History and the people who make it: Clarence Sears

Clarence Sears [S], FBI KKK infiltrator, was interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in August, 2015.

This is the 46th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

Content note: This interview includes offensive racial slurs, repeated intact here for historical accuracy.

S: I’m 87 years old. Lived in Jacksonville all my life. Was in the Air Force at the end of World War II. Went to Jacksonville University and the University of Florida. I had a career with the railroad. I was a train director, something like a dispatcher. Worked at night, talking to crews on the trains. I spent 45 years doing that.

M: Where did you grow up in Jacksonville?

S: On the north side, in a working class community. I was a Baptist. I’m a Unitarian now.

M: Your father was from Boston?

S: He was a Catholic from Boston. He died when I was nine. I was really raised by my Baptist mother.

I was a teenager hitchhiking around, and I ended up in Atlanta, Georgia Tech, a place called The Varsity, a drive-in restaurant. I worked in The Varsity. There was a hotbed of neo-Nazis, I mean really serious, wearing brown shirts, and something like a swastika, a bolt with lightning. We had these red arm bands with that bolt of lightning, and we’re marching around Atlanta making sure Black people get off the sidewalks so White people wouldn’t be bothered. Pretty ugly, and, now and then, there’d be a confrontation, and police would be out there.

Our leader was a guy from Brooklyn, Homer Lummis, who aspired to be the American Fuhrer, and the guy that I met was from Savannah. He was into Nietzsche. We roomed together. He started taking me to meetings. On Saturdays, we’d go out.

Servicemen were just coming back after World War II, and we were preaching the problems coming with Black people. The local newspapers of course weren’t too friendly to the Columbians. That was a little heavy even for Georgia. Eddie Iverson was his name. We would go in this inner circle of the Colombians, a notorious Neo-Nazi outfit. Eddie came home one night and said “We got to get the hell out of Atlanta.” Homer and those idiots were getting ready to [blow] up Ralph McGill’s home. Ralph McGill was editor of the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal. Eddie was a devout Nazi, but he wasn’t that devout. He said, “We don’t want to get arrested.”

So we went hitchhiking, and we ended up in my father’s hometown, in Massachusetts. The House Un-American Activities Committee called them in to testify, and exposed them. A whole bunch of them got arrested for conspiracy to blow up people’s homes.

One of them eventually ran for governor of Georgia. This guy, J.B. Stoner, he was a licensed attorney in Georgia, and head of the Klan group. He was defending the bus bombers in Aniston, Alabama. He was a real nutty guy. He had his paper suitcase he bought at the dime store, tied with a rope. It’s full of leaflets; he was passing out leaflets everywhere. He was constantly recruiting people for the cause – White people of course.

J.B. bombed a couple of places in Jacksonville, but he wasn’t very good as a bomber. He had gasoline with a wick, the wick would go out, and it wouldn’t blow up. If it blew up it just made a big boom, and didn’t really do any harm.

He was self-educated. Somehow he passed the board in Georgia. JB was hired by that guy who killed Martin Luther King. They called me one day many years after this was all over. A judge in Alabama went to the door, and a messenger handed them an envelope exploding, and injured the judge. The FBI called me, said “You know what’s going on out there. What about JB Stoner?” I told them about the bombs that he made in Jacksonville, and it sounded a little too sophisticated, that envelope bomb, for JB. But he had the heart to do it.

M: You were with Eddy Iverson, after you’d come out of the service, correct?

S: I was AWOL. It was while I was in the service. [Laughter]. It was January of [19]47, so I would have been 19. That whole episode in Atlanta was probably two, three months.

M: How did you get involved with the FBI?

S: Jack Price and I were going to JU Junior College. Jack was working for the Jewish community. They’re getting real upset, because these White Citizens Councils were springing up all over the south. He said, “They want somebody that will make sure what’s going on. Don’t think it’s anti-Semitic but it could be. You interested?” I says, “Yeah, I guess.”

So he connected me with B’nai Brith, and the anti-defamation league, the ADL. They liked [that] I would fit in real good, I knew the language. I knew how to pronounce “grits” [Laughter]. So, I got involved. There was a FBI agent who was Jewish – Bennett Hirsh. He grew up in Springfield, in Jacksonville. I didn’t like the idea of spying, and Bennett, didn’t like it either. He was in favor leaving these people alone if they’re not doing something.

But he said “We want somebody in there where they’re violating the law.” We’re not there to do anything except find violations of law, and not interfere with their right to get up and say they hate niggers, or whatever they want to say.

M: What time is this?

S: 1960. Eisenhower was president. In those days, You didn’t work for the FBI; you worked for J. Edgar Hoover.

Thursday night we’d meet in this little house, out in Arlington. The Grand Dragon, president of the state, Jason Kersey, came up from Samsula, that’s a little town near Daytona; he’s a cattle rancher in a big white Cadillac with confederate flags and a white ten-gallon hat.

