America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
BLACK MILITANT REACTION and the URBAN RIOTS of 1964-1965
The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi failed to meet their immediate goals with the Neshoba murders. Among other things, they failed to intimidate the thousands of volunteers coming to Mississippi for Freedom Summer—the campaign to register black voters and to educate black children. They even failed to intimidate the large numbers of local black Mississippians who participated in Freedom Summer, housing activists from the COFO, registering to vote, and sending their children to Freedom Schools (organized by activists to teach a civics-heavy, Afrocentric curriculum to black Mississippi students). The public outcry over the Neshoba murders spurred the FBI to launch a massive investigation into the crime, resulting in the creation of an FBI field office in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite the KKK’s efforts, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, effectively ending legal discrimination in America. And the murders breathed new life into Johnson’s other initiative: to pass comprehensive voting rights legislation.
At first blush, the outcome seemed to undermine the hidden agenda of Sam Bowers as well. After all, Bowers had predicted, to Delmar Dennis, a massive federal intervention creating a cycle of violence between blacks and whites. Neither happened—certainly not to the degree that Bowers wanted. But Sam Bowers and his fellow devotees of radical Christian Identity theology were playing the long game. And in the years that followed the Mississippi Burning murders, Bowers and his fellow religious extremists could only have been pleased with social developments, not only in Mississippi but in America as a whole.
In September 1964, with the help of informant Delmar Dennis, authorities uncovered the bodies of the three slain civil rights activists at Olan Burrage’s farm. By December, a U.S. commissioner from Mississippi had voided the indictments of all nineteen men responsible for the killings. Fed up, thirty-seven teenage activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) met with Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer at Hotel Theresa in New York City to listen to famed Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X. Urging his young audience to “see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself,” the former spokesman for the militant black separatist group the Nation of Islam (NOI) continued:
If the leaders of the nonviolent movement can go into the white community and teach nonviolence, good. I’d go along with that. But as long as I see them teaching nonviolence only in the black community, we can’t go along with that. We believe in equality, and equality means that you have to put the same thing over here that you put over there. And if black people alone are going to be the ones who are nonviolent, then it’s not fair. We throw ourselves off guard. In fact, we disarm ourselves and make ourselves defenseless.1
Malcolm X had befriended members of SNCC in a chance encounter with SNCC leaders on a tour of Africa. Highlighting the need to link the African American civil rights struggle to similar liberation movements in Africa, the activist asserted, “Whenever anything happens to you in Mississippi, it’s not just a case of somebody in Alabama getting indignant, or somebody in New York getting indignant. The same repercussions that you see all over the world when an imperialist or foreign power interferes in some section of Africa—you see repercussions, you see the embassies being bombed and burned and overturned—nowadays, when something happens to black people in Mississippi, you’ll see the same repercussions all over the world.”2
Malcolm X and the group he once served, the NOI, had long argued that violence, especially in retaliation for harassment, was not only acceptable but was politically and morally necessary. Though he had split from the NOI and softened his antagonism toward whites as a race, he still favored fighting fire with fire. He closed his exhortation to his New York City audience by adding, “You’ll get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom; then you’ll get it. It’s the only way you’ll get it. When you get that kind of attitude, they’ll label you as a ‘crazy Negro,’ or they’ll call you a ‘crazy nigger’—they don’t say Negro. Or they’ll call you an extremist or a subversive, or seditious, or a red or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough, and get enough people to be like you, you’ll get your freedom.”3
According to Stokely Carmichael, an SNCC leader in Mississippi at the time, the young activists returned to the Magnolia State very impressed with what Malcolm X had to say. For years, Malcolm X had been the most outspoken voice for armed self-defense in the civil rights struggle. Now, after the killing of Medgar Evers, after the Neshoba murders and the multiple bombings that followed, his message began to have much more resonance.
The debate over armed resistance in nonviolent organizations, such as SNCC and CORE, predated the Neshoba murders. As far back as 1963, members had proposed softening or eliminating written policy banning the use or brandishing of firearms. On the eve of Freedom Summer, in June 1964, the debate reemerged in anticipation of massive violence from Bowers’s Klan. The proposals failed, but the reality was that many civil rights activists either quietly flouted the mandate against armed resistance (for example, Medgar Evers had carried a weapon for protection) or relied on others, including the local black farmers who welcomed activists into their homes and communities, to provide armed protection. Many civil rights activists, including Stokely Carmichael, regarded nonviolence simply as a tactic to win public support, not as a philosophy and moral code (à la Martin Luther King Jr.). Others had abandoned the pretense of nonviolence years before; as far back as 1956, Robert Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, had gathered armed men to confront the KKK. King and others had shown the political value of nonviolence in Alabama and elsewhere, but the Neshoba murders and the wave of bombings that immediately followed went a long way to changing attitudes about armed self-defense. Famously, at the funeral for the three murdered activists, SNCC activist Dave Dennis asserted:
I’m sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men… . I’ve got vengeance in my heart, and I ask you to feel angry with me… . If you go back home and sit down and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us … if you take it and don’t do something about it … then God damn your souls!4
Just one month before the thirty-seven students heard Malcolm X speak in New York City, a seemingly minor event in Waveland, Mississippi, foreshadowed this shift in approach. In his book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, Professor Akinyele Omowale Umoja describes an attack on an SNCC staff retreat that November 1964:
Retreat participants were alerted when they heard a low-flying plane soaring near the facilities. Later that evening, a vehicle drove near the meeting place and threw a Molotov cocktail on a nearby pier. Suddenly, several male members of SNCC ran from the meeting carrying arms, and the nightriders were abducted and released after a warning from the young freedom fighters. Lorne Cress, a Chicago native and SNCC staffer in McComb, was surprised by the armed response from her comrades. Up until that day, she had believed she was a member of a non-violent organization. She turned to Howard Zinn—a college professor, historian, and advisor to SNCC—and stated, “You have just witnessed the end of the non-violent movement.”5
But the nonviolent movement was not quite dead. King and others would score another moral victory with their voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama, the following year. The widely publicized scenes of armed police officers on horseback beating unarmed protestors with batons shocked the nation, giving President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act the public support it needed to pass. With its passage, almost every state-level obstacle to constitutionally guaranteed voting rights—notably literacy tests—was removed. But for many in the African American community, the legislation—and the civil rights act that had preceded it—were not enough to pacify their increasingly growing frustration with the status quo.
