The Civil Rights-era Klu Klux Klan in Mississippi

David Cunningham
Department of Sociology
Brandeis University

While various self-styled KKK organizations took hold across the South in response to the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision, it was not until 1963 that Mississippi saw any significant civil rights-era Klan mobilization.  That fall, an organizer for the Louisiana-based Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan arrived in Natchez, recruiting approximately 300 Mississippians to his organization.  When an ensuing controversy over the misuse of KKK funds led to the expulsion of Original Knights’ state officer Douglas Byrd, he promptly recruited two-thirds of the group’s Mississippi membership into a new state organization, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKKK).  By year’s end, the White Knights’ terroristic agenda was front-page news nationally, cementing the group’s reputation as the most rabidly violent KKK organization of the civil rights era.

The initial WKKKK organizing meeting was held in Brookhaven in February 1964.  A subsequent flurry of gatherings called by state leadership and local chapters – referred to in Klan parlance as “klaverns” – served to chart the group’s course.  New leadership was provided by Sam Holloway Bowers, a forty year old World War II veteran and the owner of a Laurel vending-machine operation, who emerged as the WKKKK’s “Imperial Wizard.”  Bowers quickly shaped the group around his particular brand of racist ideology.  Through his dictates, the White Knights emerged as 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.2

WKKKK membership grew rapidly, peaking in 1964 at an estimated 6,000 adherents spread over 52 klaverns.  Bowers was clear that the group would use “force and violence when considered necessary,” and within the highly secretive and tightly-controlled organization he established four categories of “projects” – ranging from verbal threats, to cross burnings, to beatings and killings – that could be carried out with the approval of WKKKK leadership.  Throughout that summer the White Knights engaged in hundreds of acts of intimidation, including the burning of forty-four black churches.

But as Bowers’ group was establishing its presence across much of the state, a rival Klan organization was also making inroads in Mississippi.  Headquartered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the United Klans of America (UKA) had first formed in 1961, and since that time had become the South’s preeminent KKK organization.  The group was headed by its own Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, a former Goodrich Tire salesman.  Wiry and clean-cut, he was a tireless organizer, continuously cris-crossing the region in support of the UKA’s several hundred klaverns.

The UKA’s initial foray into Mississippi came in early March 1964, when Shelton’s Alabama state leader, “Grand Dragon” Robert Creel, appeared at two UKA rallies in McComb.  That summer, Shelton himself spoke to an estimated 800 supporters at the McComb fairgrounds and to a similar-sized gathering in Natchez.  In the fall, Shelton and his newly-appointed Mississippi Grand Dragon, the Natchez-based E.L. McDaniel, traveled around the state on a UKA recruiting campaign.  Part or all of the local membership in a number of WKKKK klaverns shifted to the UKA, and in 1965 Shelton greeted more than 3,000 supporters at a rally in Natchez.  By that point, the UKA had organized 76 klaverns across the state, while the White Knights retained, often in a skeletal form, many of their units.  Figure 1 shows the locations of klaverns operated by the White Knights and the UKA between 1964 and 1966.3

Cunningham_MS_KKK_Fig_1_image[1]

Deconstructing the KKK: Openness and Violence

Given the significant differences in the organizational structure and style of the White Knights and UKA, it makes little sense to lump the groups together as “the Klan” in Mississippi.  The WKKKK was a covert, top-down organization.  New members took an oath of secrecy and were instructed never to admit their affiliation.  Periodic missives from Bowers would appear in local papers or in the mimeographed sheets of the White Knights’ own publication The Klan Ledger.  Klaverns would never hold public meetings, and a preferred form of public outreach involved releasing flyers or Klan Ledger editions from low-flying airplanes.  Bowers himself possessed what informants characterized as “dictatorial powers,” and personally authorized or vetoed most WKKKK acts.  While a dizzying array of officers under Bowers attended to the group’s organizational, financial, spiritual, and investigative matters, decisions regarding White Knight “jobs” or “projects” filtered up to the top of the organization.

