KKK pamphlets and photos of Klan members. Photos of documents taken at CPD Board offices Thursday afternoon, Sept. 21, 2023.

KKK pamphlets and photos of Klan members taken at CPD Board offices.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

What Chicago police did when the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated its ranks

When Chicago cops joined the KKK 55 years ago, the department moved quickly to fire them.

When some officers got involved with notorious extremists, the Chicago Police Department assigned an officer to go undercover and raided the home of a cop who was recruiting colleagues to the radical and potentially violent group.

The city’s police board then moved swiftly to rid the department of all the extremist officers.

That was the approach the department took more than 55 years ago — after a small group of officers privately pledged their allegiance to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The story of how Chicago police aggressively rooted out the Klansmen in its ranks contrasts sharply with the lax approach taken toward the cops who have allied themselves in recent years with 21st century extremist groups.

While police officials recently said being a member of extremist organizations is not necessarily against the rules, police department leaders in the late 1960s heatedly contended the KKK affiliation of those officers was incompatible with the oath they’d taken as Chicago cops.

An internal investigation in 1967 forced three officers to promptly quit, and the city police board soon fired another three KKK-linked cops after highly publicized board hearings shed light on the lurid inner workings of the department’s secretive “klavern.”

In the disciplinary cases against the three officers who got fired, the police board alleged the trio were Chicago-based Klansmen and “said membership in the Ku Klux Klan constitutes a conflict of interest with the office of Patrolman,” according to board records.

During his closing argument against the top Klansman in the police department, a lawyer for the city argued it was “impossible” for someone like him to perform his duties as an officer.

“I think it is incongruous for the Board to believe that he can be a Klansman with robes one minute and a patrolman with his star and his gun the next,” said the lawyer, Jerome Zurla, according to a transcript from the case of Donald Heath — the Chicago cop who admitted he was the KKK’s grand dragon for Illinois.

Police department sting rooted out racists in the ranks

The police board recently provided the records from the disciplinary cases of the Klansmen cops from deep in its archives at the request of the Sun-Times and WBEZ.

In addition to documents from the cases, the trove of historical records includes literature the police department’s KKK members used to lure new recruits, including a pamphlet on “Why You Should Become a Klansman” and another depicting a white-hooded Klansman on horseback under the title “America for Americans.”

The investigation that would culminate with the raid at Heath’s apartment on the Northwest Side began in September 1967, police board records show. A deputy superintendent in the police department asked Officer James Tobin to infiltrate the Klan cell by cozying up to Heath.

Within days of being assigned to patrol with Heath, Tobin testified, Heath asked the undercover cop “if I was interested in joining a club comprised of other police members of the Chicago Police Department.”

Tobin told him it sounded like a fine group.

Barely three weeks after accepting his covert assignment, Tobin found himself at a meeting of the police department’s “klavern” at Heath’s second-floor apartment in the 2000 block of North Lawndale Avenue.

In the apartment, Tobin spotted a 6-foot white cross between Confederate and American flags. Tobin said Heath revealed to him that he was the head of the Klan in Illinois and consequently was the only one who could induct him into the group.

Tobin paid the $15 initiation fee and took the oath of allegiance to the Klan after Heath showed him a letter from the Georgia headquarters of the Klan.

Tobin was instructed in his duties as a double agent of the KKK and the police department. He was to pull over mixed-race couples consisting of a “colored man” and a “white girl” and take down their information, so “when any trouble breaks out in Chicago … they would be taken care of.”

He also was told police department members of the Klan conducted background checks on civilian applicants to make sure there would be no FBI infiltrators.

When one member asked what would happen if the Klan cell were exposed, Heath told them they would be fired from the police department, but he would use his connections in the South to get them jobs as state troopers in Mississippi or Alabama, according to Tobin’s testimony before the police board.

The KKK cops allegedly armed themselves to make a violent “last stand” against the changes sweeping the country just outside the city limits, in Cicero, because of the town’s historic ties to organized crime and reputation for virulent racism.

Tobin also accused Heath of planning to use tear gas at a showing of a movie at the Roosevelt Theater featuring Sidney Poitier, because the famous Black actor kissed a white woman onscreen.

The KKK’s plot to kill Chicago’s mayor

Tobin quickly rose through the klavern ranks to take the title of exalted cyclops, records show. At that point, Tobin testified, the stakes rose dramatically, as he was asked to participate in a plot to conduct “hits” on two high-ranking police officials — and Mayor Richard J. Daley.

One deputy superintendent was targeted “because of the way he ran the riots in the summer of 1967,” Tobin told the police board. A police department commander was targeted because he was Jewish. Heath allegedly told Tobin they would pull off the killings without being caught and “they can blame the n—--s.”

The most audacious alleged plot involved firing a bazooka through the front bay window of the mayor’s Bridgeport bungalow, killing Daley and his family, according to Tobin.

After the police raid of Heath’s apartment yielded guns and ammunition, Daley made clear he thought all cops with KKK ties should be fired.

“I don’t think the city government should employ anyone who preaches hatred or persecution or preaches against any race, religion or nationality,” the mayor said at a news conference, a few months before he gained international infamy for cracking down on rioters at that year’s Democratic National Convention in downtown Chicago.

In the disciplinary charges against Heath and two other officers with alleged KKK ties, the police board cited the police department’s Rule 2, which prohibits cops from “any action or conduct which impedes the department’s efforts to achieve its goals, or bring discredit upon the department.”

That prohibition remains a part of the police department’s rules and regulations, and Chicago’s Inspector General Deborah Witzburg now says it should be used to rid the force of cops with ties to contemporary extremist groups.

At his police board hearing in 1968, Heath was defiant. He acknowledged being a longtime member of the Klan, calling it “the most honorable organization known to man,” and admitted trying to grow the group in Chicago by drawing in fellow officers.

Klan leader defends organization, claims no wrongdoing

But Heath denied Tobin’s “fantastic” accusations of violent plots against Daley and others, noting he had been a decorated officer for years and insisting his extracurricular interest in the KKK presented no impediment to continuing to do his job. In fact, Heath said, he worked without drawing complaints in “ghettoized areas” of Chicago.

“At no time has my record been blemished by anything of civil rights, of any various persecutions due to someone’s beliefs, never once,” he said, according to the transcript of his testimony to the police board.

“I have worked with Negro officers many times, with Jewish officers many times,” Heath added. “No conflict, no problems.”

While his case drew headlines, Heath eagerly soaked up the spotlight, reciting the Klan’s oath on the radio and protesting against school busing. The KKK promoted Heath, and he opened a recruitment office in Lake View. But famed columnist Mike Royko found the office closed.

Soon after he was fired in Chicago, Heath was arrested in Akron, Ohio, before a large parade. Officers had searched his car and found a pistol, 75 rounds of ammunition, a police baton, gallons of gasoline, rags, string, pipe casings and a small Klan sign that could be mounted on a car with suction cups. He had moved to Akron two months earlier from Stone Mountain, Georgia, home of the national KKK headquarters.

In December 1968, Sun-Times journalist Art Petacque reported Heath was among five people under investigation in an alleged plot to assassinate all nine U.S. Supreme Court justices. No charges were filed.

Heath had fallen out with the KKK by then, with the group saying he had been banished from their ranks that September for “misconduct,” and the Klan’s national leader would “tolerate no hoodlums.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Tom Schuba covers police for the Sun-Times.

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