More and more, economic concerns joined political concerns for African Americans. In the 1960s, America entered into a period of rapid economic dislocation as countless numbers of factories closed, reopening in cheaper labor markets outside the nation. This foreign outsourcing profoundly affected the African American community in many cities. The types of factory jobs that had lured waves of African American migrants to abandon the life of southern sharecropping and that could, in the post-World War II economic boom, sustain a nuclear family on one income, were disappearing. Even when such jobs were available, discriminatory lending practices and prejudicial housing schemes (called redlining) forced even middle-class blacks into ghettos. These were injustices not addressed in either of the two major pieces of legislation in 1964 and 1965.
In fact, the two laws changed little for black Americans outside the South. Northern and western cities already permitted blacks to vote (and had done so for decades), and blacks there faced little in the way of overt legal discrimination. One rarely saw formally segregated bathrooms, swimming pools, or dining facilities in these regions. But what African Americans there did face was de facto discrimination, which was just as pernicious. One found all-black and all-white schools, not because of the legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson but because of historical patterns of housing discrimination and economic prejudice—the kind that allowed blacks to work in factory jobs but refused them entry into many labor unions. And while the attacks on nonviolent protestors in the land of Jim Crow scandalized the rest of the country, the nation all but ignored similar problems elsewhere. America’s police departments were among the most racially homogenous labor sectors in the nation—not just in the South but in almost every major city in the country. And urban blacks were all too familiar with the kind of discrimination and harassment that generally accompanied an all-white police force. In northern and western cities, this harassment was among the most serious forms of overt racism they faced. But by 1964, many were no longer prepared to turn the other cheek.
The first major crack in the national nonviolent facade came one month after the Neshoba murders. The Associated Press described events in New York that began on July 19:
Missiles rained from roofs, crowds knocked down barricades, fists and knives flashed in the steady heat, and police guns barked. Harlem was rioting… . The initial outburst followed protest rallies over the fatal shooting of a Negro boy by a white policeman. The violence left one man shot to death, 108 arrested and more than 100 injured, including a dozen patrolmen.6
Soon the unrest spread to nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant and then to Brooklyn, continuing for six days and leading to more than 450 arrests. More riots began soon afterward in upstate New York in response to perceived police abuses in Rochester. United Press International described “three successive nights” (July 24 to 27) of “violence and pillage,” including “hurled rocks, bottles and firebombs.” At one point, “three persons were killed when a Civil Defense helicopter … crashed into a rooming house turning it into an inferno.” In response to the chaos, the UPI noted, “New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller committed 1,200 to 1,300 National Guardsmen to the riot-torn city.” By the end of the three days, 555 people had been arrested; the “burned buildings and looted stores” resulted in “over one million dollars worth of damages.”7
The rage continued to spread as quickly as a virus. That August, urban race riots flared in Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, again in response to perceived police abuses. Soon the rioting reached Philadelphia, where just the rumor that an African American woman had been killed by police sparked unrest in the area near Temple University. According to Dr. Ellesia Ann Blaque, over two days the area “was battered and looted by thousands of people. When the riot ended, more than 300 people were injured, close to 800 had been arrested, and over 220 stores and businesses were damaged or permanently devastated.”8 Later in August, another riot broke out in Dixmoor, Illinois, just south of Chicago.
