controls over FBI national security investigations through a series of Attorneys’ General orders and congressional legislation. But the ensuing new processes and regulations also made intelligence gathering more difficult for the FBI going forward, ultimately creating an artificial wall between criminal cases and national security investigations. 

On January 27, 1967, the FBI launched the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, an electronic clearinghouse of criminal justice information (mug shots, crime records, etc.) that can be tapped into by police officers in squad cars or by police agencies nationwide.
On January 27, 1967, the FBI launched the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, an electronic clearinghouse of criminal justice information (mug shots, crime records, etc.) that can be tapped into by police officers in squad cars or by police agencies nationwide.

Despite missteps with Cointelpro, the FBI had not turned into a secret police force as some feared. The Bureau continued to be accountable to Congress and to the American people. And in the end, it had played an important and sometimes overlooked role in helping to ensure civil rights and domestic tranquility during a turbulent time for the nation through its criminal investigations and intelligence work.

In May 1972, a long chapter in FBI history came to a close with the passing of J. Edgar Hoover, who had served as Director for nearly a half century. In the years to come, he would often be remembered more for his failings than his strengths, but it was Hoover who had turned the Bureau into an investigative powerhouse, helped pioneer the application of scientific methods to fighting crime and terrorism, and greatly advanced the cause of law enforcement professionalism nationwide.

Over the next two decades, a series of Directors would focus on modernizing and reforming the Bureau as it confronted a growing palette of threats. It started with one of the most shocking, high-profile crimes in history.