Can the story of a KKK leader-turned-informant help guide us out of apparent racial turmoil?

Another anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death has come and gone with nary a whisper about its meaning. Sure, numerous conferences attended by diehard conspiracy believers and less biased interested parties marked the occasion. But the significance of the event seems lost on a new generation coping with problems associated with an incoming administration that seems hell-bent towards destroying everything the country has gained – and lost – in the past eight years.

There was a time when even I – someone who has researched and written articles on the assassination since 1978 – tried to forget the anniversary of that awful November day. So I understand the desire to move past that tragedy. It seems like there will be questions about whether the government framed a mostly innocent man, or whether he had help or was an informant attempting to stop the plot, a century from now. Even when a case is taken to court, as the late New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison did so in 1969, many don’t believe the conclusion.

Some point to how the assassination of Kennedy remains a homicide and there is no statute of limitations on murder. Lee Harvey Oswald was never tried in court. Many questions remain. As a country, we should support bringing murderers to justice, no matter how long it takes. That’s all good and noble, but it doesn’t really propel a society to act on something more than five decades behind us when there are so many other more pressing issues.

Moreover, setting the history books straight is a debate that will also likely rage in academic and scholarly circles for another century. While I believe that demands attention, I harbor no illusions that this question will be resolved in my lifetime, or my kids’ lifetimes. Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination resulted in four alleged associates of assassin John Wilkes Booth being hung. Boarding house owner Mary Surratt was among them, becoming the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.

Questions remain to this day about the extent of Surratt’s involvement in the plot against Lincoln. Did our government, in its fury and guilt at not doing more to protect its president, hang a mostly innocent woman?

So if questions remain about a more open-and-shut case some 150 years ago, why add to the confusion that surrounds the JFK killing? My answer comes down to unearthing stories, important stories that speak to and help illuminate matters we grapple with to this day.

One of those stories I highlight in a recent book, Death of the Rising Sun: A Search for Truth in the John F. Kennedy Assassination, concerns Klansman Willie Somersett. While rising to national Klan leadership positions, Somersett had an epiphany.

He agreed with many right-wing positions, such as maintaining segregation and opposing Kennedy’s perceived push to sell out his country to the Soviet communists and United Nations-supporting liberals. Yet at times, he worked to stop race discrimination. Somersett did not support Klan violence, believing there were legal ways to advance the Klan agenda without resorting to lynchings, shootings, and bombings.

When the FBI recruited Somersett to inform on the organization and other right-wing groups in 1949, Somersett accepted. The extra money helped. Organizing for a labor union on a part-time basis didn’t pay many bills. As a longtime member of far-right groups and an imposing man whose nickname among authorities was “88” since he reminded them of an Oldsmobile 88, Somersett could gain the confidence of Klan leaders like Joseph A. Milteer. The latter man represented the Dixie Klan faction and far-right Constitution Party that was a front for a violent undercover group.

Somersett fed the FBI information even as he became adjutant to the National Grand Council of Klans, a position that afforded him extensive travel opportunities to KKK meetings. Through that position, he fed the FBI important information that helped authorities stop plots against not just Kennedy but Martin Luther King Jr. and others. The risks were great; if fellow Klan members discovered his role, he faced retaliation that included death. The FBI even dropped him as an informant in 1961 after agents feared he was compromised, but Somersett went to work for Miami police and still fed the FBI tidbits for free. Perhaps there was something that drove Somersett beyond money.

“Through the years, Somersett had been associated with right-wing politics, but he disliked groups pressing for violence,” journalist Dan Christensen wrote in a 1976 Miami Magazine article. “Why he became an informer is uncertain. Money? Honor? Patriotism? It could just have been his job.”

Somersett informed about the widespread threats made against perceived liberal politicians, business people, and diplomats at the far-right Congress of Freedom meeting in early 1963. The FBI interrogated several suspects who spoke at the meeting, and talks of broad-based assassinations subsided. But they were replaced with a more specific plan targeting Kennedy, Somersett said, which included discussions at the Constitution Party’s meeting in Indianapolis in mid-October. The focus again had veered from just JFK; Milteer at the same meeting offered to have a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta killed.

Two weeks before Kennedy died, Somersett secretly tape recorded a conversation with Milteer at Somersett’s Miami apartment. Milteer claimed there was a plot to assassinate JFK, though he refrained from saying he was involved himself.

As they discussed JFK’s planned November 18 trip to Florida, Milteer said the plot would likely involve shooting “from an office building with a high-powered rifle.” Miami police provided a transcript of the recording to Secret Service agents on November 12. The Secret Service and FBI opened files on the matter and conducted an investigation of Milteer.

Rather than cancelling the trip as White House officials had done when alerted to threats in Chicago a couple of weeks earlier, Kennedy visited Florida as planned on November 18. But authorities took more precautions. Hundreds of police and agents mingled with the crowd in Tampa and searched for signs of a rifle pointed from an open window along JFK’s parade route. Somersett claimed the plot planners had been intimidated by the stepped-up police presence and set their sights on Texas.

For some reason, Secret Service agents planning preparations for security at Kennedy’s stops in Texas were not informed about the Florida threats, according to the House Select Committee on Assassinations’s 1979 report. Somersett later went so far as to charge Robert Kennedy with not performing his duties as attorney general by sending more FBI agents to Dallas to guard his brother. Copies of the tape were sent to RFK, the FBI, and Secret Service well before November 22, Somersett said. But it was not clear if RFK actually heard that tape.

So all that Somersett’s risks did was prolong Kennedy’s life for two weeks, which some would say is admirable in itself. After the assassination, Somersett continued to help authorities stop other plots of attempted racially-based killings and bombings in the South before he died in 1970. The FBI reported that he was “one of the few Klan informants that possesses the ability, incentive, and appropriate cover to go anywhere in the southeast section of the United States concerning [FBI] matters.”

Researcher Jeffrey H. Caufield called Somersett “an unsung hero” in the efforts against the racist violence of the 1950s and 1960s. “His work likely prevented untold numbers of bombings, burnings, and murders,” Caufield wrote more than four decades after Somersett died. Yet, who among us has heard of this “unsung hero” before? I sure didn’t until a few months ago, and I consider myself fairly well-read.

As we confront a climate of racial hatred that likely does not approach that of the early 1960s but is still beyond what we have seen in recent years, perhaps Somersett’s story can remind us of the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Perhaps the family member who voted for the presidential candidate that you abhor or the white police officer patrolling Black Lives Matter protests is a potential ally, even a closet Willie Somersett-like informant with the potential to do the right thing when the chips are down. And you might never learn that until after he or she dies.

Perhaps the opposing voter or seemingly racist can have an epiphany similar to Somersett’s. Perhaps such a notion can lead us to view a glimmer of light in our country’s apparent tunnel of darkness.

Kevin James Shay is the author of Death of the Rising Sun: A Search for Truth in the John F. Kennedy Assassination [Amazon, 2016].

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