Region's civil rights days lively, former FBI agent remembers

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – 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 West Main Street office sits closed, for all practical purposes, the victim of governmental downsizing and more peaceful times.
“I always thought we had too many offices,” the nearly 89-year-old Castles observed from his north Tupelo home this week.
FBI offices throughout Mississippi opened and ramped up during 1964 as President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to boost the federal law enforcement agency’s visibility and ground forces.
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.
His early days with the FBI took him to Connecticut, New York City and Newport News, Va. Sixteen years later, he told them he wanted to come home.
The Mississippi openings were in McComb, Meridian and Tupelo, which coincidentally got resident agent supervisors who came from their regions.
“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 admits that 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 remembers the Klan rally near the Randolph community where KKK Grand Dragon Robert Shelton spoke from atop a flat-bed truck and invited all the FBI agents in the audience to join him at the podium.
With a laugh mellowed by years of distance, Castles said, “No, we didn’t” in answer to whether they accepted the invitation.
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.
A favorite case, he notes, was a robbery at the Bank of Verona with a suspect who left driving a white car.
Castles said he and a colleague were on the way back from Pontotoc County when they saw a white vehicle approaching. They turned around and caught up with it at the intersection of Highways 9 and 15.
“It was somebody I knew,” he laughed. “I said to him, ‘What have you done?’
“He told me he’d thrown the $4,500 out the car window, and the next day a bakery truck driver, who stopped for a bathroom break, stepped on the cash.”
These days, he stays busy tending to his wife, who is ill, and talking to folks he knows at the grocery store and his civic club.
“We had a lot of interesting times,” Castles said.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com