The Performance of the FBI in Investigating Violations of Federal Laws Protecting the Right to Vote —  1960-1967
John Doar and Dororthy Landsberg

[Excerpts from a report or article, source unknown.]

See Herbert Lee Murdered for background.

Southwest Corner of Mississippi ... Counties That Retain the Character of the 17th Century

Another example of the Bureau's early performance occurred in Southwest Mississippi during the summer and fall of 1961. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, lead by Robert Moses, had gone to Southwest Mississippi to teach the rural Mississippi Negro about voting.

The group of civil rights workers headed by Moses began operating voter registrations schools in Amite, Walthall and Pike Counties — three rural counties in the southwest corner of Mississippi — counties that retained the character of the 17th century.

In a six week period, between August 15th and September 25th, three incidents took place involving those civil rights workers.


The final incident which the Bureau investigated in Southwest Mississippi in 1961 was the killing of Herbert Lee on September 25, 1961 by a State Legislator named Hurst. Lee had been driving Moses around rural Mississippi in connection with his voter activity. An FBI investigation was requested the day of Lee's death, by telephone. A confirming request was sent September 26th and another on September 26th (Fn 33) when additional information became available to the Department. A third request was sent on October 19th.

The Bureau was asked to obtain a copy of the transcript of the coroner's jury proceedings, or to interview the presiding officer for a resume. Mr. McGowan of the Civil Rights desk phoned and objected to this request. The next day a memo appeared on my desk from the Bureau stating that "upon discussion with Mr. Doar, he advised that no effort should be made to interview the presiding officer, the county attorney or the jury members." Later, the Bureau did interview the Justice of the Peace, who was presiding officer. He revealed that he had taken notes on the inquest, but the FBI did not ask to see them, even though this was exactly what the Division wanted.

A crucial fact was whether Herbert Lee had a tire iron at the time he was shot; how the tire iron got under his body, and when it was discovered. In the third request (10/19) the FBI was asked to "Please re-interview 'Buddy Anderson'. Other than the subject, he is the only witness to suggest that Lee raised his arm just before he was shot. Obtain full details." The Bureau did re-interview Anderson. In this second interview, Anderson said he did not actually see the iron bar prior to the time it was removed from under Lee's body. This is repeated four times in the page and a quarter interview, but at no time did the FBI ask him who removed the iron from under the body.

The October 19th request also stated that "Sheriff Caston claimed to have found the tire iron under Lee's body, after the coroner's inquest. Town Marshal Bates told Lewis Allen, before the inquest, they had found the tire iron under Lee's body. (Fn 34) Lyman Jones says...that someone, whose name he does not know — not Caston — moved the body and picked up a tire iron when the inquest started. Please re-interview Bates, Caston, Allen and Jones to obtain full details." Thorough investigators would not have merely reported such differences, without doing some re-interviewing on their own.

We had information that Lewis Allen, an Amite County Negro operator of a logging truck had been pressured by the white law enforcers to testify as he did about the tire iron.

With respect to the gun wound in Lee's head, the second request (September 26th) to the FBI stated that "our present understanding of the assault is that Hurst struck Lee at or above the left eye with some portion of the gun. Simultaneously, the gun fired and the bullet entered at Lee's left temple. Please examine Lee's body and photograph the wounds before burial. If possible, it should be determined on the basis of the examination and photographs whether the blow and shot occurred as described. Perhaps the angle of the bullet's entry, and the nature and location of powder burns will confirm or refute the witnesses 'descriptions.'"

The Bureau did not report information from such an examination, if, indeed, any examination ever took place. Neither did the agents interview the doctor who had examined the body. In the third request (October 19) the Bureau was asked to "interview Dr. Delaney of Liberty, Mississippi who arrived at the scene with Sheriff Caston and immediately examined the body. Obtain full details of his examination including the angle the bullet entered Lee's head, the extent, if any, of burns on Lee's head around the wound caused by the discharge of the weapon..." and "from your own examination of Lee's body, please furnish us, if possible, information as to the angle the shot entered the head, and the distance from which it was fired."

