Retired FBI Agent Billy Bob Williams of Portland, Oregon, spent 18 months as a resident agent in Natchez beginning in July 1964.
He was one of many retired agents saddened by the death of 94-year-old Roy K. Moore on October 12. Moore was sent to Mississippi in 1964 to supervise the probe into the deaths of Civil Rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and he oversaw the opening of the FBI's Jackson bureau.
Williams, after being assigned to Mississippi during the height of the Civil Rights movement, left his wife and son with family in Amarillo, Texas, on July 25, 1964, and drove straight to Jackson, arriving the next day. Williams discussed Moore during an interview by Brian R. Hollstein for the FBI in February 2007.
An excerpt of that interview follows:
© The Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, Inc. 2007.
WILLIAMS: I rolled into Jackson early afternoon and I stopped for gas, and I asked the service station attendant where the new FBI office was. And he said, "Ah, they got it in this brand new bank building down the street here." And he told me where to go.
So, not knowing what else to do, I went in, got on the elevator and went up to the floor marked FBI, and Division Headquarters. And I got off and there was really only one door off the hallway outside the elevator and it had Jackson Division FBI on it. So I go and I knock on the door; a voice called me in...Sitting behind the desk was a man who introduced himself as Roy K. Moore.
And he turned out to be one of the greatest leaders that I've ever worked for. The only complaint I had with him was that he, as an old country expression, he'd ride a good horse to death. The more you could do and, do it well, the more he would expect that you'd get done.
WILLIAMS: He invited me in and asked me to have a seat. And I knew nothing about the Klan or anything. And he briefly told me a little bit about what was going on. Now the big thing at that point was, and the reason they'd opened the Jackson Office, was that they were still looking for the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
WILLIAMS: Referred to usually as the "three civil rights workers."
(The murders, in Neshoba County, Miss., soon drew international news coverage and remains the most famous Civil Rights-era murder case, which involved the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and members of the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office.)
WILLIAMS: But they were still looking for them. And he said, "I've got 19 Resident Agencies here." He said, "You can take your pick of them. But I'd really like to suggest this little town down on the Mississippi, that's Natchez, Mississippi, down there."
WILLIAM: He said it's a beautiful town with all these antebellum homes that were spared by the Yankees because they were so beautiful. General Grant passed them by in the Civil War and there's Spanish moss hanging from the trees, and all this. Well, it became apparent very quickly this is where he wanted me to go. This is what he wanted me to pick.
So I said, "Well, okay, I'll take it."
And he said, "Okay. Here's what I want you to do. You'll have a partner down there whose name is Clarence G. Prospere...I want you to go down there. I want you to become a part of the community and you're going to live there. I want you to gather intelligence by trying to infiltrate the Klan. Other intelligence would be invaluable to us and to the locals. I want you to advise and cooperate with the local and state authorities down there. And then the other thing we have to do is try to protect the civil rights workers from themselves." Even though we had no jurisdiction to provide protection for anyone.
And we also talked the Marine Corps a little bit. He had been in the Marines, back in 1933 was one date that he mentioned. And Marines have sort of a -- well, it's -- there's nothing quite like it as far as you're once a Marine, always a Marine.
WILLIAMS: It stays with you. But he said, "Now I'll back you one hundred percent as long as you think what you're doing is right...I never want to hear of you having backed down from any of these people." Any of the Klan --
WILLIAMS: -- he was talking about. And he made that very emphatic. So I said, "Well, okay." I said, "That'll be fine. I'll go down there."
He looked at his watch and he said, "Well, it's about an hour and a half down there so you should be there by" -- oh this was around five o'clock by now -- he said, "You should down there by about six-thirty."
And I'm beginning to think "Uh-oh I have been royally shafted." And --
HOLLSTEIN: (Laughing) There were some real pros at that.
WILLIAMS: Oh man. He was good. And he told me, he said, "Your partner, Prospere, is working out of his house right now but we're going to get an office down there." And said he's an older experienced Agent. He's a Southerner; he's from Natchez and had just gotten an Office of Preference transfer back there. He said, "I want you to go down there and you go to the Holiday Inn and get yourself a room and stay in the room until Prospere comes to talk to you."
Again, it's beginning to sink in a little bit that wait a minute, this is not going well. I said, "Well, is there any mail that needs to go down or anything?"
And he said, "Let me show you something."
We stood up and we walked over to the other door that went out of this office. He opened the door and here was the full floor, new floor of this bank, with the wires and things sticking up out of the concrete. There wasn't anything in there but a bank of telephones and a teletype machine. He said, "We're still operating, the northern half of Mississippi operates out of Memphis and the southern half operates out of New Orleans and we're still in that mode, although we've got an office open here."
WILLIAMS: In October (1964), I went to Jackson and here I am, you know, by this time, twenty, twenty-one months, you know, in the Bureau. Just young and wondering exactly how I stood, but I had confidence in Roy Moore. So I went up to Jackson on my own, and I went to see him. I went into his office and I sat down and I started talking to him. I told him, I said, "We're losing the battle down there. That's all there is to it. And somebody's going to get hurt pretty quick if we don't get a handle on this."
And so he sat there and he studied in his mind. He didn't say anything and then he started writing on a piece of paper and he finished up this list. I could see it was a list and he called his secretary in and he said, "Find these people and send them teletype transfers to get down here as fast as they can and to come prepared to stay for awhile." And, "Yes, sir, Mr. Moore." And she went on out. And I thought, man that's, you know, I didn't know that an SAC had that kind of horsepower.
WILLIAMS: And then he picks up the phone and he calls the Bureau and he asked to speak to a Deputy Director, or Assistant Director...Then he says, "I need some men down here." And he said, "I've just sent them teletypes to get down here. I need them and I'm going to need them for awhile. Okay, well I'll tell you what. Instead of me giving you the names, why don't you put your secretary on and I'll put my secretary on and they can work out the details and everything." And, with that, he hung up the phone. Well, he turned back to me and he said, "Okay. I have just sent for twenty-five of some of the most..." I'm not sure if he said rough, tough, but...dependable...dependable guys.
WILLIAMS: He said, "We're fixin' to declare war on the Klan down here." He said, "Now, you go on back down there and I don't want you" -- he was very explicit -- "I don't want you to get involved in this at all. I want you separate from it because you're gonna be living there and you just stay out of it. Don't get hooked up with it or anything."
So what they did then, they formed a task force and they matched up an Agent with an MHSP (Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol) Officer. And that gave them the idea that it was a local investigation because the FBI had no jurisdiction. I have to keep stressing that......
I was an observer and an advisor (in Natchez) from the stand point of the intelligence we would gather from any place we could get it that might be of value to try to help the situation....
Now, Roy Moore, he had, in previous ways I've described, he always made sure that we had all the help that we needed. And he had quite a cadre of older Agents, mature Agents, most of them anywhere from five to ten years ahead of me in the Bureau. A lot of them were World War II veterans. They were just steady as a rock. And they were always very patient with me. They were very helpful, encouraging, and inspiring. They were just good guys. They were good people; competent.
HOLLSTEIN: Well, were they there on Specials?
HOLLSTEIN: Uh-huh. So, they'd come from other offices then?
WILLIAMS: No. I really don't know whether it was -- these were mostly Jackson Agents.
HOLSTEIN: Oh. Okay.
WILLIAMS: And they would come down when needed. But we had a total in twenty-two months in that RA; I counted 'em up - we had twenty, what we'd call major specials in those days, in what was really a two-man RA.
WILLIAMS: The second week of September (1965), they had one of the biggest hurricanes in history -- Hurricane Betsy hit the south Gulf Coast -- just about the same thing as Katrina.
(Note: The storm cruised through this region with 60 mph wind gusts, uprooting trees, and causing widespread power outages.)
WILLIAMS: It came right on up the river and through Natchez and I was so tired that I slept through the entire night and just let Ann (wife) deal with the elements by herself. (Chuckling)
WILLIAMS: But it did quite a bit of damage. I did get up the next morning; I thought well I've got to get to the RA (FBI office). Well, it was still going on, there were high winds and things.
I got to the office and watched the roof blowing off of the buildings and I called Roy Moore out at the motel and asked him if he was coming in and he said, "Are you kidding? Why would anybody get out in weather like this?"
And he said, "Where are you?"
And I said, "Well, I made my way to the office."
He said, "That's about the first dumb thing you've done." (Laughing)