The violence and ugliness of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s affected Laurel as it did most small towns during that era. The Ku Klux Klan was very visible in this area during that time. But my research uncovered a surprising twist to the story.
Local incidents were all led by Francis Raymond Edwards, a North Laurel-based leader of the Klan who was a master at manipulating the media and garnering publicity for himself. During 1966 and 1967, it was difficult to keep up with the chaos behind his constant threats, boasts, lies, hoaxes, publicity stunts and bizarre behavior. His organization was responsible for numerous terror incidents in Laurel and other DC-area communities. But in the end, his narcissistic addiction to self-promotion eventually led to his downfall in the secretive racist organization.
In addition to hundreds of media accounts, my research included Edwards' 250+ page FBI file, which I finally received after waiting two years following a Freedom of Information Act request. The file contains descriptions of all sorts of activities, and provides evidence of the extensive surveillance and investigations of Edwards and the local Klan conducted by the FBI, Maryland State Police, Laurel Police, Howard County Police and others. All quotes in this article, unless otherwise referenced, are from the FBI files. Repeated attempts to contact Edwards were unsuccessful.
"We'll use our fists"
Edwards grew up in Connecticut and in 1957 he enlisted in the Army under an assumed name, Miles Peter Moravec, and served for six months before he was "released from military control by virtue of the void enlistment." Somehow, in 1963, when he lived in Takoma Park, he re-enlisted under his real name and served for 11 months at Fort Meade until he was discharged "by reason of unsuitability." Although Edwards was "active in Klan recruiting in [the] Wheaton, MD area since early 1966," little is known of his activities before he appeared on the FBI's radar.
Edwards began his non-stop self-promotion in May 1966, when he "addressed a Klan meeting and cross-burning" in Camp Springs, MD, "and openly introduced himself as the Exalted Cyclops of the Wheaton Klavern, United Klans of America" (UKA). Whether or not it was an official promotion, his boasting did not appear to please the secretive Klan. But he was just getting started.
Three days later, Edwards showed up at the Wheaton Station of the Montgomery County Police Department to introduce himself as the Exalted Cyclops and ask permission for the Klan to hold an open meeting and cross-burning in Rockville. Permission was denied.
One month later, June 12, 1966, was a busy day for him. In the morning, Edwards and three other robed Klansmen paraded in front of the White House in a bizarre protest against four other Klansmen from Gettysburg, PA who were planning to march to DC. Edwards told police the Gettysburg marchers had "no business acting to decide policies when there was a Maryland group so near to DC."
That night, at another cross-burning in Camp Springs, an FBI confidential informant reported that Edwards announced "that his group was breaking away from the UKA." Edwards also informed the Klan that his new group "would cooperate with the American Nazi Party (ANP) as they had similar aims and that his group and the ANP would counter picket any civil rights picketing in the Maryland suburbs." A reporter for the Washington Star asked Edwards about civil rights picketers. "If they start saying things, we'll use our fists," he said. When the cross was burned, he told the Star, "It's a religious symbol. It don't mean we're going to go out and kill someone." Edwards' new group, which he named the "Interstate Klan Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" received the endorsement of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. This new affiliation, according to the Baltimore Sun, was "actively seeking racial bloodshed."
After only a month of his grandstanding, the Klan had seen enough. The next day, June 13, according to the confidential informant, Edwards "was expelled from the Wheaton Klavern of the UKA." It wouldn't be the last time he was shunned by his Klan brethren. But being free of the national organization seemed to energize Edwards. His self-promotion kicked into high gear.
At this point, Edwards (who went by the name "Xavier Edwards") and his wife lived in the Maple Village Trailer Park on Route 1 in Jessup, and he now leased and operated a Phillips 66 gas station on Route 1 southbound in North Laurel. Laurel Police Chief Robert Kaiser advised the FBI that his gas station became the headquarters for his Klan organization.
Two days after being expelled from the UKA, on June 15, Edwards led eight robed Klansmen into DC in an unsuccessful protest of a Voters Registration March in Mississippi. "The march was not completed as MPD [DC Metropolitan Police Department] officers had to lead the Klansmen to safety after the crowd moved in on the marchers. An incident occurred which led to the detainment of a juvenile for spitting on one of the marchers. Edwards became concerned for the sake of the marchers due to the heckling of a growing crowd, and the [KKK] received a police escort back to the Maryland line."
