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FBI Versus the Klan, Part 4

Our continuing series looks at the work of a key special agent in charge in the 1960s.

Opening of Jackson Field Office in 1964
In a July 1964 event marking the opening of the Jackson Field Office, Roy Moore is seen next to the American flag. To the right are FBI Assistant Director Cartha D. Deloach and Director J. Edgar Hoover. Mississippi Attorney General Joe T. Patterson is in the foreground.

The FBI Versus the Klan

Part 4: A Leader Emerges


Roy Moore had seen the Klan in action, and he knew what he was up against.

While head of the FBI’s office in Little Rock, he was asked to lead a special squad investigating the KKK’s 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had killed four African-American girls and injured many more.

Recollections on Roy Moore 

Roy Moore in 1937 and 1974
Roy Moore in 1937 (left) and 1974.

A few thoughts on Special Agent in Charge Moore from agents who worked for him:

- Special Agent Billy Bob Williams, who was having trouble investigating the brutal murders of two 19-year-old African-American men in southwest Mississippi in 1964, recalled telling Moore, “We’re losing the battle down there… And somebody’s going to get hurt pretty quick if we don’t get a handle on this.” Williams said that Moore thought for a second, then started writing out a list of 25 agents on a piece of paper, which he then gave to his secretary so she could contact them. Moore then called FBI Headquarters and said he’d sent for these agents and would need them to stay a while.

- When the Klan firebombed the house of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in 1966, Special Agent James Awe remembered that “[a]s soon as Roy Moore learned of the incident, he sent most of the senior resident agents and a large staff from Headquarters, including clerical personnel, to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and established quarters at a Holiday Inn in Hattiesburg. And that personnel stayed there until that case was completed ... Roy Moore himself went down to head that particular case and he stayed down there...”

- In the mid-1960s, a Mississippi Klan leader named Devers Nix threatened Agents Awe and Ingram with arrest when they tried to interview him at his house, claiming that they were intimidating him. Nix went down to the police station and had arrest warrants filed. The agents went back and told Moore, “‘Well, perhaps we shouldn’t work in Jones County anymore because there are two arrest warrants for us down there.’” Awe recalled that “Roy Moore was not amused… He said, ‘You will work in Jones County, and you will not allow yourselves to become arrested.’” The agents were never arrested and carried on their work.

- Special Agent E. Avery Rollins remembers that Moore “... was able to get a higher than average number of law enforcement officers from Mississippi to go to the National Academy. You know, usually a state would be restricted to one officer, maybe two officers a year, but that Roy, through his influence, was able to make sure that anywhere from two to four officers a year went through the National Academy ... You get some officers who have the experience of going up there and you suddenly start developing ... a good relationship with these guys.”

So when the call came on July 2, 1964 from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Special Agent in Charge Moore was ready. Later that afternoon, the historic Civil Rights Act would be signed into law, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had already instructed Hoover’s FBI, which was about to gain new authorities, to establish a stronger presence in Mississippi. Hoover chose Moore—a trusted Bureau veteran who’d joined the FBI in 1938 and earned his stripes finding the culprit of a massive mid-air explosion in 1955—to set up a new field office in Jackson.

At the time, Mississippi was the epicenter of violent Klan activity, and Hoover wanted to send a powerful message that the FBI was in business there and was determined to reassert the rule of law. So he asked Moore to make preparations quickly and quietly as part of what Hoover considered a “psychological operation” against the KKK in the state.

The morning after the July 4 holiday, Moore reported to Jackson. A week later, he joined Hoover, the Mississippi attorney general, and others in announcing the formal opening of the office in a rented downtown bank building.

Moore’s immediate job was to help solve the KKK-fueled murder of three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—in Neshoba County less than a month earlier. What became known as the infamous “Mississippi Burning” case gained national attention and helped spur the passage of the landmark civil rights bill. With his support, the FBI located the three men’s bodies buried under an earthen dam and fingered a series of suspects by year’s end. 

For Moore, it was just the beginning. Over the next seven years, he spearheaded the Bureau’s work to loosen the Klan’s stranglehold in Mississippi and restore law and order through a series of investigations and other efforts.

Moore was well respected by the agents who worked with and for him. He was considered a tough, demanding boss but an “outstanding individual” and “one of the great leaders of that time.” According to Special Agent James Ingram, “He expected people to work six-and-a-half days a week ... Sunday mornings were for church and laundry, [but] by 1 p.m. you were back to work.”

Moore’s leadership made a critical difference in turning the tide against the Klan in the 1960s. He was reassigned to Chicago in 1971, then retired in December 1974—moving back to Mississippi, where he lived out his days. When Moore died in 2008, veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor was quoted as saying in a Washington Post obituary, “How close Mississippi stood in the 1960s to being taken over by the law of the jungle is still a frightening thought…There was only one reliable law enforcement agency in Mississippi at the time, and that was the FBI, headed by Roy Moore.”

- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 1
- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 2
- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 3
- The FBI Versus the Klan, Part 5