When Ku Klux Klan groups operating in eastern Louisiana and Southwest Mississippi wanted to launch violent, targeted attacks against blacks, civil rights activists and even other Klansmen they didn’t trust, they frequently turned the dirty work over to secret teams known as wrecking crews.
Essentially hit squads, the wrecking crews were typically made up of men who had no moral objections to burning churches, homes and businesses, or no qualms about beating and killing defenseless victims. They operated in such secrecy that most Klansmen did not know the identities of the wrecking crew members -- and the crews themselves, assigned violent tasks outside their home base, sometimes did not know who they were attacking or why.
The wrecking crews were more than just random groups of Klansmen responding impulsively: They were established in the constitution of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the first Klan organization to emerge in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas in the 1960s.
The Silver Dollar Group (SDG), which was responsible for at least five murders in eastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi, was populated by experienced wrecking crew members who held positions of leadership within the Klan and who were either directly involved or helped plan violent wrecking crew projects.
During a 42-month investigation, The Sentinel has learned that wrecking crews involving Silver Dollar Klansmen were responsible for the double-murder of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in Franklin County, Miss., in May 1964, and in the slayings of two Concordia Parish men, Joseph Edwards (July 1964) and Frank Morris (December 1964).
All four were black. A fifth victim, Earl Hodges, killed in Franklin County in August 1965, was white.
In the winter of 1964, before that series of murders began, wrecking crews committed more than two dozen violent acts in Concordia Parish and Adams and Franklin counties. The violence included arsons and beatings and always occurred at night.
On Feb. 6 a wrecking crew attacked Alfred Whitley, a black man, employed as a janitor at Armstrong Tire in Natchez who, after leaving work at the plant, was stopped on an Adams County road and kidnapped by eight hooded white men. According to FBI records, Whitley told agents in 1967 that he was taken to the Homochitto forest, stripped, beaten with a bullwhip, forced to drink castor oil, a laxative, and then shot at several times when escaping. A motive for the beating was not revealed in FBI records.
The wrecking crew system was established in a little known yet detailed constitution enacted by the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (OKKKK) and referred to as a Konstitution. Original Knights' wrecking crews in Louisiana had committed dozens of crimes when, in 1965, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in a case against the Klan, said in a ruling:
“The evil we find in the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is an absolute evil inherent with any secret order holding itself above the law...violence and crime follow as the night the day when masked men conspire against society itself. Wrapped in myths and misbeliefs which they think relieve them of the obligations of ordinary citizens, klansmen pledge their first allegiance to the Konstitution and give their first loyalty to a cross in flames.”
This Konstitution and records from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which investigated the Klan in the mid-1960s, shed much light on the origin of the Klan wrecking crews. Additionally, Sentinel interviews with retired FBI agents, the children of Klan members and former Klansmen provide a glimpse into the operations of these secret units.
According to HUAC, the Original Knights was formed in Shreveport in 1960, and was an offshoot of an older Klan that had ceased to exist. Due to successful recruiting and promotion at a time when the civil rights movement was advancing, the organization soon spread statewide and later grew into a two-state power.
After taking a foothold in Concordia, the Original Knights began recruiting across the Mississippi River in Natchez and the organization spread quickly in 1963, giving birth to the Mississippi Klan. But as dissension grew in the ranks due to leadership squabbles, two new Klans soon emerged in Mississippi in 1964 -- the White Knights and the United Klans of America -- each drawing its base membership from the Original Knights.
The constitutions of these two new Klans in Mississippi were based on the Original Knights' constitution, which was considered by Klansmen as the “Supreme Law of the Realm.” The OKKKK constitution stated its goal was to "maintain forever Segregation of the races and Divinely directed and historically proven supremacy of the white race.” OKKKK membership was by "invitation only...limited to Mature, Native-born, White, Gentile men, of the age of eighteen years and upwards, who profess and practice the Christian Faith but are not members of the Roman Catholic church.”
Ruled by a Grand Dragon -- the realm's (or state's) chief executive officer -- and a cabinet of nine, the OKKKK's organization included eight provinces which were based geographically on the state's eight Congressional districts. Concordia was in the Eighth Congressional District, which included all of northeastern Louisiana.
By the summer of 1964 the Original Knights had 46 klaverns in operation in Louisiana and an estimated 1,000 members, according to HUAC. In each parish, units of the Original Knights, called klaverns, required at least 25 men for a charter and if membership grew to more than 100, the klaverns were to be split into two. Concordia had three OKKKK units -- Ferriday-Clayton, Vidalia and Monterey/Black River.
A Clayton man told the FBI in 1967 that at the invitation of a relative and friend he joined the Ferriday-Clayton OKKKK unit in 1962 and paid a $20 initiation fee and received a robe. When James Meredith, with the backing of the federal government, attempted to enroll as the first black student at Ole Miss in Oxford in the fall of 1962, the Klansman said some members of the klavern wanted to take part in armed resistance. The Clayton man said he quit the Klan at that time and “declared from his experience in the Army, nothing could be more foolish than to engage in such violence and for a stupid attempt to be made to oppose the U.S. Army with a few guns in the hands of civilians.”
The OKKKK constitution required that each klavern elect a leader whose title was Exalted Cyclops (EC). Other officers served under the EC, all elected by the membership. Officers served a period of one year.
The EC governed meetings, oversaw committees and represented the local unit at province meetings. This officer had a number of assistants elected by the klavern, including his top aide, known officially as the Klaliff but more commonly as the assistant EC.
One of the most important and covert officers in the klavern was the Klokan, more commonly known as the Klan investigator, whose responsibility was to probe complaints made by Klansmen and the public. He had sole authority in consultation with the EC to appoint the wrecking crew that carried out violent projects.
In most cases, no one in the klavern other than the investigator and the EC knew the identities of the wrecking crew and, according to HUAC records, wrecking crew members were given secret oaths, were called to action on short notice and often were not fully aware of the motives for attacks they were assigned. Wrecking crews also most often acted outside their hometowns so Klansmen would not be recognized in their target locations.
In 1966, HUAC investigator questioned 29-year-old John Hugh Gipson of Slidell, a logger with a seventh grade education. Gipson had been a member of an Original Knights' wrecking crew which he said was trained to act on a moment's notice and whose silence was guaranteed by threats of death.
He said “the Klavern...pretty well knew there was a wrecking crew, but they couldn't pinpoint them out,” because the identities of the crew were well protected in secrecy.
Assaults by wrecking crews varied, according to HUAC. The OKKKK's constitution provided that a boycott “shall be placed against” a merchant who hired black employees who waited on white clients or against any business that served both white and black clients, such as operations like Frank Morris' shoe shop in Ferriday. But any Klansman who patronized such a business, according to the constitution, “shall be wrecked (attacked) by the wrecking crew."
HUAC records also indicate that in addition to enforcing obedience to strict racial separation that wrecking crews also sought to enforce certain moral codes. One case in southeastern Louisiana involved the beating of a white man, Clarence O'Berry, who the local Klan's investigator claimed was drinking too much, not caring for his family and “needed to be straightened out with a belt,” former Klansman John Gipson told HUAC.
Gipson testified at a HUAC hearing that the Klan investigator, Oscar Anderson, didn’t alert the wrecking crew of its assignment against O’Berry until the night of the beating. After Anderson pointed out O'Berry to the Klan hit team, the crew went quickly went into action. Gipson gave this eyewitness account of what happened next: “We caught him (O'Berry), drug him off in the woods...pulled his pants down, and I (Gipson) hit him two or three licks” and another Klansman “took the belt and he really whipped him. He was whipping him so hard I reached and grabbed his wrist one time and shoved him back...When we got through we just left him there (on the ground) he was in a pretty bad way...” Gipson indicated that O'Berry, though severely injured, survived the attack.
FBI records show that in the winter of 1964, the EC of the Monterey/Black River Klan called upon a wrecking crew based in Vidalia and Ferriday for an attack in the Monterey community. Robert Watkins, a black man, had drawn the ire of the Monterey Klan for allegedly talking on the phone with a white woman. When Watkins and a friend, Richard James, were traveling down a graveled road in the Monterey area on a February night they stopped to help a white motorist who said he was having car trouble.
When shown photographs of Klansmen by the FBI months after the attack, Watkins identified the motorist as Red Glover of Vidalia, the man the bureau said was the head of the Silver Dollar Group. Watkins and James told agents that after stopping to help, six to eight hooded men suddenly emerged from the bushes on the side of the road, ambushed and abducted them. The Klansmen took Watkins and James to an isolated area and beat them with leather straps.