It's difficult to convey, given the space limitations in this article, the constant media buzz and chaos Edwards fomented. At least weekly, and often more frequently than that, Edwards and his Klansmen were in the news burning crosses or marching in Laurel or elsewhere in full Klan regalia for recruitment and, more importantly, publicity.
The threats, boasts, hoaxes, publicity stunts and lies perpetuated by Edwards were all on full display on July 23. A short article in the Sun, "Klan Plans Laurel Rally," said the rally would be at the corner of Main Street and Route 1 southbound, in front of the Patuxent Bank on a Saturday. The News Leader was very precise in its coverage. "Exactly no spectators were evident 15 minutes before the scheduled 11:00 am start of the rally, and those few who congregated there after that apparently were attracted by the appearance of eight or more reporters and photographers, and the usual concentration of police manpower."
For 30 minutes, Edwards tried unsuccessfully to rouse the passersby with racist rhetoric, according to the News Leader. "White man—the blacks are calling you creampuff! Join the Klan," he said, "and we'll show you how to fight." Edwards also announced over his bullhorn that, following the rally, the Klansmen would march to DC to "put down that black power." There was no mention of how they would do that.
The lack of interest was noted by the News Leader. "By the end of the rally, perhaps 40 people could be counted on the sidewalks within sight of the satin-clad Klansmen, but some of the 40 were waiting for a bus."
When the rally ended and the "march" began, Edwards and two of the Klansmen, carrying an American flag, started walking south on Route 1, escorted by police. The rest of the Klan members climbed into cars and followed. After a short distance, out of sight of Main Street, Edwards and the others got into the cars and rode the rest of the way to the DC line in Mt. Rainier, the site of their next rally.
At Mt. Rainier, Edwards met his match: two white housewives. According to the Washington Post, during his racist rant over the bullhorn, "'Say that down at 14th and U!' heckled Mrs. Carroll Carrozza, 31, of Pittsburgh, who was passing by. She and her weekend hostess, Carolyn Banks, 25, of 69 Victor St., NE, then began to sing 'We Shall Overcome,' borrowing the bullhorn from Edwards."
Insults flew between the housewives and the Klan until Mrs. Banks "slapped Edwards on the arm. 'Assault!' the Klansman shouted. 'I want a warrant!' Then Mrs. Carrozza hit Alton Shelton, who said he was the Imperial Chaplain of the Klan. 'Hey! She tore my robe,' Shelton wailed. 'Arrest her too,' said Edwards."
The housewives, along with Mrs. Banks' 4-year-old son, were taken to the Hyattsville station, booked for disorderly conduct, and released on $100 bond.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 5, Edwards pulled another bizarre stunt, presumably for the attention. Klansman Henry Shelton reported Edwards missing to the Maryland State Police because he "failed to appear at a [KKK] meeting." According to the News Leader, the U.S. Coast Guard called Howard County Police and "reported that Edwards had gone out in the Chesapeake Bay from Deale the preceding day, and by 7:30 the following morning had failed to return. His vehicle was located at Deale." The FBI report said he put out in a "16-foot row boat." Police from Howard and Anne Arundel counties, as well as the Coast Guard, were searching for him. Then, without explanation, on Aug. 8, "Mrs. Helene Edwards reported that her husband had returned safely."
The Klan and the Beatles
Just prior to embarking on what would be their final U.S. tour, John Lennon's comments to a British interviewer stoked a firestorm for the group. Lennon spent much time trying to explain and apologizing for saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. In The Beatles Anthology documentary released in 1995, George Harrison recalled, "The repercussions were big, especially in the Bible Belt. In the South, they were having a field day." According to Rolling Stone magazine, "Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton of the Klan's Alabama chapter declared the Beatles brainwashed by the Communist party and criticized them for supporting civil rights." Bonfires fed with Beatles albums and memorabilia were held across the country.
