Self-promoting klansman is finally undone

Laurel Leader

The first two parts of this series described local terrorist incidents in 1966 and the first half of 1967 that were all led by Francis Raymond (Xavier) Edwards, a North Laurel-based leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who was a master at manipulating the media and garnering publicity for himself. It was difficult to keep up with the chaos behind his constant threats, boasts, lies, hoaxes, publicity stunts and bizarre behavior. His narcissistic addiction to self-promotion eventually led to his downfall in the secretive racist organization.

All quotes in this article, unless otherwise referenced, are from Edwards’ FBI file, which I received after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. Repeated attempts to contact Edwards were unsuccessful.

Over the first half of 1967, Edwards and his Klansmen stepped up their activity around the Laurel area. As the number of cross-burnings and arsons in the area increased, the black community in Laurel was naturally on edge. It all exploded on the night of Monday, July 10, 1967, when five white men crept into the Grove, Laurel’s historical black community, around 1:30 a.m.

They first splashed gasoline on the wall of St. Mark’s Methodist Church and tried to set it ablaze. When the concrete block building did not catch fire, they crossed the street and did the same to a house. Fortunately, the homeowner, Norman Thomas, was still awakeand able to quickly extinguish the blaze and evacuate his family, including one person in a wheelchair.

Thomas told police he “had seen a white man run from the side of the house and flee in a waiting car,” according to the News Leader. “The fire caused minor damage to the side of the Thomas frame house,” according to the Washington Post. “Thomas said he could not identify the arsonists, except that they were white.”

“Grove residents gathered on the streets when word of the incident got around,” reported the News Leader. The Post said, “more than 100 Negroes, some of them armed, poured into the streets,” although the News Leader contradicted that, saying “police heard no shots fired and did not find anyone armed.” Rocks were thrown at cars passing on Route 198 but “the crowd dispersed when ordered to do so,” by Laurel Police Department Sgt. Walter Holowchak.

Mildred Awkward, a life long resident of the Grove, saidld me in a phone interview that “black men got together and got guns” for protection.

At daybreak, Laurel Police agreed with Rev. John Evans, pastor of St. Mark’s, to set up nighttime barricades in the Grove for protection. Residents were free to come and go, but others had to have a legitimate reason for passing through the barricades. The entire 18-man Laurel Police force patrolled the Grove in shifts, with assistance from Prince George’s County and Maryland State Police.

Edwards tried to stir up more trouble by announcing that the Klan would march into the Grove at midnight on Tuesday.

“The Grove citizens took to the streets” when they heard about his boast, according to the Baltimore Sun, but Edwards’ most recent run-in with the law gave him a convenient excuse to call off the march. Later that day, he was indicted by a Howard County grand jury on three charges relating to his arrest two weeks prior for burglary at the New Yorker Inn, a motel in Waterloo. He was released from the Howard County jail the next morning on $10,000 bond.

The situation in Laurel was even a topic at Governor Spiro Agnew’s press conference two days later, as reflected in a transcript in the Maryland State Archives. Agnew said he had “been following the Laurel situation … but I haven’t done anything about it because … the mayor had it under control.”

Actually, at that point, they didn’t.

Detective J.D. Ervin of the Laurel Police Department was the lead investigator for the arson case. In a phone interview from his retirement residence in Florida, he recalled the events.

The pressure on Ervin to make an arrest was compounded by statements such as the one by Agnew, as well as Laurel Mayor Merrill Harrison, who tried to convince the populace that an arrest was imminent. According to Ervin, initially they had few leads, but excellent police work soon panned out.

Laurel police visited all the area gas stations that stayed open late to determine the origin of the gasoline used. The information yielded descriptions of cars and suspects. The police suspected Edwards was involved, given his history, but couldn’t establish a link. They eventually zeroed in on a group of Laurel-area men: Paul White, 18, Ronald Butina, 22, William Neilson Jr., 20, Marcus Pressley, 18, and a 17-year-old. Ervin recalled that when he brought Neilson in for questioning, it didn’t take long for the suspect to admit what the group did.

The story that unfolded during questioning was that the five arsonists had visited Edwards earlier that evening at his gas station with the intention of joining the Klan.

“Edwards told them they would have to burn something” as an initiation, Ervin said. But since the church would not burn, they turned to the house across the street.

All five were arrested over the weekend following the arson. The remaining suspects all signed statements confirming the visit to Edwards. Even with the statements, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Arthur Marshall announced that “there is not sufficient evidence at this time” to arrest Edwards in connection with the arson, according to the Central Maryland News. According to Ervin, Edwards fled the state in case they changed their mind.

The nightly blockades and constant police presence had continued during the investigation but ceased after eight nights. That same day, the Prince George’s County Commissioners issued a statement “the county will use all force necessary to prevent the Klan from stirring up future trouble in the Negro section of Laurel.”

During pre-trial motions, Circuit Court Judge William Bowie praised the work of Ervin and the Laurel Police Department.