In contrast with the White Knights’ underground apparatus, the UKA’s appeal was rooted in its public profile.  “The United Klan was an open Klan, more or less,” explained Grand Dragon McDaniel.  “Mr. Shelton believed that this secrecy was not vital to the organization anymore, and he had come out in the open.  All of the klansmen wanted to parade in their uniforms, their sheets or whatever you call them.”  Indeed, the UKA organized public rallies, with members in robes and hoods, and based much of its appeal on carving out a civic space for the expression of KKK values.  As in other states across the region, Shelton envisioned UKA rallies as public spectacles, and he promoted the idea that they be held as frequently as possible.  At one point during the fall of 1965, the UKA scheduled rallies throughout the state on twelve consecutive nights, with Shelton himself appearing at four of the events.4

These differing organizational orientations extended in complicated ways to the question of KKK violence.  Bowers had always been clear that his group would not shy away from the use of force, and throughout the summer of 1964 the White Knights engaged in an intensive terror campaign, which included the burning and bombing of dozens of black churches and homes as well as the Moore and Dee murders in Franklin County and the killings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.  Alleged failures to provide adequate legal and financial support to implicated klansmen meant that, over time, Bowers became increasingly vulnerable to criticism from his rank-and-file membership.  Shelton exploited this vulnerability directly, by contacting UKA klaverns to raise money for WKKKK defendants.  He also publicly promoted the UKA’s nonviolent approach during rallies and in media interviews.  A typical rationale for a move to the UKA was offered by Adams County Sheriff Odell Anders (himself a suspected WKKKK member), who noted that the many klavern members he knew who opposed violence favored defecting from the White Knights to a more palatable Klan alternative.

At the same time, however, certain UKA klaverns developed precisely the opposite appeal, attracting members who felt that the White Knights, with their elaborate system of authorizations for violent acts, were not sufficiently militant.  In McComb, the Pike County seat, UKA members, operating under the guise of a secret sect dubbed the Wolf Pack, embarked on a brutal bombing campaign in the summer and fall of 1964.  In a five-month period beginning in June, eight beatings, seven burnings, four shootings, and fifteen bombings were reported in the area.  One accused klansman later admitted that Wolf Pack members would choose their victims by drawing names from a hat.  Such cavalier use of force was made possible by the fact that Klan members enjoyed virtual impunity from police action.  Sheriff R.R. Warren, who had told members of the white supremacist “civic” group Americans for the Preservation of the White Race (APWR) that he would “recruit” them in the face of escalating civil rights action, failed to make any arrests of the UKA perpetrators until faced with the prospect of imposed martial law.  Rather than acknowledge Klan violence, Warren at one point accused bombing victim Aylene Quin of targeting her own home, while her own children were inside.

Former White Knight Billy Birdsong testified that McDaniel’s recruiting pitch to disgruntled WKKKK members was centered on the UKA taking good care of them in the face of legal adversity.  “We say publicly non-violence,” McDaniel told him, “ but you know what I mean,…we don’t abide by that and preach it like the White Knights do.”  Such behind-the-scenes characterizations were borne out by the UKA’s actions.  While bombings typically did not result from direct orders from top UKA leadership, it was clear that McDaniel also did little to prevent these campaigns.  “I’m a strong believer in nonviolence,” he explained, “but I also believe in self-preservation.”  This hands-off policy, combined with its strong public proclamations of non-violence, enabled the UKA’s dual appeal, as both more militant and more restrained than the WKKKK.5

McDaniel’s seemingly contradictory observation that the murderous White Knights “preached non-violence” resonated in many circles when the WKKKK, in an effort to weather the legal and organizational fallout of their reign of violence, temporarily and ambivalently retrenched in the fall of 1964.  At a September state officers meeting in Meridian, Bowers’ Grand Dragon Julius Harper instructed members to avoid church burnings and other bombings, “as these were hurting the White Knights’ expansion program.”  But still, he maintained, klansmen should be ready to carry out violence under orders and have at the ready proper arms and explosives for these assigned missions.  Bowers likewise continued to talk about elimination orders, maintaining that they be carried out “without malice, in complete silence, and in the manner of a Christian act.”  But as the White Knights’ mounting legal fees continued to create serious financial difficulties – one financial ledger showed the organization with $18,500 in the bank but more than $23,000 in accumulated debts in late 1964 – in November Bowers proclaimed a 90-day moratorium on “4th degree projects” (i.e. murders).6

