By the Way

Ex-KKK member with ties to Coast changed when he saw black lives through their own eyes

George Malvaney, who headed Mississippi's cleanup from the 2010 BP oil catastrophe, was determined as a younger man to turn around his life after joining the Ku Klux Klan and spending time in prison. His first book, "Cups Up," chronicles the insights he gained along the way and his rejection of racism.
George Malvaney, who headed Mississippi's cleanup from the 2010 BP oil catastrophe, was determined as a younger man to turn around his life after joining the Ku Klux Klan and spending time in prison. His first book, "Cups Up," chronicles the insights he gained along the way and his rejection of racism. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com file

The story started with a tip called into the newsroom, as so many do.

The tip found its way from an editor to me: The man running Mississippi's cleanup from the BP oil spill had been an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, the caller said. Check it out, my editor said.

I don't remember, but I'm sure I sighed a long and heavy sigh.

I was thinking about how angry this guy, George Malvaney, was going to be when I called him. He would probably chew me out and hang up on me. That's not what happened.

Instead, we talked over a long lunch and Malvaney told me, unflinchingly, about his Klan involvement. The Klan recruited him after he joined the Navy at age 18, while he was stationed in Virginia.

We talked in June 2010, at the height of the cleanup. Malvaney was working days, nights and weekends as chief operating officer of U.S. Environmental Services, a BP subcontractor.

He dealt with Coast mayors, legislators, congressmen and higher-ups in the government agencies overseeing the work.

His Klan involvement was 30 years earlier, he said. He was a different man then.

The Navy honorably discharged him because of his Klan activity. He returned to Jackson and, through Klan contacts, got involved with a hapless group plotting to stage a military coup on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Federal agents caught up to them before they could pull it off.

Malvaney spent 1 ½ years in prison. Being thrown into a racially mixed environment allowed Malvaney, for the first time, to really get to know some black men.

He didn't change overnight. His awakening is described in a remarkable book, “Cups Up: How I Organized a Klavern, Plotted a Coup, Survived Prison, Graduated College, Fought Polluters and Started a Business.”

In the book, he describes his life-altering experience writing letters home for some of the black prisoners he met.

His fellow convicts whispered personal stories meant for their mothers, their sisters. For the first time, he told me when we talked recently, he saw life through their eyes — not his.

Malvaney decided he wanted his life to be different when he left prison. He describes in the book his love of the outdoors, hunting, fishing and hanging out on the Pearl River as a child.

Any Mississippian reading these early chapters will relate to his descriptions of hunting, fishing and hanging out on the Pearl River.

His love of the outdoors and his determination to transform himself led to a career with the Mississippi Department of Environment Quality and, eventually, USES.

Today, 58-year-old Malvaney works as a Jackson-based environmental consultant and co-owns cleanup company E3 Environmental.

I wasn't the first to write about his involvement with the KKK and a failed coup. Other reporters discovered his past over the years and penned articles.

There's even a book about the coup, “Bayou of Pigs.” But now Malvaney himself has documented how he got swept up in the Klan and how he escaped, telling tales of racists and murderers he met along the way, including Sam Bowers.

In the afterward, he says: “I wrote this book because I wanted to show that we are not our pasts. ... But most important, I wrote this book to try to give others who may be traveling a difficult path in life, as I once was, some inspiration and hope.

“Determination, focus, and hard work can help us overcome some pretty terrible experiences and bad personal traits. Finally, I wrote this book to try and explain myself – not just to others but to me.”

He said he never would have written the book but for that 2010 article in the Sun Herald. He expected anger, scorn and professional repercussions.

Instead, he said, he received only positive comments, even from black co-workers and friends. Those who read the article appreciated his honesty, as did I.

"Now," he said, "it's out there.

"I've never tried to hide it. I didn't talk about it, either. I know it's always been whispered about.

"I think me writing the book really made me understand me better. I didn't realize how much I had changed."

Anita Lee can be reached at 228-896-2331or @CAnitaLee1
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