Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The FBI Versus the Klan Part 3

Standing Tall in Mississippi

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, which broke ground on a museum earlier this month.

In this story and the next in our Klan series, we’ll highlight a few of these memorable discussions with our agents concerning their work against the KKK. The first comes from FBI Agent James Ingram, who served from 1957 to 1982 and played a key role in many civil rights investigations. Agent Ingram, who died recently, 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 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…”

A complete transcript of the interview of James Ingram can be found on the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Foundation Museum website, including much more discussion on the Klan. Also see additional FBI oral histories.

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