This series details the work of the FBI to protect the American people—especially minorities—from the evils of the modern-day Klan.
In February 1915, the D.W. Griffith movie later titled The Birth of a Nation premiered in a Los Angeles theater. Though considered progressive in its technique and style, the film had a decidedly backwards plot that glorified a short-lived, post-Civil War white supremacist group called the Ku Klux Klan. The movie’s broad release in March provoked riots and even bloodshed nationwide.
It also revived interest in the KKK, leading to the birth of several new local groups that summer and fall. Many more followed, mostly in southern states at first. Some of these groups focused on supporting the U.S. effort in World War I, but most wallowed in a toxic mix of secrecy, racism, and violence.
As the Klan grew, it attracted the attention of the young Bureau. Created just a few years earlier—in July 1908—the Bureau of Investigation (as the organization was known then) had few federal laws to combat the KKK in these formative days. Cross burnings and lynchings, for example, were local issues. But under its general domestic security responsibilities, the Bureau was able to start gathering information and intelligence on the Klan and its activities. And wherever possible, we looked for federal violations and shared information with state and local law enforcement for its cases.
Our early files show that Bureau cases and intelligence efforts were already beginning to mount in the years before 1920. A few examples:
- In Birmingham, a middle-aged African-American—who fled north to avoid serving in the war—was arrested for draft dodging in May 1918 when he returned to persuade his white teenage girlfriend to marry him. A Bureau agent looking into the matter discovered that the local KKK had gotten wind of the interracial affair and was organizing to lynch the man. The agent came up with a novel solution to resolve the draft-dodging issue and to protect the man from harm: he escorted the evader to a military camp and ensured that he was quickly inducted.
- In June 1918, a Mobile agent named G.C. Outlaw learned that Ed Rhone—the leader of a multi-racial group called the Knights of Labor—was worried by the abduction of another labor leader by reputed Klansmen. “This uneasiness of the Knights of Labor,” our agent noted, “is the first direct result of the Ku Klux activities.” Agent Outlaw investigated and assured Rhone we would protect him from any possible harm.
- At the request of a Bureau agent in Tampa, a representative of the American Protective League—a group of citizen volunteers who helped investigate domestic issues like draft evasion during World War I—convinced an area Klan group to disband in August 1918.
World War I effectively came to an end with the signing of a ceasefire in November 1918, but the KKK was just getting started. Pro-war oriented Klan groups either folded or began to coalesce around a focus on racial and religious prejudice. Teaming up with advertising executive Edward Young Clarke, the head of the Atlanta Klan—William Simmons—would oversee a rapid rise in KKK membership 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.
The KKK marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1926.
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.
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 (see sidebar below), 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.
Gov. John M. Parker
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.
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.
Governor John M. Parker Memo to the Bureau
September 25, 1922
MEMORANDUM FOR MR. BURNS
Mr. Paul Wooton, Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, presented a letter addressed to the Attorney General, by Governor John M. Parker of Louisiana, asking for assistance in investigation of Ku-Klux matters in northern Louisiana. Mr. Wooton’s address is 611 Colorado Building, and his telephone is Main 4047.
The Governor has been unable to use either the mails, telegraph, or telephone because of interference by the Klan. He has received a large number of anonymous and other communications, and much of mail, particularly from Monroe, has been opened. The Postmaster at Monroe is understood to be a member as are a number of prominent officials and business men.
Conditions have been brought to a head at Mer Rouge, when two white men, one an ex-sargeant, were done away with mysteriously (the case of ex-sargeant F.W. Daniel already has been called to our attention by Senator Wadsworth and Joseph Morningstar, of New York).
The other victim was named Rogers. One of these men is supposed to have been burned to death in a barbaric manner, and the other weighted down with chains and irons and dropped into a lake. Neither of the bodies has been found.
Mr. Wooton already has seen Mr. Simmons, Chief Post Office Inspector, who has promised to send an inspector from Washington, to cover the Post Office angles. This man probably will leave tomorrow, as the Postmaster General has approved such action.
