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An FBI Man's Inside View of '60s America In Turmoil

Ingram (right) escorts reputed Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards to the federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., in 2007. Edwards was the government's star witness in the trial of reputed fellow Klansman James Ford Seale, charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in the deadly attacks on two black teenagers in 1964. (AP)

If you riffled through the FBI's old files from the 1960s, you'd see that nearly all of the high-profile cases had one thing in common: an agent named James Ingram.

Ingram was the bureau's Zelig back then — the man who kept showing up at one historic moment after another.

Ingram lent a hand on the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He helped spearhead the bureau's effort to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. He was in Mississippi tracking a well-known segregationist when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. And then just four years ago, he was called out of retirement to help the bureau solve several cold cases involving civil rights.

Agent Ingram died this week, but he left behind a recording — his memories of working for the FBI — with the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. What he provides is a behind-the-scenes look at a country in turmoil.

Dallas, 1963

When those shots that killed Kennedy rang out from the book depository in Dallas in 1963, Ingram was a freshly minted agent in New York, working on the Cuban Squad.

"New York became a focal point of investigations of the assassination of the president," Ingram told the agents' society in 2005, "because you had the Cuban angle, the Mexican angle, the Russian angle, and then of course everything arising out of Dallas."

Ingram chased conspiracy theories for months, ruling out that somehow Fidel Castro or the mob was behind Kennedy's assassination. And just as that investigation was winding down, Ingram got a new assignment that would take him to the front lines of the war for equality and civil rights in this country: He was transferred to the FBI's first office in the state of Mississippi.

What happened next was the stuff of the movies — specifically the movie Mississippi Burning.

Mississippi, 1964

The year was 1964. The power of the Klan was raging in the South when three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — suddenly disappeared in Mississippi. They had gone there to investigate the burning of a black church, and then they simply vanished.

Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff in Philadelphia, Miss., was supposed to have been the last one to see the three men. He had apparently arrested them for speeding, held them in jail for about 10 hours and then let them go.

He held a press conference and only added to the mystery. "They got in the car and said they were going to Meridian, Miss.," Price drawled to the national press corps. "We followed them several blocks to make sure they did go that way. Last we saw them they were going down 19 South."

President Lyndon Johnson ordered an FBI investigation. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover flew to Mississippi and decided to open an office there. And Ingram was one of the new agents to staff it.

It wasn't until August that the bodies were discovered. The trio were buried together: two white men and a black civil rights worker, put in shallow graves near a dam just outside Philadelphia, Miss. The three men had been shot.

The arrests came in December, again leading the evening newscasts.

"Flanked by FBI men and quickly joined by their attorneys, the suspects were brought in in two groups," Edwin Newman reported for NBC News.

The first group brought in to talk to the FBI included the sheriff and Price. Both were still in uniform. They were released on bond and went back to work that same day.

Ingram was there.

"There's one thing about it," Ingram said in the recording. "Mr. Hoover knew that it was important. And he said, 'You will do whatever it takes to defeat the Klan, and you will do whatever it takes to bring law and order back to Mississippi.' "

The murder of the civil rights workers was known as the Mississippi Burning case, and it was at the heart of the FBI's effort to break the Klan. Over the next five years, Ingram and dozens of other agents found themselves tiptoeing through dry country fields to get the license plate numbers at Klan rallies, developing informants and investigating lynchings.

Ingram remembers one episode in which he and another agent named Jim Awe went to question a Klansman about the murder of a local NAACP leader. "As we walked into the yard, he yelled, 'Get out of my yard. I'm going to shoot both of you.' Well, Awe and I looked up, and here was this guy with his shotgun."

Both barrels were trained on Ingram. Awe's finger was on the trigger. Ingram was an agent known for his cool head, for his ability to always give a suspect a way to back away gracefully from a bad situation. So he looked the Klansman in the eye and told him that while he might be able to fire off a shot and shoot one of the agents, there was no way he'd be able to fell both of them without getting shot himself.

"Then Jim Awe moved over to the left, I moved over to the right," Ingram chuckled. The Klansman "could see that no way he could get the both of us."

The Klansman ended up lowering his gun. Ingram was able to question him.

J.B. Stoner

Ingram was in Meridian, Miss., about a year later on the trail of a Klan leader named J.B. Stoner. Stoner was one of the loudest, angriest segregationists in the South. And the FBI was worried he might stir up some trouble to coincide with a march that Martin Luther King Jr. had planned in Memphis. It was April 4, 1968, and the agents following Stoner told Ingram, "All of the sudden, this crowd came out in Meridian and started dancing in the streets."

The celebration confused them — until they heard Walter Cronkite's tragic bulletin: "Dr. King was standing on the balcony of a second-floor hotel room tonight when, according to a companion, a shot was fired from across the street. He died a short time later."

Ingram was part of the team that investigated the King assassination. Not long after King's death, Ingram was given a routine transfer out of the Mississippi office. He begged to be assigned back to the South. But it never happened.

Instead, four years ago, the FBI called Ingram when it began reopening old files, including the Mississippi Burning case. In 2005, a jury convicted Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the Mississippi Burning murders. And two years later, James Ford Seale was convicted of murdering two black Mississippi teens in 1964.

Ingram died this week after a long battle with cancer. He was 77 years old.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

If you look through FBI files from the 1960s, lots of high-profile cases had one thing in common: an agent named Jim Ingram. He helped investigate the assassination of JFK. He spearheaded the FBI's effort to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. And he worked to find the killer of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jim Ingram died this week, but he left behind a recording: his memories of working for the bureau.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston listened in.

Mr. JIM INGRAM (FBI Agent): I was born in Henryetta, Oklahoma, January 22, 1932.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Jim Ingram four years ago telling his story for an FBI oral history project.

Mr. INGRAM: And Henryetta, Oklahoma is a small little cow town, which was also the home of Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys, and Jim Shoulders, world champion bull rider. So, the little town has its famous heroes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Jim Ingram was the bureau's Zelig - the man who kept showing up at one historic moment after another in the 1960s. When President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Ingram worked the case from New York. He was a new agent working on the Cuban squad.

Mr. INGRAM: And of course New York became a focal point of investigations of the assassination of the president because you had the Cuban angle, the Russian angle and then, of course, everything arising out of Dallas.

TEMPLE-RASTON: After chasing conspiracy theories for months, Ingram got a new assignment: the FBI's first office in the state of Mississippi. And what happened next was the stuff of the movies — in this case the movie "Mississippi Burning."

(Soundbite of movie, "Mississippi Burning")

Mr. GENE HACKMAN (Actor): (As Agent Rupert Anderson) The rest of America don't see it that way, Mr. Mayor.

Mr. GAILARD SARTAIN (Actor): (As Sheriff Ray Stuckey) Rest of America don't mean a damn thing. You in Mississippi now.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The year was 1964. The Ku Klux Klan was a power. And then three civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had gone there to investigate the burning of a black church. And then they vanished. The deputy sheriff in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Cecil Price, was supposedly the last one to see the three men.

Mr. CECIL PRICE (Deputy Sheriff, Philadelphia, Mississippi): And they got in the car and said they were going to Meridian, Mississippi. We followed them several blocks to be sure that they did go that way. And last we saw them they were going down 19 South…

TEMPLE-RASTON: President Lyndon Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate and the bodies were discovered later that summer. The three men had been shot. When the FBI made the arrests in December, it led the national news.

Unidentified Man: Flanked by FBI men and quickly joined by their attorneys, the suspects were brought in in two groups. The first group included Sheriff Lawrence Rainey…

TEMPLE-RASTON: Jim Ingram was one of those FBI men.

Mr. INGRAM: There's one thing about it - Mr. Hoover knew that it was important. And he said, you will do whatever it takes to defeat the Klan. And you will do whatever it takes to bring law and order back to Mississippi.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Mississippi burning case was at the heart of the FBI's effort to break the Klan. Over the next five years, Ingram and dozens of other agents found themselves tiptoeing through dry country fields to get the license plate numbers at Klan rallies, developing informants, investigating lynchings. One time, Ingram and another agent, Jim Awe went to question a Klansman about the murder of a local black leader.

Mr. INGRAM: So, all the way, and as we walked into the yard, he yelled, get out of my yard. I'm going to shoot both of you. Well, Awe and I looked up, and here was this guy with his shotgun.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ingram shouted to the Klansman that he might be able to fire off a shot to shoot one of the agents, but not both of them.

Mr. INGRAM: And as Jim Awe moved over to the left, I moved over to the right. And he could see that no way could he get both of us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The standoff ended and the Klansman put down his shotgun. Gathering information on the Klan was a regular part of Ingram's job. In 1968, in Meridian, Mississippi, he was on the trail of a Klan leader named J.B. Stoner. Stoner was one of the angriest segregationists in the South. And the FBI was worried he might stir up trouble to coincide with a march Martin Luther King had planned in Memphis. Two agents were watching J.B. Stoner.

Mr. INGRAM: And all of a sudden, this crowd came out in Meridian and started dancing in the streets.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The agents didn't understand what was happening. It was April 4th, 1968.

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchorman): Dr. King was standing on the balcony of a second-floor hotel room tonight when, according to a companion, a shot was fired from across the street.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ingram was part of the team that investigated the assassination of Dr. King. Not long afterwards, he was given a routine transfer out of the Mississippi office. He begged to be assigned back to the South, but it never happened. Just four years ago, the FBI called Ingram back from retirement for help when it reopened old files, including the Mississippi Burning case. In 2005, a jury convicted Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for his role in those murders, 41 years to the day, after the three civil rights activists disappeared. James Ingram died this week. He was 77 years old.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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