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Birdia Keglar of Charleston, Mississippi. Lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in January 1966 after advocating for voting rights.By 1965 concerted efforts to break the grip of state disfranchisement had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had achieved no success at all.
The murder of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, gained national attention, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism.
Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on their way to Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators' resistance to allowing the African American vote.
President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings began soon thereafter on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act. On the dawn of its 40th Anniversary, Congress is preparing for the reauthorization of key provisions in the Voting Rights Act that will expire in 2007.
Margaret Block remembers going door to door in rural Charleston, Mississippi over forty years ago at the age of 17 and "right out of high school" to hand out voting rights pamphlets.
“People would see me coming and close their doors. They were really afraid. It was much worse than Greenwood,” Block said, referring to a town in the neighboring county where her civil rights activist brother Sam coordinated voting rights efforts among disenfranchised blacks.
“We were always competitive. When Sam said he was going to Greenwood, I decided I’d do him one better by going to Charleston, since it had a worse reputation. Now when I think about it, that was not a very good idea.”
Margaret Block had not been working for very long, in fact, when a Klansman tried to kill her with a knife in front of the county courthouse. “I was pulled away by a Justice Department agent. They usually didn’t protect us. But he did this time, and I remain grateful.”
Soon afterwards, a tiny Charleston woman saved Block’s life when Klansmen were “on their way into town” looking for her. This time Block’s protection quickly came from Birdia Keglar, Tallahatchie County’s first black to vote since the days of the state’s second Reconstruction, a short period of freedom for Mississippi’s African Americans following the Civil War.
“I was handing out voting pamphlets downtown and a man came running up to me and said I needed to go to Birdia’s office right away. She managed a funeral home and when I got there, Birdia sneaked me away in the back of a hearse. Someone had called Birdia and warned her that the Klan was on the way to get me.”
For several days Margaret Block hid out in a small cave outside of Charleston until Charlie Cobb and Ivanhoe Donaldson – both SNCC workers from Howard University – came to pick her up and take her to Greenwood and then to the Brewer’s farm near the tiny cotton hamlet of Glendora, also in Tallahatchie County. There, she kept working on voting rights in the rest of the county until leaving for Jackson and finally California in 1966.
BIRDIA BEATRICE CLARK KEGLAR, a small and courageous African American woman with dark piercing eyes, was well known in the Mississippi Delta [a northwestern region of Mississippi] for speaking out against racism, even when she was very afraid to do so.
Born June 1, 1908, in the hill country of rural Tallahatchie County, she grew up on land purchased by her mother’s early relatives after the Civil War. The land stayed in the family and this was a true source of pride. Family members picked their own cotton, grew their own vegetables, and raised their own livestock on this family plot.
“We never picked cotton for other people – just for our family. We had good food to eat, and we were fortunate,” said Robert Keglar, her son. Birdia was married young, and the marriage did not last. Her husband left home when Robert was five, so mom and grand-mom raised him, and W.T. Gray, his uncle, also played an important role in this family’s lives.
They were a family of achievers. Gray, a bright, self-taught teacher, often discussed civil rights at the dinner table. “And this was back in the 1930s,” Robert Keglar said, “when black children typically attended small country schools overseen by poorly educated teachers.”
The Gray family had a strong tradition of learning and teaching, a skill that Robert’s uncle passed on to him. Birdia Keglar went into business instead of teaching, managing a funeral home in Charleston.
Following another family tradition, she was an early civil rights advocate, not easy for any black person of those times, particularly in Tallahatchie County, one of the Delta’s strongholds for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the most violent of the Klan organizations.
While most of Mississippi’s Klan activity took place in Southern counties, this part of the hill country at the edge of the Delta boasted Klan members as well as neighboring Leflore, Sunflower, Quitman and other Delta counties. [A Klansman from Leflore County in 1963 killed Mississippi civil rights leader, Medgar Evers.]
Birdia Keglar’s fighting spirit frequently roused the attention of Sheriff Ellett R. Dogan, “notorious for his violence to Negroes.” One Charleston native, a close friend of Keglar’s and later the county’s NAACP president, described the late sheriff as a “paternalistic man, who sometimes acted like he cared” about Keglar and other black citizens.
“Dogan might put his arm around you and tell you not to worry, because there would always be a meal for you and a place to live. But you had to be a good Negro to get this kind of treatment from him,” Lucy Boyd said.
“When he was bad, he was very bad. And that was how it was most of the time in Charleston. I remember a time when I was younger and a black man accidentally bumped a white woman’s arm – just bumped her. This was on the sidewalk, and the woman’s husband beat the hell out of the black man. This was not unusual and Dogan wouldn’t have stopped it.”
Boyd, born Lucy Garvin on November 3, 1930, also in Tallahatchie County, became one of Keglar’s close friends, despite their age differences.
“Birdia would say that she was ‘supposed to do important things’ in her life – and she always was going out somewhere to do them.
“One day I heard her tell several others she was going ‘into the Delta’ to do something for civil rights – I don’t remember exactly what it was, except that she often went places with Amzie Moore over in Cleveland, a Mississippi Delta civil rights icon who was organizing blacks well before World War II.
