San Francisco Examiner
May 25, 2001
Why Would the FBI Aid Klansmen?
By Conn Hallinan
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
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
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
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 referred
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 referred to Hispanic agents as "lazy spics, dirty
Mexicans, and wetbacks." One supervisor told a female Hispanic agent
that she was "too ethnic."
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
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.
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