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Summer 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 47 - Summer 2001 > Articles

J. Edgar Hoover and the Klu Klux Klan

R. J. Stove

It seems incredible now that J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation as an absolute monarch from 1924 till his sudden death in May 1972, should once have possessed "a name at which the world grew pale". Yet such is no more than the bare truth. At the time Hoover died, he continued to arouse not only admiration but healthy fear. When news of his demise reached Capitol Hill, both Houses of Congress observed a minute's silence. Then Senators and Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, competed with one another to praise the departed. Congress also voted to grant permission for Hoover to lie in state within the Capitol Rotunda, an honour previously accorded

to hardly any other civilians, and to no civilian whatever who had not been President. America's major East Coast newspapers rushed their predominantly reverential death notices of Hoover into print (except for "The Washington Star", where staff found to their wonderment that no death notice existed: one liberal "Washington Star" reporter said, "We didn't think that old bastard was mortal").1 More considered tributes came from the Southern and Western dailies, serving regions where admiration for Hoover had always been greatest. Alistair Cooke, writing for the "Manchester Guardian", was characteristically even-handed:2

"He [Hoover] was generally regarded by the liberal press and some conservatives as a monster Big Brother. He was regarded in a recent poll by eighty per cent of Americans as a national asset. Three Presidents waived the retirement age and eight Presidents of every political stripe trusted him, depended on him, and looked on him as a permanent fixture of the Republic like the Washington Monument. That has never been explained. One day it will have to be."

A few discordant notes sounded forth in the media. Gus Hall, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States, bemoaned in "The New York Times" Hoover's failure to meet Communism's strict criteria of loving-kindness. Hoover had been, Hall said, "a servant of racism, reaction and repression . . . [a] political pervert whose masochistic passion drove him to savage assaults on the principles of the Bill of Rights".3 Yet some Communists proved more cautious than Hall. Far from gloating over Hoover's end, the Soviet news agency "Tass" contented itself with publishing one neutral sentence: "J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation since 1924, died in Washington at the age of seventy-seven".4

The newsletter of the Masonic lodge to which Hoover had belonged mourned his loss in passionate, polytheistic terms: "When Brother Hoover died, a giant fell and the gods wept".5 Richard Nixon delivered the eulogy at Hoover's funeral. "Today", the President intoned (in words chosen for him by White House amanuensis Pat Buchanan, then at the beginning of his temerarious political career),6

"is a day of sadness for America . . . J. Edgar Hoover was one of the giants. His long life brimmed over with magnificent achievement and dedicated service to this country which he loved so well."

By 1975 all this had changed. In April of that year, Hoover's chief aide Clyde Tolson died; simultaneously five Congressional committees were examining the abuses of power that his and Hoover's F.B.I. had perpetrated. Watergate's metastasis into a headline-hogging cancer had ensured that any Hoover-style figure found himself, rightly or wrongly, under "bien-pensant" suspicion. Those governmental institutions from which Hoover had drawn his sustenance and which he himself upheld were increasingly dismissed as reactionary anachronisms. Fresh from, and exultant at, having forced Nixon out of office in August 1974, Congress worked itself up into a fine lather of righteous indignation at Hoover's failure to abide by the highest ethical standards: particularly the allegation that he had kept seventeen top-secret folders on peccant Congressmen. "Esquire's" crime journalist Ovid Demaris declared, with pardonable annoyance:7

"It was perfectly fine for the F.B.I. to have 6.8 million files and 55 million index cards on private citizens, but seventeen folders on the philandering and drinking habits of lawmakers heralded nothing short of the 'destruction of our forms of government because of intimidation of members of Congress' . . . Politicians are notoriously thin-skinned, but there is nothing wrong with their instinct for the jugular. Or, for that matter, with their instinct for knowing the precise moment to flog a dead horse. It took them three years to get around to Hoover. By then they were not only pretty convinced that he was dead, but his entire high command was in retirement, and Tolson was on his deathbed . . ."