“I had two dollars in my purse, and that was a lot of money. I handed it to Birdia and said ‘you are probably going to need this.’ I thought that I could at least give her something to get some food while she was out there working for the rest of us. I guess I was born to be involved. She was quite surprised. I don’t think anyone else had done this for her; it was the beginning of our long friendship.”
Birdia Keglar first became known by the state’s Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded organization formed in 1955 to fight integration and voting rights for blacks, because of her voting records. While the Commission maintained a formal headquarters and included various legislators and businessmen as board members, it also maintained a link to the Klan, very likely funding some of the Klan’s terrorism against Mississippi blacks who spoke or acted out.
Keglar first appeared on the Commission’s radar after investigator Tom Scarbrough visited Charleston on November 17, 1961 and then filed a report about “problems” brought on by Keglar, Gray, and S. N. Drake, all voting rights activists. Sent back to Charleston to gather details, the former FBI agent met with Sheriff Dogan, Circuit Clerk Tom Harris, and Judge George Payne Cossar who reported they had been summoned by the Federal Civil Rights “Department” [sic] to appear in Oxford, Mississippi’s Federal Court on December 13, a month away, over voting irregularities in Tallahatchie County.
“All three Negroes [Keglar, Gray and Drake] proffered charges against the two officials alleging they had refused to sell them a poll tax [stamp] and to register them to vote,” Scarbrough reported.
Keglar had tried to pay the required poll tax for ten years, but said she was refused each time by the Sheriff’s department, that no one would accept her money. Drake, a retired schoolteacher, made the same complaint, adding the excuse used by Clerk Harris in February 1960 was that all of the registration books were in Jackson, Mississippi.
Harris told Drake that he would let him know when the books were returned but Drake said the clerk never notified him, Scarbrough continued. At the time Drake tried to register to vote, “Birdie Kilger [sic] was with him in the clerk’s office.” Keglar’s cousin had also complained about voting rights; at one time, Gray brought Floyd Bodain, David Alford, and Robert Keglar into the Charleston Courthouse as witnesses, according to Sovereignty Commission files.
“All three Negroes charged that they were denied their rights as provided for in the Constitution of the United States. "[But] Mr. Tom Harris, the circuit clerk, said no Negroes have been in to try to register since the early part of 1960 and at that time, he said he did not have a registration blank. He said he was new on his present job and had not received his blank [form] to take applications to register anyone,” Scarbrough’s report stated.
“Since [Dogan] has been sheriff, no Negro ever requested to pay his poll tax to him. Therefore, he [Harris] said he could not have refused to sell a Negro a poll tax.” As it was, no Tallahatchie black had ever been allowed to register and vote [since Reconstruction], according to Scarbrough.
By the time the Sovereignty Commission agent arrived at the Charleston Courthouse for a second visit over the voter registration issue, those accused had lawyered up. Judge Cossar represented Chief Dogan and Dugan Shands, assistant state attorney general, was helping with both cases.
Cossar had also set up an appointment with State Rep. Walter Sillers (Mississippi’s long-time powerful and racist Speaker of the House) and the three men asked Scarborough to have “someone present from the Sovereignty Commission” at the Oxford hearing on December 13.
In his second report, Scarbrough stated that according to the sheriff, Gray and eight African Americans had testified before a “make believe” Civil Rights Commission hearing at a Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Close to 2,000 people, black and white, attended the special hearing that drew attention to voting problems faced by African Americans in the South.
The event, described by Scarbrough as an “embarrassment to Mississippi,” was sponsored by 16 civil rights organizations including the Southern Conference Educational Fund of New Orleans (SCEF), an organization often investigated and labeled “communist” by the state’s Sovereignty Commission.
In Washington, D.C. Gray testified he “tried in vain three times” to pay his poll tax and register, and that he and other Negroes were threatened with violence and loss of their jobs if they persisted.
“One night my family and I were in the car. We were intimidated for an hour and a half. After that, I received a letter from the county superintendent that my services [as a teacher] would not be required in the coming year.”
AT THE TRIAL IN OXFORD on December 14, 1961, Birdia Keglar and John Doar of the U. S. Justice Department were surprised to learn that she was “already listed” on the Tallahatchie County voters list, according to the county’s witnesses. The Associated Press (AP) reported:
Shands surprised Mrs. Birdia Keglar during cross-examination of the federal suit which charges that county officials discriminated against Negroes who wanted to vote by refusing to let them pay poll taxes. State attorneys on December 13 received a list from the federal government of prospective witnesses, including Mrs. Keglar.
John Doar, attorney for the Justice Department, said he was “sure Mrs. Keglar would pay her poll tax” because “she’s been trying for ten years.”
Government attorneys were expected to prove there had been a systematic exclusion of Negroes as voters since Sheriff Dogan took office, and at a preliminary hearing the week before, Judge Claude Clayton of Tupelo ordered the county’s officials to turn over all poll tax and voter registration records to government attorneys for inspection, the AP further reported.
It was not until three and-a-half years later, on June 23, 1964, when Victoria Gray, a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) member, sued to abolish the certificate of nonpayment of poll tax in order to vote in Mississippi and on October 20, 1964, the District Court granted a permanent injunction.
