Across the South, one product of the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision was the revitalization of militant segregationist groups, including more than a dozen competing Ku Klux Klan (KKK) organizations. In Mississippi, however, staunch support for the segregationist status quo by elected officeholders and a thriving network of Citizens’ Councils meant that the Klan’s brand of vigilante politics had little appeal among Jim Crow supporters. Not until 1964, in the face of escalating civil rights activity, did any Klan group mobilize a significant following in the state. But before declining sharply in the late 1960s, Mississippi’s Klan membership displayed shocking brutality, perpetrating hundreds of burnings, bombings, and other violent acts, including at least ten murders.
The civil-rights-era Klan’s first move into Mississippi occurred in the fall of 1963, when an organizer for the Louisiana-based Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan arrived in Natchez, where he recruited approximately three hundred Mississippians to his organization. Infighting soon resulted in the expulsion of Original Knights state officer Douglas Byrd, who promptly recruited two-thirds of the group’s Mississippi membership into a new organization, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In April 1964 Sam Holloway Bowers, a forty-year-old World War II veteran, assumed leadership of the White Knights, transforming it into a militant and highly secretive organization dedicated to a brand of Christian patriotism that viewed the encroaching civil rights threat as a Jewish-communist conspiracy against sovereign white Mississippians.
The influx of civil rights workers associated with the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration project undertaken by the Council of Federated Organizations increased the urgency of the White Knights’ mission. Membership in the Klan grew rapidly, peaking at an estimated six thousand members spread over fifty-two “klaverns” (chapters) statewide. Bowers was clear that the group would use “force and violence when considered necessary,” and throughout that summer the White Knights engaged in hundreds of acts of intimidation, including the burning of forty-four black churches and the killing of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County. Those crimes became one of that summer’s biggest media stories, and subsequent pressure exerted by the council and its allies resulted in a large-scale investigation of the Klan by the FBI.
The controversy also provided an opening for a rival Klan organization, the United Klans of America (UKA), to begin a Mississippi recruiting campaign. The UKA was headed by Robert Shelton, a talented organizer who had built his operation into the largest KKK outfit in the nation, with hundreds of klaverns spread across the South. Unlike the secretive White Knights, the UKA hosted large open rallies and cross burnings to recruit members and publicly at least eschewed the sort of violence associated with Bowers.
The UKA had first entered Mississippi in the spring of 1964 with the establishment of klaverns in McComb and Natchez, taking members primarily from the White Knights. During the summer of 1965, Shelton embarked on an ambitious string of public rallies, several of which drew audiences in the thousands, leading to the formation of seventy-four additional UKA klaverns across the state. By 1966 membership in the White Knights had been reduced to a few hundred, while several times that number had joined the UKA.
But the fortunes of both Klan organizations soon declined. Continued violence perpetrated by the White Knights—including the 1966 killing of Vernon Dahmer, a Forrest County leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a later bombing campaign targeting Jews in Jackson and Meridian—sharply eroded the Klan’s public appeal. Gov. Paul Johnson referred to Dahmer’s killers as “vicious and morally bankrupt criminals,” and district attorneys and juries became less reluctant to indict and convict Klan adherents. In addition, federal action—including a congressional investigation and a highly successful FBI campaign to infiltrate and neutralize the Klan—sapped the KKK’s resources. Organizational strife cut into membership as well: amid accusations of financial improprieties, Shelton expelled the state’s UKA officers in 1966.
By the close of 1968, both the White Knights and the UKA were shells of their former selves. Despite sporadic attempts by Shelton to revive his organization with early 1970s recruiting drives in McComb and elsewhere, the Klan made headlines primarily in the courtroom. Bowers and seven other Klansmen served prison time after a 1967 trial for the Freedom Summer murders. Bowers also weathered four mistrials in the Dahmer killing before finally being convicted of murder and arson in 1998. He died in prison in 2006.
Edgar Ray Killen, a central player in the Freedom Summer murder conspiracy, was found guilty of manslaughter in 2005. Two years later, another former White Knights member, James Ford Seale, was convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee, two young black men who were abducted, beaten, and dropped into the Mississippi River amid unfounded fears that “Black Muslims” had been stockpiling weapons around Natchez. Still more trials could result from a renewed emphasis on FBI investigation of civil rights cold cases, further cementing the brutal legacy of the state’s civil-rights-era KKK.
- David Cunningham, in The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, ed. Ted Ownby (2013)
- David Cunningham, There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence (2004)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- Jack Nelson, Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign against the Jews (1993)
- US House of Representatives, Committee on Un-American Activities, The Present Day Ku Klux Klan Movement (1967)
- Don Whitehead, Attack on Terror: The FBI against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi (1970)