All in all, there were eleven urban riots in 1964, with two killed, 996 injured, almost three thousand arrests, and more than 230 acts of arson. It was the most widespread race-related rioting since the Red Summer of 1919, which saw twenty-six racially motivated riots between April and October. In 1965 matters got notably more intense. For a second year there were eleven riots in the United States, but this time there were thirty-five killed, more than one thousand injured, more than four thousand arrested, and, stunningly, more than three thousand acts of arson.9
The bulk of this staggering increase (thirty-four of the thirty-five killed and more than nine hundred of the one thousand injured) came from a single event: the August 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Following the arrest of a black driver by a white police officer on suspicion of drunk driving, a crowd of blacks pelted the police with rocks and bottles. The tension escalated, and the riot—the most destructive in U.S. history to that point—raged for six days. Time magazine called the rioting an “Arson and Street War” on one cover, and Life magazine printed the cover headline “Out of a Cauldron of Hate.” The latter featured a “menacing image of an angry black youth. The underlying caption read, ‘Get Whitey!’”10
Martin Luther King Jr., a recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, visited Watts in an attempt to promote calm. At one point he addressed a crowd:
However much we don’t like to hear it, and I must tell the truth. I’m known to tell the truth. While we have legitimate gripes, while we have legitimate discontent, we must not hate all white people, because I know white people now… . Don’t forget that when we marched from Selma to Montgomery, it was a white woman who died on that highway 80, Viola Liuzzo. We want to know what we can do to create right here in Los Angeles a better city, and a beloved community. So speak out of your hearts and speak frankly.11
The response Dr. King received symbolized what would become a growing schism within the civil rights movement. An unidentified attendee from the crowd insisted:
The only way we can ever get anybody to listen to us is to start a riot. We got sense enough to know that this is not the final answer, but it’s a beginning. We know it has to stop, we know it’s going to stop. We don’t want any more of our people killed, but how many have been killed for nothing? At least those who died died doing something. No, I’m not for a riot. But who wants to lay down while somebody kicks em to death? As long as we lay down we know we’re gonna get kicked. It’s a beginning; it may be the wrong beginning but at least we got em listening. And they know that if they start killing us off, it’s not gonna be a riot it’s gonna be a war.12
Dr. King did not see this warning as hyperbole. Having received a less-than-warm response in his Watts visit, and having failed to negotiate a truce between local black leaders and the white political establishment in Los Angeles, King briefed his political ally President Lyndon B. Johnson about the situation on the ground. In a private conversation, the Reverend King worried, “Now what is frightening is to hear all of these tones of violence from people in the Watts area and the minute that happens, there will be retaliation from the white community.” He added, ominously, “People have bought up guns so that I am fearful that if something isn’t done to give a new sense of hope to people in that area, that a full-scale race war can develop.”13
Another minister, whose base of operations near Hollywood was not far from the riots, welcomed the prospects of just such a war. The Reverend Wesley Swift, in a sermon titled “Power for You Today,” directly referenced the recent violence.
Don’t let Watts suppress your souls, it’s just, my friends, a demonstration of the animal nature of A SATANIC CONTROLLED SOCIETY IN UPROAR AGAINST GOD, AGAINST LAW, AGAINST RIGHTEOUSNESS, IT’S A PART OF A DESIGN TO INTIMIDATE YOU WITH THE FEAR OF THE BEAST, but I want you to know that with all these patterns, we are prepared to do the work of the Kingdom, to defend ourselves against any area of catastrophe, to defend ourselves against the Beast invasion, to participate in all the events that relate to the status of this day and TO FULFILL IT AS SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF GOD IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE AND THE PURPOSE OF GOD’S PLAN.
This doesn’t mean acquiescence to evil, it doesn’t mean that we buy off evil, it doesn’t mean we bribe people not to do the things which the enemy or the Kingdom would like to do. The way to handle some of these situations today is to meet them with power. The way, my friends, to put down an uprising is to march in the Police Force and the troops and then let it sit there afterwards and don’t, my friends, reward people for their evil. Don’t make people think by violence and uproar against the Kingdom of God that they are going to gain greater power and more expansive ends. Just remember that you are in a day WHEN IT’S THE SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF GOD WHO SHALL WAKE UP AND SHALL DETERMINE THE COURSE AND THE DESTINY OF AMERICA AND EVERY OTHER CHRISTIAN NATION AND EVENTUALLY THE WHOLE WORLD SHALL COME UNDER THE ADMINISTRATION OF GOD’S KINGDOM [emphasis in original].14
He returned to the subject of the riots shortly afterward:
You know why this is an important week? Because by its measures since they always start with the following cycles of the moon that three and a half years from that time was going to start THE JUDGMENTS IN THE HOUSE OF GOD UPON THE ENEMIES OF GOD’S KINGDOM AND THOSE THAT RISE UP TO DESTROY. Do you realize that would make the beginning of that period by its farthest perimeters this September which we’re almost in and, of course, if you go back to the measure of when it happened, why, these riots were going on right in the beginning of that judgment time and I’m going to tell you something. It wasn’t 35 that were killed, there were hundreds of them killed and hundreds of them that brought it on themselves. There are over a thousand bodies in those ruins right now. You say, how do you know? Because Guardsmen reported what happened when they were fired on, some of them had to kill 20 or 30 of them themselves for protection. Bodies were dumped back into burning stores because they were moving down the way. I know at this moment that there are a thousand dead minimum in that crisis.15
One cannot know if the Reverend Swift was deliberately exaggerating the casualties from the riots to manipulate his audience or if he, for some reason, believed his own propaganda. But he clearly saw the riots as a major sign that “we are in a climactic time.” The minister continued:
Someone said, oh, if we could only push these things off. I don’t want to push it off, if I could bring it all in the next 24 hours, I’d precipitate it because I know GOD WOULD BE HERE BEFORE THE 24 HOURS WAS OVER… . WE ARE IN THE DAY, WE ARE IN THE CLIMAX, WE ARE IN THE EXPERIENCE OF WATCHING ONE AGE FOLD UP AND A NEW ONE COME IN, ONLY IT’S GOD’S DAY THIS TIME.16
Events of the next year only reinforced Swift’s enthusiasm for an approaching Armageddon. The eleven riots in 1965 grew to fifty-three by the end of 1966. While there were fewer people killed and injured than in 1965, more rioters were arrested than in the previous year, because the nation had experienced 109 total days of urban rioting compared to just 20 in 1965. After occurring again in Los Angeles, riots broke out in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Baltimore, and Atlanta. They even spread to unexpected cities such as Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa.17
As Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his focus to de facto racism and economic issues in northern cities, he became increasingly frustrated by the growing tendency toward violence by both blacks and working-class whites. This trend became abundantly clear in Chicago, where King moved his movement and his family, famously living in a public housing tenement to highlight the poverty inherent in the city’s racially tinged housing policies. Even after King managed to negotiate a ten-point deal with the city’s political leadership, skeptical members of CORE launched a protest march in violation of King’s agreement. Marching in all-white Cicero, Illinois—the site of a racial conflagration in 1951—250 protestors “were met by several hundred hecklers who hurled, rocks, eggs, and small explosives.”18 But this was an extremist group of CORE activists. Rather than turn the other cheek, they picked up the bottles and bricks and threw them back at the hecklers. In the end, the National Guard was needed to bring order to the city.
