Courtesy of the FBI
Former FBI agent James Ingram.
Former FBI agent James Ingram. Courtesy of the FBI
If you riffled through the FBI's old files from the 1960s, you'd see that nearly all of the high-profile cases had one thing in common: an agent named James Ingram.
Ingram was the bureau's Zelig back then — the man who kept showing up at one historic moment after another.
Ingram lent a hand on the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He helped spearhead the bureau's effort to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. He was in Mississippi tracking a well-known segregationist when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. And then just four years ago, he was called out of retirement to help the bureau solve several cold cases involving civil rights.
Agent Ingram died this week, but he left behind a recording — his memories of working for the FBI — with the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. What he provides is a behind-the-scenes look at a country in turmoil.
When those shots that killed Kennedy rang out from the book depository in Dallas in 1963, Ingram was a freshly minted agent in New York, working on the Cuban Squad.
"New York became a focal point of investigations of the assassination of the president," Ingram told the agents' society in 2005, "because you had the Cuban angle, the Mexican angle, the Russian angle, and then of course everything arising out of Dallas."
Ingram chased conspiracy theories for months, ruling out that somehow Fidel Castro or the mob was behind Kennedy's assassination. And just as that investigation was winding down, Ingram got a new assignment that would take him to the front lines of the war for equality and civil rights in this country: He was transferred to the FBI's first office in the state of Mississippi.
What happened next was the stuff of the movies — specifically the movie Mississippi Burning.
A week after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared from Philadelphia, Miss., their station wagon was found burned about 13 miles from town. Ingram was there when suspects in the three murders were interviewed by the FBI.
A week after James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared from Philadelphia, Miss., their station wagon was found burned about 13 miles from town. Ingram was there when suspects in the three murders were interviewed by the FBI. Corbis
The year was 1964. The power of the Klan was raging in the South when three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — suddenly disappeared in Mississippi. They had gone there to investigate the burning of a black church, and then they simply vanished.
Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff in Philadelphia, Miss., was supposed to have been the last one to see the three men. He had apparently arrested them for speeding, held them in jail for about 10 hours and then let them go.
He held a press conference and only added to the mystery. "They got in the car and said they were going to Meridian, Miss.," Price drawled to the national press corps. "We followed them several blocks to make sure they did go that way. Last we saw them they were going down 19 South."
Hear a 2005 interview with FBI agent James Ingram, in which he shares his experiences on:
President Lyndon Johnson ordered an FBI investigation. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover flew to Mississippi and decided to open an office there. And Ingram was one of the new agents to staff it.
It wasn't until August that the bodies were discovered. The trio were buried together: two white men and a black civil rights worker, put in shallow graves near a dam just outside Philadelphia, Miss. The three men had been shot.
The arrests came in December, again leading the evening newscasts.
"Flanked by FBI men and quickly joined by their attorneys, the suspects were brought in in two groups," Edwin Newman reported for NBC News.
The first group brought in to talk to the FBI included the sheriff and Price. Both were still in uniform. They were released on bond and went back to work that same day.
Ingram was there.
"There's one thing about it," Ingram said in the recording. "Mr. Hoover knew that it was important. And he said, 'You will do whatever it takes to defeat the Klan, and you will do whatever it takes to bring law and order back to Mississippi.' "
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Ingram (right) escorts reputed Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards to the federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., in 2007. Edwards was the government's star witness in the trial of reputed fellow Klansman James Ford Seale, charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in the deadly attacks on two black teenagers in 1964.
Ingram (right) escorts reputed Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards to the federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., in 2007. Edwards was the government's star witness in the trial of reputed fellow Klansman James Ford Seale, charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in the deadly attacks on two black teenagers in 1964. Rogelio V. Solis/AP
The murder of the civil rights workers was known as the Mississippi Burning case, and it was at the heart of the FBI's effort to break the Klan. Over the next five years, Ingram and dozens of other agents found themselves tiptoeing through dry country fields to get the license plate numbers at Klan rallies, developing informants and investigating lynchings.
Ingram remembers one episode in which he and another agent named Jim Awe went to question a Klansman about the murder of a local NAACP leader. "As we walked into the yard, he yelled, 'Get out of my yard. I'm going to shoot both of you.' Well, Awe and I looked up, and here was this guy with his shotgun."
Both barrels were trained on Ingram. Awe's finger was on the trigger. Ingram was an agent known for his cool head, for his ability to always give a suspect a way to back away gracefully from a bad situation. So he looked the Klansman in the eye and told him that while he might be able to fire off a shot and shoot one of the agents, there was no way he'd be able to fell both of them without getting shot himself.
"Then Jim Awe moved over to the left, I moved over to the right," Ingram chuckled. The Klansman "could see that no way he could get the both of us."
The Klansman ended up lowering his gun. Ingram was able to question him.
Ingram was in Meridian, Miss., about a year later on the trail of a Klan leader named J.B. Stoner. Stoner was one of the loudest, angriest segregationists in the South. And the FBI was worried he might stir up some trouble to coincide with a march that Martin Luther King Jr. had planned in Memphis. It was April 4, 1968, and the agents following Stoner told Ingram, "All of the sudden, this crowd came out in Meridian and started dancing in the streets."
The celebration confused them — until they heard Walter Cronkite's tragic bulletin: "Dr. King was standing on the balcony of a second-floor hotel room tonight when, according to a companion, a shot was fired from across the street. He died a short time later."
Ingram was part of the team that investigated the King assassination. Not long after King's death, Ingram was given a routine transfer out of the Mississippi office. He begged to be assigned back to the South. But it never happened.
Instead, four years ago, the FBI called Ingram when it began reopening old files, including the Mississippi Burning case. In 2005, a jury convicted Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the Mississippi Burning murders. And two years later, James Ford Seale was convicted of murdering two black Mississippi teens in 1964.
Ingram died this week after a long battle with cancer. He was 77 years old.