* * * *
“Two Killed In Highway Accident”
A two-car crash on U. S. 40 about five miles south of town accounted for the death of two Negro women Tuesday night. The Mississippi Highway Patrol said Birda [sic] Clark Kegler [sic], 57, of Charleston and Adlema Amlett [sic] of Scobey, were killed in the accident.
Admitted to the Greenwood Leflore Hospital for treatment of injuries were Brown Lee Bruce, Jr., of Sidon, who was alone in one of the automobiles, and Jesse J. Brewer and Grafton Gray, Negroes, and Richard L. Simpson 27, white, of Mass., occupants of the other car. No other details of the accident are available at this time, authorities said.
(From the Greenwood, Mississippi newspaper, January 1966)
* * * * *
The untimely deaths of Birdia Keglar and Adeline Hamlet officially resulted from an “auto accident,” even though no investigative reports exist – and most likely never existed. Still, many serious questions remain among family members, close friends, and several others who say they witnessed what took place.
Looking back to the fall of 1965, however, offers important clues: this was a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened hearings lasting from October 19 through February 1966 in Washington, D. C. on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, including Klansmen from Leflore County, where Keglar and Hamlet were killed.
Of all congressional committees, why had HUAC, known for its red-baiting and conservative nature, suddenly decided to investigate the Klan? Could this turnabout relate to Keglar’s death?
HUAC’s sudden shift occurred shortly after the Alabama shooting of a white Michigan volunteer who was shuttling demonstrators from Montgomery back to Selma. Viola Liuzzo, the mother of a five-year-old, was killed by a volley of bullets fired from a passing car.
President Johnson had taken an intense interest in the murder and within 24 hours of her death, with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at his side, Johnson announced the arrest of four suspects, all members of the Ku Klux Klan.
At the time, Johnson praised the FBI for their efficient work and then urged Congress to mount a full-scale investigation of Klan activities; immediately HUAC accepted this task. But Johnson did not explain that the crime was solved so quickly because one of the arrested Klansmen, Gary Rowe, was also a paid FBI informer.
Edwin E. Willis, the House subcommittee chair, released a statement on November 9, 1965, outlining overall findings, once hearings had gone on for twelve days with testimony from 52 witnesses:
There were “about a dozen different Klan organizations operating [at that time]” with “considerably greater” strength than was estimated. Instead of a total Klan membership of 10,000, the committee now estimated “four to five times that number.”
According to the HUAC report, Klans were making “extensive use of innocent-sounding cover or front names – such as civic, improvement or rescue societies and hunting, fishing or sportsmen’s clubs – to conceal the existence of their Klaverns and bank accounts.”
Further, “Klan members and officers speak about burning schools which integrate and setting off intense fires in automobiles and department stores."
Secret Klan organizations known by such names as the Vigilantes or Black Knights, the Underground, and the White Band had been formed by Klan members for carrying out acts of violence and terrorism, according to HUAC’s report.
Willis and his committee also learned of a “small minority of law enforcement officers who were Klan members,” an important key in examining Keglar and Hamlet’s deaths.
As the HUAC hearings turned to the specific testimony of Mississippi’s Klansmen, three deaths of civil rights activists transpired in the first two weeks of January 1966.
The first killing received international coverage while the other two murders of Keglar and Hamlet barely made state news. (Even today, numerous “old” Delta murders remain unexamined as the more heavily reported incidents, particularly in and near Jackson, are being given a second look by the media and law enforcement.)
Vernon Dahmer, 58, was fatally injured in a night riders firebomb attack on his Hattiesburg home the night of January 11, one day before Keglar’s death, after leading a voter registration drive. Dahmer’s store and home were both destroyed because he had allowed blacks to pay in his store the $2 poll tax necessary for voting.
The past president of the Hattiesburg NAACP, Dahmer, died of shock from burns the next afternoon; his respiratory tract seared from inhaling so much fire and smoke.
Dahmer’s wife and 10-year-old daughter were also burned; the child was hospitalized in fair condition. Members of NAACP, SNCC and others attending a meeting in Edwards, in the outskirts of Jackson, quickly took off in the early morning hours for Hattiesburg after hearing the news. But no one left for Charleston.
Three deaths in Leflore County
In the early evening hours of January 12, 1966, as they returned home from a special meeting with Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Jackson, the two civil rights activists from Tallahatchie County were killed and four other passengers injured, two seriously, after their car left the road near the small town of Sidon, south of Greenwood in Leflore County.
Birdia Keglar, 56, was found decapitated and both of Adeline Hamlet’s arms had been “cleanly” severed from her body, confirm two Keglar family members, a close friend, and a Tallahatchie County minister. Hamlett was 78-years-old when she was killed and mutiliated.
Months earlier, both women were hanged in effigy by local Klansmen and warned not to participate in further voting rights activities. Each had testified before a congressional hearing in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Keglar and the others were coming back home this time from a subcommittee meeting on discrimination and poverty in the Delta headed by Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Several times before, Klansmen had tried to force Grafton Gray off the road; Klansmen running blacks off the road was not an unusual event to take place in the Delta. Stories abound of such incidents, Chism and others confirmed.
