The Fog Of History: Paying Off The Klan

Statue of John J. McKeithen Louisiana Governor 1964-1972  outside the Superdome.

John J. McKeithen was an important transitional figure in the history of race relations in the Gret Stet of Louisiana. He ran for Governor in 1963 as a “moderate segregationist,” but moved steadily to the middle after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. McKeithen is best known for championing the Superdome and for beginning the integration of Gret Stet guvmint. He turns out to have used some interesting methods to help keep the peace during his two terms as Gret Stet Goober:

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.”

McKeithen was the candidate of the Longite populist faction of the Louisiana Democratic party. The Longs were not liberal on civil right in the modern sense BUT they rarely race baited during campaigns and were fine with their programs benefiting black folks. I suspect Huey and Earl would have applauded McKeithen’s actions as do I. If bribing the Klan reduced violence in the Gret Stet during that turbulent time, it was a good thing. I’m waiting to see if any goo-goo conservatives will denounce this as corrupt. Come on down, Bitter Vitter.

I think the record supports the positive impact of bribing the Klan and other extremist groups. Louisiana did NOT have the amount of racially motivated violence found in Mississippi and Alabama even though all three states voted for Goldwater in 1964 and Wallace in 1968. Kudos to the Machiavelli from Columbia, Louisiana.

As I said last night on the book of Zucker: This is a helluva story. Make sure you read the whole thing.