We have just had the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. No doubt many of us have our own memories of the sad occasion. It was a period of racism and injustice in our country, and, as a federal officer, I was called upon to assist in the investigation. I had done some work in cases involving blacks struggling for a fair place in society.
Actually, I was part of a team examining and collecting evidence from the vehicle of James Earl Ray. I will always remember my role in carrying evidence collected in Atlanta back to the FBI crime laboratory in Washington, D.C.
The year was 1968, one of many years in the 1960s when my associates and I worked civil rights cases. We worked on the Lemuel Penn case in Athens during July 1964. You may recall when two shotgun blasts killed Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, a 48-year-old black officer. He had just completed Army Reserve Training in Georgia and was enroute back to his home in Washington, D.C. He died at the Broad River Bridge.
Members of the K.K.K. from Clarke County Klavern Number 244 proved to be principal suspects. Forever in my mind will be the words spoken by Klansman James Lackey as I wrote his confession, "I didn't think Sims and Myers had actually killed a man ... those sons of bitches killed that man."
Those were difficult days for many, including agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sometimes as we tried our best to do our duty, we were attacked from all sides. The bureau had only the jurisdiction given it under law and some expected more from us. The FBI was an investigative agency not able under law to exceed the scope of its authority to furnish guards and protection to Freedom Riders.
There were times when frustrated individuals threatened, cursed and spit upon agents accusing them of being against Southern traditions and states' rights. We walked the line and carried on with our work. We had a great many successes.
Back in those days, the K.K.K. considered itself a patriotic fraternal organization, peaceful and law abiding. It readily admitted it stood for segregation of the races and opposed interracial dating. It was against "mongrelization" of the white race. As it sought to protect those ideas, violence did occur. It was excused when the Klan said such acts were "isolated instances."
When federal officers intervened to protect civil rights, some local officials resented it, saying it was an erosion of local and states' rights. In many cases, evidence collected by federal officers was turned over to local authorities for prosecution. When no indictments were returned, or when local prosecution failed, as it did in the Penn case, suspects went to trial under the Civil Rights Act. The bureau gathered evidence and turned it over to the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors.
In the years since King's death, much good has taken place in this country. Today we look beyond segregation and K.K.K. hoods as we try to work together as Americans for economic betterment and for everyone to reach the promised land.
Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author, and law enforcement officer. His column appears each Sunday.