By 1966, to the dismay of Gandhian leaders like the Reverend Ed King and Martin Luther King, groups like CORE and SNCC openly embraced armed resistance in their charters. Borrowing from the late Malcolm X’s famous phrase, they contended that liberation should be obtained by “any means necessary.” But SNCC and CORE were relatively tame compared to other groups that rose to prominence in the mid-1960s. Most notable among these was the Black Panther Party, which formed in Oakland, California, in October 1966. As a sign of the growing shift in the disposition of civil rights activists toward violent resistance, the Panthers got the inspiration for their name from outspoken SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael, who in 1966 told an audience:
In Lowndes County, we developed something called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It is a political party. The Alabama law says that if you have a Party you must have an emblem. We chose for the emblem a black panther, a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people, an animal that never strikes back until he’s back so far into the wall, he’s got nothing to do but spring out. Yeah. And when he springs he does not stop.19
The Panthers also borrowed from Carmichael the much-misunderstood phrase that came to symbolize the growing schism between integrationists and black nationalists: “Black Power.” Ostensibly a slogan of racial pride, self-determination, and equality, “Black Power” represented a “menace to peace and prosperity” to more conservative civil rights groups like the NAACP. Martin Luther King Jr., who valued the concept of black self-empowerment even as he demanded legal and socioeconomic recognition from the American government, argued that the concept was “unfortunate because it tends to give the impression of black nationalism … black supremacy would be as evil as white supremacy.”20 In the perception of the white political establishment, which was manifested in the media, “Black Power” became associated with separatism, violence, and militancy due its association with the Black Panther Party.
Making no effort to hide their revolutionary Marxism, the Panthers favored the violent overthrow of what they saw as America’s imperialist and capitalist society, as a means to racial and economic liberation. While providing social services in the communities where they resided, the Panthers also responded to allegations of police brutality by brandishing shotguns, dressing in “radical chic” black clothing, and at times ambushing or engaging in pitched street battles with law enforcement officers.
The rise of the Panthers, the radicalization of once nonviolent groups like SNCC and CORE, the growing number of urban race riots—all of these affirmed the aspirations of those Swift devotees, like Sam Bowers, who hoped that conflicts between leftists in the black community and conservative whites would invite federal military intervention and escalate into a holy race war. Bowers privately told Delmar Dennis that he wanted to instigate such a conflict. And he continued to do his part, leading a group that from 1964 to 1968 would commit 300 of the estimated 538 acts of anti-black violence occurring since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Joining Bowers in his effort to stoke the flames of white resentment were fellow CI devotees like the Reverend Connie Lynch, who in 1966 visited scenes of racial tension and urban riots, inciting white-on-black violence with his bombastic and virulently racist speeches. In Baltimore Lynch delivered what the UPI called the “To Hell with Niggers” rally, where Lynch “called for war against the city’s Negroes… . After the rally broke up, gangs of white youths charged into a predominantly Negro area, throwing bottles at Negroes and attacking those they could lay their hands on with their fists.”21
Clearly, as in the past, the CI radicals were not content to passively wait for Armageddon. Swift had insisted that they were already in the end-times and that his followers must actively participate in the events. Foreign affairs, notably the rapidly escalating war in Vietnam, which was exacerbating social divisions within the United States, reinforced Swift’s notion that the world was “on the edge of terrific events.”
But for all of the racial unrest in America after 1964, the prospects for white supremacist groups to actively accelerate Armageddon seemed dim—at least on the surface. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did little to address the immediate socioeconomic concerns of the wider African American community, the two laws represented a double-fisted blow to overt white supremacist groups. Membership in racist groups across the country declined dramatically, and outside support fell as well. Congress and law enforcement began to openly turn against the KKK. Once southern nationalists lost the fight to save segregation and Jim Crow, the costs of staying in the organization greatly outweighed the benefits. The remaining members and leaders, who included several hard-core CI followers, appear to have faced a conundrum. Before 1965, when their organizations’ memberships were at their highest, CI followers like Bowers had to work toward their hidden religious objectives by manipulating their fellow members. Now, in 1966, when conditions in the country finally seemed to conform to their religious worldview, these organizations seemingly lacked the membership to wage the prophesied race war.
But a deeper analysis suggests that the CI terrorists were far more dangerous in the late 1960s than people realize. The Minutemen, who were radical anti-communists, hid their white supremacist bona fides behind a veneer of pro-American militancy and were positioned to take advantage of the situation on the ground during the 1960s era of social upheaval. J. Edgar Hoover viewed the Minutemen as mildly dangerous due to their fondness for violence and their disregard for federal firearms regulations. But the FBI director did not consider the group nearly as threatening as the communist Black Panther Party, which he dubbed public enemy number one. As with other segregationist groups, CI leaders were found in the highest ranks of the Minutemen—a group perhaps better situated than any organization before or since to become foot soldiers in a national race war. But for the activity of an increasingly engaged law enforcement community in its cities and states (and eventually the federal government), America may have experienced the worst wave of terrorism in its history.
