On Jan. 9, 1966, the White Knights of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan murdered the Black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, after firebombing and shooting into his house. It was one of thousands of hate crimes conducted in the South by whites who waged a reign of terror against Blacks to frighten them from abandoning calls for desegregation and voting rights. Terrorism by white vigilantes against religious and ethnic minorities is ingrained in the DNA of American society going back to the slave patrols—and has only escalated in recent years. The FBI recorded 8,263 reported hate crimes in 2020, a 13% jump over 2019.What motivates these people? How do they look at the world? How do they justify to themselves and others these acts of terror?
These questions are explored in the new book When Evil Lived in Laurel: The White Knights and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer by the former Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie, relying on interviews with participants and meticulous records kept by Tom Landrum, who for four years worked as an FBI informant inside the Klan, provides a rare look into the inner workings of white hate, and how its extensive network of law enforcement officials, politicians, state and city officials, journalists, preachers, and business leaders colluded in what became a decade of unrelenting terrorism in the South.
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Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to The Chris Hedges Report. On Jan. 9, 1966, the White Knights of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan murdered the Black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, after firebombing and shooting into his house. It was one of thousands of hate crimes conducted in the South by whites, who waged a reign of terror against Blacks to frighten them into abandoning calls for desegregation and voting rights. These attacks included threats, beatings, shootings, and arson attacks on Black churches, businesses, and homes.
The few men charged with these crimes, including murder, were often acquitted by white juries. To this day, over 150 murders – 56 in Mississippi – Remain unresolved.Terrorism by white vigilantes against religious and ethnic minorities is ingrained into the DNA of American society, going back to the slave patrols. Its face was on display in 2015 when Dylan Roof gunned down nine members of a Bible study group in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was on display three years later when 11 worshipers were murdered at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was on display when neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was on display when Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on Feb. 23, 2020 in Georgia. It was on display when neo-Confederates stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The FBI recorded 8,263 reported hate crimes in 2020, a 13% jump over 2019.
What motivates these people? How do they look at the world? How do they justify, to themselves and others, these acts of terror? These questions are explored in the new book, When Evil Lived in Laurel, the White Knights and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer, by the former Boston Globe reporter, Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie, relying on interviews with participants and meticulous records kept by Tom Landrum, who for four years worked as an FBI informant inside the Klan, provides a rare look into the inner workings of white hate, how its extensive network of law enforcement officials, politicians, state and city officials, journalists, preachers and business leaders colluded in what became a decade of unrelenting terrorism in the South.
Joining me to discuss his book, When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer, is Curtis Wilkie.
You write, “Many of the Klansmen felt wounded by society. Poorly educated, ignorant of modern skills, and consigned to unrewarding jobs, they seethed over their own situations.” They were, you say, “…mostly made up of resentful men who worked the small farms, oil fields, or logging camps, or held jobs on the line of Masonite, a monstrous factory that loomed over the landscape like a brutal force, converting waste wood into fiberboard.” This resentment, you write, “…hardened into a hatred of the Black man.” Could you speak about this resentment, especially with so many in the white working class today also in economic free fall?
Curtis Wilkie: Sure. It’s metastasized into hatred and violence. It certainly did here, as you say, at the beginning. It’s the sort of thing we’re still seeing. I suspect a lot of the people who were involved in Jan. 6, a year ago, would come from the same kind of economic straits.
Chris Hedges: And what is it about that economic deprivation that metastasizes into this racial violence?
Curtis Wilkie: Well, it’s a terrible phenomenon that was certainly with us in Mississippi in the 1960s and manifests itself again outside the South today. It certainly involves demagogic political leaders who whip this up under the notion that they are populists. To consider somebody like Donald Trump a populist is quite silly. The populists that I think of and, I think, the classic definition of a populist is basically somebody who is coming out of the very situation we’re talking about: poor, sometimes uneducated, resentful, and lashing out at authority, leadership, law. Donald Trump comes from the antithesis of that kind of background, but he certainly has been responsible, I think, for a great deal of the surge in this sort of thing over the last five or six years. He reminds me so much of George Wallace 50, 60 years ago.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. I went back, actually, during the Trump campaign and listened to George Wallace’s speeches and it was a very similar, almost identical rhetoric, including Wallace’s call for violence against his opponents.
