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Oral history interview with Dargan Frierson by Eugene Pfaff
Dargan Frierson was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation assigned to monitor the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, Black Panthers, and demonstrators in Greensboro, N.C., from 1951 to 1971.
Eugene E Pfaff
In this transcript of an oral history interview conducted circa 1980 by Eugene Pfaff with Dargan Frierson, Frierson discusses FBI investigation into the 1969 incident at North Carolina A&T and the death of Willie Grimes. He also provides his opinions of the FBI under the J. Edgar Hoover's directorship.
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Oral history interview with Dargan Frierson by Eugene Pfaff
Did the FBI conduct any investigation into who these snipers were and how they operated and what became of them?
Well, we—let me just say this, that Willie Grimes was the black student who was killed. And an allegation was made that his civil rights were violated; and I handled that case myself, I investigated the Willie Grimes case from the beginning to the end. And we did an exhaustive investigation as to who might have been the individual who killed Willie Grimes. There was absolutely no way to find that out. There was so much shooting going on out there that night—Willie Grimes was hit in some sort of crossfire from something. There was no way in the world to tell who did it.
There were all sorts of inflammatory statements made by—I remember one of them by Vincent McCullough, who was president of the student body at the time. I think he said something about that the police had shot him [Grimes], and while he was on the ground pleading for his life, they shot him a second time. That's all a bunch of hogwash. I was at Moses Cone Hospital emergency room within five minutes after Willie Grimes was brought there. He had one slug in the back of his head; it was battered. I don't think they were really able to determine whether it was pistol round or could have been a round from a double buck, I don't know whether—I can't remember now.
But he was hit by one chance slug right in the back of his head. All of this stuff about being shot while he was on the ground, pleading for mercy was just a bunch of garbage. It was a tragic thing that happened. But, sure, we did investigate that thoroughly trying to determine whether law enforcement officers, overzealous in their duties, were responsible for Willie Grimes' death. And we never came up with any resolution on that matter.
Did you ever investigate that story that they said there was a black, unmarked car that stopped as he and the other students were running away, that possibly his name was called out and that this is where the shot came from?
Yes. We investigated that. I talked to every witness that supposedly heard all of that, and when you got down talking man-to-man, nobody had any information.
First off, there were no—they had it—I believe it was a white car instead of a black car wasn't it? Anyhow, it was a white car that had no markings on it, but had blue lights. Well, there was no such car here. I checked police, sheriff—there was no such car, whether it was black or white, there was no such car with blue lights.
Willie Grimes was killed, in my opinion, by an unfortunate series of events that resulted in this tremendous crossfire and he got hit. I investigated that personally and we never could come up—I talked to everybody that—all of this positive information that they supposedly had, I talked to every one of those people myself. And when you talked with them personally, one-on-one, not one of them had any specific information.
What resulted, do you think, in the fact that this area has been considered a center of the black power movement, because of the activity of Nelson Johnson and Howard Fuller. Then suddenly, there wasn't any more mention of it after about the—I believe they had a shootout at the Panther headquarters in High Point, and then, of course, up in Chicago the death of the—the shootout that resulted in the death of a prominent Panther leader up there.
Yeah, that was a real shootout.
Yes. What resulted in the decline of this intensity of black militancy in this area?
Here? I don't know, Gene. Greensboro, as you have said, was well known as the center of black activity for a while. Then, I hope that just a better community relations effort by the police and city fathers and so forth might have caused it to diminish. You recall, Howard Fuller moved Malcolm X Liberation University over to Greensboro. They had a place down on Asheboro Street, and I went down and talked with those people on a couple of occasions. I knew all of these folks personally. I didn't get a lot of information sometimes, but I knew them all.
You're right. Cleveland Sellars, all of the top militant people came here. What was the fellow's name that went to Africa and came back? Gosh I don't—
No, not Elridge Clever he stayed—what was the other fellow's name that came through here and was such a dynamic speaker?
Oh, yes, I know. Vinnie Vengoren McCuba?
Yes, well, anyhow, this was a center. And I can't remember the years—I remember, of course, I retired in '71, so we must be talking about the late '69, early '70 era when this activity just tended to diminish. And I know by the time that I retired in '71, I was able to work a reasonably eight hour day, which was a novelty for me for many, many years.
So, I don't know how to account for that, Gene. They, as I said of course, they brought Malcolm X University over here, had the Student Organization for Black Unity—that was SOBU—we had YOBU [Youth Organization of Black Unity], we had—I don't remember all these black organizations that headquartered here. And then gradually, they just tended to die down and dissipate and disappear. And so, Nelson Johnson has never left us, he's been with us the whole time, and he has set up other little small groups. That was after my leaving the FBI.