The local authorities are absolutely inactive, and they have been unable to get any action by the Grand Jury at Mer Rouge. The Governor has tried to get the State legislature to pass a law requiring registration with the Secretary of State, but failed. He is confident that the Sheriffs, Prosecuting Attorneys, and Judges have all been reached. The attitude of the Attorney General of the State, Mr. Coco, is not exactly pleasing. It is imperative that any one sent there interview the Governor before approaching Mr. Coco.
Representative Sandlin, of the 4th District, and Riley J. Wilson of the 5th District, are believed also to be involved, while both of the Senators from the State are understood to have a great mass of information and of course to be opposed to the organization. Senator Ransdell leaves tonight, and he will have to be interviewed immediately. The Governor’s telephone wire has been tapped and he is unable to conduct even ordinary conversation without interference, and as the telegraph companies are incompetent, the only way to feel safe and to get the matter before our attention was to send Mr. Wooten here and to bring back a letter from the Attorney General to support his former request for assistance.
All of the activities involved are of recent occurrence so that Messrs. Bales, Farland, and Shipp could not have covered them at the time in that vicinity. The Mer Rouge case is merely the climax of a series of events, and the principal reason for the Governor calling it to our attention.
Mr. Wooten is to have luncheon with Senator Ransdell and would like to be communicated with.
As the civil rights movement began to take shape in the 1950s, its important work was often met with opposition—and more significantly, with violence—by the increasingly resurgent white supremacists groups of the KKK.
FBI agents in our southern field offices were on the front lines of this battle, working to see that the guilty were brought to justice and to undermine the efforts of the Klan in states like Mississippi. That was often difficult given the reluctance of witnesses to come forward and testify in court and the unwillingness of juries to convict Klansmen even in the face of clear evidence.
Fortunately, the struggles and insights of many of these agents have been recorded for posterity, and transcripts are available for review by the general public—thanks to the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation.
These transcripts include many memorable discussions with our agents concerning their work against the KKK. One came from FBI Agent James Ingram (pictured), who served from 1957 to 1982 and played a key role in many civil rights investigations. Agent Ingram was assigned to the newly opened Jackson Field Office in Mississippi in 1964. A retired agent and colleague in Jackson, Avery Rollins, interviewed Ingram before his death:
Special Agent Rollins: “You said that your average work week was six-and-a-half days. I would assume that your average work day was anywhere from 10 to 12 hours long?”
Special Agent Ingram: “Oh, it was. …That’s why we defeated the Klan. … there was never a defeatist attitude because we were all on the same schedule. And everyone knew that we had to work.”
That work continued following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
Special Agent Ingram: “There was one thing about [the law], Mr. Hoover knew that it was important. He gave Inspector Joe Sullivan and [Jackson Special Agent in Charge] Roy Moore a mandate. And he said, ‘You will do whatever it takes to defeat the Klan, and you will do whatever it takes to bring law and order back to Mississippi.’”
The threats to FBI agents were real:
“Agents would always watch. They’d look underneath their cars to make sure we did not have any dynamite strapped underneath … Then you’d open your hood and make sure that everything was clear there. We had snakes placed in mailboxes. We had threats.”
But using informants and other tools, the tide began to turn:
“[W]e infiltrated the Klan in many ways. We had female informants. … And we had police officers that were informants for us.”
“When you look back, the FBI can be proud that they stopped the violence [of the KKK]. We had the convictions. We did what we had to do from Selma, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi to Atlanta, Georgia.”
In the words of Special Agent Rollins, “…the FBI broke the back of the Klan in Mississippi. And eradicated it…”
Roy Moore had seen the Klan in action, and he knew what he was up against.
While head of the FBI’s office in Little Rock, he was asked to lead a special squad investigating the KKK’s 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had killed four African-American girls and injured many more.
So when the call came on July 2, 1964 from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Special Agent in Charge Moore was ready. Later that afternoon, the historic Civil Rights Act would be signed into law, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had already instructed Hoover’s FBI, which was about to gain new authorities, to establish a stronger presence in Mississippi.
Hoover chose Moore—a trusted Bureau veteran who’d joined the FBI in 1938 and earned his stripes finding the culprit of a massive mid-air explosion in 1955—to set up a new field office in Jackson.