Louis Allen

Neither we nor the Bureau were able to satisfactorily establish a federal criminal violation in the Herbert Lee case. We tried to develop a broad 1971(b) complaint similar to the Haywood County case but we did not file it. It was not just the problem of proof of purpose; it was also the matter of effective releif (sic) for the Negro citizens who had to continue to live in the southwest corner of Mississippi.

Several years later our failure was made all the worse when Lewis Allen was killed in the night time by unknown assailants after being called from his house in rural Amite County.

During 1961 to 1963 the Bureau investigated many intimidation cases. The fact that it had conducted an investigation did some good but it made few, if any, cases and its performance — for the Bureau — was far from adequate. This was due, in part, to the limited size and scale of the Bureau's operation in Mississippi; part due to the attitude of some of the Mississippi agents, and part was certainly due to the fact that the Bureau's civil rights section at the seat of government did not understand the problem of intimidation in Mississippi, nor the inefficiency and corrosion of some — but not all — of the Mississippi resident agents.

Civil Rights Division attorneys began to sense a build-up of Klan-type incidents in the Spring of 1964. On May 19, a report was furnished Mr. Marshall summarizing Klan-type incidents and police activity against Negroes in Mississippi since January, 1964. On June 2-4, Mr. Marshall, Walter Sheridan and I went to Southwest Mississippi and interviewed a number of people about the increased violence. On June 5th, the Attorney General assigned a unit of nine lawyers from the Criminal Division (under Walter Sheridan's direction), to investigate terrorist activity in Southwest Mississippi. These attorneys were experienced in organized crime work, and their assignments were:
1) to verify reported acts of terrorism;
2) to determine if these acts were the work of Klan groups;
3) to determine the extent of Klan membership and its organization;
4) to determine what weapons the Klan groups had and
5) to determine the extent of Klan infiltration of law enforcement.

During that first week in June, Attorney General Kennedy sent a memorandum to the President explaining the law enforcement problem in Mississippi and suggesting that the Bureau should consider how to deal with it. (Fn 35 p 931)

About the middle of June, two lawyers from Sheridan's unit contacted Clarence Prospere, the resident agent in Natchez. They reported that Prospere was very uncooperative. He stated that in many matters the FBI considered the Justice Department attorneys "outsiders". He advised that no report would be sent to Sheridan's unit unless he was specifically instructed to do so from the New Orleans field office. He would not agree to telephone if violence broke out, unless, again, he was specifically instructed from New Orleans. He would give no background information on the area and on the identity of known extremists." (fn 36)

On June 15, 1964, Assistant Attorney General Marshall sent a lengthy request to the FBI, attaching a list of FBI memos on the White Knights, the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, and on Klan-type incidents. The FBI was requested to check its files and to furnish the Civil Rights Division with additional information. The request also listed a number of Klan-type incidents, which had not been previously reported on by the FBI, and asked the FBI for any information it had on these terrorist activities.

In addition, the Justice Department alerted the press in an extralegal attempt to maximize local and federal preventative law enforcement. (Fn 36a)

About June 16, 1964, interference files for each county in Mississippi and Louisiana were established in the Civil Rights Division. Information from FBI letterheads and reports, regarding any interferences with civil rights activities was placed in each county files, in order to spotlight the trouble areas and determine if there was any pattern to the interference activity. A report on Klan groups and terrorist activity in Mississippi was prepared. Notebooks on Klan membership, organization and vigilante activity were set up for Mississippi and Louisiana. Beginning June 19, the Civil Rights Division had at least four of its experienced Mississippi lawyers traveling in the state. P. 932

The Unique Difficulty

...the unique difficulty that seems to me to be presented by the situation in Mississippi (which is duplicated in parts of [Alabama] and [Louisiana] at least) is ingathering information on fundamentally lawless activities which have the sanction of local law enforcement agencies, political officials and a substantial segment of the white population.

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