Gray’s surviving second wife said that she was married after the accident “… and he would not tell me anything about it, nothing at all. I could tell that he was still afraid to talk. He had told me about other times Klansmen tried to run him off the road, but he would say nothing about this accident. It affected him greatly.”
Robert Keglar could not shake out details of his mother’s death from Gray, the county sheriff or any public officials, as well. A highway patrol officer threatened him to stay away from the accident site, he said, but Keglar sneaked out to Sidon to look around anyway and talked to people living near the site of the wreck.
Richard L. Simpson, 27, of Massachusetts, a white SNCC volunteer who was reported as seriously injured, was not allowed any black visitors in the Greenwood hospital, Robert Keglar said. “We tried to visit him to find out what happened, but the hospital did not treat black people and would not let us into the hospital.
"They were very rude and would not even tell us if he was okay. I don’t know what ever happened to him,” Keglar said. Simpson had worked on voting rights in Belzoni, a Delta town south of Tallahatchie County.
Chism believes that Simpson, “if he survived, was probably taken out of Mississippi and sent home as soon as possible. That would have been the only way to keep him safe.” Grafton Gray, Birdia Keglar’s cousin who was the driver, was also injured seriously and taken to the Mound Bayou hospital, said Gwen Dailey, Grafton Gray’s great-niece.
Gray suffered emotionally afterwards and “was never the same,” she said. Dailey could tell that her father was suspicious of what happened to his brother and to the others who were injured or killed:
"My great-uncle was already a quiet man. He received under-handed threats while in the hospital to keep quiet about ‘what happened,’ my father learned.
"Employees and visitors would come into his room and tell him to ‘be careful,’ but not in a caring way. When he came home, the threats continued.
"He would go out into the fields by his house and stand, gazing away. He rarely talked. Even my own father became far more cautious with his own children, and he watched Uncle Grafton like a hawk. Mr. Brewer was injured too, and he was never the same. His reaction was the same as my great-uncle."
Three months later in April, Birdia Keglar’s son, James Eddie “Sonny Boy” Keglar, died unconscious in a suspicious fire in his home.
James had been trying to learn what happened to his mother, said Alma Chism of Memphis, James’s daughter and Birdia Keglar’s granddaughter.
“My father, James Keglar, was hit on the head before the fire was started,” said Chism. “I know his death was not an accident.”
Nearly forty years later, she joined with relatives and friends to aid in piecing together this story as they continued trying to learn what happened the night as Keglar and others were returning home.
“I know that Sonny Boy was trying to get answers and had even gone to Washington, D.C. about my grandmother’s murder. But I never knew who he talked to in Washington. It might have been someone in the Justice Department.
"I just don’t know. We all knew they had been murdered. Nothing indicated to us that Birdia’s death, and Adeline’s death, were due to an auto accident.”
James Keglar, 38, was typically a quiet person, both Chism and his brother Robert Keglar said. “My grandmother’s death really changed James. He became very angry and outspoken, and he wanted to know who did this to his mother.
"He had just come home from the military service and stayed in Charleston while I worked on this from Memphis, where I lived with my family,” Mrs. Chism said.
When Chism attended her grandmother’s funeral in Charleston, she also visited the site of the car wreck to gather information. “I talked to some people who lived in Sidon and learned the other car came straight at them, crossing over the line.
"The other driver was not hurt. It was obvious to me – and to the witnesses – they had been run off the road.”
“James was a lot like my dad,” Keglar said of his brother who had left the military and returned home upon his mother’s death. “He would drink too much. But he never committed any crimes.”
The weekend of James Keglar’s death, James had called his brother from jail after being arrested for car theft – “something he would never do,” Robert Keglar said. “I could tell that he was scared.” James asked Robert to call the FBI in Clarksdale, “… and I did, but no investigators came to see him,” Robert Keglar said.
“James got out of jail and went straight on to a house party. Early that Sunday morning at about 6 a.m., the police came to my house and said that James was dead.
"They would not tell me what happened to him. Later, I was told by others that ‘a hired killer’ had murdered him. I know that he had been hit on the head and a fire was started that burned down his house. He died in the fire.”
BIRDIA KEGLAR WAS anticipating the Jackson meeting that was supposed to be kept a secret, according to Gwen Daily, Keglar’s great niece.
“Senator Robert Kennedy’s committee was coming to Jackson to meet with a small group of people who had met with him before. They were not to tell anyone about this meeting, but Birdia, I’m afraid, may have let it slip out.
“She was excited about the meeting and would come over to our house with different suits and dresses on, asking which she should wear. The fact of the meeting and the route they took somehow got out and the Klan knew where to find them. Birdia had passed some notes about times and routes to people she thought she could trust.”
The Tallahatchie and Leflore county sheriff’s departments and the state highway patrol could not provide reports or further information when asked about this accident in 2004.
Leflore county deputies, responding to a Freedom of Information Act or FOIA request refused to look for records, stating “they don’t exist.”
A spokesperson for the state's department of safety maintained – “It’s been too long ago for any records to exist now.” He did ask a clerk to search, but nothing was reported found. Brown Lee Bruce, Jr., the reported driver of the second car, was not injured, Chism learned during her investigations. “I’m sure his family could put on all kinds of pressure to keep anything from happening to him.”