Swift had groups like the Minutemen in mind when, early in 1966, he delivered a sermon titled “Coming Liberation of America.” He told his congregation and army of listeners:
There is a strategy to destroy these United States forever, and to crush Christian Civilization and destroy the ability of HIS church to stand out and proclaim the truth. This is something that stirs the people to search for truth. This stirs some men to stand and denounce this evil strategy. It causes some men to respond with patriotic fury. It causes some men to band together and arm themselves for the show-down day. This design of Treason to destroy these United States has caused many men to react in many ways. There are men who are standing to dedicate their lives and their future in their fight to save these United States. They are ready to fight in the streets in all the cities of our nation, if that be necessary. There are those who are doing their utmost to awaken the people to this danger, and others who realize that it is very late but they are still looking for a solution to the best way to meet this situation and to save America.22
For years Swift and his fellow travelers, notably Colonel William Potter Gale, had nurtured militant, antigovernment patriot groups—those who saw in the growing power and scope of the federal government a fundamental threat to the American way of life. Anticipating the modern-day militia movements, these groups, such as Gale’s California Rangers, acquired weapons and received paramilitary training to oppose what they believed would be a tyrannical government takeover of white society, not simply by the U.S. government but by the United Nations. Just as white supremacist groups aligned (often unknowingly) with Identity leaders on the issue of anti-black racism, antigovernment patriot groups aligned with CI ideology most clearly on the dangers posed by communism and one-world government.
As far back as at least 1963, religious terrorists like Gale and Swift envisioned these armed radicals as guerrilla-style strike teams that would go into action when the inevitable world-government takeover took place, per their Biblical interpretations. George Harding, who was a member of Swift’s church, told the FBI in May 1963 that he was recruited to be part of one of several eight-person military teams, with each group assigned to kill public officials and business leaders when the time came.23
This information is consistent with Miami police informant reports from April 1963 regarding a meeting of the Congress of Freedom, a white supremacist group with many Swift devotees in its leadership. At the April 1963 meeting, attendees also spoke about strike teams set to attack many leading (and mostly Jewish) officials in the event of a United Nations takeover. It is worth noting that in 1964, Sam Bowers also spoke about elite strike teams that would assassinate leading civil rights figures once federal troops had overwhelmed Mississippi. Obviously, neither event—a UN takeover or a federal usurpation of Mississippi—took place by 1964. But, in the minds of CI followers, developments since that time pointed to an even greater conflagration. More to the point, they were prepared to make it happen if necessary.24
The Christian Identity movement found the perfect partner for the revolutionary, guerrilla warfare it predicted in the Minutemen. The group’s membership and financial support appeared to increase after 1965. It was also an organization with national reach and a legacy of paramilitary training, Formed in 1960, supposedly by a group of duck hunters who wanted to prepare an insurgency against a future communist takeover, the group believed that “any further effort, time or money spent in trying to save our country by political means would be wasted… . Therefore the objectives of the Minutemen are to abandon useless efforts and begin immediately to prepare for the day when Americans will once again fight in the streets for their lives and their liberty. We feel there is overwhelming evidence to prove that this day must come.”25
Led by Robert Bolivar DePugh, a middle-aged businessman and biochemist from Missouri with strong organizational skills, the group did not at first embrace the strategy of provoking or instigating that day when, as Swift predicted in his sermon, “Americans will once again fight in the streets for their lives and liberty.” Known to students of terrorism as the propaganda of the deed, this strategy has been traced to anarcho-terrorists who attacked Western targets, including those in the United States, from the 1870s through the 1930s. “One deed is worth more than 10,000 pamphlets,” one anarchist famously insisted. The idea was not only that actions speak louder than words but that those actions could elicit the kind of retribution from a target that would illustrate the ultimate goal of an ideological terrorist group.
For the anarcho-terrorists, this meant encouraging the state to crack down oppressively on its population in its hunt for subversive terrorists, proving the capacity for tyranny and violence that anarchists insisted was endemic to any government. For modern-day Islamic terrorists, it means baiting the West into invading Muslim nations to reveal to potential recruits and the Muslim world at large that the United States and its allies are enemies of Islam. For the Christian Identity terrorists, this meant polarizing the races into a would-be race war.
At first, the Minutemen resisted provocative acts of violence. DePugh personally stopped his Minutemen from assassinating Senator William Fulbright and Neiman Marcus business tycoon Stanley Marcus. In addition, after conceiving the plot himself, DePugh decided against an attack on the United Nations that would have dispersed cyanide through the ventilation system of the much-hated institution.