“I can’t conceive of a case where police officers could have done a better or more thorough job,” Bowie said. ‘They are to be commended.”

Eventually all five of the suspects — but not Edwards — were convicted of arson and sent to prison.

Ervin added another interesting detail: Neilson sent him a Christmas card from prison for years.

When Edwards fled the state to avoid arrest in the Grove arson, his other legal troubles were compounded. On July 19, the day after the blockades in the Grove came down, his trial on charges of grand larceny and receiving stolen goods, dating back to his arrest in April 1967 for stealing an oil rack from a gas station in Beltsville, began in Prince George’s Circuit Court.

When the Prince George’s County Court convened—without Edwards—both of his court-appointed lawyers asked to withdraw from the case. One claimed, “he had been called in last night and had never talked to Edwards,” according to the Washington Star, and the other “said he had made just one call on Edwards’ behalf.” The judge denied the motions. Edwards’ bond was revoked, and an arrest warrant issued.

The FBI initiated an investigation based on an unlawful flight to avoid a prosecution charge issued by the assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore. On Aug. 1, after two weeks on the run, Edwards called the FBI to arrange his surrender. When they arrested him at a gas station in Beltsville, he claimed his life was in danger, according to the News Leader.

On Aug. 8, the same day a Prince George’s County Grand Jury indicted the four adults in the Grove arson case, Edwards pleaded guilty to receiving stolen goods from the Beltsville gas station.

On Aug. 14, 1967, Edwards made a shocking announcement: he had inducted a black man into the Klan. There was to be a photo op in the parking lot of the Kaywood Theater in Mount Rainier with Edwards and the inductee. Edwards planned to introduce “Jack Carter, from Berkeley, California” as the new member.

However, according to an FBI confidential informant, the black man was actually Robert Elliot, from Washington, D.C., whom Edwards knew from his previous job at a printing plant. Edwards told the informant that Elliot “was not inducted into the [Klan] and probably never will be.” According to the FBI, Edwards “hired Elliot to pose for pictures with him and pretend to have been inducted. He was to receive a $20 payment for this, but as no members of the press showed up, Elliot was paid $5 and sent home.”

With his sentencing in the Prince George’s case pending, and his trial for burglary in Howard County looming, Howard County State’s Attorney Richard Kinlein provided Edwards some unwanted publicity. Kinlein asked a Circuit Court judge on Aug. 24 to send Edwards to a state hospital for mental observation. “There are reasonable grounds to believe that he (Edwards) may be insane,” Kinlein told the court.

On Sept. 14, the judge signed a show cause order from Kinlein that claimed Edwards “may be of such mental incapacity that he cannot conduct his own defense.” If the order was upheld, Edwards would be sent to Clifton T. Perkins State Mental Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. There was some irony in this. According to the Central Maryland News, “If Edwards is sent to Perkins Hospital his case will be under the direction of Dr. John Hamilton, who has the final say in all mental evaluations for the court. Dr. Hamilton is a Negro.”

On Sept. 25, Edwards was sentenced to 18 months in Prince George’s County following his guilty plea to illegally possessing stolen goods. Judge Samuel Meloy suspended the sentence after Edwards promised to “disassociate” himself from the Klan, according to the Washington Post.

At the same time, a confidential informant told the FBI that Edwards “is having trouble keeping a following” and is having financial trouble. He also added that “most of the members of the [Klan] are generally fed up with Edwards due to his publicity stunts.”

On Oct. 6, the judge in Howard County dismissed Kinlein’s petition to compel Edwards to undergo a mental exam. The judge ruled that “the State doesn’t have the right to require a person to undergo examination for his competence prior to trial.” Edwards’ attorney told the Washington Post his client was “as lucid as daylight itself.”

In an interview with the FBI on Oct. 19, William Sickles, who was trying to start a new splinter Klan organization, said, “all the former members of the [Klan] that he knew were completely disenchanted with Edwards.”

Edwards’ Klan days appeared to be over. By November 1967, informants and police reported “that Edwards has almost completely forsaken all his old associates and most of those who had been contacted in the recent past, he had alienated by borrowing money and not paying it back,” and that he “has made no efforts in the Maryland area to reorganize the [Klan].”

Edwards did indeed cease his Klan activities. For the next year, he was in trouble and on the run for numerous schemes to pass bad checks. One incident during this time in particular stood out. During the two months in 1968 when James Earl Ray avoided capture after being identified as a suspect in Martin Luther King’s assassination, detectives from Arlington County, Va., on April 26, 1968, “received information one Ray Williamson, maintenance man at Prospect House Apartments, Arlington, Virginia, resembled James Earl Ray. In calling at the apartments, detectives were observed and Williamson fled. Investigation disclosed Williamson to be [Edwards] and not Ray.”

Edwards served prison time until his parole in 1974. In possibly the worst rebuke it could have given to the former insatiable publicity hound, the FBI, in 1977, declared that Edwards was “no longer of interest to” them.

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