(Bruce died in 2003. A relative claimed he suffered traumatic brain injuries from the 1966 accident, but Hamlett's granddaughter said that several relatives spoke to Bruce in the hospital, trying to learn more about what took place. "He was rude and unwilling to help. But he knew exactly what we were talking about," she said.)
REV. EDWIN KING, an active civil rights leader from Tougaloo College of Jackson was in Hattiesburg when Keglar and Hamlett were killed, having attended a SNCC meeting in Edwards the day before.
King left for Hattiesburg upon hearing about Vernon Dahmer’s incident. He remembers hearing much later of Keglar’s car accident, but no further information was given.
“We all assumed it was a car accident,” he said years later. No one from outside of the Delta came to Keglar’s funeral that Lucy Boyd could recall. “This really hurt. We needed them in the worst way.
"This was the ‘Free State of Tallahatchie’ and it was a terribly frightening place to be. None of us, even Birdia’s son, could dig around, and find out what really happened without taking a risk we would be killed. We could have used some outside help.”
“We were not allowed to see the car – a 1965 Plymouth Fury II – and we were too afraid to push the matter. No one ever returned the brief case that held all of Birdia’s records. Somehow, it disappeared along with the car.
"The rumor was that deputies or patrolmen pulled the car away." Boyd said she remembered hearing – "and I don’t remember where this came from – that a patrolman had shined a flashlight in the faces of their victims when they were inside the car, and said ‘These are the sons of bitches we’re looking for.’"
* * * * *Birdia was brave, but she also lived in fear of the sheriff and others after she won her voter registration rights in 1961. That made the sheriff and the others really angry with her – more than ever.
Rev. Willie Blue
Charles Sudduth, a native Mississippian who has studied and written about Klan murders, confirmed that decapitation and "cleanly severed arms" indicate strong evidence of the Klan’s involvement in the deaths of Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett.
“Klansmen were different in their murders than others. They weren’t afraid of the law, since many lawmen were Klansmen. They didn’t run away from the crime scene but felt comfortable in staying around for a while. They also were known for torture and for mutilating the body.”
Rev. Willie Blue, a SNCC member who worked in the Greenwood SNCC office and knew Keglar well, said that he never believed her death was an accident, but that Keglar “had to have been murdered.”
“Birdia was brave, but she also lived in fear of the sheriff and others after she won her voter registration rights in 1961. That made the sheriff and the others really angry with her – more than ever.”
The Charleston minister tells how he once scared Keglar when she was at work.
“I was driving to Charleston and outside of town a car with Klansmen started following me. I was scared but I drove on into Charleston and to Birdia’s office at the funeral home.
"When I walked in and told her what happened, she was terrified and asked me why I had come there. She was afraid I had led a trail to her.”
Blue also confirmed that Keglar was found decapitated.
“We all knew this was no accident. She was in the front seat with Grafton driving, and he was injured but not killed. Everyone around here knew that Birdia was murdered but they would not talk about it.
"They were all fearful of what could happen to them and their families. There were no police or deputies who would have taken this seriously, anyway – that she was murdered by the Klan.”
Klan shootings and murders were not unusual in Tallahatchie and Leflore counties, said Blue, “in fact they had picked up in the last two years, from 1964 to 1966.”
He recalled an earlier shooting that took place in Greenwood “right in front of me” when three Klansmen drove up where he and Silas McGhee, also a SNC volunteer, were working outside of the Greenwood SNCC office.
“It was raining and we were waiting for it to stop. A car came up with three men, one of them was Byron de la Beckwith [the convicted murderer of Medgar Evers] – he was still running loose. They shot McGhee, right out in the open.
"But no one was going to listen to us, especially the sheriff.” McGee was injured but not killed in the accident. Robert Keglar was kept away from the accident scene but slipped away to the small town later that night to try to learn what happened to his mother.
“All I saw were some people there [in Sidon] talking about the wreck. It was near a bridge and they were saying that something didn’t look right.”
Don Whitten, Tallahatchie County Prosecutor, visited Birdia’s son at home that night. “He asked me permission for something, I just don’t remember what. But he asked me to sign a paper and I did.”
Keglar says that he never collected the life insurance his mother carried. “The company would not pay me, and they would never say why.”
The Charleston man has continued seeking information about his mother’s death. In 2004, he helped deliver FOIAs to sheriffs in Tallahatchie and Leflore counties and later wondered if that was a good idea.
“I was visiting friends a few months later. When I came home, a friend who was house-sitting asked if I knew a short man and a tall man who drove a pickup truck.
"They came to the door while I was gone and asked to see me. They wouldn’t leave their names or a card. I don’t think it was the FBI.”
SEVERAL INCIDENTS surrounding these deaths provide context in searching for what happend (and why) to Keglar and Hamlet.
•In the same week that Vernon Dahmer, Birdia Keglar and Adeline Hamlet were killed, the Ku Klux Klan was under intensive investigation by the House Committee on Un-American activities or HUAC. The hearings opened at the end of 1965 and continued into the first months of 1966. As Klan representatives from around the country testified, there were planned cross burnings, lynching, bombings and other activities taking place in each of their regions at the same time their members appeared before HUAC.