DePugh referred to his approach as the “principle of deliberate delay … which means all the emphasis is on recruiting and propaganda and stockpiling arms, so you don’t zap anybody till the outfit’s ready to function fully underground.”26 And stockpile they did. In 1965 law enforcement raided the residence of Minuteman Richard Lauchli. There officers seized “1,000 submachine guns” as well as “eight M-2 carbines, 43 rifles, shotguns and pistols, 36,000 rounds of ammunition, 58 antitank grenades, 17 60-millimeter mortar shells, 11 antipersonnel mines, four Army hand grenades, 21 pounds of black powder and two military rockets.” That same year law enforcement found “gun caches in at least six other states,” belonging to groups connected with the Minutemen, with weapons that included “rifles, bazookas, anti-tank guns and bayonets.” An investigative report from journalists in Denver found that in Colorado, the Minutemen kept stashes of weapons hidden at several key locations in the mountains. In California law enforcement “confiscated 800,000 rounds of ammunition, 400 machine guns, 10 anti-tank guns, and other warfare items” from Minutemen sympathizers. Most alarmingly, when the Minutemen allowed investigative reporter Eric Norden into one of their secret compounds, they showed him thirty four-foot-long rockets, which senior Minuteman leader Roy Frankhouser said could reach a target over several miles away.27
While on “deliberate delay,” DePugh and his group gathered intelligence on potential targets. In the Minutemen periodical, DePugh urged,
We must know our enemies by name, address and phone number. Their leaders must be subject to special scrutiny. We must know their habits, their likes, their strong and weak points. We must have a complete physical description of them. We must know the license number of their cars and where they are apt to hide in time of danger… . We must show the left-wing professor and the pro-communist minister that liberalism is not always a bed of roses. There are penalties which they too must pay for selling their country out.28
Former FBI agent and journalist William Turner, who in 1966 was given considerable access to Minutemen headquarters at Norborne, Missouri, described filing cabinets full of this kind of information, with as many as sixty-five thousand names of those who “manifested an ultra-liberal philosophy” according to DePugh. Turner noted that “new members spend three tedious months as part of their First Phase of Training poring over some 600 ‘left wing’ periodicals culling names.” Among those selected were the noted television news anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The “First Phase of Training” referenced by Turner was one of “five rigorous phases of training” that culled would-be Minutemen down to a “fanatical hard-core who dangle Crusader’s Crosses inscribed ‘We Will Never Surrender’ around their necks and who fully understand that to defect automatically brings the mark of death.”29
In 1966, as race riots continued to rage inside the United States, the Minutemen became more proactive. They formed a separate political party, the Patriot Party, which ultimately endorsed George Wallace for president, and they began to engage in more overt acts of terrorism. But for the efforts of law enforcement, several major attacks could have caused serious damage and untold casualties.
One of the most publicized would-be attacks is also one of the most revealing when it comes to understanding the danger posed by the Minutemen. In 1966 multiple law enforcement agencies, in a joint sting operation, raided a Minuteman compound in upstate New York. The goal: stop an impending siege by the Minutemen on three leftist retreats. If the arsenal of weapons recovered by law enforcement was any indication, the Minutemen planned on a very bloody affair. The cache included “1,000,000 rounds of rifle and small-arms ammunition, chemicals for preparing bomb detonators, considerable radio equipment—including 30 walkie-talkies and shortwave sets tuned to police bands, 125 single-shot and automatic rifles, 10 dynamite bombs, 5 mortars, 12 .30-caliber machine guns, 25 pistols, 240 knives (hunting, throwing, cleaver and machete), 1 bazooka, 3 grenade launchers, 6 hand grenades and 50 80-millimeter mortar shells. For good measure, there was even a crossbow replete with curare-tipped arrows.”30
The dozen or so men arrested in the plot, which included a wealthy upstate businessman and senior Minuteman official, were described by Norden as “a cabdriver, a gardener, a subway conductor, a fireman, a mechanic, a plasterer, a truck driver, a heavy-equipment operator, a draftsman, several small businessman, a horse groom and two milkmen. Most were respectable family men in their late 20s or early 30s, known to their neighbors as solid, church-going pillars of the community.” Unbeknownst to their neighbors, these men were also stockpiling weapons. A copywriter cached “machine guns … bazookas … mortars” and an “anti-tank missile launcher.” A businessman stored “hyperdermic needles … rifles … shotguns … and 5000 rounds of ammunition.”
Just as disturbing to law enforcement was the discovery that three members of the New York State Police had secretly acquired the weapons for the Minutemen. For years, many members of law enforcement saw the group as toy soldiers and did not believe their boasts of having members hidden among all walks of American life, including in the business community and law enforcement agencies. By 1966, however, state law enforcement agencies had begun to take the Minutemen much more seriously. Speaking of the entire milieu of right-wing radicals, one New York investigator insisted, “Kooks they are, harmless they are not… . It’s only due to their incompetence, and not any lack of motivation, that they haven’t left a trail of corpses in their wake.”31
Another discovery by law enforcement confirmed what investigative reporters Eric Norden and William Turner unearthed: Machiavellian efforts by the Minutemen to provoke racial conflict by inflaming the black community. The reporters found fake pamphlets, designed to look like Black nationalist propaganda, urging blacks to riot. “Kill the white devils and have the women for your pleasure” the pamphlets read. At one point, Minutemen sped through black neighborhoods tossing these pamphlets out the window.
In FBI files, more alarming evidence emerged. Several independent informants spoke to plans by the Minutemen to provoke a racial civil war by assassinating key black civil rights figures such as James Farmer and Martin Luther King Jr. If this sounds familiar, it should be noted that the shift away from a strategy of “deliberate delay” toward a more proactive stance that included alarming levels of weapons hoarding and efforts to antagonize the black community came as followers of the Christian Identity movement assumed highly influential roles inside the Minutemen. Indeed, almost every single leader—save perhaps for DePugh—had direct ties or exposure to Swift’s church. This group included Wally Peyson, DePugh’s “right-hand man”; the Reverend Kenneth Goff, head of the largest subunit of the Minutemen; Frankhouser, one of the leading Minutemen organizers on the East Coast; and Dennis Mower, another West Coast organizer. Peyson was a minister in Swift’s church; Goff was also a CI minister, and Frankhouser would soon become one; Mower was one of Swift’s chief aides. It is no wonder that, in their strategy, the Minutemen increasingly began to see their inevitable revolution inside the United States as a civil war and as a race war. They also increasingly became openly anti-Semitic in their rhetoric. Norden describes the following exchange with Frankhouser:
“Have Minutemen been involved in inciting the race riots?” I asked.