At their core, these debates over militance are best understood as delicate rhetorical strategies, where “strength” and “non-violence” were trumpeted to appeal to particular constituencies.  Similarly, it is clear that the commission of violence was not a product of a single organizational process – at different times, it was ordered by state leadership, proscribed by those same leaders, enacted autonomously (usually with active or tacit approval from leadership) by local units, or coalesced through grassroots plots engineered through parallel affiliations to informal collectives like the Silver Dollar Group or Wolf Pack.  The WKKKK, as a strongly hierarchical organization, was more likely to breed leadership-driven action, while the UKA more often provided a framework for autonomous activity.

Situating the Mississippi KKK

As the wholesale line-crossing between the White Knights and UKA illustrates, organizational boundaries among militant segregationists could be quite permeable and multivalent.  Throughout this period, klansmen in southwest Mississippi remained in regular communication with their counterparts from the UKA and Original Knights in Louisiana.  UKA Grand Dragon McDaniel spoke on several occasions at rallies in Louisiana, and federal investigators noted many key Mississippi klansmen who were present at Louisiana events.  These Mississippi adherents were involved in a number of acts of violence on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, including the murders of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris and Vidalia motel employee Joseph “JoeEd” Edwards.

In other cases, local ad hoc groups drew on the memberships of multiple KKK organizations.  On both sides of the river, the elite, underground “Silver Dollar Group” – so named because its members signaled affiliation by carrying a silver dollar minted in their respective birth years – attracted many of the most militant klansmen from the White Knights, the Original Knights, and the UKA alike.  As an inverse variation on that theme, subgroups of klansmen at times referred to themselves as distinct sects, such as the Adams County-based “Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang,” organized by a trio of White Knights.  In McComb, a set of violence-prone klansmen formed their own klavern, and reputedly dubbed themselves the “black shirts.”

Segregationist alliances were not confined to the KKK.  Even in areas in which the Klan was highly active, its actions ran in parallel with the subtler efforts of business leaders who headed the Citizens’ Councils, state agents who investigated civil rights action through the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, school board officials who had the power to expel students and fire teachers for civil rights advocacy, and so on – all of which exposed civil rights supporters to significant costs and risks.  In May 1963, nine men meeting in a Natchez service station formed the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race (APWR).  The group blurred the lines between the Klan and the Citizens’ Councils, working at what they referred to as a “grassroots” level to provide its adherents with an outlet to support white interests and to counter threats posed by civil rights and communist interests.

Though openly admitting that its membership was limited to “members of the male Caucasian race,” APWR officers repeatedly claimed that the group was non-violent, with appeal among those who sought a means to engage in local segregationist efforts but couldn’t afford the dues charged by the Citizens’ Council.  The group was best known, however, for pressuring business owners and landlords, through “friendly visits” and late-night anonymous phone calls, to align their actions with the white supremacist status quo.  APWR speakers sponsored talks in local courthouses and other public spaces, regularly attracting crowds numbering in the hundreds to small Mississippi communities.7

At its peak, APWR had a presence in thirty Mississippi counties, and was most active in Jackson and across southwest Mississippi.   According to federal investigators, typical APWR chapters included klansmen in the area, alongside disgruntled Citizens’ Council members.  “You had a lot of people that belonged to the Citizens’ Council that was members of the Klan,” explained E.L. McDaniel.  “A lot of Citizens’ Council, a lot of them were members of the APWR, Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, and so on.”  Many of these adherents also belonged to one or more of the more mainstream local groups that emerged in most larger communities, promoting white supremacy under the guise of “constitutional government” or “religious integrity.”8

Far from operating apart from mainstream institutions, the UKA, WKKKK, APWR, and other white supremacist organizations were continually engaged in negotiations for resources and legitimacy.  In Yazoo City, in the corner of the Delta, Citizens’ Council leaders went so far as to speak out publicly against the Klan.  “Your Citizens’ Council was formed to preserve separation of the races,” their statement concluded, “and believes that it can best serve the county where it is the only organization operating in the field.”  As historian John Dittmer notes, this opposition was often rhetorical – where the KKK was most active, law enforcement often directly supported its activities and community leaders rarely were willing to engage in strenuous efforts to hinder its organization.  But in many instances multiple white supremacist groups competed for resources and support.  Where a range of white constituencies aggressively moved to preserve segregation, creating the sense that local Councils or sheriffs were getting the job done, the KKK was often perceived to be redundant.9