Xavier Edwards saw his chance for maximum exposure. Prior to the Beatles concert at DC (later RFK) Stadium, he gave an on-camera interview to NBC News in front of the stadium. Dressed in a dark Klan robe and wearing sunglasses, Edwards told NBC, "We're going to demonstrate with different ways and tactics to stop this performance. We're the only organization that will come out and make a stop to these accusations. This is nothing but blasphemy and we're gonna try to stop it any terror way we can. We're known as a terrorist organization. We have ways and means to stop this if this is gonna be the case." The interviewer asked, "What ways and means?" Edwards replied, "Well, I don't want to say this but there will be a lot of surprises Monday night when they get here."
Once again, his threats and boasts amounted to nothing, but he got a major dose of publicity. Edwards and some Klansmen paraded outside the stadium before the concert. Rolling Stone quoted Neil Aspinall, the Beatles road manager, "It turned out to be six guys in white sheets and conical hats walking round with a placard. It didn't really amount to much."
The Chaos Continues
The chaos around Edwards continued for the rest of 1966. The FBI was concerned enough that they called him in for an interview in October. Edwards told the FBI agents that the "main objective of the IK [Interstate Klan] is to prevent integration of the white and black races by nonviolent means such as demonstrations and propaganda. … He felt that integration was being pushed by communists and that his organization was against communist and 'left wing' groups. His organization, he stated, would cooperate with any 'right wing' groups opposing communism and that espoused Americanism. He named the ANP, the Minutemen, and the NSRP." [The NSRP, or National States Rights Party, was an off-shoot of the Klan that espoused similar racist views.]
And yet, even to the FBI he couldn't control his boasting and lying. "At the time of the interview, subject [Edwards] furnished information regarding an alleged plan of an unknown member of the UKA to blow up an unspecified Negro church in the Arlington, VA, area, between Oct. 22, 1966 and Nov. 12, 1966. He last furnished information regarding an alleged raid by members of the UKA of North Carolina on an apartment of a member of the Black Muslim or one used by the organization, during which 500 rifles of unknown type were taken. The information was received from members of the IK whom subject refused to name. No information was received indicating either of the two above allegations ever took place or were actually planned."
In the fall of 1966, the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs (ACCESS) was very active in the DC area. Edwards and the IK almost always showed up at their demonstrations. On Oct 30 at a "fair housing demonstration" in Mount Rainier, as described in the Washington Star, the Klan blocked the sidewalk. ACCESS member William Hobbs "protested that his group was non-violent and wanted no trouble. Edwards held up his fist and said 'Do you see that? It's non-violent, too, but I'll use it.'"
In November, Edwards and his Klan counter-demonstrated against ACCESS twice in Arlington, Virginia. On Nov. 6, police kept the Klan across the street and away from the demonstrators, but eggs were thrown by the Klan and Edwards crossed the street yelling for ACCESS to stop "singing that Communist song," We Shall Overcome. Things got heated and ACCESS member David Smith swore out a warrant against Edwards for swearing at him.
On Nov. 20, at another ACCESS demonstration, police served the warrant and discovered Edwards was carrying a tear gas pen. He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon. A few weeks later, both charges were dismissed.
Also in November, Edwards discovered a new way to obtain maximum publicity: political endorsement. He gave an interview on WTOP endorsing George Mahoney for governor over Spiro Agnew. According to the Washington Star, Edwards telegrammed Mahoney, "The Klan and all right-wing organizations and thousand of sympathizers stand behind you 100 percent." Mahoney, loser of his previous six campaigns for either governor or Congress, opposed all fair housing legislation. Mahoney rejected the endorsement, calling the radio interview with Edwards "a complete fraud" designed "to deceive the people of Maryland."
At the end of the year, Edwards announced he was moving the headquarters of the Interstate Klan to Ellicott City after naming Baltimore it's "target city" for 1967. Once again, his boasting amounted to nothing, as his gas station in Laurel continued to be his headquarters, but he received plenty of publicity. Now he had Howard County on edge, as well. But the lie presaged 1967, which saw Laurel and Howard County become the main stage for Edwards.
In Part 2, Laurel experiences the worst racial incident in its history, courtesy of the Klan, and Edwards' increasingly bizarre behavior and legal troubles result in his total separation from the Klan.