•The Mississippi Klan group was scheduled to appear before HUAC on January 13, 1966, the day after Dahmer’s death and the Sidon incident. The United Klans of America dramatized its presence in Mississippi by burning over a hundred crosses throughout the state “less than two weeks after Christmas” in protest against HUAC’s resumption of hearings on the Klan.
•The Ku Klux Klan had increased activities in the Delta from 1964 to 1966, including the Hills region around Charleston and Greenwood, state several observers of the region. Klansman and longtime Citizen’s Council member, Byron de la Beckwith of Greenwood, who earlier murdered Medgar Evers, became a White Knight Kleagle or recruiter in August of 1965, and later joined the United Klans of America.
Beckwith appeared before HUAC in January of 1966, as did Gordon Lackey of Greenwood, who earlier helped write the 40-page constitution of the White Knights, the state’s most secret Klan organization. John Winstead and Wesley Kersey, also of Greenwood, were active Klan members according to HUAC reports.
Several residents of nearby Winona, Greenville, and Yazoo City were also listed as members of their respective Klaverns, according to an Associated Press reporter covering the hearings; hence, Klan activity in Mississippi was not limited to the Southern counties as it was (and is) so often reported.
•A story filed by the Associated Press appearing in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on October 31, 1965, about ten weeks before the Sidon car wreck, stated that FBI and Mississippi officers obtained in advance of the HUAC hearings, a “top-secret document” of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, “including a virtual guerilla warfare order.”
The document, a three-page report, was actually an executive order of the secretive White Knights and gave details about harassment of enemies, deception of the public, and instructions for burying firearms and ammunition in case of a “crack-down.” The report named Klan members in both Tallahatchie and Leflore counties, including around Greenwood and Charleston. Klan members were also reported residing in Yazoo City, Shaw, and Greenville.
•Two months before the Sidon car wreck, a Klan leaflet was distributed throughout the small cotton town “around November 18 ,” telling white people to get registered in order to “combat communists and liberals.” The pamphlet, described in Sovereignty Commission files, also stated that Gov. Johnson and Senator Eastland were “too liberal” and should be voted out of office. The leaflet named 15 “liberals” and civil rights leaders including a local white man who served as a federal registrar.
Also named were Mrs. Laura McGhee and sons Jake and Silas, Mr. Dewey Green, and known activist and union organizer Liz Fusco. Sidon had already been targeted that fall by the Klan as one of several small havens for Klansmen to settle into, according to related Sovereignty Commission reports.
•Finally, on the same day that Dahmer, Birdia Keglar and Adeline Hamlet were killed, J. Edgar Hoover for the first time ever visited the FBI’s new Mississippi headquarters in Jackson for the grand opening. He was in Mississippi the day before the state’s Klansmen were to testify in Washington, D. C. MARGARET BLOCK, SNCC volunteer and friend of Birdia Keglar, learned of Keglar's death several months after moving to California.
“I remember thinking right then she was probably murdered. She was a smart woman, a good strategist who usually knew if there was impending danger,” Block said.
Block had moved to the west coast, fearing her own life was in danger, and went on to graduate from San Francisco State University and the Pacific Union College in education to become a master teacher in San Francisco.
She returned to the Delta after 22 years where she often teaches black history to children and adults, drawing upon her own experiences, including her time spent in Tallahatchie County.
“You know, I probably would have been in that car with Birdia and Adlena that day if I had not been in California,” Block said.
* * * * *
("Dying to Vote in Mississippi, Parts I, II and III Copyright 2005 are excerpted from "Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited
," by Susan Klopfer. See http://themiddleoftheinternet.com)
Susan Klopfer, journalist and author, writes on civil rights in Mississippi. Her newest books, "Where Rebels Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited" and "The Emmett Till Book" are now in print. "Where Rebels Roost" focuses on the Delta, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore and many other civil rights foot soldiers. Klopfer's emphasis is on unsolved murders of Delta blacks from mid 1950s on. Her website
address is http://www.themiddleoftheinternet.com.
Once the 1955 J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant trial ended in Sumner, Mississippi for the murder of Emmett Till, less than a month later in the nearby small cotton town of Glendora, a black service station attendant and father of four children was killed by a friend of Milam’s.
Elmer Kimball murdered Clinton Melton and then nineteen days later, Melton’s young wife was killed, only a week before Kimball’s murder trial opened.
Clinton Melton was murdered four miles from where Emmett Till’s body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River earlier in August. Kimball had lived in Glendora for a short time, managing a local cotton gin, and had an account at the gas station where Melton worked.
On the day of the murder, Kimball, 35, was driving a car borrowed from his friend, J.W. Milam, one of the two men accused and acquitted of killing Till, when he drove to the gas station and asked for a fill-up. Melton’s daughter, Deloris Melton Gresham, was a toddler when her parents were killed, but she later was told what occurred at the service station:
"When Kimball drove up to the station, my father’s boss told my father to go out and fill up his car. But when he was done filling the car, Kimball went into a rage and said he only wanted a dollar’s worth of gas, and that he was going to go home and get his gun to shoot him. The gas station owner tried to talk him down, but couldn’t. He told him my father was a good negro and that he did not deserve to be hurt. He really pleaded with Kimball."