Not surprisingly, these days Hoover's existence appears simply "to point a moral or adorn a tale". The tale that has gained most currency was a 1993 allegation, in a readable but spurious diatribe by scandal-monger Anthony Summers, that Hoover had enjoyed wearing women's clothes. Summers' sole source for this canard was an assurance to this effect by one Susan Rosenstiel, a convicted perjurer who wanted to revenge herself on her ex-husband, that at a private New York party she had seen Hoover camping around in a dress and a feather boa. The ex-husband, conveniently dead by 1993, was an ally of Hoover's. Even hard-core Left-wingers, who resented everything that Hoover stood for, have dismissed Mrs. Rosenstiel's charge as pure fantasy. Summers alone believed it. He failed to adduce a scrap of proof for it, but it achieved a life entirely separate from the brief span of his book's fame; it acquired the character of a Jungian archetype, the stuff of late-night comedians' wisecracks. As a consequence, the very name "J. Edgar Hoover" now conjures up the word "transvestite" as readily as "Rolls" implies "Royce", or "Laurel" evokes "Hardy".

A sad end for the repute of a man who, notwithstanding all his conspicuous faults, deserved better of his compatriots. His battles against Communism and with much more limited success against organised crime remain well-known; other feats of his have been much less renowned. Among his least celebrated achievements was his lastingly effective action (beginning in September 1922) against the Ku Klux Klan.

The original Klan "Ku Klux" derived from "kuklos", a Greek word for "circle" had arisen after the Civil War. Former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest founded it in 1867 as primarily a Confederate veterans' league, and declared himself its first Grand Wizard. Alarmed by its members' violent propensities (exclusively, in those days, towards blacks; Forrest's Klan allowed Jews and Catholics to join it, though how many Jews and Catholics availed themselves of this offer is not certain), Forrest resigned from his own movement in 1869. By 1880 the movement itself had subsided, thanks mainly to the withdrawal of Northern troops from Southern States, these troops' occupancy having been the Klan's main grievance. For more than thirty years America remained Klan-free. Then one day in 1915 a Georgian named William Simmons, who falsely boasted of military distinction asked why he styled himself "Colonel", he replied, "People call me 'colonel' out of respect"8 interpreted a pattern he saw in the clouds as somehow constituting a divine command to save the white race's honour and set up a new Klan. Simmons obeyed his allegedly providential edict so well that by 1922 the revivified Klan boasted of having a million members.

Unlike the old Klan, the new Klan transcended the South. It chose State Governors in Oregon, Ohio, Indiana, and even California as cynically as if it were buying loaves of bread over the counter. In the Indiana town of North Manchester, several dozen Klansmen had persuaded themselves that the Pope would soon be arriving by train, to lead his grand invasion of the United States. When the awaited train stopped at North Manchester's terminus the one passenger who alighted, a commercial traveller, was set upon, and only with great effort persuaded his tormentors that he was not Pius XI in disguise.9

Wherever the K.K.K. flourished, it cut across class barriers. Far from appealing as is popularly believed to "white trash" alone, it attracted the moderately prosperous almost as readily as the illiterate poor. (The resultant divisions, between those middle-American males who supported the Klan and those who did not, embittered Masonic lodges and American Legion branches for decades.) National Klan boss during the early 1920s was a dentist, Hiram Evans, whose portrait graced the cover of "Time's" 23 June 1924 issue, and who in the cover article over-modestly called himself "the most average man in America". One Alabama Klan Wizard, Hugo Black, became a Supreme Court judge, his background inspiring remarkably little public odium through a long, taxpayer-subsidised judicial career that ended only with his death in 1971. In Missouri, a politically ambitious haberdasher named Harry S. Truman paid the local Klan's $10 membership fee, though he quickly demanded his money back on discovering that if he stayed with the Klan he would need to cut dead all his Catholic friends.10 And in Louisiana (with its unusually large Catholic population), the Klan concentrated on hounding Governor John M. Parker, whose open dislike of Prohibition had made him a Klan hate-object since his election in 1920. In September 1922 Parker, doubting his own State troops' fundamental loyalty amid any shoot-out with the Klan, sent Paul Wooton a journalist from New Orleans' "Times-Picayune" newspaper to ask Hoover for aid.

By the time of Parker's appeal things in Louisiana's capital, Baton Rouge, had become almost hopeless. Klansmen, with total impunity, were intercepting Parker's mail and monitoring his telephone calls.11 Hoover persuaded Attorney-General Harry M. Daugherty that Federal action might well be justifiable, but not before two of Parker's most prominent allies vanished. Their corpses, when found, revealed that both men had been tortured to death. Unable to obtain proof that the Klan carried out the slayings, Bureau agents charged eighteen Klan operatives with the lesser crime of conspiracy to murder; but Louisiana juries refused to convict any of the defendants.