“You mean shooting at both sides to heat things up?” He smiled. “Not yet. Right now we can afford to just stand back on the side lines and pick up the pieces; we’re the inheritors of social bankruptcy, you might say. And the same holds true for the black nationalists; after each bloody riot they get a lot of uncommitted niggers going over to their side. It’s sort of a symbiotic situation. Let them shoot the Jews on their list, we’ll shoot the Jews on ours, and then we can shoot each other!”
Most of the group’s following—between five thousand and ten thousand direct members and thirty thousand to forty thousand supporters, according to the best estimates—likely had no connection to Christian Identity. They were simply antigovernment activists who saw, in the growth of the militant American left and black nationalism, evidence that America was heading toward communist subversion and widespread disorder—and they prepared accordingly. But those same fears could be harnessed by those who wanted to polarize the races to foment the race war.
What stood in their way was an equally cunning and Machiavellian response by the national government, one that at times created problems as surely as it solved them. Law enforcement agencies and the military feared extremists on both ends of the political spectrum and targeted them accordingly.
In the late 1960s, the radical right and militant left shared a deep hatred for the American political establishment. The militant left saw the consensus between New Deal liberals and moderate Republicans on America’s makeshift social safety net as a tonic that dulled the public from pursuing much more radical reforms of capitalism. The radical right saw that same consensus as evidence of a growing shift toward communism, especially with the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. For the militant left, the broad foreign policy consensus behind cold war containment was an excuse to send working-class whites and urban blacks to die to expand the influence of capitalism around the world. For the radical right, the failure to go above and beyond in that fight showed weakness in the face of the alarming spread of world communism. Of course, for the religious radicals who followed Wesley Swift, all of this was part of the “beast system”—the beast being the Antichrist (aka Jews) working on Satan’s behalf in the time before God’s final judgment.
The establishment all but ignored the religious dimensions of the violence and disorder that marked the 1960s. Yet, as the decade proceeded, more and more of those in power began to fear what the radical religious extremists coveted: another American civil war, even some kind of race war. Rightly or wrongly, the establishment realized something had to be done. Those in charge of America’s domestic security—the FBI, the National Guard, local law enforcement—acted accordingly.
The central military planners at the Department of Defense adjusted America’s entire national security posture. While keeping foreign policy focused on preventing the spread of communism, military leaders also concerned themselves with domestic security. They feared what one historian called a “made-in-America Tet Offensive”32 on domestic soil—a sudden, possibly coordinated series of urban uprisings that would spread like a wildfire and push America toward civil war. The growing violence associated with protests against the Vietnam War only reinforced this fear. In 1966, having found themselves forced into a supporting role during the Watts riots in 1965, the Joint Chiefs of Staff created an ongoing, formal operation, first known as Operation Steep Hill and ultimately as Operation Garden Plot. The operation parlayed the recently created U.S. Army Intelligence Command, a collection of military intelligence groups with a focus on domestic security, into an intelligence-gathering operation aimed at watching America’s political and urban hotspots and spying on antiwar and radical-left groups. The focus increasingly became geared toward preemption or rapid response in the event of civil disorder.33
The FBI, for its part, created the Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. The Bureau divided the program into two major components. COINTELPRO White focused on right-wing and white supremacist groups, and COINTELPRO Black focused on civil rights and black nationalist groups. Like Garden Plot, COINTELRPO also included extensive surveillance operations. But it differed from other programs in its willingness to rely on provocation and dirty tricks. The FBI would play upon the natural tendency of many of these groups toward paranoia by pitting members against each other and instigating schisms and rivalries within the groups.
This work included spreading false rumors, sending inflammatory mailings, and sabotaging operations. In each case, the Bureau blamed members of the groups for actions taken by FBI agents or operatives. One humorous example, described to me by a former FBI official, referred to the not uncommon phenomenon of KKK members sleeping around with each other’s spouses. At times, in places like Mississippi, the FBI actually observed these relationships as they developed. Late FBI special agent Jim Ingram, a senior member of the Jackson, Mississippi, field office, said that the FBI successfully took advantage of this phenomenon by placing notes in the mailboxes of KKK members, hinting that someone “knew where your wife was last evening,” eliciting predictable resentments and infighting after the pranks.34
At other times the dirty tricks were more serious. The FBI, to its historical shame, lumped nonviolent civil rights organizations such as the SCLC together with groups like the Black Panthers under COINTELPRO Black. A major target of the program was Martin Luther King Jr., whom J. Edgar Hoover suspected, incorrectly, of being a tool of the Communist Party, and whom Hoover resented for publicly criticizing the Bureau’s handling of racial crimes. In what has to be one of the ugliest episodes in the history of the FBI, the Bureau sent a purported tape recording of Dr. King engaged in extramarital relations to the minister’s family while sending a note to the civil rights leader himself, urging him to commit suicide. The FBI never relented in its effort to gather illicit information on King, through surveillance that included wiretaps and feeding scurrilous material in anonymous leaks to Hoover’s many assets in the media.
With respect to the less sympathetic white supremacist groups, the “fun and games” involving pitting one white supremacist cad against another gave way to much more serious countermeasures—even what would amount to an FBI conspiracy to murder white supremacists. Controversy also continues to persist over whether or not federal law enforcement looked the other way regarding, or perhaps even instigated, murders of Black Panther leaders.
As much as anything else, FBI operations against both white supremacist and black nationalist groups focused on developing informants and infiltrators within radical organizations and undermining the groups from within. In particular, by leveraging potential prison sentences against radicals arrested for various crimes, the FBI turned dedicated KKK members, including senior leaders, into ongoing sources of information and potential players in FBI dirty tricks campaigns. Supporting this thesis, internal reports on groups like the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi start with huge lists of redacted names—sometimes dozens for each report—of informants inside the group. At times the FBI would also use code names for human informants to disguise information obtained from wiretaps and mail intercepts. To this day, the FBI jealously protects the identities of these informants.