Are you familiar with this book Civilities and Civil Rights?
No, I haven't read it.
In that book, the author states that, in his opinion, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the violence in '69 was fomented by an undercover agent, a government agent, who tried to get into the top leadership. What he says is that he tried to sell them drugs, and then he tried to tell them where they could pick up high-powered arms. Are you familiar with any of that?
I would categorize that as pure hogwash. That did not happen. The informants that I had would have known if it had happened. That is pure hogwash.
This thing was an indigenous thing among the A&T [NC A&T State University] students who had some leadership now, from some pretty sharp organizers from elsewhere who had come in. As I said it was a general frustration that was building up all over the country. To say that any government agent had anything to do with it is pure unadulterated hogwash.
I know that in the—we've discussed these subsequent disclosures about the FBI, and that they said that as it—not so much civil rights now, but into the anti-war groups, like the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and other organizations, the Weathermen, that sort of thing—that in some of these rallies there were more FBI and undercover agents than supporters or demonstrators. Would you say this possibly could be true? [laughter]
Well, it might have happened. We were pretty thorough in our coverage and I can see how on some occasions there might have been several, several of our sources who were present. I doubt that they outnumbered them, but we might have had several at some of the occasions. [laughter]
I would just like to make one comment about that, and we received an awful lot of abuse, the FBI did, after that. You know, perhaps we were overzealous in some instances. Undoubtedly, we did things that, in the purest sense of the word perhaps, might have bent some of these rules that we might—maybe we shouldn't have done it. But Gene, you know, the Weathermen were proudly taking credit for blowing up businesses, headquarters of companies, banks and—
The Math Building at the University of Wisconsin.
Exactly, killed off that boy—we had a group of fanatic people who were, had—these were no pink-cheeked, fuzzy-bearded liberal, I mean, sophomores at college, these were dedicated revolutionaries who were, of course, using college students to their disadvantage many times.
But sure, we in the FBI were terribly concerned about this; sure, we infiltrated them. We had a group of people who were trying to destroy this country. Now, we—I don't know what charter there was or what it was as far as the FBI's counterintelligence responsibility, but by golly I was one American citizen who wasn't going to sit back and see these things going on without trying to do something about it. Maybe we were overzealous, maybe we did some things that we shouldn't have, but all I've got to say is I'm damn proud of what I did. I did what I thought needed to be done.
Those militant organizations were a threat to the security of this country—the Black Panthers, the white militant organizations. The Black Panthers, you know, had a movie, a film called Off the Pig that they used to show to their youngsters, kids. They had Black Panther magazines, I mean coloring books, where they had the Panthers killing the police and so forth, blood spurting out of them and all; this was for children to color. Now when you start dealing with people like that, and the Weathermen, who were dedicated revolutionaries, who were proudly taking credit for these things—blowing up buildings and so forth, killing people—somebody had to do something, and I'm damn proud of the FBI that I was in, that I did something about it, and I have no excuses or apologies to make to anybody.
Was there any of that kind of activity in this area?
No, not that I have any knowledge of. No.
As a way of summing up—I realize you have other obligations—are you familiar with this book written by Fred J. Cook called The FBI Nobody Knows?
What are your responses to the allegations that he makes about the FBI?
Well, Fred Cook was a very disillusioned FBI agent who got very embittered. And you know, Gene, when you are dealing with an organization with eight thousand men, sure, you can find some oddballs in any organization and you can portray some of their actions as ludicrous or horrendous or anything that you wanted.
Mr. Hoover was, in my opinion, was one of the finest Americans that will ever live, and he will go down in history someday as such, although now some groups want to take his name off of the FBI Building and so forth. Sure, he was overzealous, we all were. Law enforcement officers generally, you know, are pretty zealous people, or they wouldn't be in law enforcement. Those allegations by Fred Cook—I don't remember the book, so many have been written recently, Gene, making derogatory remarks about the FBI—I don't remember what its particular allegations were.
Can I just mention one or two as examples?
One—of course, a lot of this as he goes back through the history of the FBI he's talking about that—well, one of his criticisms is that Hoover, Director Hoover deliberately did this Ten Most Wanted list as a kind of a publicity way of publicizing this and that—when really there were more serious crimes, but that would have required longer term investigations and wouldn't have captured the public's imagination, and that in the course of this pursuing some of these criminals like Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde, and so forth, that the FBI deliberately did not cooperate with the local law enforcement.
