by Jon Elliston
Some state secrets come out in dribs and drabs, becoming more damning along the way, and the phenomenon is hardly new.
Case in point: It’s long been known that the Federal Bureau of Investigation funded and gathered intelligence from George Dorsett, the late Greensboro resident who held key positions in state and national branches of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. What’s new are details about how Dorsett first reaped a financial windfall and then found himself exposed as a government snitch — and how backroom firestorms erupted at the FBI when congressional investigators revealed the broad brushes of the arrangement.
The revelations come courtesy of the JFK Records Act, which mandated that remaining secret documents potentially related to President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination should go public unless their release could still compromise national security or the privacy of living individuals. Large remaining batches were unveiled in 2017 and 2018, and while none of those papers provided a smoking gun on the assassination, some offered new information about right-wing extremists who would have been happy to see Kennedy dead.
In North Carolina, Dorsett — described in FBI documents as a “top-tier informant” — was certainly one of those. A fervent white supremacist with a flair for public relations and subterfuge, Dorsett served as a kind of spiritual official, fundraiser and rouser for the Klan during its most violent years.
Amid the trove of secrets in the JFK files, Dorsett’s case stands out for its revelations about how closely the FBI skirted the line when both undermining and supporting Klan factions at a time when the KKK’s biggest statewide membership was in North Carolina, according to a substantial pile of of government records released in batches long ago and recently. What’s more, they document the panic that set in at the bureau’s top tier when the FBI’s decade-long relationship with Dorsett started to go public.
“That all came out in the newspaper,” noted Dargan Frierson, the late FBI agent who handled and befriended Dorsett, in a 1990 oral history for UNCG’s archival project Civil Rights Greensboro. “The FBI was horrified when it happened.”
At the time, though, it didn’t all come out, and the declassified files offer significant reminders about why the bureau was intent on keeping details about its unholy alliance with Dorsett under wraps.
NC’s Klan resurgence
In 1959, the Klan presence in North Carolina was fractured and reeling from internal disputes and law-enforcement crackdowns, with membership estimated to be as little as 150, according to the State Bureau of Investigation’s records at the time. But the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was on the horizon, and with it, an explosion of Klan mobilization.
The same year, the FBI recruited a man who would prove to be one its most valuable assets within the Klan. A house painter by trade, Dorsett had already served in ministerial and leadership roles in prominent Klan organizations during the 1950s, and his star was ascending. In the 1960s, he would serve as the “Imperial Kludd,” or national chaplain, of the Alabama-based United Klans of America, the ranks of which grew to more than 10,000 in North Carolina. He also held other top state and national posts and later formed his own Klan offshoot.
Throughout this period, the FBI made regular payments to Dorsett as a confidential informant, placing considerable value on his insider information and looking the other way when he rallied the Klan faithful.
Dorsett “was one heck of a speaker and could really fire up a crowd,” his FBI handler, Frierson, recalled in the UNCG oral history. “He could portray himself as one of them. And he would tell me everything that was going on. So sure, he’d made some fiery speeches, there’s no question about it. But if he hadn’t, he would have been worthless.”
There’s nothing to indicate, however, that Dorsett wasn’t “one of them” — a true believer in the Klan’s mission — and he didn’t exactly shy away from fostering racial terrorism. At an August 1966 rally that packed Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium and drew public protests, he said: “We’re sitting on a powder keg.… You don’t know what I’ll do before I leave, and you don’t know what you’ll do. We don’t believe in violence, and we’re not going to have violence, if we have to kill every n***** in America.”
It was remarks like these, along with his fundraising and organizing for the Klan, that a congressional subpoena compelled Dorsett to Washington, DC the previous year to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee. In that appearance, Dorsett was uncharacteristically tight-lipped, refusing to answer questions or provide documents. The committee’s staff nonetheless laid out a detailed case that Dorsett was an influential minister of hate — but they had no idea that behind his stony silence was an even bigger secret that led all the way to the FBI.
Cash on delivery
Throughout the South, the FBI staged a clandestine campaign to infiltrate, disrupt and at times effectively control various Klan groups. That was strikingly the case in North Carolina, as sociologist David Cunningham documented in his 2013 book Klansville, USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan.
The FBI’s objective, Cunningham wrote, was to covertly “attack the Klan’s most obvious vulnerabilities: the simmering suspicions that leaders exploited the membership financially, certain members’ limited employment prospects, and the fact that more than a few wives of Klansmen felt that weekly klavern [local chapter] meetings and dark of night… missions provided ruses for adulterous activities.” The weapons of choice were rumor campaigns, anonymous mailings and other steps to breed dissension in the ranks, he noted, and “as with all bureau programs, secrecy would be a priority.”
