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Tennessean reporter Jerry Thompson took his golf clubs with...

By
DUREN CHEEK

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessean reporter Jerry Thompson took his golf clubs with him when he headed south to Alabama on Labor Day in 1979 to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.

He never got in a single game during his 16-month assignment, but a false bottom in his golf bag was used to hide his notes and the recorder casettes he used to make tapes of his life as a member of two Klan factions.

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Thompson, whose Klan series has been running in The Tennessean since Dec. 7, spoke with UPI about his experiences Sunday.

The reporter, who has appeared on two national television shows and been contacted by book publishers and movie makers since his stories began appearingdaily on wire service reports, said he was 'overwhelmed and unprepared for the sudden onrush of interest.'

'I have three or four book publishers calling me. Several television production companies and movie companies want the movie rights. I never had the wildest expectation that the series would generate this kind of interest.'

It's all a far cry from the days when he was growing up in rural middle Tennessee, thinking about becoming a teacher, or possibly a medical technician.

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Thompson worked for a time as a salesman in the sporting goods department of a Nashville store while attending Austin Peay State University at nearby Clarksville. He became hooked on the news business after he landed a job as a copyboy at the Tennessean in 1961. He had just finished his junior and senior years in college, and he never went back.

Thompson kept 'bugging' the city editor for a chance to try out as a reporter. What was to have been four weeks of filling in while the regular police reporter was on vacation turned into a six-year assignment on the police beat.

That led to coverage of major race and prison riots during the 1960s and later to such assignments as coverage of Alabama Gov. George Wallace's campaign for president, a grain export scandal in New Orleans and a stint as the newspaper's night city editor.

In July of 1979, Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler talked with him privately about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. After several discussions, the decision was made to do it.

'We spent the whole month of August in preparation,' Thompson said. 'There were meetings with Seigenthaler and managing editor Wayne Whitt to discuss such things as which factions to infiltrate. We met with the newspapers' lawyers to see how far I could go in certain legal situations.

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'We spent about three hours with Dr. Otto Billig, a psychiatrist, so he could tell me what to expect. I had to fabricate a whole new background. I had to re-create a 20-year Army career. I had to know what were the favorite beer joints near certain Army bases. I had to know where a soldier at a certain base would go to have a good time.'

As Thompson infiltrated the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and later the Invisible Empire Ku Klux Klan, he kept records of his experiences by making notes or talking into a tape recorder.

'I made a false bottom in my golf bag and kept the casettes and notes in there,' he said.

Thompson would return home at least once each month, bringing his notes and casettes with him, to meet with Seigenthaler and Whitt and have a quick visit with his wife and four children.

The project was so secret that only the very top echelon of the newspaper knew about it and they had leaked word that Thompson had a drinking problem and was confined to a treatment center for alcoholics.

The notes and casettes were transcribed shortly after Thompson delivered them, 'but I never wrote a word (for a story) until I got back,' he said.

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Thompson said he was frightened throughout the experience but would do it again if necessary to let the public know about the Klan.

An old friend observed that the balding and pot-bellied Thompson, sporting an orange and white University of Tennessee baseball cap, did not seem to be the fun-loving fellow he had known for so long.

There have been threats made by telephone to the newspaper, and Thompson was asked if he feared Klan retribution.

'I'm not afraid of any organized effort to go get Jerry Thompson,' he said. 'I'm somewhat apprehensive that a couple of these good ol' boys might go out and get liquored up and do the Klan a public service.

'That's why I travel with police protection and have K-9 dogs around my house.'

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