How Hoover Took Down the Klan

The FBI’s successful campaign against white supremacists is also a cautionary tale.

Composite image of J. Edgar Hoover and marching Klansmen
Getty; The Atlantic

In 1964, during a phone call with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about setting up the new FBI office in Mississippi, President Lyndon B. Johnson broached the idea of really doing something about the Klan. He had been up late reading the bureau’s reports on the Communist Party, with their jaw-dropping inside details. What if the Bureau, seizing on the momentum provided by the Civil Rights Act, could do the same thing to the Klan? he wondered aloud to Hoover. After all, both groups tried to keep their membership secret. And both, according to Johnson, posed serious dangers to the country’s peace and stability. “On Communists, they can’t open their mouth without your knowing what they’re saying,” Johnson said. “Now I don’t want these Klansmen to open their mouth without your knowing what they’re saying.”

He did not state the obvious: that this level of infiltration could take place only through extensive use of wiretaps, informants, bugs, and counterintelligence methods. He did acknowledge, however, that the whole conversation was best kept quiet. “Nobody needs to know it but you,” he told Hoover.

Some level of Klan infiltration was already under way, a fact of which Johnson may have been only dimly aware. In Birmingham, Alabama, Gary Rowe was coming up on his fifth year as “the best informant we had in the Ku Klux Klan,” in one agent’s description, alternately participating in and trying to restrain the actions of his fellow members. And he was just one among many. Taken together, the bureau’s growing ranks of Klan informants revealed a “deep, widespread revival” of white resistance in the South that summer, as Hoover put it in a report to Johnson. Far from seeing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the resolution of a civil-rights struggle, Klansmen viewed the law as an abomination—and they did not wait long to convey that message back to Washington.

Book jacket for G-Man
This article is adapted from Gage’s forthcoming book.

On July 11, several Klansmen noticed a car with Washington, D.C., plates driving along the Broad River Bridge in Georgia. Assuming that they had come upon “one of President Johnson’s boys,” they shot into the car and killed Lemuel Penn, a veteran, Howard University graduate, and Washington, D.C., school administrator.

Thanks in part to its informant network, the FBI made arrests in the Penn case within a month. But Hoover knew better than to rely on individual prosecutions, with their dismal track record before all-white juries, to stem the Klan’s growth. He recognized that “many of the sheriffs” and “a number of the chiefs of police” in Deep South cities were Klansmen, as he told Johnson. After more than two decades immersed in controversies over lynching, voting rights, and the civil-rights struggle, he also understood that an overt federal presence in the South could be a tricky proposition. The near-guarantee of local white resistance made the prospect of secret operations especially appealing. The downside, of course, was that the bureau could not claim credit for its actions, even in the face of accusations that it was sitting by and doing nothing.

An FBI official named William Sullivan proposed bringing the Klan formally into COINTELPRO—the bureau’s counterintelligence program—in late July of 1964. In a “personal and confidential” letter to Hoover, written after “giving this racial problem constant thought,” he recommended a plan not unlike what Johnson had suggested over the phone. “My idea is: This Division can bring to bear all the techniques, skills, and procedures which it has used to successfully penetrate the Communist Party and espionage organizations to now penetrate these hate organizations causing us so much trouble,” Sullivan wrote. Hoover delivered a one-word response: “Expedite.”

Over the next few years, Hoover’s FBI waged a ruthless campaign against the Klan, successfully disrupting the organization. As the federal government again confronts violent white supremacism, it can learn two things from that earlier campaign. The first is that right-wing extremism can indeed be tackled by the serious and sustained efforts of law-enforcement agencies. The second is no less important: When those agencies exploit their power to disregard constitutional liberties and basic rights, their efforts to secure justice can serve to undermine it. COINTELPRO is deservedly notorious for its abuses and excesses, especially its targeting of civil-rights and anti-war groups. And Hoover is deservedly notorious for his racism, which took root early on and lasted to the end of his life. The little-known story of the COINTELPRO campaign against the Klan does not upend either of those crucial histories. But it does show that even J. Edgar Hoover could be more complicated—and more surprising—than his fearsome reputation might have suggested.

The most notorious program of Hoover’s career was born from his fear that the Supreme Court and the American public were turning against the draconian anti-Communist measures of the Red Scare years. Hoover believed the Communist Party was still a dangerous force, so in 1956 he directed his agents to come up with secret, disruptive methods to destroy it from within. He labeled the new effort a “counterintelligence program”—or COINTELPRO, for short.

