If John McKeithen were still alive, he might justify the secrecy surrounding payments he arranged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s by saying that it “ain’t real cool to put out there” that you’re doing business with such folks. Those, of course, were the words of another Louisiana governor, Mike Foster, who decades later would conceal his own payments to the state’s best-known former Klan leader, David Duke, for voter information.
So in one sense, a blockbuster new report that McKeithen, as a new governor, essentially paid Klan leaders to refrain from racial violence during the height of the civil rights movement isn’t as stunning as it initially seems. Sadly, dealing with such unsavory characters and the voters who share their views has long been an occupational hazard for all sorts of politicians, here and elsewhere. Just ask Steve Scalise.
McKeithen’s story, though, is a fascinating and nuanced variation on the theme.
FBI files acquired by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication Civil Rights Cold Case Project say that McKeithen, who ran in 1964 as a segregationist but sharply moderated those views once in office, acted 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.”
The strategy, which involved privately raised money, may have been at least somewhat successful. There were still plenty of ugly incidents during his time in office, including fire-bombings and at least a half-dozen Klan-linked homicides. But given the experience of other Southern states, it’s possible that things could have been worse.
“John was completely practical,” his longtime advisor Gus Weill said. “He wanted Louisiana to endure without the violence that Alabama and Mississippi were experiencing at the time.” Weill said he’d heard of such payments but was not directly involved, and contended that the money “bought peace.”
And in truth, if McKeithen’s goal was to avert bloodshed during treacherous times, that makes his actions far more defensible than Foster’s under-the-table strategy to get elected when all he had to worry about was his own reputation. No profile in courage there.
What is clear is that McKeithen’s more progressive actions in office deeply disappointed his white supremacist supporters, who accused him of double-crossing them. Regardless of whether he made the right call on the money, history will surely smile upon him for letting them down.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.