As soon as Kimball left, his boss told him that he had better leave, fast. But his car was out of gas and he had to fill it first. Kimball came right back and began shooting at my father. Another man was in his car with him, and yelled for him not to shoot. He jumped out of the car and ran into the station to hide. On arrest, Kimball claimed Melton shot at him first. McGarrh [the white owner of the gas station] denied this, adding that Melton did not have a gun at any time during the quarrel. A bullet hole was found in the windshield of Melton's parked car.
An angry Southern newspaper publisher, Hodding Carter, reacted to the murder of one of “Mississippi’s own,” comparing it to the Till case in a Delta-Times editorial:
[Melton] was no out-of-state smart alec. He was home-grown and “highly respected.”.... There was no question of an insult to Southern womanhood. There was only an argument about … gasoline. There was no pressure by the NAACP, “credited” with the outcome of the Till trial.... So another “not guilty” verdict was written at Sumner this week. And it served to cement the opinion of the world that no matter how strong the evidence, nor how flagrant is the apparent crime, a white man cannot be convicted in Mississippi for killing a negro.
LITTLE ATTENTION was given to the death of Gresham’s mother that occurred on or around December 21, 1955, approximately nineteen days after Clinton Melton was killed on December 3. Officially, her mother’s death was blamed on faulty driving. “Later, a relative told me that was not true, that everyone knew she was run off the road,” Gresham said.
Gresham, a toddler at the time, recalled being trapped inside her mother’s car as it sank to the bottom of a murky bayou near Glendora. A relative driving by saved her life and that of her baby brother. But Beulah Melton drowned.
“My mother was a pretty woman, known for being bright and outspoken,” Gresham said. “People who knew her have told me we are very much alike – both in looks and in personality.”
Beulah Melton had been picking up information on her husband’s death and would have been a “problem” for Kimball at the trial, Gresham said.
From news accounts and the talk around Glendora, there was no provocation of her father’s killing. It was outright murder, according to white witnesses, including the white service station owner. The Melton family was well known in Glendora. Clinton Melton had lived there all his life and, “for once, white people spoke out against the killing of a negro. The local Lions Club adopted a resolution branding the murder ‘an outrage’ [and pledging to donate $400 to the family],” Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, later wrote.
Melton’s widow told Medgar Evers she feared justice would not be done if the NAACP interested itself in the case, and asked him not to become involved. “Her wishes were respected.”
In a later investigation after her death, Medgar Evers discovered the club had given the widow only twenty-six dollars and that a local white minister had given her sixty dollars of his own.
Relatives took in Delores Melton Gresham and her siblings, and Gresham continued to live in Glendora with her grandmother. “My grandfather was so upset, he left Glendora and never came back.”
Unlike some earlier Mississippi white on black murders, Kimball was charged for the murder and although not convicted, spent some time in jail:
Kimball Loses Bid for Freedom on Bond
Sumner, Miss. (AP) –December 28, 1955 – Elmer Kimball today lost his bid for freedom on bond while awaiting grand jury action on a charge of murdering a Negro man.
Three justices of the peace held a preliminary hearing for the white gin operator and refused bond. Officers returned Kimball to jail to await action of the grand jury which meets next March. The hearing was held in the little courthouse where the sensational Emmett Till trial was held. Bond usually is refused in cases where a person is accused of a crime which carries a possible death sentence upon conviction.
Kimball is charged with murder in the shotgun slaying of Clinton Melton, Negro service station attendant at nearby Glendora and father of four children. The accused man testified he fired in self-defense after someone shot at him three times. Kimball said he didn’t know who fired until he returned the fire and killed Melton.
Lee McGarrh, Melton’s employer, testified that Kimball fired without provocation, and Melton was unarmed. He said Kimball became angry at the Negro during an argument over gasoline for Kimball’s car. McGarrh said Kimball declared he was going home for his gun and [sic] kill Melton.
ONE WIRE SERVICE sent a staff member to cover the Kimball trial, and the only Mississippi newspaper that sent a staffer was Carter’s Greenville Delta Democrat-Times. Reporter David Halberstam remained in Mississippi after the Milam-Bryant trial and wrote as a freelancer.
This time cameras were barred, not only from the courtroom but also from the entire courthouse property, and no press table was set up. The sentiment [for conviction] was particularly strong in the Glendora community where Kimball shot Melton and where both the deceased and the defendant were well known, according to Halberstam: “Elsewhere in Talahatchie County, of course, it tended to become the usual matter of a white man and a black man."
Defining “Good” and “Bad”
Halberstam assessed the environment before the trial got started:
"A friend of mine divides the white population of Mississippi into two categories. The first and largest contains the good people of Mississippi, as they are affectionately called by editorial writers, politicians, and themselves. The other group is a smaller but in many ways more conspicuous faction called the peckerwoods.
"The good people will generally agree that the peckerwoods are troublemakers, and indeed several good people have told me they joined the Citizens Councils because otherwise the peckerwoods would take over the situation entirely. It is the good people who will tell you that their town has enjoyed racial harmony for many years, while it is the peckerwoods who may confide that they know how to keep the niggers in their place; it is the good people who say and mean, “We love our nigras,” and it is the peckerwoods who say and mean, “If any big buck gets in my way it’ll be too damn bad.”