Curtis Wilkie: Yeah, and the press. Wallace loved to use to press as foils and would single people out in his speeches, and the Wallace rallies just had this aura of incipient violence about them, which – I never went to a Trump rally, I’ve happily been retired from journalism for a number of years – But it strikes me as some sort of thing that we saw with Wallace when I was reporting and covering Wallace.
Chris Hedges: The difference, Curtis, is that Wallace was always a fringe figure, whereas Trump moved to the epicenter of American politics.
Curtis Wilkie: Yeah, to our distress.
Chris Hedges: Robert Paxton, in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, writes that the Klan was America’s earliest example of fascism, and this fascism is wrapped in racialized supremacy, the flag, the cross. And in your book, you write about how the Klan opened with a prayer. They would set up a Klan altar at the meetings. They fined its members for cursing, which I found kind of ironic since they were all then going out to burn someone’s house down. They burned crosses. They had chaplains. Its leaders quoted biblical verses to justify segregation and acts of violence. The leader of the Klan group you write about, a guy named Sam Bowers, was an exponent of what he called Christian militancy, was openly at war with the federal government that he said was in the control of atheists and Bolsheviks. The Klan members referred to themselves as redeemers who would restore Christian values, if need be, through violence to the nation. I wondered if you could address this religious component, especially given the connecting tissue among those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and this kind of Christian fascism? Is it the same?
Curtis Wilkie: Well, it’s a perverse Christianity. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that Jesus Christ would’ve been very comfortable with. Not only did you have these people using the Bible, the Bible was a prop at Klan meetings. And the Klansman who led the murderous raid on the Dahmer home was actually a minister himself, some fellow named Chris Sessions. And he self-ordained, but he was a minister. There were ministers involved in those horrific murders in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1964. One of the ring leaders and the guy who orchestrated that and Bowers, who you mentioned, who was the Imperial Wizard of this group the White Knights, he has a lengthy interview that’s in the state archives that I was able to locate in which he just goes on and on about the Christian militancy. And one of the tenets is that homicide is acceptable if you do it with love. Whatever, it’s crazy.
Chris Hedges: The Klan members that you write about were often these buffoonish figures.They espouse these wild conspiracy theories, very similar to groups such as QAnon. They gave themselves these odd assortment of official titles, like Imperial Wizard and Grand Cyclops. They had this sense of importance and empowerment within the group that the wider society denied them. I wanted you to talk about this aspect of the Klan and its attraction to these people.
Curtis Wilkie: Well, you’re right at it there. It gave them this sense of authority that perhaps they’d never had. Suddenly they’ve been anointed; Exalted Cyclops, Grand Dragon, Imperial Wizard, silly stuff. The kind of thing you would think children would do, but they loved that. They were looking for any respectability that the Klan provided. And the Klan also provided camaraderie between these people. For some of them, it was like belonging to a civic club, except their meetings were secret and involved pistols and knives and the Bible and a Confederate battle flag as props. It was very weird. And while we’re talking about the poor, less educated people, the odd thing was that there were some allegedly “respectable” businessmen or public officials, some with college educations, who joined the Klan also. And I think that was largely driven out of racial hatred.
Chris Hedges: Well, throughout the book, you write about how these political figures essentially had to play to the Klan. They could not run afoul of the Klan for fear of losing their elected position.
Curtis Wilkie: Yeah. In those days, there were plenty of counties in Mississippi where the Klan controlled a very extensive voting bloc that could sway the outcome of elections. So, sure, these political people would pander to the Klan. There were plenty of instances. You mentioned at the outset these people who might have been indicted or brought to trial for some of the crimes and were never convicted, either hung juries or outright acquittals. Quite often, the public official in charge of drawing up the jury list, they were members of the Klan themselves, so they made sure that there were fellow Klansmen on the jury list who would provide, all it needs is one person to hang a jury.
Chris Hedges: Well, that was part of the goal. They always tried to put one Klansperson on the jury, one Klansman – They were men – On the jury, and then the Klanspeople would never be convicted.
Curtis Wilkie: Yeah. That happened repeatedly in Mississippi in the ‘60s, including the trials against not only Sam Bowers. He was brought to trial four or five times before he was finally convicted 32 years after the murder. But also another dreadful character named De La Beckwith, who assassinated Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. So there were plenty of instances where there were hung juries. And these were two of the most significant civil rights trials held in Mississippi in the ‘60s. And during the ‘60s, they all wound up with hung juries. I think it was more than 30 years after the murder of Medgar Evers it took before Beckwith was convicted. I think that was in 1994.