Today, COINTELPRO is most often associated with the FBI’s abuses during the 1960s, against the antiwar movement, the Black Panthers, and their New Left allies. The most famous disruptive campaign in FBI history was its surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., which began in the early 1960s and continued up until King’s assassination, in 1968. But COINTELPRO began as a program aimed at the Old Left, not the New Left. And it spread its tentacles into the right as well. Hoover saw little contradiction in targeting King and the Klan at the same time. He thought of himself as the great arbiter of American political legitimacy, charged with policing the boundaries of the country’s democratic experiment. Those who pushed to transform the political order—whether through civil-rights protest or revolutionary agitation—were immediately suspect. But so were those who sought to defend it through acts of vigilante violence. Though Hoover was a devout social conservative, he had little patience for groups like the Klan, which openly advertised its contempt for the law and especially for federal law enforcement.

Hoover formally announced his campaign against the Klan to the field offices in early September, using language almost identical to what Sullivan had declared in mapping out his recent counterintelligence plans against Martin Luther King. “The purpose of this program is to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various Klans and hate organizations, their leadership and adherents,” he wrote, outlining 26 groups—including several Klan offshoots, the Nazi Party, and the National States Rights Party—to be targeted in the new initiative.

Like the original COINTELPRO, the White Hate campaign would be tightly run out of the bureau’s Washington offices, with all ideas submitted to Hoover’s office for approval. Its goal, too, was not merely to gather information but to sow confusion and encourage the groups to destroy themselves from within. All of the techniques deployed in earlier operations were now fair game: writing anonymous letters, spreading rumors, using informants as provocateurs, planting false stories in the press. The governing rule, as always, would be absolute secrecy.

The White Hate program owed its basic structure to earlier efforts, but there were also a few key differences. As one assistant director noted in a July 30 memo, the new program made no pretense of a Klan connection with espionage or international subversion “inasmuch as they are not controlled by a foreign power.” For the first time, the bureau would be undertaking a purely domestic counterintelligence operation, aimed at native-born Americans with no known ties to another country. Even with King, there had been at least the veneer of foreign subterfuge: King was connected to his adviser Stanley Levison, who was supposed to be secretly connected to the Communist Party, which was secretly allied with the Soviet Union. The White Hate program broke from this logic to identify white-supremacist groups as “subversive” by virtue of their violent reputations rather than their international ties or revolutionary vision.

In Mississippi, most of the action came out of the new Jackson office, where Special Agent in Charge Roy Moore organized roving squads to track and intimidate known Klan members. At the national level, the program emphasized psychological rather than physical techniques, with the goal of fueling paranoia, factionalism, and despair. With Hoover’s approval, the lab drew up a cartoon series mocking the Klan for its infiltration by the FBI. “Who, me? Worried about FBI informers?” a terrified Klansman blurted out in one cartoon, looking at a headline announcing “Klan Infiltrated by FBI.” A second drawing, titled “Ku-Kluxers Koloring Komics,” showed a Klansman in full masked-and-robed regalia declaring to readers, “I am an informant. Color me Fed!” Slated for a “disruptive, anonymous mailing,” the cartoons reflected a bureau assumption that the macho, posturing Klan would be especially “sensitive to ridicule.”

The bureau also assumed that Klansmen would not—indeed, could not—read anything more complicated than a simple letter or cartoon. When one agent proposed writing a harsh critical history of the Klan for distribution to members, Hoover vetoed the idea. Unlike the intellectually nimble Communists, FBI correspondence noted, Klansmen were “emotionally unprepared to completely absorb and fully comprehend the significance” of such material. When the bureau faked letters written by Klansmen, they made sure to include spelling and grammatical errors, and to keep the messages short.

In addition to poking fun and building paranoia, White Hate did its best to make life difficult for Klansmen, especially for local leaders charged with holding meetings and collecting dues. In one Florida town, an anonymous bureau mailing persuaded county supervisors to withhold funds for a paved road near Klan headquarters. In another incident, agents reached out to friendly media contacts and persuaded them not to provide press coverage for a seemingly benign Klan-sponsored turkey shoot. Bureau agents printed flyers showing the wrong time and place for Klan meetings, and made a point of interviewing Klan members in public locations, where other men could see them and wonder whether they were working with the authorities. They dug up information on tax- and fire-code violations, then anonymously passed on the evidence to the relevant authorities.

In Georgia, agents targeted James Venable, leader of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and, according to bureau sources, a thoroughgoing “psychotic.” They sought to feed his psychosis, conjuring up plans to spread rumors that other white supremacists were “using him” and to leak “material concerning VENABLE” to local newspapers. They also made plans to track down Venable’s landlord and persuade him to cancel the lease on local Klan headquarters.