"But while the good people would not act with the rashness of and are not governed by the hatred of the peckerwood, they are reluctant to apply society’s normal remedies to the peckerwood. Thus it is the peckerwoods who kill Negroes and the good people who acquit the peckerwoods..."
DESPITE HIS PLEAS of self-defense, Kimball was denied bond in two preliminary hearings. The biggest problem at the trial facing District Attorney Roy Johnson and County Attorney Hamilton Caldwell, according to Halberstam, was swearing in fair and impartial jurors [from] a group “sworn by birthright to protecting the interest and life of the white.”
The state had produced three witnesses.
First was McGarrh, “a stern little man who was a member of one of Glendora’s most respected families.” McGarrh, Halberstam wrote, stuck to the same story he had told at the earlier hearings.
“He said he saw Kimball shoot the unarmed Melton. He went unshaken under cross examination. The only weakness in his story is that although Kimball had given prior warning of his intention McGarrh stayed inside the station with his shot gun.’
The next witness was John Henry Wilson, “a Negro in whom Kimball said he had a great deal of confidence. Wilson did not witness the shooting, but he damaged the self defense theory. He was standing outside the station when Kimball returned with a gun. He asked Kimball what he was going to do."I’m going to kill that nigger,” Kimball said.
“Please, sir, don’t shoot that boy. He ain’t done nothing to you,” Wilson said.
“Get back or I’ll kill you too,” said Kimball. Wilson ran to the back of the station.”
The last witness for the state, George Woodson, testified that he was staning about ten feet away from the scene and saw Kimball walk around the side of the station with a gun, and that he did not see any gun in Melton’s hand.
"The defense lacked eye witnesses and thus tried to shake the testimony of the state’s witnesses. Its witnesses came up with only minor points," according to Halberstam.
“But more significant than their testimony were their positions—a sheriff, a deputy sheriff, and a chief of police.”
Apparently Kimball did the most damage to himself when he got on the stand, as Halberstam told it:
"[He] got up there before those twelve Mississippians and told them a story about his relations with Melton that flatly contradicts all the Mississippi mores…. Kimball said he went inside and told McGarrh that Clinton was getting pretty nasty and asked him to total up his account and he’d be back and settle up; when he returned a few minutes later someone started firing at him, hit him, and he went back to his car and got his shot gun.
"Kimball’s story would be hard for any jury to believe, because they would know…. “[You] cannot provoke a Negro attendant to talk like that no matter how much you irritate him, particularly a trusted Negro such as Clinton Melton.”
"The jury also knew that “no white peckerwood gin manager, the best friend of J. W. Milam, would let a Negro talk like that without doing a little whupping right there on the spot.”
AFTER FOUR AND one-half hours, the jurors walked in and announced their decision to acquit:Sumner, Miss. (AP) – Elmer Otis Kimball was acquitted of murder late yesterday in the shotgun slaying of a 33-year-old Negro. “I wasn’t sure justice would be done,” said the 35-year-old white Glendora cotton gin operator, “but I should have known.” A 12-man, all-white jury, made up mostly of farmers, deliberated more than four hours before freeing Kimball.
Two witnesses testified they saw Kimball blast Clinton Melton three times with a shotgun December 3 at a Glendora service station. Witnesses said the shooting was an aftermath of an argument between Kimball and Melton over gasoline to be put into Kimball’s car. Kimball testified that Melton cursed him during the argument. Defense Atty. J. W. Kellum said Kimball fired the fatal shots in self-defense. Kimball said three shots were fired at him before he opened fire, one wounding him in the shoulder. He showed a scar and brought in a doctor who verified the gunshot wound.
But neither Lee McGarrh, white owner of the service station, not George Woodson, Negro, who said he witnessed the slaying, said they saw or heard Melton fire. No weapon was found on Melton’s body or in his car. The trial took place in the same courtroom where half-brothers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were found innocent six months ago of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, Chicago Negro. Kellum was one of five defense attorneys in the Till case.
Times were now more dangerous for Mississippi’s African Americans. One white Glendora resident, asked by a reporter for his opinion of both the Till and Melton murders told him “There’s open season on the Negroes now. They’ve got no protection, and any peckerwood who wants can go out and shoot himself one.”
Clinton and Beulah Melton’s daughter never moved from the Delta. She keeps a picture of her mother who looks like she could be her twin. While she has never owned a picture of her father, Gresham said she would have liked to know him better and continues to question what happened to her mother on that frightening day.
Yet her story had a happy note. In 2003, Keith Beauchamp, a New York filmmaker, discovered a copy of an old newsreel showing the story of Clinton Melton’s murder. Beauchamp incorporated the reel into a documentary on Emmett Till, and made sure that Gresham had a copy for her family. The following year, the documentary was shown on a Chicago television station, resulting quite by chance in one of Gresham’s brothers discovering his sister. A family reunion took place that summer.
“It was joyous,” Delores Gresham said. “We talk to each other on the phone several times a week, and I’m meeting other relatives through my brother.”
(An excerpt from "Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited
," by Susan Klopfer. Copyright 2005 Susan Klopfer.)