Retired FBI agent recalls civil rights era
10th September 2012 · 0 Comments
By Patsy R. Brumfield
(Special to AP from Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal) — John Castles looks back on his nearly 29-year FBI career to some of the most change-fraught days in 20th-century America.
In late 1964, Castles opened Tupelo’s FBI office as violence swirled through Mississippi against the civil rights movement.
Today, that office sits closed, for all practical purposes, the victim of governmental downsizing and more peaceful times.
Violence grabbed national and international headlines with the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, church bombings in southwest Mississippi and attacks against change throughout the state.
Castles, a native of the Sessums community in Oktibbeha County, recalled those days and his adventures with the fabled agency.
“I told my wife, Betty, we’re on our way to Tupelo,” he said. “She said, ‘Where is that?”
Not long after they moved in, Castles got a call to pick up a colleague in Oxford and head to Jackson, where a Jewish synagogue had just been bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
History credits the Jewish community’s payments for Mississippi FBI payments to confidential informants with breaking the back of the Klan.
“These were exciting times, no doubt,” the silver-haired grandfather of six remembers.
“No FBI man was worth anything without his informants, and we paid for a lot of information _ it was the only way to get it.
“It’s amazing how people will betray their best friends for money.”
Castles said north Mississippi’s Klan activity paled in comparison with the rest of the state, but he had his own run-ins with local KKK, enough to bring a flaming cross to his front yard in late 1967.
FBI scrutiny often focused on then-Tupelo businessman Dale Walton and his Knights of the Green Forest, which Castle says Walton named for famed Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Castles remembers surveillance at Klan rallies, an intended church-burning at Michigan City in Benton County and the arson of a Tupelo home serving as the office of the Congress of Federated Organizations (COFO).
He also recalls his assignment to Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Memphis to Jackson and a speech by the fiery orator at Sardis Lake.
“He could really arouse the folks,” Castles said.
Castles’ timely advice also thwarted Walton’s plan apparently to disrupt the march at Grenada.
“We were on Highway 51, watching the march, when the Mississippi Highway Patrol said they’d seen a van with four rebel flags on it coming toward us,” Castles said.
“I knew it was Dale Walton and he wanted a confrontation, so I told them not to stop him, just let him go.”
They did, and nothing came from it.
Later, a more dangerous situation presented itself when Castles said an informant told him Walton was on the way to Fayette possibly to harm Mayor Charles Evers, the brother of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers.
Castles said he notified the Jackson FBI, which contacted Natchez Trace Parkway authorities, who stopped Walton on a gun violation.
Walton, he said, was very proud to be in the Klan but lost all his money supporting the cause and died a pauper in Itawamba County.
He credits Tupelo’s leadership, especially newspaper owner George McLean, with successfully discouraging civil rights-related “trouble” here.
In the succeeding years until his November 1976 retirement, Castles said he did a lot of public relations speaking for The Bureau and investigated bank robberies, bank burglaries, stolen car cases and bank frauds.
This article was originally published in the September 10, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper