A memory. The recent events in Charlottesville led me to remember a day 25 years ago, when I stumbled upon a stunning collection of government documents on the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in eastern N.C. in the 1960s.
I was at the State Records Center in Raleigh, N.C. The Center is a storage and processing facility for state government records. Generally speaking, its holdings are not open to historians or the general public.
But I had gotten special permission from Col. Charles Speed, the director of the State Highway Patrol (SHP), to review a group of his agency’s files from the 1960s. I hoped the files would prove useful in the research I was doing for my book on the civil rights movement in Hyde County, a small tidewater community in eastern N.C.
This is an updated version of a story that I first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Exposure. It’s the first of an 8-post series on the Ku Klux Klan in eastern N.C. that I will put up between now and this coming Sunday.
I arrived at the State Records Center during the ACC basketball tournament and found the staff crowded into an office near the front door. They were watching the N.C. State game on TV, like everybody else in Raleigh.
I showed them Col. Speed’s letter granting me authority to look at his agency’s files.
I’m afraid I distracted them from the game. They were polite, but they acted as if my timing could not have been worse. They hurriedly pointed me in the direction of the SHP’s records and sent me off to explore the Records Center’s main room: a warehouse-size space with row after row of cardboard boxes on rafters.
I eventually found the SHP’s files related to the civil rights movement. Along with those files, I also discovered an extraordinary cache of related material on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
Nothing had been expunged: I found Klansmen’s names, information on their backgrounds and, in some cases, their misdeeds. The documents included detailed descriptions of Klan rallies and cross burnings, quotes or paraphrases from the speakers at those events, and precise numbers of KKK membership and those who, member or not, gathered at cross burnings.
There was more. I also found a considerable body of State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) records on the KKK. They were in the SHP records, and they seemed to be copies of surveillance reports that the SBI shared with the SHP.
They were a treasure trove. I did not comprehend why it was constitutional, but at that time (and maybe still) North Carolina law specifically exempted SBI documents from state open records laws. The SBI had rarely, if ever, granted historians or journalists access to its files.
But there they were, at least the ones that I needed: SBI intelligence reports, interagency memoranda and field notes on the rise and fall of the KKK in the 1960s. The SBI could only have obtained much of the content from undercover informants and other local sources, either its own or those cultivated by the FBI.
While everybody else in Raleigh was glued to the ACC Tournament, I could not pull myself away from the KKK papers and the picture of eastern North Carolina in the 1960s that emerged out of them.
I’ll post part 2 tomorrow.