Why Would the FBI Aid Klansmen?

By Conn Hallinan
San Francisco Examiner
May 25, 2001

    In the aftermath of the recent conviction of Thomas Blanton Jr. for the
1963 bombing of a Birmingham Baptist church, former Alabama Attorney General
Bill Baxley asked an agonizing question in his May 4 New York Times
commentary: "Why would the FBI aid Klansmen in avoidance of prosecution? I
don't know."
    It is a question that deserves an answer.  

    Shortly after the bombing that killed Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins,
Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, Blanton, along with Robert Chambliss
and Bobby Frank Cherry, were identified as suspects by the FBI. But when
Baxley tried to prosecute them in 1971, he was forced to drop the case
because the Bureau said it had no hard evidence. In fact, it did have such
evidence, evidence that was used to convict Blanton 38 years after the fact. 

    The FBI claims that a combination of simple bureaucratic inefficiency
and suspicion of local police authorities was responsible for the oversight,
but past history suggests a very different explanation.

    When J. Edgar Hoover took over the agency in 1924, he turned it into an
organization that spied on, and disrupted, anyone whom the Director
considered a threat to"U.S. security." Since this included anyone to the
left of Attila the Hun, civil rights organizations were among his first targets.
    For more than 50 years, Hoover's FBI carried out a vendetta against
African-Americans fighting against segregation and for the right to vote. He
also made sure that the both the agency's leadership and the bulk of the
rank and file remained white. In the 1920s and '30s, when the lynching of
black Americans reached almost epidemic proportions in the South, the FBI
was nowhere to be found. 
    It did, however, display considerable resources from 1956 to 1971 when
it infiltrated and investigated civil rights organizations in operation
COINTELPRO. The agency wrote phony letters to Chicago street gangs aimed at
getting them to attack the Black Panther Party. It fed fake information to
the Chicago Police Department that resulted in the raid that killed Panther
leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. And while it was hiding the tapes of
Klansmen discussing the Birmingham bombing, it was busy taping Martin Luther
King Jr.'s bedroom.
    Hoover leaked the contents of the King tape to the press, and approved
sending King an anonymous letter which read, in part, "King you are done.
The American public, the church organizations you have been
helping---Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are---an
evil, abnormal beast." 
    The letter was part of a plan to discredit King and "replace" him as an
African-American leader with conservative Republican Samuel Pierce, Reagan's
Housing and Urban Development secretary, who presided over one of the
greatest cases of governmental looting and corruption since Tea Pot Dome.
    For the full story of the agency's obsession with King, pick up David
Garrow's "The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr." Another useful guide to the
organization's priorities is David Burnham's study of the FBI in the Nation
magazine which demonstrated that civil rights has simply never been on the
bureau's radar screen, and while the agency refers vast numbers of
corruption and immigration cases for prosecution, virtual none are in the
area of civil rights.
    Indeed, the opposite is the case. When African Americans won the right
to vote in Alabama in 1965, they began organizing to elect black officials.
In 1982, African Americans won majorities on county commissions and school
boards in five counties, and, a year later, won a seat in the state senate
and three in the assembly. In 1984, 50 FBI agents, aided by the notorious
State Police, swept into Alabama, interrogated more than 1,000 elderly black
residents for felony voter fraud, carting a bus load of them 165 miles to
Mobile. Eight voter rights activists were charged. All were acquitted or had
convictions reversed on appeal.
    The racial policies of the FBI were also an internal affair, finally
boiling over into a lawsuit by Hispanic agents in l988. At the time, only
one out of the agency's 58 field offices was headed by a Latino, and
Hispanic agents charged they were routinely denied promotions, given dangerous
assignments, disciplined, and assigned to what white agents refered as the
"Taco Circuit." 
    The presiding judge, Lucius Bunton of Midland, Texas, agreed with the
agents, finding the FBI guilty of "systematic discrimination." And the
agency's response? To promote several of the supervisors who, according to
testimony, had refered to Hispanic agents as "lazy spics, dirty Mexicans,
and wetbacks." One supervisor told a female Hispanic agent that she was "too
    A similar lawsuit was brought by African American agents following the
harassment of black agent Donald Rochon in Chicago, including one incident
where white agents sent him a "death and dismemberment" insurance policy
taken out in his name. Another black agent was sent a job application with a
question "What is your greatest desire in life (besides a white girl)?"
Finally, in 1992, the agency agreed to promote some black agents, but not to
acknowledge that it had ever engaged in a pattern of discrimination. Sort
of, "Sorry, we didn't do it, but we promise we won't do it again."
    While the reputation of the FBI is crime fighting, much of the agency's
energies have always been aimed at Americans who find themselves opposing
some aspect of U.S. foreign or domestic policy. While the bureau neglects
abortion clinic bombings, it investigated 1,330 groups and 2,370 individuals
who opposed American policy in Central America. While it shielded Klansmen,
it infiltrated and illegally wiretapped organizations like the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, the National Assn. for the Advancement of
Colored People, the National Lawyer's Guild, and organizations that support
civil liberties, women's rights, and the environment. While night riders
were terrorizing black communities in the South and killing several civil
rights workers, the FBI was busy collecting files on writers like Truman
Capote, William Faulkner, Robert Lowell, Archibald McLeish, and Edna St.
Vincent Millay.
    So let us return to Bill Baxley's question: Why would the FBI help
Klansmen avoid prosecution?
    Because the FBI was on the side of the bombers.