Get the Crime Reads BriefThank you for subscribing!
- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
CrimeReads on TwitterMy Tweets
June 2, 1967, might have gone down in history as a day that changed history. Donald Nissen, only recently released from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, sat across from Dallas FBI agents in a Sherman, Texas, jail, arrested for cashing a bad check. But the agents were not there to deal with that minor charge, one that eventually was dismissed. Nissen had written to federal law enforcement, insisting he needed to deliver a warning about a threat to a national political figure.
Nissen shared his story with the agents. In the spring of 1967, a few weeks before Nissen’s release from Leavenworth, a fellow inmate, Leroy McManaman, approached him about a contract for the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Though they were not friends, the two became acquainted while working alongside each other in Leavenworth’s famous shoe factory. Over the course of several months, they exchanged “war stories” about their criminal histories; Nissen shared his stories of home robberies and petty theft; McManaman’s résumé included everything from high-stakes bootlegging to the interstate transportation of stolen cars.
Nissen’s intellect likely impressed McManaman. Nissen earned favor with fellow prisoners as a “jailhouse attorney” who could help with legal appeals. But two additional facts made the inmate even more attractive to McManaman as a potential co-conspirator: Nissen’s sentence was almost over, and the soon-to-be-released inmate had already planned to work in Atlanta, Georgia, hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
MacManaman promised Nissen a share of a $100,000 bounty offer if he helped McManaman with King’s murder. As the agents recorded in their 1967 report, McManaman outlined two available roles: Nissen could conduct surveillance on King and report his movements to the actual killers, or he could be part of the killing itself. McManaman also asked Nissen to ask his cellmate, John May, a master machinist, whether May could construct a special gun for King’s shooting. Additionally, Nissen told the FBI that if he said yes to McManaman, a series of go-betweens would link Nissen into the conspiracy, allowing him to avoid the suspicion of law enforcement. The go-betweens included a female real estate agent in Jackson, Mississippi; someone named “Floyd” whose last name Nissen could not recall for the FBI; and an individual with connections to the U.S. Marshals office. McManaman also told Nissen the money for the assassination was coming through the most violent racist organization in America, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi.
Such threats against Dr. King were not unknown to the FBI. Files from FBI field offices around the country contained reports of bounty offers on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. spanning more than a decade. Such occurrences were so common, in fact, that the FBI accidentally stumbled upon another such offer in their first investigation of Nissen’s claims. When they interviewed Nissen’s cellmate, the machinist John May, he confirmed that Nissen had told him about McManaman’s scheme. It had not made any real impression at the time because he had heard of similar offers a few years before, at a bar in North Carolina. In other words, May thought discussions of bounties on King were little more than jailhouse gossip.
That is how the FBI treated Nissen’s warning, as simply another of the bounty reports. To be fair, many of the reports lacked specifics that could be corroborated. FBI reports of King bounties often took the form of “he-said/he-said” claims, in which a known racist would be mentioned as offering a contract on King’s life. The prominent racist would, as expected, deny said accusation, and federal agents would be left without any basis for further investigation.
However, matters were much different with bounties circulating within federal prisons. The FBI simply did not have the kind of free access to prisoners that they had to civilians. Any prisoner who remained behind bars risked serious and violent payback for talking to law enforcement. There are no pre-assassination records released to date in which an inmate warned the FBI of a King assassination plot as it was forming: none except Nissen’s.
But information developed by the FBI, albeit after the assassination, shows that prison bounty offers were circulating and were deadly serious—having filtered into multiple prisons, with dollar offers that were substantial, fronted by socially prominent racists. Notably, the son of a prison guard in Georgia (confirmed, later, by the guard’s daughter) told the FBI that his father became aware of meetings between three unidentified Atlanta business leaders and prisoners in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary; in 1967 the businessmen offered large sums of money to any prisoner willing to murder King. The father attempted to provide this information to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation but was rebuffed. By 1968, the FBI asserted: “We have had several instances where persons incarcerated at various times advised that King had a bounty of $100,000 placed on his head.”
The bounty offers against King show a pattern, one that will become important in understanding what happened to Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Wealthy segregationists and white supremacists in the Southeast were becoming increasingly eager to kill King, increasing their dollar offers, from less than $2,000 in 1958 to $100,000 by 1968. Just as important was a change in their tactics, with radical groups turning from plots involving their own members or those of associated groups to those involving professional criminals.That is how the FBI treated Nissen’s warning, as simply another of the bounty reports.
One group of racists had explored contracts with criminals as early as 1964: the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, the group Leroy McManaman told Nissen was offering the 1967 bounty. That year the White Knights had offered a contract on King to an increasingly active criminal network—one growing both in its numbers and in its willingness to use brazen, wanton violence—now referred to as the Dixie Mafia. Called “rednecks on steroids,” these men (and women) were fundamentally different from their Sicilian counterparts in La Cosa Nostra.