Some of that reticence may go beyond simply protecting these individuals against danger. As noted in the chapter on the Birmingham bombing, some suspects in that case were or became FBI informants. The problem for the FBI is that many of those informants were still dedicated racists; they did not change their stripes overnight simply because they began working for the FBI. And informants often found themselves at the scene of, or even participants in, major acts of domestic terrorism. The FBI must frequently decide whether or not to prosecute crimes committed by informants in the furtherance of, or in conjunction with, ongoing FBI investigations. For instance, thousands of secret waivers against prosecution were granted in 2013. But this process can come at a great price to the FBI if the nature of the forgiven crimes is publicized.
The effort to protect the Bureau against embarrassment becomes an important point to consider when one tries to assess what the FBI knew about the religious dimensions of white supremacist violence in the 1960s. Why has it taken so long for the theological foundations of white supremacist violence to be revealed to the American people? J.B. Stoner was clearly motivated by the theology of Christian Identity. But the connection of J.B. Stoner to the Birmingham bombing may well be concealed by the FBI’s ongoing decision to withhold surveillance data obtained from wiretaps in his law office. The same protectionist mind-set may also be in play in additional crimes described in this book that Stoner might have been involved in.
In any event, public statements and testimony from the 1960s show that the FBI greatly underestimated the potential danger of white supremacist groups in comparison to black nationalists. Perhaps owing to his obsession with fighting communism, or perhaps because of implicit racism (or both), J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers the number-one threat to American domestic order. In contrast, as William Turner noted, Hoover minimized the danger posed by the Minutemen, placing their total membership at only five hundred. He insisted that the FBI had thoroughly penetrated the group with informants (something that was at least partly true) and that he had them under control. The growing number of federal prosecutions against white supremacists by early 1967 provided some evidence that the FBI did have this problem under control. The FBI prosecuted Sam Bowers and his senior WKKKKOM members in connection with the Neshoba murders. Charges against Robert DePugh and Wally Peyson for bank robbery had forced both men underground by 1968. (They were caught in 1969.)
But Bowers and fellow travelers like J.B. Stoner would not be deterred. Those with the best access to white supremacists groups, such as investigative reporters Norden and Turner, described an interesting development from 1966 to 1968. Seemingly disparate white supremacist groups—organizations like the National States Rights Party, the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (the second largest KKK group in the country, headquartered in Georgia but with a national reach), the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Minutemen—increasingly tightened their relationships with each other. FBI documents confirm such developments. This went beyond simple cross-affiliations by various members to actual cooperation. Turner and Norden also began to note the religious impulse inspiring several of these groups. Progressively, Swift’s taped sermons and Bible studies gained a wider audience among the cadre of radicals who remained dedicated to the white supremacist cause despite their failures in 1964 and 1965.
Those listening to the Reverend Wesley Swift’s words in February 1967 would hear some familiar themes. “Now, we have had the sign of the ‘son of man’ in the heavens February 4, 1962,” he began. Swift was echoing a landmark sermon he had given several years before, in February 1962. In the earlier sermon, Swift referred to a recent solar eclipse in 1962, a sign of the beginning of the end-time, when God will “awaken” his followers and they will fulfill their destiny by “challeng[ing] the power and forces of darkness. And from this time forward, expanding and moving and working to this destiny, Christian civilizations and the white nations of the western world shall move forward, against the enemy.” Swift called this 1962 sermon “Zero Hour,” a reference to the beginning of the countdown to the End of Days.35
But in February of 1967, with riots and civil unrest seemingly having confirmed his prophecy, Swift combined the reference to zero hour with a reference to Chapter 14 of the book of Revelations: “We have passed the time of the beginning of tare time. And we have come to the time of the abomination of the desolator who stands in the Holy place. This shows us that we are in the end time or in the last days.”36 For many evangelical fundamentalists, Chapter 14 of the book of Revelations describes the Great Tribulation, when God imposes a series of plagues on mankind.
One of the signs of these end-times is the “reaping of tares.” Tares are weeds that are difficult to distinguish from wheat and that absorb needed nutrients from wheat. In the Great Tribulation, God directs his flock to harvest both the wheat and tares but to burn the tares. For Swift, the identity of the tares was obvious: “The Jews are the tares and the tares are the enemies of God’s Kingdom.” “Tare time,” as Swift called it, had already begun by early 1967. In February he predicted that the rest of the year would be marked by
increasing catastrophes, Negro riots. And anything Communism has its hands on will increase as they try to destroy Christian America and Western Civilization … the White man will stand—shoulder to shoulder against the Negro and the anti-Christ.37
What remained to be begun was yet another prophecy in the book of Revelations, one also deeply rooted in symbolism: the winepress of fermented grapes. Chapter 14 of the book of Revelations prophecies that
Another angel, the one who has power over fire, came out from the altar; and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, “Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, because her grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses’ bridles, for a distance of two hundred miles.
As one commentator describes the metaphor: “Satan and his angels will gather all the enemies of the God of heaven” and “Jesus alone will crush them and their blood will mingle with water that makes up their bodies and run like streams.”38 In February 1967, Swift did not mention what biblical scholars refer to as the grapes of wrath. But as will become clear, Swift’s followers were determined to see his prophecy come to pass. And to do it, they likely perpetrated one of the most consequential acts of terrorism in American history.