Retired FBI agent recalls war with Klan in Natchez/Concordia 1964-1965
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, May 29th, 2008 @ 8:20 am
• FIST FIGHT WITH KLANSMAN; NELLIE JACKSON; SILVER DOLLAR GROUP; 16-YEAR-OLD ESCAPES PROSTITUTION
Not long after 29-year-old Billy Bob Williams arrived in Natchez on Saturday, July 26, 1964, he reported to the resident FBI agent -- Clarence Prospere -- who still resides in Natchez today, and is known by fellow FBI agents as "Pros."
During his first meeting with Prospere shortly before midnight, Special Agent Williams observed "it was obvious that there was a war going on with the Klan."
He was sent to Natchez by Roy K. Moore, who was charged by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to assign agents throughout Mississippi to fight escalating Klan violence. After a drive from San Antonio, Williams walked into the new FBI Mississippi division office in Jackson, which was still bare.
"I was the second permanent agent to check in on top of the resident agents," said Williams, now 73, retired from the FBI and a resident of Portland, Ore. Soon, Moore told Williams "about this beautiful little town with oak trees and Spanish moss. He went on and on. It was quite obvious to me that he wanted me to go to Natchez."
Although Moore initially told Williams that he could choose from one of 19 places in the state in which to work, by 2:20 p.m. that afternoon, Williams was in route to Natchez.
"I had only been in Jackson for about an hour and a half and had just driven 700 miles from west Texas, where I left my wife and son with family," said Williams. "But I drove on to Natchez."
Moore, said Williams, was a lot like Hoover -- a workaholic. But he admired both men, who are now deceased. Williams also admires Prospere, the resident agent in Natchez, who long ago retired and no longer discusses his FBI days.
Williams was instructed to check into the Holiday Inn and to remain there "until Pros comes to get you." The motel, which served as FBI headquarters for a while, was located where the Travel Inn stands in Natchez today on Hwy. 61 North (D'Evereux Dr.)
Williams drove the two-plus hours to Natchez, checked into the Holiday Inn and a short time later, before dark, answered a knock at the door, assuming it was Prospere.
"It was this cute little gal, a hooker," recalled Williams. "She asked if I had sent for her. I said no. She had the wrong room."
At 11 p.m., Prospere knocked on Williams' door.
"He talked about trying to get organized and that there were agents crawling all over the place," said Williams. "Then he told me that we'd have to hide my car because the Klan would immediately be suspicious of a car with out-of-town plates. We hid it in Pros' back yard."
The next day, a Sunday, Prospere showed up with a car that came out of the FBI's Little Rock office -- a 1960 dark blue Plymouth equipped with radios to allow Williams to communicate with the Natchez Police Department and the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol.
Williams noticed right away that the car was sitting on empty. He drove to a service station on the bypass and observed a group of men sitting in front of the station dressed in white shirts and dark pants.
"They looked as if they gathered there after Sunday dinner," recalled Williams. "They were spitting and whittling."
Williams told the attendant to fill up the tank, and the man asked, "You with the government?"
Williams answered, "Yes, the FBI."
A short time later, one of the other men walked over and said, "I understand you're with the FBI. You just passing through?"
"No," answered Williams, "I will be living here."
The man said, "Welcome to the community. You'll be doing business with me. I sell life insurance and burial plots."
For the first days, agents worked out of Prospere's kitchen. Then Roy Moore came down from Jackson and a two-room office was opened in a bank building downtown.
Later Williams' wife and son arrived in Natchez, but life for Williams was a blur for the next year and one-half. He rarely sat still and agents had an overwhelming task in working with local authorities to keep the peace.
In many of the local crimes -- both murders and random violence -- the FBI had no jurisdiction, said Williams. The FBI in general assisted local and state law enforcement in investigating and in helping them build cases against violent Klansmen.
Williams' job with the FBI was to assimilate into the community at Natchez and to keep a line of communication open between the public and law enforcement.
In the next 18 months, Williams moved from one crisis to another. He:
-- Went early on to introduce himself to Natchez Police Chief J.T. Robinson, a man Williams grew to admire. Williams said Robinson "hated the Klan with a passion."
-- Put chicken wire around his family's home in Natchez so the Klan couldn't roll a bomb underneath it.
-- Met a distraught Bernice Conner, the mother of Shamrock Motel porter JoeEd Edwards, who went missing in July 1964 in Vidalia and has not been seen since. "They got my boy," she told Williams, referring to the Klan.
-- Learned of a violent Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group, organized, according to informants, at the Shamrock.
-- Kept a sawed-off shotgun on the front seat of his vehicle, the gift of the female sheriff Celia Pritchard of Jefferson County, as a symbol to the Klan that he meant business.
-- Got into a fist fight with Klansman Jack Seale, brother of James Ford Seale (convicted last year for the 1964 murders of two Meadville men -- Charles Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee). Seale "smarted off" to Williams at the wrong time. (Williams stands 6-4, and weighs in at 200 pounds -- his weight in 1964.)
Williams and Jack Seale squared off on New Year's Eve 1965 after one of Mayor Joe Nosser's supermarkets was set on fire.
"When I pulled to up to the supermarket Jack (and another Klansman) were there together," said Williams. "J.T. Robinson and Natchez patrolmen were there. I usually carried a camera, but didn't have time to pick it up and Jack smarted off about me not bringing the camera."
When he did, Williams "sailed into him. We got in two or three licks." Williams was eventually restrained by Robinson and Seale by his friend.
Robinson told Williams, "You go home.'"
-- Assisted agents coming up from New Orleans working on the Frank Morris murder case in Ferriday. "They would come in to our Natchez office and use our radio," said Williams. "They'd also stay most of the time at the Holiday Inn."
-- Met with a Concordia Parish minister and his wife who showed up at the FBI office in Natchez one morning with a 16-year-old girl. The minister explained that he and his wife were driving down the levee the previous day near the Morville Lounge, a house of prostitution and gambling south of Vidalia, when they saw a shocking site.
The 16-year-old girl, they told Williams, emerged from the other side of the levee dressed in nothing but panties. She had been forced into prostitution at the lounge and was making her escape. The minister and his wife had cleaned up the girl and offered to care for her.
-- Got to know Nellie Jackson, who operated a house of prostitution in Natchez for decades, and became an FBI informant, learning much from Klansmen who traded at her business or stopped by for a visit.
"We'd go see her around 3 or 4 in the morning, always in pairs, and drink coffee" said Williams. "She was a lot of help to us. She'd tell us about the old days and eventually get around to giving us information."
Recently, Williams met a woman at a museum in Cody, Wyoming, who said she "once worked at a clinic in Vidalia and that Nellie Jackson brought her girls over there every week to be examined."
-- Was among the first to learn of the car bombing -- Aug. 27, 1965 -- of George Metcalfe, NAACP President and employee at Armstrong Tire. "He drove a '55 Chevy with a straight-six engine," said Williams. The bomb's makers unknowingly "had created a shaped charge, one that concentrates an explosion in one direction. It's the type you use against tanks." Metcalfe survived, but was maimed
-- Learned much about Concordia Parish. "Natchez was a strange place," he said, "but cleaner than Concordia. Everybody knew Concordia was a maggot-infested mess."