“The Hero Among Us” is the memoir of the late Jim Ingram and his five decade career as an FBI agent and Mississippi police commander. Ingram played a pivotal role in the investigation, prosecution and ultimate dismemberment of Mississippi’s Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. Besides the KKK cases, Ingram was directly, or at least tangentially, involved in the investigations of judicial corruption in Chicago, Puerto Rican and black national liberation groups, the Jonestown Guyana murders and mass suicides, the assassinations of President John Kennedy and of Dr. Martin Luther King, police shootings at Jackson State University, Watergate, and many others, as an FBI agent in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Jackson, Mississippi.
Ingram details his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover courted and rewarded skilled, dedicated agents, and Ingram rose through the ranks. Ingram reciprocated with loyalty, to the FBI and to Hoover personally. But Ingram recognized Hoover’s weaknesses as well, and Hoover’s attacks and wiretapping of Dr. King, in particular, made it difficult for Ingram to maintain ties and informants within the African-American community.
“The Hero Among Us” reads as if it were dictated into a tape recorder. This sometimes leads to odd, even convoluted, sentences. But it does gain a rhythm, as if sitting next to Ingram as he recites his story. The biggest flaw in this book is the sometimes scant detail. I lived in this era and was anxious to get the inside story. In this I was often left wanting more. Ingram was also a modest man, and quick to share credit. Too often, an investigation is summed up with “we solved the case”. Perhaps Ingram’s story might have been better told as a biography, with critical facts filled in by an investigative reporter or historian. Perhaps though, the detail provided is sufficient for those readers younger than I, who are less familiar with these now historical events.
When detail was provided, “The Hero Among Us” is quite good. Ingram was a “witness hunter,” finding crucial witnesses and convincing them to cooperate, who was also skilled in interrogation. As Ingram says, “Converting an individual into an informant is not a simple task. You have to nurture an individual and lead him to his own conclusion that he wants to help you.” As an example, an FBI surveillance team might watch the home of a known KKK man, and knock on the door when the wife was home alone. The agents might get invited in for a cup of coffee and small talk. Sooner or later, an agent would say something like, “It’s too bad your husband is going to jail for his involvement with the Klan. We know what he did and we are getting ready to prosecute”. Or, they might tell the wife that the FBI is offering to pay Klansmen who turn informant. Quite often, this was enough for the wife to convince her husband to testify against the Klan.
The best part of the book, by far, is the chapters detailing the hate crimes committed by the KKK in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. Members of the KKK could, quite literally, get away with murder at the time. Local police officers were sometime members, and KKK men were rarely arrested. If arrested, sympathetic prosecutors were reluctant to prosecute. If prosecuted, all-white juries (out of sympathy or intimidation) would not convict any white man for killing a black man.
Ingram goes through many of his Mississippi cases, some successfully prosecuted and some not. But during this time, the FBI thoroughly infiltrated the KKK. By the end of the 1960s, the Klan was no longer the intimidating, terrorist force it once was. FBI techniques were quite effective, although perhaps the line was crossed more than once. Ingram was unapologetic. From his perspective, he acted within FBI guidelines (even if such guidelines were flawed), and he may have prevented acts of domestic violence.
“The Hero Among Us” by Jim Ingram is an easy read, and a good summary of the role of the FBI, from one agent’s perspective, during crucial periods of modern history.