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'The Last Editor': The Klan, Mr. Hoover and me

'The Last Editor': The Klan, Mr. Hoover and me

"The Last Editor"
By Jim Bellows
Andrews McMeel Publishing
383 pages

Jim Bellows' career in journalism spanned six decades and took him to newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet. His wry and insightful comments can be found in his new book, "The Last Editor," published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.

This first part of a four-part series excerpted from the book recounts Bellows' encounter with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in the late 1940s.


Born in Detroit, I grew up in the Midwest. I was the runt of the litter, short, shy and insecure. At South Kent School in Connecticut I was the only senior to ever win the Junior Athlete Award. My years at Kenyon College were interrupted when I enlisted in the Naval Air Corps and flew Hellcats off carrier decks during World War II.

When I returned to graduate, my philosophy professor, a frustrated journalist, suggested I try newspapering with an ad in Editor & Publisher. It worked. A bus took me to Columbus, Georgia. As the greenest of cubs at the Columbus Ledger, I got a tip on a story that won me national coverage and a bulging FBI file. It also got me a manhandling by the Ku Klux Klan. Here's how it started:

J. Edgar Hoover reports Bellows' case to the Attorney General 
Time reports on 'Nightmare on Pine Mountain' 
Bellows' version of mistreatment by Klansmen 
  Day 1:  The Klan, Mr. Hoover and me

  Day 2:  Tom Wolfe and The New Yorker

  Day 3:  Ben Bradlee and 'The Ear'

I had been hired in 1947. It was my first newspaper job. I had spent my time covering Rotary meetings, Kiwanis luncheons and auto accidents. An intelligence officer from Fort Benning, the Army base across the river, had his office in town, and that office was on my beat. One day he gave me the tip -- what every young reporter looks for, dreams of, especially a troublemaker like me!

I rounded up a couple of other young staffers -- Carl Johnson, another cub reporter, and Joe Talbot, a staff photographer. Of course I probably should have told the city editor, or the managing editor, or somebody in authority where we were going. But the Army officer had urged secrecy. This was my story and I wanted to cover it.

That evening found the passionate cub reporter in a car parked down the street from the old wooden church where the Klansmen were to assemble. Carl, Joe and I watched the Klansmen arrive in twos and threes and huddle outside the church. "Parson Jack" Johnson was the Baptist minister who welcomed his brood. When the crowd had reached a critical mass, the Klansmen boarded three hulking buses that waited in the shadows and the buses lumbered off down the street. Parson Jack was leading his flock to the mountain.

We followed at a discreet distance. It was a 30-mile drive to the top of Pine Mountain. When the buses reached the crest and disgorged their passengers, we remained out of sight. We found a ditch that was deep enough, and banked high enough, to let us stand almost erect without being seen a short distance away. I estimated there were about a hundred men in white robes and hoods. They were taking some unrobed men into a tarpaper shack. It must have been an initiation, for when they came out, they all wore white. Then the Klansmen gathered around a huge cross and someone threw a match. The cross roared into flame.

"This place looks like hell," whispered Carl Johnson.

"That's exactly what it looks like," I said.

The wind was whipping the orange flames at the sky.


Standing before the hooded men was the Grand Dragon himself in his emerald robes. He was an Atlanta doctor named Samuel Green who was striving to revive the Klan across the South.

We were about two hundred feet from the flaming cross. I signaled Joe Talbot to take some pictures. He risked his head above the ditch and snapped off a couple of shots. One of the Klansmen spotted him and gave the alarm. They surrounded us, grabbed us, smashed Joe's camera and stomped on the film. We were suddenly at the center of a threatening, shouting mob.

Jim Bellows
Jim Bellows  

They handed us a bottle of whiskey.

"Drink!" they yelled.

When we refused they forced a pint or so down our throats. Then they dragged us into the shack. They jabbed a hypodermic needle into Carl's arm and Joe's leg. I had passed out. Carl and Joe clung to consciousness.

