Louisiana Gov. John J. McKeithen was behind payments to Ku Klux Klan leaders in the mid-1960s that were meant to suppress the racial violence swirling throughout Louisiana at the time, according to FBI records.
Several FBI entries in the file, which focused onprominent Klansman Robert Fuller of Monroe, concluded that Klan leaders were informed shortly after the 1964 gubernatorial election the state would pay them if they kept a lid on violent acts.
The 50-year-old reports were obtained by the LSU Cold Case Project under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Agents were led to believe the genesis of that strategy was the newly minted governor who received campaign support from some Klan leaders, support that steadily eroded after McKeithen took office because of his rapidly evolving policy of racial toleration and civil rights.
Whether McKeithen’s anti-violence strategy worked is unclear. U.S. Department of Justice and FBI investigations detail at least a half dozen Klan-related homicides, scores of beatings, and dozens of fire bombings in central Louisiana between 1964 and 1969. Whether it would have been worse without the tempering payments will never be known.
What is clear is that the KKK soon soured on McKeithen, whose moves toward better race relations and rights for blacks, did not sit well in Louisiana Klan circles. By 1967 handbills being circulated in Bogalusa were charging that McKeithen had asked for their vote and then double-crossed them. The Klan called for him and other Louisiana officeholders to be “tarred and feathered.”
But the declassified FBI documents point to McKeithen’s use of the Louisiana State Sovereignty Commission, a legislature-generated authority designed to keep state control of civil rights issues, to send privately raised money to the Klan.
The goal, according to the FBI, was to “maintain law and order in the State of Louisiana and to contact the Klan on a liaison basis in order to insure that no violence occurred.”
"Of his many accomplishments as governor, my grandfather was most proud of his record on Civil Rights and race relations during an explosive period in our country's history,” stated granddaughter Marjorie McKeithen, a New Orleans attorney, who was given the specific reports used for this story.
“Thanks to his leadership, Louisiana was spared much of the violence that permeated other southern states. Unlike other southern governors, he openly and publicly called the KKK ‘racist, hate mongers and trouble makers,’” according to the FBI and the KKK's own documents, and he protected the Civil Rights marchers at a time when it was not popular -- all serving to land him on the KKK's ‘Should Be Tarred and Feathered’ list.
“If he did assist in directing money to prevent violence (even the documents cited say they are based on rumors), his record shows he would have done so to help protect those seeking their God-given, equal rights."
Gus Weill of Baton Rouge, then McKeithen’s 30-year-old executive secretary (the 1960s equivalent of chief of staff), who would later become a political legend in Louisiana, said that while he had no first-hand knowledge of those northern Louisiana payments, they nevertheless would have “made sense.”
“John was completely practical. He wanted Louisiana to endure without the (racial) violence that Alabama and Mississippi were experiencing at the time.”
To that end, Weill related another little-known McKeithen anecdote: When Alabama Gov. George Wallace decided to run for president, he quietly slipped into Baton Rouge in 1967 to visit McKeithen. Wallace, said Weill, wanted the Louisiana governor to take the segregation leadership mantle Wallace had so proudly worn. McKeithen declined, informing Wallace, “I just don’t feel as strongly about it as you do, George.”
Weill also related that years later he was told by a longtime political operative friend, who also was a confidant of McKeithen’s, that in 1965 he was directed by the governor to take $10,000 in cash to Bogalusa where racial strife had reached the boiling point.
McKeithen told the emissary that half the money was to be given to local Klan leaders and the other half to the local chapter of the Deacons for Defense, an armed African-American group that protected demonstrators and civil rights workers. (Little known Deacon chapters were located around the state and in southern Mississippi between 1964 to 1970.) Both sides were told to cool it.
The payments “bought peace,” noted Weill.
There is no indication in the reviewed FBI documents the feds had any interest in McKeithen’s supposed ways of maintaining peace, let alone have him under any formal investigation. The agents were focused fully on Robert Fuller and the Klan.
McKeithen, a Democrat from Columbia in Caldwell Parish and a Public Service Commissioner, campaigned as a segregationist in order to “out seg” a crowded field in the firstDemocratic primary, particularly appealing to northern Louisiana white voters, according to Adam Fairclough, author of “Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana from 1915 to 1972,” recognized as the definitive work on the state’s racial strife.
With the widow of former Gov. Earl Long as his campaign manager, McKeithen won a run-off party primary over deLesseps Story (Chep) Morrison, former mayor of New Orleans, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, and endorsed by the NAACP and President John Kennedy.
In the March 3, 1964, general election, McKeithen defeated Republican Charlton Lyons, a Shreveport oilman and ardent segregationist, by a 2 to 1 margin.
After winning the election and the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, McKeithen “pivoted toward the center recognizing the importance of the growing black vote,” Fairclough said in an interview from Leiden University in The Netherlands.
Throughout his two terms, McKeithen proved adept at moderating racial tension, says Jerry Sanson, professor of history and political science and chair of the Department of Behavioral Social Sciences at LSU/Alexandria.
“I know I’m not leaving this state, and I don’t think you’re leaving, either, so we have to resolve our problems,” he later told African Americans in attendance at an AFL-CIO convention in 1966.
In an apparent attempt to camouflage Klan payments, recipients were paid through Fountain Insurance Agency in Baton Rouge, which no longer exists. The owner of the agency, identified by investigating agents from the New Orleans field office only as a member of the Sovereignty Commission, would mail “insurance checks” to Klansmen’s homes, later to be reimbursed by the commission.
An alternate way these payments reached the Klansmen, another report noted, was through the late Monroe police chief, James C. Kelly, who, ironically, had an anti-Klan reputation.
FBI agents noted that rank-and-file members of the Klan apparently were initially unaware of the payments to their leaders. In one instance, the report discusses how Ouachita Parish Klan unit leader Houston Morris was in trouble with other members after a receipt of $200 from Kelly came to light.
Klan members began to suspect that Morris was informing on Klan activities to Kelly whose dislike of the KKK was well known. But after speaking to both Morris and Kelly, agents say Klan members accepted that the money came from the Sovereignty Commission through Kelly.
Another Klan leader, Murray Martin of Winnsboro, was paid up to $300 a month, nearly $2,300 in today’s dollars, for four months in 1964 and again in 1965 for his cooperation, the agents wrote.
During one interview, Fuller proudly told agents he had spent a significant amount of money on long distance calls to garner support for McKeithen in his primary campaign. Fuller’s phone bill for the month of December 1963, which he freely showed FBI agents, listed more than $1,400, or $10,895 in 2016 dollars, in long-distance calls.
Fuller told agents most of the calls dealt with Klan business or to increase support for McKeithen in the election. He also said he received $500 from McKeithen supporters in Monroe, which he noted only covered a part of what he had spent on phone calls.
One FBI report states that Fuller was planning to meet with McKeithen on January 27, 1964, after he had won the runoff, to get jobs for acquaintances and that he felt he would have great influence with the new governor. Agents did not report what happened at that meeting or if it even occurred.
Fuller also told FBI agents that he had considerable influence with the late Jamar Adcock, a state senator from Monroe. During his interview with agents, Fuller answered his phone and was overheard assuring the caller that Adcock would not fire someone after he talked to him. Adcock died in 1991.
(Fuller came under FBI scrutiny for a 1960 confrontation at his Quachita Parish home with five of employees of his septic tank business who were upset because Fuller hit one of the men the day before. He and his son, William, shot all five men, killing four of them -- Ernest McPharland, Marshal Johns, David Pitts and Albert Pitts. A grand jury declined to indict the Fullers, who claimed self-defense. The lone shooting survivor, Willie Gibson, contradicted Fuller’s account with a different version of events. FBI reopened the investigation in 2007. The case was reclosed in 2010, according to an April 22, 2007, letter from the Department of Justice to the victims’ next of kin, because the Fullers had died – Robert in 1987 and William in 2005.)
During his terms as governor, McKeithen appointed a biracial Commission on Human Relations to deal with racial issues, says Sanson. He also was the first governor to add a black aide to his staff, in addition to numerous other appointments.
Weill noted his boss was creative about and committed to keeping violence to a minimum. When African-Americans in Bogalusa decided in 1967 to march on the Capitol to present a list of grievances, recounted Weill. McKeithen begged them not to make the potentially volatile 100-mile trek to Baton Rouge because it would take them through Livingston Parish, a Klan stronghold.
The marchers ignored the warning and set out. McKeithen ordered the National Guard to mobilize and to meet and escort the marchers at Livingston Parish’s eastern line. Weill revealed that McKeithen gave a secret directive to Guard commander Col. Urban Wise of Sulphur to order his men to keep their rifles unloaded. Outside of a few fights, no blood was shed.
McKeithen was the first governor to appoint African-American judges since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, according to historians. One of the first two judges was Ernest (Dutch) Morial, the state’s first elected black legislator who would go on to become the first African-American mayor of New Orleans in 1978.
By the end of McKeithen’s two terms, the number of children attending integrated public schools had risen from nearly zero to around 200,000. McKeithen also established the first ethics reform in the executive branch of Louisiana’s government.
John J. McKeithen died in 1999 and is buried in Columbia, along with this wife, Marjorie, who passed away five years later. He had requested two speakers for his funeral -- Gus Weill and the Rev. T.J. Jemison, former president of National Baptist Church Conference and leader of Baton Rouge’s successful bus boycott in 1953.
McKeithen’s son, W. Fox McKeithen, became Louisiana’s secretary of State in 1984. The younger McKeithen died in 2005.