The FBI’s biggest secret in North Carolina was its long-running relationship with Dorsett.
One of the recently declassified memos, written in February 1976, reveals just how much the bureau rewarded the Klan organizer. Dorsett was on the bureau’s payroll from January 1959 to October 1970, according to one of the FBI memos. The payments totaled $26,266.01 (the equivalent of more than $200,000 today, when adjusted for inflation). Roughly two thirds of the payment was for “services” provided, with the remainder covering unspecified “expenses.”
“An analysis of these payments at FBI Headquarters reveals Dorsett was paid on a ‘cash-on-delivery’ basis,” the memo added, “and that these payments were commensurate with the information he furnished.”
Even as he rallied the state’s most hardcore racists, Dorsett helped the FBI destabilize North Carolina’s large UKA contingent by exacerbating tensions among the group’s leaders. Banished from the UKA in 1967, Dorsett quickly founded a rival faction, the Confederate Knights of the KKK — with a big assist from his FBI handler, Frierson, who helped draft the group’s first manifesto and passed Dorsett still more cash.
Internally, the FBI viewed its assist with founding a Klan group as a major accomplishment.
“We utilized this opposing Klan organization through Dorsett as a means of causing confusion and dissension within the Klan,” an FBI report later noted. “A total of 41 chapters of the CKKKK were chartered; however, all of them did not become effective operating chapters.”
By 1970, both the UKA and Dorsett’s CKKKK were in tatters, and the Klan’s heyday in North Carolina drew to a close, even as the fires it stoked would spark again in places like Greensboro just a few years later. Dorsett “was discontinued as an informant when his activity in the Klan ceased, at which time his relationship with the bureau continued to be excellent,” the FBI concluded. His handler would recall Dorsett as “the No. 1 Klan informer in the country.”
Even with no substantial Klan contingent to back or lead, Dorsett remained a committed white-supremacist orator, albeit an ever more marginal one, until he died in Greensboro in 2008, at age 90. He might have faded into the history books relatively quickly if inquisitive members of Congress hadn’t sniffed out his FBI ties.
The exposure came courtesy of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also known as the Church Committee, which set off political fireworks with its revelations of decades of crimes and cover-ups by the CIA, FBI and other secretive agencies. Among the operations it probed were the the FBI’s counterintelligence programs — COINTELPRO, as they’re often known — against dissidents ranging from the New Left to the Black Panthers to “white hate” groups like the Klan.
Committee staffers pieced together enough information from selectively provided FBI files to identify Dorsett as a major informant, and word leaked to national newspapers in December 1975.
The accounts provided little detail about Dorsett’s working relationship with the FBI, but the cat was clawing its way out of the bag. Former Sen. Robert Morgan, a North Carolina Democrat, was among the committee members who were shocked by the FBI-KKK connection. In an April 1976 speech at Wake Forest University’s Law Day observance, Morgan publicly confirmed Dorsett’s FBI relationship, adding additional details and calling the arrangement part of a part of pattern of “immoral and illegal activity” by the FBI.
Already stung by the December leak, the FBI was now apoplectic. The Senate committee and Morgan had committed “a most serious breach of the confidentiality” the bureau had expected when sharing its secret files with the legislators. Dorsett had not previously been exposed as an informant, and he continued to deny his role during brief public remarks that were increasingly met with skepticism.
Promptly interviewed by the FBI, Dorsett told the agents that he now feared for his life, and that the revelations had caused “great consternation among his close friends and members of his family,” the bureau noted. “He has received harassing phone calls. During one of these calls the caller stated, ‘Tell that pimp to get his casket ready.’”
The FBI’s leadership fired off a series of memos to the Church Committee demanding that informers not be further identified and warning of the gravity of outing Dorsett, though the relationship was now something of an open secret. In the end, the committee’s public report summarized the matter without naming the once-influential Klansman, but by then, George Dorsett’s — and the FBI’s — secret was out
David Cunningham, the sociologist and author, interviewed Dorsett late in life. The infamous informer didn’t seem particularly regretful.
“What struck me was his retrospective view that the FBI was working for him,” Cunningham recalled in remarks to his book’s publisher in 2013, “which isn’t entirely inaccurate, if you consider how he was able to protect his role as the KKK’s most successful fundraiser while on the bureau’s payroll.”