The story at last: The chancellor emeritus was indeed a G-man (Part 2)

By Diane Brown, IU Communications Specialist:

This is the second of a two-part series: Part 1

IUPUI Chancellor Emeritus Gerald L. Bepko and other FBI agents working the 1966 March Against Fear were responsible for identifying Ku Klux Klan members and other troublemakers or would-be assassins, deflecting any violence, and providing daily and hourly reports via teletype to keep President Lyndon B. Johnson advised of march conditions.

Except for the attack on Meredith, the marchers experienced relatively little overt violence during the walk that ended with an estimated 16,000 African American and several hundred white marchers at the statehouse in Jackson, Miss. The march was successful in terms of community organizing and registering thousands to vote.

According to the Milwaukee Journal, “the lack of real violence was probably due to armed Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who assisted city and county law enforcement officers along the way.”

Small-town law enforcement officers reflected the attitudes of their town fathers and local merchants and reacted to the presence of feds such as the FBI agents as “the north invading the south again,” Bepko said.

NOW: Chancellor Emeritus and IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law Professor Gerald L. Bepko

NOW: Chancellor Emeritus and IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law Professor Gerald L. Bepko

The locals “who knew we were FBI were not particularly friendly, but the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol included many officers who had studied at the FBI National Academy, which was an honor for them and created considerable mutual respect,” the IU McKinney professor said.

As a 24-year-old law school graduate with two years left on the draft, Bepko decided to join the FBI in 1965 rather than work in national security or in the military.

He thought the work would be a great opportunity for public service and would have pleased his father. He also had “just seen the first of the James Bond movies, which made everyone want to be a secret agent.”

Bepko, who had spent his first 24 years in Chicago, was sent to Mississippi after four months of FBI training in Washington, D.C., and Quantico, Va.

“I was a bit uncertain about going to the deep south about which I knew little other than news stories,” he said. “Most of those stories were about racism and cruelty, so I was ready for the worst.”

That was in September 1965, and the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney– the true story behind the movie “Mississippi Burning” — had been solved.

FBI Letter of Commendation to Gerald L. Bepko for "exemplary services" during the 1966 March against Fear. (Photo courtesy of Gerald L. Bepko)

FBI Letter of Commendation to Gerald L. Bepko for “exemplary services” during the 1966 March against Fear. (Photo courtesy of Gerald L. Bepko)

“One of the key leaders of the gang of racist thugs who killed Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner showed up again in another celebrated case on which I did some work,” Bepko said.

That case was the murder of Vernon Dahmer, an NAACP leader and store owner who died of injuries sustained when members of the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his Hattiesburg, Miss., home in response to Dahmer’s voter registration efforts. It would be five trials and three decades before the ring leader was found guilty.

“I think that fellow agent Alan Kornblum developed evidence that contributed to the successful prosecution of Sam Bowers,” Bepko said.

What did he think about working on Mississippi civil rights cases when he had asked to be assigned to New York or San Francisco?

“After I got down there and I saw what was going on … I saw the cruelty in Mississippi. I had seen it in the media, but it never had as much of an impact on me as it did when I saw it firsthand. It was something that made me happy I was doing the work I was doing,” Bepko said.

Will he write a book about his Mississippi FBI experiences?

“I’ve thought about it as a project in retirement and began to gather research materials, but other things have intervened. … I still teach a class at the McKinney School of Law, and I’m a member of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and a member of the board and chair of the Governance Committee at the Riley Children’s Foundation.”

Bepko, who as mentioned, was nearly killed on an FBI surveillance when reassigned to New York, said he never feared for his life while in Mississippi.

“It turned out that there were greater dangers that awaited in New York,” the former agent said.

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