Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Did Mississippi U.S. Senator James O. Eastland Help Plan the Kennedy Assassination?

U.S. Senator James O. Eastland was also a cotton planter in the Mississippi Delta.

In my new book The Plan, I've written quite a lot about the late Mississippi U.S. Senator James O. Eastland. This new book is historical fiction and Eastland is one of the "real" people I've used to tell the story of two lawyers, "Clinton Moore" and "Joe Means."

In the following chapter, Moore is going back in time, examining some of the papers he's collected over the years that show Eastland's dark past. Moore is trying to figure out who killed his friend, Means. Both men had been involved in trying to solve cold cases of the civil rights era, including the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.

You might be surprised, after reading this chapter, when you start searching Sovereignty Commission files for yourself. At the end of this chapter is a link that will help you get started. Susan

What are your thoughts? Do you think that Eastland might have been involved in some way in the assassination of the president?

Chapter 17  
I close my eyes and pull up images of Big Jim Eastland. He’s standing on a flag-draped bandstand in a little Delta cotton town, giving a rousing Fourth of July speech, his ignorant words peppered with racial slurs. Kids sit around the stage as white parents stand behind them, arms folded across their chests.
William Faulkner never came close to developing a character that looked and behaved like the real Senator James O. Eastland. Faulkner didn’t have the guts. Even without such a mythical image to spark my imagination, I’ll always remember this power-hungry man—how he looked, talked, and smelled.
The senator’s two-thousand-acre Doddsville plantation, near Parchman prison, wasn’t far from Clarksdale. Occasionally we would see each other—even shake hands—at government meetings or similar occasions when he was home to pump up voters and keep tabs on his family business. The old goat was practically my neighbor until he died of pneumonia in 1986.
It was Mollie’s relationship with Eastland’s plantation secretary that proved lucrative in discovering one of the senator’s deepest secrets. Mollie, June Grey, and I had gone to high school together. One day, the two women accidentally bumped into each other at the Drew Town Bank where Eastland was a member of the board. Though a powerful U.S. senator, he remained on the decision-making body of this small community institution. Eastland had a time-honored reputation of keeping his fingers in every pot—and this included Drew.
Mollie’s chance meeting with June led me to some of the most vital information I held, bless her heart! My secret Eastland files became more voluminous than any others over the years, mostly because of Mollie’s sleuthing.
“You won’t guess who I ran into,” she informed me one Monday morning, after plugging in the coffee pot, ready to give it a go. “Remember June Grey? The nice girl at Clarksdale High?”
Few other kids had shown kindness to black students back then, as Brown I and Brown II threw public schools into full integration. June tried making up for the hatred that often confronted us as most, but not all, white kids left for the private academies named after civil war generals. June’s family was poor, and she was stuck attending school with us! In this rare case, poverty was the equalizer—June was humble enough to accept half a sandwich from my lunch sack when her family was struggling to survive.
“Sure, I remember her. So how is she doing?” Mollie poured herself a cup of coffee, before it percolated, and came into my office to fill me in on her meeting.
“Where’s mine?” I asked, before she sat down.
“You always pour it out and then go begging to Walker with your empty cup. Why should I waste this good coffee on you?”
That sounded fair enough, so I motioned for Molly to take a seat and continue with her story. She was right about Walker, and I planned to walk over to The Grill in the next ten minutes—cup in hand.
“I was in the Drew Bank Saturday morning to make a deposit,” said Mollie, “and June walked in. After twenty years, I still recognized her! Same short brown hair and tiny figure! She was delivering bank records for the Eastland plantation. And get this—she’s the old man’s private secretary when he comes home from Washington. Her daddy started managing the Eastland plantation after we graduated from high school, and he got her the job. We recognized each other right away, and we went out for coffee after she finished her bank business.”
This was interesting news. I began to see how I might profit from it, as Mollie continued with her story.
“You won’t believe this: June says Eastland calls her in for important meetings. She takes notes, and when the visitor leaves she reads her notes to Eastland, and he recites them back. Once he has them memorized, he tells June to burn the notes!”
That was amazing. The old man was too shrewd.
 “Listen Clint, I think June will be our friend,” Mollie continued. “She already knew you were back in Clarksdale. She followed what went on with Jo Etha’s murder, but said she never approached you when you were in Drew. She knew the situation was bad and felt it was best to stay away. She didn’t want to cause you any more problems than you already faced. But working for Eastland, she has to know what goes on in Mississippi. Maybe she’ll help with our cold cases.”
I did a double take when I heard Mollie mention cold cases.
“Our cold cases?” I stopped her right there and cautioned her to be careful about getting into matters over her head. I wasn’t specific, but I’d seen that cheerleading gleam in her eyes and should have known she’d been going through my boxes.  
I guessed it was time to let her in on more of what I’d been doing. We worked closely together on everything else. She was a smart woman, and I trusted her. It wasn’t appropriate or fair to keep her in the dark, so we talked for another hour.
I ended up telling Mollie even more than I’d planned to reveal, details on some of the evidence I’d already collected on the murders of Emmett Till and others. I told her, for instance, about a murdered service station attendant, Clinton Melton, and his wife, Beulah, from Glendora, the same town where Till’s body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River four months earlier. Both were killed when a relative of one of Till’s murderers went into a rage over the amount of gas that Melton had pumped into his car.
“You can’t get involved in these cold cases Mollie. It’s dangerous for you to know what I am doing, and what I’ve collected. But we can work together in a small way, and I do trust you to know about what I am doing. It is critical that you spend most of your efforts with my day-to-day practice. This frees me to work on church projects and all of this other stuff.”