Finally the Bureau hit pay-dirt: not in the case sub judice, but in the interesting private life of the Louisiana Klan's Imperial Kleagle, Edward Young Clarke. Like too many Klan protagonists, Clarke combined orations about the purity of white Southern womanhood with a surreptitious taste for violating same while on his frequent travels. Worse still, he had no objection to the objects of his desire being under the age of consent. So the Bureau arrested Clarke for breaching the Mann Act, which Congress had passed in 1910 at the Bureau's own insistence, and which made it illegal to transport minors across State borders "for immoral purposes." Baton Rouge jurors who whether eagerly or fearfully acquiesced in Klan murder refused to stomach Klan rape. To Hoover's great satisfaction, Clarke landed in gaol (April 1924) and, unlike certain other incarcerated Klansmen, never regained political influence.12

Hoover's victory against Clarke, while not the end of the Klan, was at least to coin a phrase the end of the beginning. He had shown Clarke, and the Klan overall, the folly of underestimating Federal resources. The Klan still exercised a great deal of pressure in its own right, and demonstrated this later in 1924, unintentionally serving Hoover's purposes as it did so. Since 1924 was a Presidential election year, Hoover worried that a resurgent Democratic Party might unseat the Republicans in November. Klan bullying of the Democrats eliminated this possibility. Democrats who favoured appeasing the Klan wished the party's Presidential candidate to be erstwhile Treasury Secretary William McAdoo (Woodrow Wilson's son-in-law), who wanted Prohibition continued forever. Conversely, anti-Klan Democrats supported New York State's Governor Al Smith, who wanted Prohibition abolished and who was the highest-ranking lay Catholic in American public life. The convention grew so bitter that delegates had to vote one hundred and four times instead of the usual two or three times before a result emerged. Irreparably damaged by this in-fighting, the Democrats' eventual compromise candidate, one John W. Davis, went down ignomiously to the Republicans' incumbent Calvin Coolidge on polling day itself. Fragmenting the anti-Republican vote still more was a strong third-party ticket in Wisconsin. Thereafter it occurred to the Democrats that letting the Klan try to run their show might not be a good idea; and next time around, in 1928, the Democrats showed what they thought of the Klan by giving Al Smith the nomination. By then, the Indiana Klan's Grand Dragon, David Stephenson alias "Steve" and, more pretentiously, "the Emperor" had indecently assaulted a woman who died only days after identifying her attacker. Confident that he could charm or scare jurymen into giving a not guilty verdict ("I am the law here in Indiana", he once truly said), Stephenson nevertheless went to prison, where he stayed for twenty-six years.13

If one nationally publicised sex outrage was a misfortune for Klan believers, two such outrages seemed like carelessness; and from its heights of 1922-23, Klan membership crashed to a 1930 level of approximately five thousand. Most strikingly, the Klan forfeited and never won back its following among the educated classes. In 1944 it was formally dissolved,14 remaining little more than a curiosity until the high-handed bungling of 1960s Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy fanned its embers into renewed life.

1. Curt Gentry," J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets" (Norton, New York City, 1991), page 28.

2. Alistair Cooke, "America Observed: The Newspaper Years of Alistair Cooke" (Reinhardt Books, London, 1988), page 215.

3. Gentry, op. cit., page 28.

4. Gentry, op. cit., page 34.

5. Anthony Summers, "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York City, 1993), page 363.

6. Gentry, op. cit., page 721

7. Ovid Demaris, "The Director: An Oral Biography of J. Edgar Hoover" (Harper's Books, New York City, 1975), page 329.

8. Don Whitehead, "Attack on Terror: The F.B.I. Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi" (Funk & Wagnall, New York City, 1970), page 18.

9. Richard K. Tucker, "The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America" (Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut, 1991), page 54.

10. David McCulloch, "Truman" (Simon & Schuster, New York City, 1992), pages 164-165; Tucker, op. cit., page 6.

11. David M. Chalmers,"Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan" (Doubleday, New York City, 1965), pages 62-63; Richard Gid Powers, "Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover" (Hutchinson, London, 1987), page 140; Ralph de Toledano, "J. Edgar Hoover: The Man in His Time" (Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York State, 1974), page 68; Don Whitehead, "The F.B.I. Story" (Frederick Muller Ltd., London, 1957), page 68.

12. Powers, op. cit., page 140; Whitehead, "The F.B.I. Story", op. cit., page 62.

13. Tucker, op. cit., pages 137-141.

14. Whitehead, "Attack On Terror", op. cit., page 21.

 

National Observer No. 47 - Summer 2001