In a July 1964 event marking the opening of the Jackson Field Office, Roy Moore is seen next to the American flag. To the right are FBI Assistant Director Cartha D. Deloach and Director J. Edgar Hoover.
At the time, Mississippi was the epicenter of violent Klan activity, and Hoover wanted to send a powerful message that the FBI was in business there and was determined to reassert the rule of law. So he asked Moore to make preparations quickly and quietly as part of what Hoover considered a “psychological operation” against the KKK in the state.
The morning after the July 4 holiday, Moore reported to Jackson. A week later, he joined Hoover, the Mississippi attorney general, and others in announcing the formal opening of the office in a rented downtown bank building.
Moore’s immediate job was to help solve the KKK-fueled murder of three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—in Neshoba County less than a month earlier. What became known as the infamous “Mississippi Burning” case gained national attention and helped spur the passage of the landmark civil rights bill. With his support, the FBI located the three men’s bodies buried under an earthen dam and fingered a series of suspects by year’s end.
For Moore, it was just the beginning. Over the next seven years, he spearheaded the Bureau’s work to loosen the Klan’s stranglehold in Mississippi and restore law and order through a series of investigations and other efforts.
Moore was well respected by the agents who worked with and for him. He was considered a tough, demanding boss but an “outstanding individual” and “one of the great leaders of that time.” According to Special Agent James Ingram, “He expected people to work six-and-a-half days a week ... Sunday mornings were for church and laundry, [but] by 1 p.m. you were back to work.”
Moore’s leadership made a critical difference in turning the tide against the Klan in the 1960s. He was reassigned to Chicago in 1971, then retired in December 1974—moving back to Mississippi, where he lived out his days. When Moore died in 2008, veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor was quoted as saying in a Washington Post obituary, “How close Mississippi stood in the 1960s to being taken over by the law of the jungle is still a frightening thought…There was only one reliable law enforcement agency in Mississippi at the time, and that was the FBI, headed by Roy Moore.”
A husband and wife chatted as they passed an energy plant in north Texas.
“I hate to be that way, but if it has to be…” the wife said matter-of-factly after she and her husband realized that blowing up the natural gas processing facility would kill many people, including young children at a nearby school.
The year was 1997. The couple (pictured) belonged a regional extremist group called the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and was casing the plant for a Klan operation. Along with two other True Knights, their plan was to build a homemade bomb—like the one used in Oklahoma City two years earlier—and explode it near large storage tanks at the facility. They hoped that the resulting explosion would release a cloud of hydrogen sulfide—so-called “sour gas”—that would kill hundreds of people. The children were just collateral damage.
As grisly as that sounds, it was just the beginning of their plan. The bombing was simply a cover to distract law enforcement while the Klan robbed an armored car of some $2 million on the other side of town. In fact, to add to the chaos and help clear the way for the robbery and getaway, the plot called for detonating a second bomb when law enforcement and first responders arrived at the scene of the explosion.
And the point of the robbery? To raise money to go to war with the U.S. government in the run-up to the millennium, when paranoia among homegrown extremists was rising.
It was no idle talk. “They were building and testing improved explosive devices,” says Special Agent John Fraga, who led the Operation Sour Gas investigation while supervising our North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force and is now the acting head of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in the FBI Laboratory. “They knew how to rupture the tanks.”
What the Klan members didn’t know was that the FBI office in Dallas was well aware of the entire scheme—thanks to a well-placed source within the True Knights. Its multi-agency terror task force was watching the group’s every step and had even bugged the cab of the couple’s truck as they callously dismissed the possible outcome of the attack while driving past the facility.
With plenty of evidence in hand, we arrested all four conspirators in April 1997 before they could carry out their sinister plot. Each pled guilty by early October and was ultimately sentenced to jail.
“This case was one of the Bureau’s first weapons of mass destruction preventions,” says Fraga. And it was yet another successful victory in the FBI’s fight against the KKK, which started in the years prior to World War I and continues to this day.
Over that time, the Klan has continued to morph and change. Today, it’s a shadow of its brazen, lawless self in the 1950s and 1960s—thanks in large part to the dogged work of the FBI and its partners during that era—but as the Texas case demonstrates, the threat remains.