The Klansmen carried us to our car. Carl and I were placed in the backseat. Someone took my pants down and put me next to Carl in a position indicating we were engaged in sodomy. Another Klansman snapped some photos.

Two Klansmen then drove us to a deserted road on the outskirts of the town of Manchester. They wiped the steering wheel clean of fingerprints and fled the scene. Minutes later Manchester police found us. For them to arrive so quickly, they must have been called by one of the cross burners. Or more likely, some of the cross burners just changed back into their daytime uniforms.

We were driven into town, booked for drunkenness, and thrown into a cell.

My FBI file, which covers these events, runs to 77 pages. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, which Congress finally passed in 1966, I was able to lay my hands on it. The file contains a series of memos from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Tom Clark, as well as reports to Hoover from the head of his Atlanta Bureau. According to the file, some Klansmen didn't want us to see a cell. They had homicidal plans for us. Reported Hoover: "A threat had been made by an unknown (Klansman) that, after the men became intoxicated, they would be taken out in the automobile and (we would) wreck same." They didn't wreck same. They were content to manhandle same, get same drunk, and have same arrested.

At 1:24 a.m. the Manchester police called our city editor, Joe Hall. "We have three of your boys in our jail," they announced. Of course, he had no idea what we were up to.

Joe Hall drove to Manchester and tried to get us released. He was told there would be no disposition of the case till morning. Finally, at 7 a.m. they released us, on payment of a fine of $8.30 each.

An outrage of 'unspeakable brutality'

Time and Newsweek both gave the story a big play. "Nightmare on Pine Mountain," headlined Time. The Atlanta Constitution editorialized: "The outrage was an unspeakable brutality, so diabolical in its scheme that it could have been conceived only by a pervert and executed by beasts in human form."

A Ledger editorial vowed: "We shall leave absolutely no stone unturned to assure that justice is done."

The hearing on our case was coming up in court. We didn't know a thing about it. We had gone back to our reporting jobs. Then suddenly one morning I read on the Associated Press ticker that our hearing was scheduled for the very day! Not only that, I read that our bonds were to be forfeited. We were to enter a plea of guilty! And we hadn't been told a thing about it. This by the newspaper that had vowed to leave no stone unturned till justice was done. There were unturned stones everywhere I looked.

I was furious. I spoke to Joe and Carl. "We need a meeting," I said.

J. Edgar described our meeting with management to his ostensible boss, Attorney General Tom Clark: "At 2:30 that afternoon the paper held a meeting with A. H. Chapman (president of the paper), Bryan Collier (editor), Joe Hall (city editor), Maynard Ashworth (publisher), and Bentley Chappell (lawyer). Also victims Bellows, Johnson and Talbot... The victims asked what was happening. Attorney Chappell said that there was no purpose in going through with the hearing, that it would not help the case, and that he saw no chance of the victims 'getting off.'" The Ledger president patiently explained that he had not contacted us about any of this "because he didn't know that they (we) wanted to know what was happening." Oh?

Lawyer Chappell told us that he couldn't go to the hearing that afternoon. When I protested, he said he would contact another lawyer, W. S. "Jack" Allen. He phoned Allen and let me talk to him.

Hoover reported: "Allen said that he could not go to the hearing in Manchester. He added that there was no purpose in going as he had talked to the Manchester police who were friends, and from their stories he could see that the victims would be convicted." Allen was not going to turn any stones either.

I made another heated request that Allen attend the hearing. He refused. He also refused to ask for a postponement. I hung up the phone. It was now 4 p.m. and the hearing was scheduled for 5. I phoned the judge of the Manchester police court.

"Your Honor, my name is Jim Bellows. My case is before you today. I'm calling to request a postponement of the hearing for just a few minutes, until the other defendants and I can drive to Manchester."

"Those bonds were forfeited this morning," said the judge curtly.

I told my editor what the judge had told me and walked out of the room.

(Next: Tom Wolfe strikes.)

Copyright 2001 Jim Bellows. Reprinted with permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.


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