JACKSON, Miss. — After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, civil rights was the last thing he wanted to talk about. He feared that being associated too closely with the issue would make him appear too liberal for voters coming into that fall’s presidential election.
But with the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and the threat of violence hanging over what became known as Freedom Summer, he knew he had to act. Afraid of the political consequences of sending in the military, he instead turned to the FBI and its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover, who until then had shown little sympathy for the civil rights movement and thought that many of its members were Communists.
In response to the president’s demands, Hoover hastily opened a field office in Jackson, a step that would take on hugely symbolic importance for both Mississippi and the FBI. On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the office’s opening was recalled with a small ceremony in which officials and dignitaries, including the deputy FBI director, Mark F. Giuliano, discussed how the bureau’s relationship with both white and black Mississippians had evolved in the years since 1964.
The opening of an FBI field office is something that is typically studied painstakingly by officials at the bureau and Justice Department who examine population and crime trends. Rarely has an office been opened after an order from a president. And rarely is the anniversary of an office celebrated. But for the FBI, its opening was a notable moment in its evolution, and its eventual repudiation of some of the darkest aspects of Hoover’s legacy.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights leader killed the summer before the office opened, described how the relationship between blacks and the FBI had improved since 1964.
“We saw the FBI only as an institution set to keep people of color down,” Evers-Williams said. “One that was not a friend, but one that was a foe. And I stand before you today saying that I am proud to say I see the FBI as playing the role they did, and finally in my mind, and my heart reaching the point where I can say, friend.”
Hoover announced the opening of the office at a news conference on July 10, 1964, in the eight-story building in downtown Jackson where the office was set up. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of FBI agents fanned out across the state, searching for the missing civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. That August, the FBI found their bodies buried near a dam. A few weeks later, the first suspect was arrested.
In a conversation with Hoover recorded by Johnson in the weeks before the office was opened, Hoover said he feared that if he went down to Jackson for the opening, critics would say the FBI had acted too slowly after the workers went missing. Johnson used his famous persuasiveness to convince him of what he had to do.
The FBI agents’ “very presence may save us a division of soldiers,” he said.
He added: “You ought to have the best intelligence system — better than you’ve got on the Communists. I read a dozen of your reports last night, here till 1 o’clock, on Communists, and they can’t open their mouth without your knowing what they’re saying.”
“Very true,” Hoover said.
“Now I don’t want these Klansmen to open their mouths without your knowing what they’re saying,” Johnson said.
He added: “We ought to have intelligence on that state because that’s going to be the most dangerous thing we have this year. I think if I have to send in troops, or somebody gets rash and we have to go like what we did in Little Rock, or something else, it could be awfully dangerous.”
The FBI faced deep skepticism in Mississippi from both whites and blacks. For whites, the agents were a sign of Johnson’s trying to extend the federal government’s power into the Deep South. Blacks did not trust the FBI because they believed that it had done little to protect their civil rights and that it had spied on them.
Evers-Williams said that the FBI had conducted surveillance on black civil rights workers in Mississippi and that it had eavesdropped on their phone conversations. After her husband was killed, the bureau did little to investigate the matter, she said in an interview after the ceremony.
It was only after blacks in Mississippi saw that the FBI was searching for the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers that they began to open up to the idea of trusting the bureau. It still took many years for the relationship to improve, she said.
Evers-Williams said that shortly after the 1994 conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member in connection with the killing of Evers, an FBI agent sitting behind her in the courtroom put his hand on her shoulder.
“The ghost of Mississippi escaped from my very being,” she said. “And it was a connection there between that hand, that verdict, and my hope that perhaps Mississippi, my native state, would be what Medgar Evers believed it would be, and the FBI certainly played a very important role in it.”
Over the next decades, the FBI regained more trust of blacks as it helped to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan and prosecuted civil rights cases.
“And for those of us who still have just a little bit of anger,” Evers-Williams said, “a little bit of suspicion, that we will be able to release it all and join hands together, and be able to say, with belief, that the FBI is an institution in America, an institution that represents all of us. Justice and equality regardless of race creed or color.”