The Jackson office laid out a comprehensive plan for targeting Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the KKK and arguably the most significant Klansman in all of Mississippi. Because Bowers seemed to prize anonymity, agents proposed printing up Klan literature and mailing it out to key state officials with Bowers’s name and return address attached. They also envisioned writing Klan meeting cards signed by Bowers and addressing them (allegedly by mistake) to Klan members’ next-door neighbors, thus revealing the identity of both Bowers and his followers.

Agents relied on informants not only to provide the information that made such actions possible but also to sow confusion and conflict from within. In Alabama, Gary Rowe recalled being encouraged to “screw as many wives as you can; plant as much hate and dissent in the goddamn families as you can; do anything you can to discredit the Klan, period. No holds barred.” Rowe soon testified in the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil-rights supporter killed by Klansmen in the aftermath of the 1965 Selma march. Other informants served in more limited but no less crucial roles. During the fall of 1964, the FBI recruited two men who would go on to testify about the murders that summer of civil-rights activists in Neshoba County, Mississippi, stunning their fellow Klansmen much as Herbert Philbrick had stunned his friends in the Communist Party during the Smith Act trials a decade and a half earlier.

If anything, the Klan was turning out to be far easier pickings than the Communist Party had been. A shocking number of Klansmen, many of them poor, seemed only too happy to trade information and wreak havoc in exchange for money. In 1965, the bureau nearly doubled its number of informants from the previous year. On occasion, those informants actually succeeded in preventing acts of violence, either by persuading their fellow Klansmen to back away or by warning the FBI in advance, at which point agents sometimes had a chance to intervene. In situations where they had to choose between preventing violence and keeping their cover, though, they were typically instructed to opt for the latter.

Hoover’s priority was to keep the pressure on and to maintain a steady flow of information, not to stop any given crime from occurring. Over the long term, it was hoped, the disruptive techniques would make the organizations utterly ineffective, all without the trouble of a courtroom trial. Hoover seemed to be thrilled with the program’s early progress. “The important thing to remember is never to let up,” he wrote to the Atlanta field office, already immersed in similar operations against King.

By 1968, the Klan had begun to fall apart, much as the Communist Party had done a decade earlier—unable to withstand the juggernaut of prosecution in addition to the FBI’s ongoing campaign of exposure, surveillance, and disruptive measures. Over the span of the White Hate program, Hoover received a total of 444 proposals from the field, of which he approved 285. According to the bureau’s estimates, 139 of those produced results, ranging from the discrediting of particular Klan leaders to the spreading of paranoia and discord.

Hoover never lost sight of his original intentions with COINTELPRO: not to go after White Hate extremists but to contain and control the Communists and their left-wing allies. He soon returned to that vision, sidelining the Klan effort in favor of what would ultimately become a far more infamous series of programs targeting the sprawling, energetic movements of the emerging New Left. Black activists bore the brunt of Hoover’s cruelty. In one heartbreaking episode, FBI agents gleefully reported the arrest in Philadelphia of a civil-rights activist who had been hounded from city to city. When confronted with this latest frustration, an FBI report noted, he “lay down on the floor of his residence, beat the floor with his fists and cried.”

COINTELPRO finally came to an end in 1971, after a group of antiwar activists broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole documents exposing its actions against the New Left. By then, though, the program had destroyed countless lives and radically altered the fate of major social movements.

Before that moment of public exposure and notoriety, liberals within the government had been inclined to celebrate Hoover’s actions against the Klan. “It is unfortunate that the value of these activities would in most cases be lost if too extensive publicity were given to them,” Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote to Hoover in the fall of 1965, after reviewing a report on the FBI’s Klan penetration techniques. “However, perhaps at some point it may be possible to place these achievements on the public record, so that the Bureau can receive its due credit.”

Given the Klan’s loathsome activities, it can be tempting even today to cheer the FBI’s efforts, as Katzenbach did, or to conclude that the targets of White Hate deserved what they got. That impulse may be especially powerful in our current political moment, when the need to act aggressively to contain white-supremacist violence seems ever more urgent. Hoover showed that federal law-enforcement agencies can take on, and disassemble, violent right-wing extremist groups. If the government decides to get serious about doing so again, though, it will need to apply the other lessons of COINTELPRO—about what can happen when the government operates in secret, about the perils of giving one man too much power, and about the ways that techniques developed to target a single group often end up spreading out in unexpected directions.

This article is adapted from Gage’s forthcoming book G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.