The murder by the Ku Klux Klan of an advocate for voting rights in Mississippi during the mid-’60s and the work of an undercover FBI informant who exposed it is the subject of a new book titled “When Evil Lived in Laurel: The ‘White Knights’ and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer.” It’s written by local reporter Curtis Wilkie, who covered Civil Rights in the area for a quarter of a century.
Wilkie will appear at the Atlanta History Center on Thursday, June 17 at 7 p.m. in a free, virtual conversation with veteran journalist and former colleague Hank Klibanoff. For details, see atlantahistorycenter.com.
The “White Knights” you describe were notoriously disorganized, with dissent in the ranks and a lack of mutual trust. You call them “clumsy practitioners of stealth.” Can you talk about that?
The accounts of their meetings clearly spelled out a group of people not particularly well-educated whose burning desire was to keep down the Blacks in the state of Mississippi, and they just weren’t very effective. Even the tactics in which they succeeded — burning down houses or killing people — were counterproductive because the conservative white people in Mississippi who supported segregation were horrified by this kind of conduct.
At the height of their incompetence (a raid in which the activist Vernon Dahmer was fatally wounded), they left behind precious evidence — a pistol and one of the getaway cars — so the whole crew was quickly rounded up. Between the FBI and some of the cooperating local authorities it took roughly two months to arrest everybody, but they weren’t always successful in obtaining convictions.
I was surprised at the sheer stupidity of people involved in the Klan. I was a young reporter in those days, and I certainly remember they were a fearsome group. They terrorized the state and did a pretty good job of that, but I got to see what knuckleheads they were and how, thankfully, they were not always able to pull off many of their missions because they screwed things up.
A place called John’s Restaurant in the town of Laurel hosted Klan members, many of whom would get inebriated and spill secrets, right?
Yes. It concerned some of the more sober members of the Klan who felt this was not helpful at all. John’s Restaurant was run by one of the major figures in the White Knights. Beer was sold and sometimes they added to it with moonshine liquor or regular whisky or gin. They would get drunk and loud and brag about missions where they felt they had accomplished something — burning down a house or intimidating Black families.
Klan leaders liked to portray their activities as Christain militancy, while engaged in campaigns of terror and murder. Why was that?
In order to justify that method of ethnic cleansing 60 years ago, they cloaked it in pseudo-Christianity. Several prominent members of the White Knights were ministers themselves. This philosophy of Christian militancy stated it was proper to kill someone if it was necessary, in a good Christian manner, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. It was clearly a very perverted sense of religion that flies in the face of Christianity.
You met the FBI informant, Tom Landrum, towards the end of his life. Did he have any regrets?
I never heard him express any regrets. He did talk about his fears of being discovered when he was reporting regularly to the FBI, but at the end he was actually quite proud that he did what he could do, as one person in the community, to put an end to the White Knights.