For one thing, they often lacked a formal hierarchy with one godfather calling the shots; rather, the Dixie Mafia comprised several independent and loosely affiliated gangs of more-or-less co-equal members who worked out of two major territories in the Great Plains and in the Southeast. Modern-day desperadoes, members of what were first called the Traveling Criminals or Crossroaders, cut their teeth robbing homes and banks, heisting stolen cars across state lines, running illegal gambling operations, hatching extortion and bribery scams, and running drugs and guns in their theaters of operation. The core of a Dixie Mafia gang might include a bootlegger, a safe cracker, a getaway driver, a strong-arm man (or several), among others, and they would frequently augment their group with additional hoodlums outside of the core group if such expertise or additional manpower was needed.
They were also more avaricious and less scrupulous than the Sicilian Mafia. The Italian mob famously shied away from killing government officials and members of law enforcement. But almost nothing stood between a Dixie Mafia gang and money. In one of the most brazen examples, gangster Donald Sparks, whose base of operations was in eastern Oklahoma, and an associate, William Kenneth Knight, robbed the mayor of Fort Payne, Alabama, in his home, at gunpoint—and then, when caught, stole the victim’s car and fled the scene of the crime. (It turned out that members of local law enforcement were “in” on the plot.)
More alarmingly, in 1967, Dixie Mafia members infamously killed the wife of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, lionized in the drive-in movie classic Walking Tall; she died in the sheriff’s arms, from a rifle bullet that, whether meant for Pusser (and missed) or for his spouse, was no doubt intended to stop the lawman from shutting down Dixie Mafia gambling and liquor schemes at the Tennessee-Mississippi border.
Many in what became known as the State Line mob fled to McNairy and Alcorn Counties (in Tennessee and Mississippi respectively) following a crackdown on Dixie Mafia activity in the vice-infested city of Phoenix, Alabama, in 1954—the year of another bold political assassination. In that instance, a hitman, most believe on orders from local Dixie Mafia lords, killed the law-and-order attorney general elect Albert Patterson. Author Faith Serafin described the horrible encounter:
“Patterson . . . left his office at about 9:00 p.m. As he exited the building, approaching his car that was parked in the alley . . . an assailant approached him and shoved a pistol in his mouth. Without hesitation, the killer red, shooting Patterson once in the mouth, once in the arm and again in the chest. Albert Patterson fell to the ground bleeding and mortally wounded.”
The shocking crime inspired Alabama governor Gordon Persons to call in the National Guard to crack down on the crime-infested metropolis using limited martial law, encouraging the exodus into nearby states. Years later, that led to the Dixie Mafia showdown with Pusser in Tennessee.
More than thirty years after Patterson’s killing, Dixie Mafia gangsters murdered Judge Vincent Sherry and his politician wife, Margaret, in their Biloxi, Mississippi, home. The crime was motivated by what turned out to be false suspicions that Sherry was involved in, and skimming money from, a Dixie Mafia extortion scheme. The killing was arranged by Kirksey Nix, a one-time enemy of Pusser, who “maintained tight control over the mob’s operations in Louisiana and Mississippi despite spending two decades in prison for killing a grocer.”
Not surprisingly, certain Dixie mobsters earned reputations as killers for hire, among them Don Sparks, who some suspect was involved in the still-unsolved murder of Pauline Pusser. Sparks, in fact, earned such a strong reputation as a contract killer that Sicilian crime families hired him for professional murders.
In 1964, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi reached out to Sparks and at least one other criminal, in hopes of murdering King when he came to Mississippi. On the run after another string of robberies, Sparks revealed outlines of the plot to a fellow Oklahoma-based gangster, Hermit Eugene Wing, who, within months, revealed the information to the FBI in 1965. When the FBI followed up they approached a Jackson, Mississippi, police officer, John Chamblee, who confirmed hearing rumors that the KKK had “hired a ‘killer’; from the State of Oklahoma to murder Martin Luther King Jr. when King was in Jackson. The ‘killer’; was known as ‘Two Jumps’ and came to Jackson, Mississippi to ‘case’ the layout and while in Jackson, stayed at the Tarrymore Motel was to use a high-powered rifle with telescopic sights. This deal allegedly fell through when the Klansmen could not raise the $13,000 demanded by ‘Two Jumps.’”
Donald Sparks earned the nickname “Two Jumps” because of his fondness for rodeo, something the FBI learned, in part, during their 1965 investigation, when a Mississippi Klansman also reported hearing vague rumors of a plot against King. Asked about Sparks, the Klansman, whose name is still hidden in government records, responded, “You mean Two Jumps?” at the Klansman was familiar with Sparks is not surprising given that, according to Klan expert Michael Newton, the Mississippi White Knights used Dixie Mafia men in “strong-arm operations.”