Chris Hedges: So throughout your book, there are repeated examples of collusion between law enforcement, elected officials, and the Klan. The three civil rights workers: James Chaney, who was Black; Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – Both of whom were Jewish, and that’s an element in the book; who were murdered in June, 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, had been turned over to the Klan by local law enforcement officials after they were stopped for a bogus traffic violation. Can you speak about these interlocking systems of white supremacy and how they work?
Curtis Wilkie: Well, it just existed in Mississippi at that time. It was more acceptable in Mississippi in the ‘60s. Happily, much of that has changed. We still have racism in Mississippi. We still have attempts at suppressing voter registration and the exercising of the vote by Blacks in Mississippi. But the climate that we had in the ‘60s, the time in which the book covers, it was widespread throughout the state and it seeped into law enforcement. It operated at the highest levels. Quite often, the governor, lieutenant governor, legislators, they were all sympathetic with the Ku Klux Klan. When those three young men disappeared in Neshoba County in ’64, our US senators said this is a hoax, that those boys have gone down to Cuba, and they’re probably enjoying a drink with Fidel Castro, and it was all a communist plot. When, in fact, they had been executed and buried in a forlorn part of Nashoba County.
And it was only after the FBI had paid off some people who knew about it that their bodies were discovered. And I think that particular incident along with, say, the Dahmer murder, where they attacked his home, in which he had three children living there and a wife, and burning the thing to the ground, and succeeding and killing him. He stayed in the burning house in a gunfight with the attackers while the family escaped through back windows. The kind of people who would do that, they’re depraved. Back at that time, these crimes were brushed off by authorities.
It was the kind of thing that worked during the battle to “redeem” ourselves – That’s another great word that you’ve mentioned. All of this goes under the guise of being “redeemers”, to recover control of the South after Reconstruction. So it’s a great deal of resentment. That resentment, in part, grows out of Reconstruction. So, it’s a long history down here. And I wouldn’t be living in Mississippi today if it were as bad or prevalent as it was back then. But sadly, aside from the Black communities in the South and a handful of whites, it was generally accepted as a fact of life.
Chris Hedges: So there are two heroes in your book: There’s Tom Landrum, who, at tremendous personal risk to himself and his family, worked without pay for the FBI as an informant; and the courageous civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer. I wonder if you could speak about these two men?
Curtis Wilkie: Sure. Vernon Dahmer was just first class. He wrote – He was a Black man who had dared to be a leader in his region in South Mississippi on voter registration. He was the president of the NAACP chapter in Hattiesburg, which is, by Mississippi standards, a fairly substantial city. And he took great risks. He was threatened for several years before they finally struck with their fatal raid in January of 1966. So, he knew that he was at risk with what he was doing. I know I interviewed his widow before the final trial of Bowers, and she talked about how they alternated sleeping at night, and always with guns by their bedside. And he might sleep for the first four or five hours of night and then she would take over and sleep. So that’s the fear that they had, and yet they were not intimidated. He was a terribly brave man and a good man and a true hero in the movement.
Tom Landrum was a white man from the same region who was a youth court counselor. And happily, there were white people who were troubled about what was going on, but so often they didn’t know where to turn to try to do good and to combat the Klan. So, Landrum worked with the FBI as a youth court counselor. They would check out potential bad boys and that sort of thing. And the local FBI agent realized that Tom Landrum was troubled. And so they approached him and said, would you be willing to join the Klan and report regularly to us? And so Tom Landrum went home – Tom Landrum also had a big family. He had a wife and five children at home – And talked to his wife, talked to his mother-in-law. They actually went on a retreat and prayed over whether he should take up this challenge from the FBI. And they all decided it was something he had a duty to do, in part, as a good Christian. And Tom Landrum then did it without pay.
There were a lot of informers during that period that the FBI paid. Tom Landrum got mileage, and I don’t even think the FBI reimbursed him for the Klan uniform he had to buy. And he did it at great risk to himself. There was one incident near Natchez during the time that Landrum was in the Klan and informing where a Klansman who was thought to be an informant was murdered by the White Knights. So, Landrum, also like Vernon Dahmer, these were two people who risked their lives with small children within their family to try to do good. So, I think you’re right in characterizing both of them as heroes.
Chris Hedges: So I get about halfway through your book, and I think this is a good story about the FBI, and this is of course, during COINTELPRO and everything else. And then you get to this moment where the FBI brings in this soldier from the Colombo crime family, Gregory Scarpa – He’s from New York – To intimidate and beat kidnapped Klan members to force them to talk. So, I just want you to talk about those tactics, which are familiar to those of us who follow the FBI, especially if you look at the history of the left or the Black Power movement.
Curtis Wilkie: Well, of course, one thing I don’t want to do is totally aggrandize the FBI. They were helpful in Mississippi in the ‘60s, no thanks to J. Edgar Hoover, their director, who basically disliked the whole idea of the Civil Rights Movement and despised Martin Luther King and did everything he could to undermine Dr. King’s efforts. And they were involved in a number of extra illegal activities in Mississippi and elsewhere, as we both know, as I’m sure you have and I have back when the COINTELPRO documents were all revealed, I think sometime in the ‘70s. It was quite amazing and frightening, some of the things that the FBI was involved in. In my book, there are basically two instances.
One is for them to import this hitman from the mafia in New York, who is already working with the FBI. He’s trying to beat a rap he’s got in New York. And so they induce him to do dirty things for them. And there was one of the FBI people who had been sent to Mississippi who knew of Scarpa and sent a request to the FBI in New York, “Can you send us …” That part’s redacted from the FBI document I have, but, clearly, it’s Gregory Scarpa, he fits the profile. And they send him to Mississippi along with his girlfriend. The FBI pays his airfare, his room, and he shows up at the business of a guy who is a ranking Klan member, and they kidnap him, basically, and drag him out in the country and beat the hell out of him and send him to the hospital. So intimidated him that he began turning over all sorts of information to the FBI.
The second instance in my book is during a period when the White Knights turned from Blacks to begin attacking Jews in Mississippi, and they began bombing synagogues and the homes of the prominent Jewish businessmen as well as rabbis. And so when Jewish leaders met with the FBI and they said, what can we do? The FBI told them, give us money for this slush fund that we’ll use for essentially illegal activity. And this particular slush fund that I wrote about was used in Meridian, Mississippi, to set up an ambush of a couple of Klansmen. It turns out one of the Klansmen was a young woman who was about to deliver a bomb to the home of a Jewish businessman. And did they attempt to arrest them? No, they unloaded on them with the SWAT team. And I think even some members of the military, local law enforcement, the FBI, and blew the hell out of this car and killed the young woman. It was an evil thing they were involved in, but it’s highly extraordinary. No warning, no nothing. They stepped out of the car and dozens of people unloaded on them.
Chris Hedges: I just want to close, Curtis, the last couple minutes, because one of the things that I found fascinating with your book is because of that inside account within the Klan, we really got a view into how these people think and why they think the way they do. And I want you to draw it to this particular moment, because we see a resurgence of this rabid nationalism and white supremacy in these cult-like figures around Trump and, of course, in the attacks on the Capitol on January 6. And I just want you to draw parallels between what you wrote about and where we are today.
Curtis Wilkie: Well, you see it in, not necessarily the Ku Klux Klan anymore, but in these new groups that pop up, whether it’s Proud Boys, all these weird names they have for groups. It’s generally not the work of one individual out as a single-minded assassin, but rather people who meet and get together and share their grievances and resentments and lash out. We certainly saw it on Jan. 6, but you’ve seen it in a number of other places, not just in the South today, but all around the country. It’s the same sort of thing. It doesn’t go by the Ku Klux Klan anymore, but they might as well.
Chris Hedges: And would you argue that it’s driven by the same economic despair?
Curtis Wilkie: Sure. That’s part of it, but that’s not the only motivation. But yeah, that certainly is a major thing. Some of it’s just downright hatred. Some of these people don’t have money, they don’t like Blacks, or they don’t like liberals, or “liberals are communists” and they fear that, if not communism, something’s going to take over America. It’s crazy stuff. And it’s helped along by right-wing radio talk shows and, sadly, some television networks that play into this whole thing.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Curtis Wilkie on When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.