That's a bunch of garbage. Let me just say this: sure, the FBI established the Ten Most Wanted list as a publicity thing, certainly we did. It worked mighty well. Through the Ten Most Wanted List, we were able to catch a bunch of ornery people who needed to be in jail. I didn't know he delays it, [and] that they were not sometime the most badly wanted, I don't know anything about that—
Law enforcement cannot function without the cooperation of the public. The FBI always had among 99 percent of the public, when I was in the FBI, complete cooperation. Sure, they put out these publicity things because that was great. I remember distinctly half a dozen of those top ten people that were caught, to my own knowledge, as a result of somebody seeing all this publicity and saying, “Look, this guy just moved into the community, you know, and he's got no source of income and he was one of the top ten.” Sure we did that kind of stuff. If that's poor law enforcement practice, well, I just disagree with Mr. Cook.
I recall that also he made some serious allegations about how unfair Mr. Hoover was, and how he was a tyrant and this sort of stuff. I just say this about Mr. Hoover: when I went into the FBI in 1947, nobody hid, in any way shape or form, that it was a tough outfit. The discipline was far tougher than I'd ever run into as an aviation cadet in the army and all that sort of stuff. Everybody knew Mr. Hoover had a very rigid discipline system. If you embarrassed the Bureau, you got transferred to Butte, Montana [laughing]; if you didn't like Butte, Montana, don't embarrass the Bureau. There were instances where this doctrine of his was abusive to some agents. I had friends who I thought were unjustly transferred because they had, quote, “embarrassed the Bureau.”
We all knew it, we went in there with our eyes wide open; if you didn't like it, don't get in it. We knew we were subject to call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and sometimes we worked almost that much. We knew all of these bad features. We knew that you didn't—if you went out and got drunk and made a fool of yourself, you'd be fired the next day. We weren't under Civil Service, we knew this; Mr. Hoover never let the FBI go under Civil Service. He ran a tight ship. Perhaps his disciplinary system was antiquated, and I might gather that all the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and all, by God, they could never survive like that.
But what I'm saying is when Fred Cook was in there, same time that I was, we knew what we were getting into. Nobody made any effort to cover it up, it was a tough outfit. Mr. Cook got disillusioned—I believe he got transferred to Oklahoma City. He didn't want to leave Miami—I don't remember the details. What it was, there'd been so many of these disillusioned agents who had done this. And he picked up some of the idiosyncrasies and Mr. Hoover made fun of them. Sure, he was—had some idiosyncrasies, we all do.
All I've got to say is I have tremendous admiration for Mr. Hoover; he was a tough boss. I knew he was tough, but when you are dealing with eight thousand young men full of fire and vinegar you've got to be tough. Thank God, the reputation of the FBI has never been dragged down like the IRS sometimes, or some of these other investigative agencies, and the reason it wasn't was because Mr. Hoover ran a tight ship.
Do you think that it's appropriate, do you think that it's a good move, or what is your reaction to the tendency now for the FBI investigations move into what is called "white collar crime?"
Excellent. Excellent. Needed to have been done a long time ago. I must say this, and I guess this might be some derogation about the Bureau under Mr. Hoover's leadership. Mr. Hoover, every year when he went before Congress for his appropriation, he wanted the FBI's conviction rate to be higher than it had, and this resulted in us messing around with some little piddly cases. We had to solve a certain number of stolen car cases and those easy cases in order to keep the conviction rate up, I admit all of that. Maybe Mr. Hoover shouldn't have been deceptive, if that was being deceptive, when he went before that committee for his appropriations. But now I understand that they have gotten away from this and they are getting into the major white-collar crime, the organized crime, and I think it's a great move, definitely.
So, you support such investigations as Abscam?
Absolutely. And I just would like to say in closing, that, you know, in all my years in the FBI, when you caught a guy, and you had him right where you wanted him, the only thing he could ever claim was entrapment. And so, these guys are all screaming “entrapment,” and they're just as guilty as sin. They're all screaming “entrapment.”
And I'll have to say this: Mr. Webster, you know, the present director, was one of the outstanding United States district judges before he was named director. I read in the paper that he personally kept a close track of everyone of these moves. I think Mr. Webster is fully capable of knowing what's entrapment and what isn't. It's all on tape and it's all on video, let's wait and see how it comes out. I don't think you'll find any agents entrapping anybody. When Mr. Webster was telling them how to run it, you can be sure it was run properly, I'm sure of that.
EP: Thank you very much.
Enjoyed it, Gene.
[End of Interview]