But the FBI had dismissed the 1964 White Knights assassination rumor as unreliable—a decision that was to have dire implications for Dr. King. The FBI did so because they could not corroborate another crime mentioned by their Oklahoma informant, implicating Sparks in the murder of a Dixie Mafia drug tracker. Even though the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation gave credit to that claim, the FBI chose to dismiss both it and the allegation that Sparks had been involved in a White Knights plot against King. The FBI chose to dismiss the primary allegations despite the strong corroboration from Detective Chamblee. Those FBI decisions helped seal Martin Luther King Jr.’s fate three years later. In retrospect it appears clear that the threat that Nissen was relaying was simply a second attempt by the White Knights to use Dixie Mafia members to kill Dr. King. In 1967, the White Knights would rely on outsiders to provide the money they could not raise in 1964.
Independent corroboration for Wing’s account of the Sparks–White Knights bounty came from another Dixie Mafia member, William Kenneth Knight, who, in the late 1960s, became a valued cooperating witness for federal prosecutors in trials of other hoodlums. Knight participated in criminal activity with both Wing and Sparks, including the aforementioned robbery in Fort Payne. According to post-assassination documents from 1968, Knight told FBI agents that Sparks described the 1964 bounty offer to him (Wing was also present, according to Knight) while they were on the run from law enforcement in 1966; the account closely matched what Wing attributed to Sparks and relayed to the FBI in 1965. Since the conversation between Knight and Sparks occurred in 1966, it had to be an independent discussion of the plot. Knight recalled the dollar figure as $10,000 and he did not remember whom Sparks identified as the sponsor, if he identified anyone at all. The FBI report stated:
“Knight stated that Sparks is perfectly capable of committing a murder and is a known hater of Negroes. According to Knight, Sparks is not known to make jokes and it was believable to Knight that an actual offer was made to Sparks by someone.”
When the FBI followed up on Knight’s reports and interviewed Sparks, they found him in detention in an Alabama prison. He denied involvement in any King plot, then adamantly refused to answer follow-up questions. The FBI correctly noted that Sparks had been in detention for months and could not have been in Memphis, and used that to dismiss him as a suspect. This ignores the well-established modus operandi of the Dixie Mafia, of organizing crimes from behind prison bars (the murder of Judge Vincent Sherry by Kirksey Nix is only the most famous example.) A more thorough investigation of the aborted effort by the White Knights to pay Sparks to kill King in 1964 would have led to just such an operation. It would have led to Leroy McManaman and the bounty offer he made to Donald Nissen in Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1967.
McManaman not only knew Sparks well, he almost definitely worked with Sparks in the unrealized project to kill King in Mississippi in 1964. The second iteration of the White Knights plot, the one revealed by McManaman to Nissen, was a continuation of the e ort that had failed to assassinate King in 1964. Only this time, the bounty plot would succeed on April 4, 1968.
The White Knights, and the network of racist zealots who supported them, never wavered in their aim to kill King—engaging in multiple plots until they found their mark, literally and figuratively, in 1968. But in the highly compartmentalized FBI, reports deemed “unreliable” had no currency, so Sparks’s account to the informant never reached the agents tasked with investigating Nissen’s report of a bounty three years later. It was only revisited in the investigation that followed King’s murder.
Nissen himself knew nothing about any connection to the 1964 bounty. The authors developed the connection between the two events by collating and corroborating often minor details in newspaper accounts, interviews, and never-before-released government records. McManaman only relayed the details of the most up-to-date 1967 bounty offer to Nissen. There was no mention of Sparks or “Two Jumps” and a high-powered rifle at the Tarrymore Motel. Nissen wanted no part of it. He was a career burglar and con man, not a murderer. He had used guns in his crimes, but he had never shot anyone. But saying no to someone like McManaman, while both remained at Leavenworth, was dangerous. Knowing too much already, Nissen could have been killed before his release, before he went to Atlanta and the sales job he had waiting for him. Nissen told his cellmate John May about the offer, but not with any intent to recruit May. Nissen was thinking out loud, debating how to thread the needle between avoiding involvement in a potential capital offense and avoiding being the victim of one at the hands of McManaman. Ultimately, he decided to keep to himself and bide his time until he was released.
This tactic—never saying “yes” or “no” to McManaman—seemed smart at the time, but it would cause Nissen more trouble than he ever expected. On that Friday, June 2, 1967, sitting across from two special agents from the FBI, Nissen thought he had his opportunity to safely extricate himself from future association with the plot against King. Hundreds of miles away from Leavenworth and McManaman, he had no intention of going back to prison on a life sentence, and he gave information to the Dallas FBI as much to protect himself as to save King from being killed.
It now appears likely that Donald Nissen’s June 1967 story to federal agents might have preempted King’s tragic murder on April 4, 1968—if only the FBI had investigated it more fully. Instead they conducted a superficial investigation in the summer of 1967 that did nothing but expose Nissen to danger.
The FBI did not revisit Nissen’s story until April 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Nissen, they discovered, had jumped parole and disappeared. Despite his desire to disentangle himself from the plot against King, Nissen’s unwilling involvement had only just begun on that summer day in June 1967.
From Killing King: Racial Terrorists, James Early Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. by Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock. Courtesy Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018, Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock.