Growing up in the '50s, I'd always been taught that FBI agents were heroes of law enforcement. They were lawyers, trained after law school to be intrepid investigators. They were the personification of Truth and Justice — not to mention The American Way.
Like a lot of things, the real-world version didn't quite live up to the legend. First of all, there wasn't a lawyer in a carload. Not back in the 1960s, when I was myself a lawyer, working with FBI agents all the time. The oft-repeated story that "most" agents were trained in the law was just that — a story.
No matter. A well-trained agent didn't need a law degree to be a competent investigator. I met plenty of able FBI agents in my time at the Justice Department. The Bureau's competency quotient was no worse (and probably no better) than that of any other group — for example, my fellow lawyers in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
But the agents were a fascinating lot. I worked with one older agent who lived near Selma, Alabama. He shared all the values of his white Alabama neighbors, and he openly and loudly objected to what he regarded as the disruptive work of the Civil Rights Division.
This man was my official link to the county school systems we were investigating in south Alabama. The idea that I'd have to get my facts about a school system's segregationist practices from this extraordinarily conservative man gave me serious heartburn.
But — surprise! His reports were objective, complete, and frequently damning of the local school systems. Perhaps my agent was not "all eaten up with the Cause," but he was a professional investigator first.
Many of the younger agents I met had a strong cowboy streak and were fully invested in the Ephram Zimbalist Junior-G-Man image of the job. Their attitude toward the Civil Rights Division was simple: Voting rights investigations were boring. They ought to be out working bank robberies.
But their duty sometimes required that they work with Civil Rights Division lawyers in the field, and robbed banks might have to be investigated by someone else. For a period of weeks, five agents accompanied me, the lone Division lawyer, on a county-by-county investigation of voter registration practices all through Alabama.
It was 1965, and a statewide lawsuit, United States v. Alabama, was in progress, seeking a far-reaching court ruling to require county voting officials to register Negro voters.
Evidence-gathering for that lawsuit required that each county's Voter Registration Board be visited so that tens of thousands of past voter registration applications and literacy tests could be photographed on microfilm.
Later, back in Washington, there would be hundreds of hours devoted to painstaking inspection of these microfilm tapes -- looking for evidence of disparate treatment of black and white citizens attempting to register to vote.
The Xerox Corporation had not yet brought simplicity and convenience to the world of copying pieces of paper. My FBI contingent and I traveled with a large, cumbersome camera, built to be assembled and dismantled time after time, so that the lens was suspended, pointing downward, over a portable platform.
One FBI agent would spread page after page of voter registration forms, a single page at a time, under that camera while another agent snapped the picture.
On a good day, we could do the records of two small counties. I would identify the records to be photographed, and the team of agents would snap the pictures. I didn't blame the FBI agents for being bored. The work was tedious and resembled the factory assembly line work that some of them, probably, had struggled through college to avoid.