Louisiana Gov bribed KKK to go easy in mid-'60s: FBI files

Louisiana Governor John J McKeithen was behind payments to Ku Klux Klan leaders in the mid-1960s that were meant to suppress the racial violence swirling throughout Louisiana at the time, according to FBI records.

 
John J McKeithen, Louisiana Governor from 1964 to 1972  

Several FBI entries in the file, which focused on prominent Klansman Robert Fuller of Monroe, concluded that Klan leaders were informed shortly after the 1964 gubernatorial election the state would pay them if they kept a lid on violent acts.

The 50-year-old reports were obtained by the Louisiana State University Cold Case Project under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Agents were led to believe the genesis of that strategy was the new governor who received 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.  US 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 tempering payments will never be known.

What is clear is that the KKK soon soured on McKeithen, whose moves toward better race relations and rights for blacks did not sit well in Louisiana Klan circles. By 1967 handbills being circulated in Bogalusa were charging that McKeithen had asked for their vote and then double-crossed them.  The Klan called for him and other Louisiana officeholders to be "tarred and feathered".

But the declassified FBI documents point to McKeithen's use of the Louisiana State Sovereignty Commission, a legislature-generated authority designed to keep state control of civil rights issues, to send privately raised money to the Klan.

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 insure that no violence occurred."

"Of his many accomplishments as governor, my grandfather was most proud of his record on civil rights and race relations during an explosive period in our country's history," stated granddaughter Marjorie McKeithen, a New Orleans attorney.   .

"Thanks to his leadership, Louisiana was spared much of the violence that permeated other southern states. 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 rumours), his record shows he would have done so to help protect those seeking their God-given, equal rights."

Gus Weill of Baton Rouge, then McKeithen's 30-year-old executive secretary (the 1960s equivalent of chief of staff ), who would later become a political legend in Louisiana, said that while he had no first-hand knowledge of those northern Louisiana payments, they nevertheless would have "made sense".

"John was completely practical. He wanted Louisiana to endure without the (racial) violence that Alabama and Mississippi were experiencing at the time."

To that end, Weill remembered another little-known McKeithen anecdote - Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was in the early stages of running for president in 1967, quietly slipped into Baton Rouge to visit McKeithen. Wallace, said Weill, wanted the Louisiana governor to take the segregation leadership mantle Wallace proudly had worn.  McKeithen declined, informing Wallace, "I just don't feel as strongly about it as you do, George."

Weill also related that years later he was told by a long time political operative friend, who also was a confidant of McKeithen's, that in 1965 he was directed by the governor to take $10,000 in cash to Bogalusa where racial strife had reached boiling point.

McKeithen told the emissary that half the money was to be given to local Klan leaders and the other half to the local 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.

There is no indication in the reviewed FBI documents the Feds had any interest in McKeithen's supposed ways of maintaining peace, let alone have him under any formal investigation. The agents were focused fully on Robert Fuller and the Klan.

(Also see: Hacktivists Anonymous take down Ku Klux Klan site)