“We have got to put a stop to them damn niggers. They’re lining up every Saturday morning.” He thought they were coming from Florida A&M. This guy run a Black funeral home, Hearst, and his son Rodney Hearst, in junior high in Jacksonville, leading the NAACP youth council. Rodney Hearst and his kids, mostly girls of junior high school, they lined up protesting, joined with a guy that went to Florida State, a redheaded White guy.

Of course right away the police laid hands on this White guy, and threw him in jail, and he got roughed up pretty bad. He was from Miami. I forgot his name.

Anyway, they made plans for Jacksonville’s moment of history.

“On Saturday we’re going to let the Johnny Rebs,” – the junior Klan, teenaged boys. – “start a fight with these demonstrators, and then the adult Klansmen will come in with fists and clubs, and beat the hell out of them.”

I put in my report all this, things like Mrs. Johnston, who was a teacher at Annie Belin school on the west side, she was going to fall down in front of these demonstrators and pretend that she had been struck by one of them, to give the Johnny Rebs the right to move in and beat the hell out of all these demonstrators.

That didn’t happen, but that’s what the plan was. Mrs. Johnston whose husband was a chiropractor, nice guy by the way. Some of these people in the Klan were decent neighborhood people. Some were really awful. They were ready to go kill a bunch of niggers if they could. That’s the way they talked. But officers in the Klan were generally people who went to neighborhood church, and they weren’t all nuts [Laughter].

I called my contact. They gave me instructions. “You’re going to have some emergency in your family to get you out of town.” Saturday morning the FBI was on the phone, “You got to get downtown right away so we can identify these people.”

My wife was the only one who knew what I was doing. A good old Baptist, but she understood, and scared to death. So I went downtown. Here comes Mercer Johns, he’s like vice president of our club.

“Hey brother Sears!” He had a big four-door sedan, and I got in the front. The back was loaded with baseball bats, and anything he could get. He’d been down to Sears, and bought out the store. The riot was already going on in Hemming Park, and he passed these out to White people to hit people with, bats, and ax handles, and so on. He had ammunition, everything, in the back seat.

The police finally arrived. I had sent my report to the FBI and the FBI took a copy, and put it on the sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff was Dale Carson, who was a former FBI agent. They were sure this guy was straight with the law, but he was on vacation or something, and he left that on his desk.

Somebody passed the report to the Klan. The local police didn’t do anything. The fire department got out there with hoses, and laid down the riot. That’s where I arrived. Mercer Johns said “Brother Sears, we got to get down to the jail, bail these people out. We’ll go get some money.”

Mrs. Duckworth, a local rich woman, lived in a house boat at the end of Pearl Street. Mercer goes on the houseboat, an hour or so, and finally comes back with a lot of money. I’m worried now. My wife didn’t know what happened to me. The FBI is going nuts because I was supposed to go to a phone booth, I have a pocket full of nickels, but I hadn’t had a chance.

It was starting to get dark when we got back to the police station. Finally, Mercer got busy with somebody else, and I disappeared. I call the FBI, and the guy, about to blow up, “What the hells? Why didn’t you call us before now? The main thing,” he says, “You call your wife. Ellen’s about to go nuts. You call and tell her you’re okay. We’ll talk later.” So, I got home to my poor little wife [Laughter].

The EC – Exalted Cyclops, president of the club – said, “We’re going to meet tomorrow night in Brother Fowler’s house,” he’s the Chaplain, an old Baptist preacher, but he didn’t have a church. I went in, and the windows were all draped with blankets and sheets. It was spooky, and it’s in the middle of the summer, no air conditioning, full of people. They show up when there’s some violence going on, because they like it. they had [a] long line of tables and chairs. the EC sits on that end, and Kleckster, which is me, the security guy, sits at the other end, and the Klud is over here, and people all stand around.

Jaime Walker was our EC. Jaime said, “We have a big problem. Somebody has written a report, I’ve got it right here.” It wasn’t that good of a report by the way [Laughter]. “Had the names of everybody that was in that building, including Brother Kersey from Samsula, and his tag numbers. All people, including Clarence Sears, too.” He held it up, and of course there was my report. I’m waiting. “Oh God, this is it.”

He says, “You remember we were in the Woodland Acres club house there was a wire going out, and there was a crappy little house trailer parked out there?”

That was when Haydon Burns was mayor of the city – later ran for governor. “Haydon Burns’ agents were in the trailer writing down everything said in that meeting.” [Laughter]. Not one mention of FBI. They called the local police communists, and they were the enemies. It wasn’t so but – they’re stupid. So I kind of relaxed.

[To be continued in the April Iguana.]

Search for “Clarence Sears” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the recording of this interview.

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