I knew that she understood what I was revealing about my work on cold cases, and she likely saw through my attempt to guilt induce her to keep on task. But it also was evident to me that Mollie already had been working in my boxes. Mostly because I’d discovered color tabs and detailed file notes in several of my files—and in her handwriting! Not in every box, but I was seeing more and more clues of her involvement in the Eastland and Till files, especially after she began visiting with our old friend, June. Mollie’s attention to Till’s murder in a plantation shed outside of Drew made sense, because Eastland, of course, had collected intel on this internationally reported murder that occurred in his own backyard.
Mollie and I had a lengthy visit that day. I thanked her for the organization skill that I’d discovered in these files, and we agreed that it helped me tremendously. But I said nothing about Joe or my conclusion that he’d been murdered. I still believed that could be dangerous information for Mollie to have.
We developed an open understanding of my secret records collection from this discussion and defined her limited role in what I was doing. Eventually, I told her about Ann at the Sovereignty Commission.
“Don’t ever ask for a detailed message from Ann—she calls herself Sharon, by the way. If she calls, give her the church number, and if I’m not there, let her know I will get back to her.”
The Eastland files became voluminous and were giving me plenty of documents to sort through. The senator exercised vast control over the Mississippi Delta and the U.S. Senate—and regions of the world—for over four decades. Eastland knew people in every agency of government and used them as personal spies. Schooled as a lawyer, Eastland served fewer years than the state’s junior senator, but was still known as Mississippi’s senior senator because he held the most power—as chair of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary for over twenty years, then President Pro Tempore of the senate during his last six years of office.
More than once in my Texas law school days professors would refer to the records of my state’s senators when picking out the worst civil rights case examples. Usually, I wanted to dive under my desk. Each had pushed embarrassing legislative agendas.
Order The Plan HERE (eboook)
In my first pass through these files, I found a small intriguing article clipped from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. I couldn’t remember clipping this myself and had never read it before. It had to be something Mollie received from June. The date stamp was hard to read, but I noticed the news article was dated 1956, seven years before President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The gist was that a former chief counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, accompanied by a private detective, had traveled to Eastland’s district office in Greenwood to confer with the senator for more than three hours. Afterward, Eastland’s counsel described the conference as "completely satisfactory."
This meeting might not sound like much, but here was the kicker: the detective turned out to be Guy Banister, a former FBI agent who personally knew Lee Harvey Oswald—JFK’s supposed assassin. Banister and the chief counsel had worked together through Eastland’s very secret Senate Internal Security Subcommittee or SISS, sometimes called SISSY.
Recently declassified documents show that Oswald did intelligence work for this committee, as well as for the office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI. Banister would later be associated with Oswald and the assassination through his New Orleans detective agency and SISSY.
I had interesting confirmation of this from an old law school classmate of mine, now a full professor at NYU. Dr. Dan Bell sent me a packet of papers from what he called a recent successful mining expedition. Included were declassified FBI documents showing both Oswald and Banister had contracted to do intelligence work for SISSY clear back in the late 1950s, and with the  knowledge of the special counsel, Bobby Kennedy.
This revealed much about Oswald—who he really was—and perhaps could lead to the identity of the secret planners of the president’s assassination. It definitely was worth digging through the rest of my Eastland files to see what else was there.
If this newspaper clipping was a fascinating find, later, after digging some more, I found a whopper. Whenever the senator made short visits home to Mississippi, he often brought powerful friends with him. In a buried folder, I came across a typewritten note from Mollie about a confidence shared between herself and June.
I read it once quickly and went over it again. It was one hell of a note. I don’t know why Mollie didn’t come to me and talk about what she’d learned from this conversation. Maybe she was uncomfortable in telling me she had been cleaning up these files, although we’d agreed she could organize the Eastland stuff. That was so like her, to quietly do her job and protect my back. But Mollie also had a stubborn streak, and once she got started working on anything, it was best to keep out of her way and let her do her thing.
Meeting with Mollie for lunch, several months after Eastland died, June had shared this story about her old boss and J. Edgar Hoover. According to Mollie’s note:
“June said that she believed Eastland carried critical information about the JFK assassination to his grave, ‘but he wasn’t directly involved’—June’s quote.”
June told Mollie that Eastland liked inviting important people as plantation guests. One weekend in Fall of 1963, a week before Kennedy was assassinated, Eastland was hosting a visit by FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. June overheard them talking as they sat on the veranda, according to Mollie’s note:
“Hoover told Eastland what was about to happen—the president was going to be killed. June told me that she witnessed this conversation from a close distance. She said the FBI director said there was nothing that he could do to stop the assassination. June heard him say it was already in motion. We’ll have to sit back and watch, were Hoover’s exact words.”
It was terrifying to hear that Eastland and Hoover knew what was about to take place, yet did nothing to stop it. There was no reason why June would have made up such a story.
By now, thanks to Mollie, I’d sorted into a pile at least one hundred Eastland-generated documents, with topics ranging from the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers to the presidential assassination, the killing of the three Freedom Summer civil rights volunteers, and the assassination of Dr. King. This put the senator at the top of my A-list.
It hadn’t been long since he’d died, and there could be someone lurking in the Delta, or possibly in Washington D.C., who needed to protect the old man’s secrets and his questionable reputation.
Did Joe get in the way with important Easland information he’d kept to himself? I couldn’t answer my own question.  But, I had more boxes to search.
* * *
Order The Plan HERE (eboook)
Search the Mississippi Sovereignty Names and Folders Here.

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