As Louisiana’s governor in the mid-1960s, John J. McKeithen was behind payments to Ku Klux Klan leaders that were meant to suppress the racial violence swirling throughout Louisiana at the time, FBI records show.
Several FBI entries in the 50-year-old file that focused on prominent Klansman Robert Fuller, of Monroe — which was among documents recently obtained by the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication Civil Rights Cold Case Project — concluded Klan leaders were informed shortly after the 1964 gubernatorial election that the state would pay them if they kept a lid on violent acts.
The agents were led to believe the driving force behind that strategy was the newly minted governor who received the 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 payments will never be known.
Much clearer is that the KKK soon soured on McKeithen, whose moves toward improved race relations and rights for black people did not sit well in Louisiana Klan circles. By 1967, handbills circulating in Bogalusa accused McKeithen of asking for the Klan vote and then double-crossing them. The Klan called for McKeithen and other Louisiana officeholders to be “tarred and feathered.”
But the declassified FBI documents, obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, point to McKeithen’s use of the Louisiana State Sovereignty Commission, which was created by the Legislature to keep state control of civil rights issues, to send the privately raised money to Klan leaders.
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 ensure that no violence occurred.”
McKeithen’s granddaughter, Marjorie McKeithen, responded to the claims in the FBI documents by saying her grandfather’s proudest accomplishment was “his record on civil rights and race relations during an explosive period in our country’s history.”
“Thanks to his leadership, Louisiana was spared much of the violence that permeated other Southern states,” said McKeithen, an attorney in New Orleans. “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, who as a 30-year-old was a key aide to McKeithen, says that while he had no firsthand knowledge of those northern Louisiana payments, they nevertheless would have “made sense.”
“John was completely practical. He wanted Louisiana to endure without the violence that Alabama and Mississippi were experiencing at the time,” Weill said.
Weill related that years later, a confidant of McKeithen told him he was directed by the governor in 1965 to take $10,000 in cash to Bogalusa, where racial strife had reached the boiling point.
McKeithen ordered half the money to be given to local Klan leaders and half to the Bogalusa chapter of the Deacons for Defense, an armed African-American group that protected demonstrators and civil rights workers. Both sides were told to cool it.
The payments “bought peace,” noted Weill.
There is no indication in the FBI documents that the agency was investigating McKeithen for the payments or anything else. The agents were focused on Fuller and the Klan.
McKeithen, a Democrat from Columbia in Caldwell Parish, campaigned as a segregationist in order to “out seg” a crowded field in the first Democratic primary, particularly appealing to northern Louisiana white voters, says Adam Fairclough, author of “Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana from 1915 to 1972.”
With the widow of former Gov. Earl Long as his campaign manager, McKeithen won a runoff party primary over deLesseps Story (Chep) Morrison, who was endorsed by the NAACP and President John F. Kennedy. McKeithen went on to defeat Republican Charlton Lyons, a Shreveport oilman and ardent segregationist, by a 2-to-1 margin in the March 3, 1964, general election.
After 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 tensions, says Jerry Sanson, professor of history and political science and chair of the Department of Behavioral Social Sciences at LSU at 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 at an AFL-CIO convention in 1966.
In an apparent attempt to camouflage the Klan payments arranged by the Sovereignty Commission, recipients were paid through Fountain Insurance Agency in Baton Rouge, which no longer exists. The owner of the agency, identified by investigating FBI agents from the New Orleans field office only as a member of the Sovereignty Commission, would mail “insurance checks” to Klansmen’s homes and later be reimbursed by the commission.
Another way the payments reached the Klansmen, the FBI noted, was through the Monroe police chief at the time, James C. Kelly, who ironically had an anti-Klan reputation.
FBI agents surmised that rank-and-file members of the Klan initially were unaware of the payments to their leaders. In one instance, the report discusses how Ouachita Parish Klan unit leader Houston Morris got in trouble with other members when they learned he got $200 from Kelly.
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 the police chief.
Another Klan leader, Murray Martin of Winnsboro, was paid up to $300 a month by the commission periodically in 1964 and 1965 for his cooperation, the agents wrote.
During one interview with the FBI, Fuller matter-of-factly 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 in long-distance calls.
Fuller told agents most of the calls dealt with Klan business and with increasing support for McKeithen in the election. He also said he received $500 from McKeithen supporters in Monroe, which he noted covered only a part of what he had spent on phone calls.
One FBI report states that Fuller was planning to meet with McKeithen on Jan. 27, 1964, after he had won the Democratic primary runoff, to get jobs for acquaintances, and that Fuller 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.
Sanson, the history professor, said that as governor, McKeithen appointed a biracial Commission on Human Relations to deal with racial issues. He also was the first governor to add a black aide to his staff, as well as the first black judge, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, who later became mayor of New Orleans.
McKeithen was known to be proud of the fact that when he took office in 1964, Louisiana’s public schools were segregated, but when he left more than 200,000 students sat in integrated classrooms.
Weill noted his boss was committed to keeping violence to a minimum. When African-Americans in Bogalusa decided in 1967 to march on the State 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 mobilized the National Guard to escort the marchers. Weill said McKeithen secretly directed the Guard commander, Maj. Gen. Erbon Wise, to order his men to keep their rifles unloaded. Outside of some fist fights, no blood was shed.
McKeithen died in 1999. He had requested two speakers for his funeral — Weill, his onetime political aide, and renowned national civil rights leader the Rev. T.J. Jemison, who helped lead the famous boycott of segregated Baton Rouge buses in 1953.
Editor’s note: This story was changed to correct the spelling of Erbon Wise’s first name and his rank.