July 30, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Detroit mechanic hid life as Klansman

Jim Burwell )

Detroit

Jim Burwell worked to heal the racial wounds that festered in the wake of the 1967 riot -- or so it seemed.

The squat, bespectacled white man from Ohio, who ran a truck repair shop in the Cass Corridor from the early 1960s until his death in 1990, had a reputation as a color-blind businessman who gave back.

He drove thousands of black children to church services and field trips in his bus. He ran a jobs program for ex-convicts that was partially funded by a civil rights group. African-American, Catholic and Jewish-owned newspapers praised his efforts.

The Detroit Black Panther Party sometimes came to him for money. He gave generously.

But Burwell had a secret that stayed buried with him until a box of weathered documents discovered in his old garage revealed the other half of his bizarre life story:

The civil rights champion who drove the church bus also wore the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

Michigan State Police records found among Burwell's belongings show he was a high-ranking member of the Detroit KKK. His widow confirms his Klan membership.

Some who knew him were shocked to learn of his double life. Others weren't surprised, claiming he didn't hide his racism when African-Americans weren't around.

But nobody could answer the obvious question: Why would a Klansman embrace his black neighbors?

Although Burwell has been dead nearly 20 years, the racial barriers he seemingly tried to destroy remain intact. Metro Detroit has long been one of the country's most segregated regions. Hate groups like the KKK reportedly are growing nationwide because of resentment over immigration issues, the election of a multiracial president and the economy.

Two Klan officials in Michigan -- Randy Gray of the Midland chapter and Phil Lawson in Fraser -- say they have seen membership grow in recent years, while a Southern Poverty Law Center report says the number of hate groups in the state fell by three to 23 in 2008.

Against the backdrop of continuing racial tension, the exposure of Burwell's duplicity provided those who knew him with a sobering reminder of what might lurk behind a smile.

"I guess you never really know who you're dealing with," said Ron Scott, a longtime civil rights activist and former Black Panther who received donations from Burwell, including money to spruce up the Jeffries Projects.

When first informed of Burwell's Klan ties, Scott shook his head and muttered, "That's just amazing. I can't believe it.

"A whole lot of black people considered him their friend."

Box of secrets

For years after his death, Burwell's hooded alter ego was hidden in a narrow, cluttered loft atop his old garage on Third Avenue. Joseph Turner, a Detroit mechanic who purchased the shop from Burwell's estate in 1991, said he'd never explored the loft until he retired years later and decided to clean the area before putting the garage up for sale.

As he sifted through piles of old tires and auto parts, Turner came upon a cardboard box filled with papers.

Inside were yellowed clippings from the Michigan Chronicle, the Detroit Jewish News and the Michigan Catholic. Each newspaper printed stories praising Michigan Convicts Aid, the nonprofit jobs program Burwell founded in 1971 and kept afloat until the mid-'70s.

Photocopies of two checks from New Detroit, an agency formed after the riot to help improve race relations, also were found. A glowing cover letter from New Detroit President Lawrence Doss accompanied the $600 and $200 checks, which were made out in 1972 and 1973 to Michigan Convicts Aid.

A page torn from the June 13, 1971, edition of The Detroit News also was in the box. In the article, Burwell complained to African-American columnist June Brown that he was "a victim of discrimination." He claimed auto insurance companies were offering inflated rates because he drove black children in his bus.

"I handled over 2,000 black kids last summer," he told Brown. "I never had any incidents and not one child got hurt or caused any trouble.

"Whatever I've got to do, I'll do," he vowed. "My bus trips will not stop."

But the Michigan State Police reports also found in Burwell's box of secrets tell another story.

Klan's money man

The reports, which were prepared by undercover state police officers who infiltrated Detroit Klan meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were obtained by Burwell under the Freedom of Information Act in 1981. A copy of the FOIA request was found among his effects.

According to the police reports, Burwell served as the secretary for Unit No. 1 of the local National Knights of the KKK chapter. He handled the group's bank account.

Between 20 and 30 Klansmen usually attended the weekly meetings. The password to get in was "white men."

Meetings were held at Watkins Coffee Shop on Joy Road, which now is a parking lot; and the Slovakian Workers' Hall on Livernois, later home to the Abundant Life Church of God.

Wallace Fruit, who was sent to federal prison for the 1971 bombing of four Pontiac buses after a judge ordered cross-district busing there, attended meetings with Burwell, the police reports show.

Mildred Burwell said she didn't discover her husband of 42 years was in the Klan until after he died. She declined to say how she found out.

"He didn't talk much about the things he did away from home," the 79-year-old Shelby Township resident said.

She speculated that her husband may have been a police informant, although there is no indication in the officers' reports that Burwell was cooperating with their investigation.

Gene Yarnell, a white freelance writer who wrote some of the newspaper articles about Michigan Convicts Aid, said he got the feeling something wasn't right with Burwell.

"I'm not surprised to hear he was in the Klan," said Yarnell, 74. "There were signs he didn't like black people. For instance, with his jobs program, he'd only deal with the white clients; he let his assistant deal with the black guys."

Longtime Cass Corridor resident John Thompson, owner of Honest John's Bar, wasn't shocked to hear of Burwell's Klan ties, claiming the mechanic was openly racist when only whites were present.

"He was pretty open about the fact that he didn't like black people," Thompson said. "He might have hid it when certain people were around, but he didn't try to hide it around me."

Unhappy ending

Burwell, a father of five, dedicated the last few years of his life to avenging his youngest daughter's murder.

Cheryl McMahan, 20, was killed in June 1986. Burwell suspected her husband, James McMahan, had something to do with it.

"Jim kept trying to get the police to investigate the murder, but for a long time they wouldn't do it," Mildred Burwell said.

It took four years, but James McMahan eventually was arrested for the slaying and convicted of second-degree murder. Mildred Burwell recalled waking up and touching her sleeping husband the night before their daughter's killer was to be sentenced.

"He was cold as ice," she said. "Then he got up the next morning and seemed fine. He went to work, and that was the last time I saw him."

On Sept. 28, 1990, Burwell spent a few hours at his garage. Then he headed to Wayne Circuit Court, where James McMahan was sentenced to 50 to 100 years in prison.

After the sentencing, Burwell went back to his shop. He lay down on a couch in the office and drew his last breath. The husband, father, bus driver, philanthropist and Klansman died of a heart attack at 62.

ghunter@detnews.com">ghunter@detnews.com (313) 222-2134

Undercover State Police records indicate Jim Burwell was secretary of a ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Jim Burwell's Ku Klux Klan records were found in a cardboard box in ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Ron Scott, a longtime civil rights activist (Steven Perez / The Detroit News)
Freelance writer Gene Yarnell (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)