Mobilizing the KKK

The Klan’s appeal was related as well to the racial and socio-economic makeup of local communities.  Around the South, KKK organizations flourished in communities where whites and African-Americans overlapped in the workplace.  But in the least urbanized and industrialized state in the nation, the factory-floor conditions that incubated fears of racial competition were not widespread enough to account for the Klan’s presence in 53 of Mississippi’s 82 counties.  In rural areas the entrenched racial division of labor often bound black workers to land owned by whites, which meant that African-Americans were vulnerable to economic retribution.  In many places, most pronouncedly the cotton-farming Mississippi Delta, this meant that the Klan was, in effect, suppressed in favor of the efficacious, and less distasteful, actions of landowners and business elites who often filled Citizens’ Council membership rolls.  As historian Annalieke Dirks has argued, where the white community had sufficient economic power, “it could choose to use a combination of economic threats and legalized repression and rely less on terrorist violence to subjugate the Black community.”10

This phenomenon helps to explain why the KKK had little presence in an otherwise highly racially-oppressive region like the Delta.  It also highlights the distinctiveness of Mississippi, where unlike other Deep South states or the Carolinas or Virginia, factors tied to racial competition and threat – i.e. proportionally large black populations, high levels of labor market overlap, or even high levels of civil rights activism – fail to fully explain the patterning of Klan mobilization.  Instead, in Mississippi the KKK’s success was primarily predicated on its ability to organize and recruit across existing white supremacist networks.

As the first KKK organization active statewide, the WKKKK in 1964 built up an infrastructure of core members and local resources that Klan recruiters would draw upon for the remainder of the decade.  The driving force behind the rapid growth of the White Knights was its charismatic leader, Sam Bowers.  The importance of Bowers as an organizing force is strikingly apparent – even after accounting for key structural features of counties, the most significant predictor of klavern presence in Mississippi is a county’s proximity to Bowers’ home base in Laurel.  Figure 2 shows the concentration of KKK units around Laurel – the dark and light green shading indicates how far one would need to travel to reach one-third and two-thirds, respectively, of the state’s klaverns.  E.L. McDaniel, a leader in the White Knights before his defection to the UKA, described the process:

Usually we had a contact. The way we did this is we organized [near our home] first. Then we organized in [the next county over] because there was somebody…that knew somebody…and we’d make a contact there.  And we let them set the meeting up with prospects….  We wouldn’t go into a town like Tupelo and just pick out somebody.  They would have to know those individuals.  And that thing just spread from county to county to county… they were passing the word from klavern to klavern, so-and-so up at Fayette wants to get a group of men together.  And it just went like wildfire.  We couldn’t have done it if it hadn’t of been that way, that quick, but the people were ready for it.  They were ready for something.  They needed something to lead them.11

[Figure 2 about here]

By the end of 1964, McDaniel had begun leading his recruits to the UKA, and many of the klaverns that had been organized initially by Bowers’ White Knights had followed.  The United Klans organizing drive undertaken by Shelton and McDaniel in late 1964 bore considerable fruit – early on, the UKA established a large and active presence in McComb, and shortly after Natchez-area members of the White Knights traveled there to discuss shifting their allegiance.

In other communities around the state, McDaniel trumpeted the UKA as “a strong national Klan that knows how to operate.”  After successfully recruiting WKKKK officer Delmar Dennis to the group, he requested that Dennis provide names of disenchanted White Knights, who were then targeted in the UKA’s membership drive.  Just days after former officer Billy Birdsong broke from the WKKKK, Dennis brought him to McDaniel’s room at the local Holiday Inn, where the Grand Dragon offered Birdsong a high-ranking position in the Mississippi UKA as well as $3 for every UKA member he could recruit.  The result of this sort of competition for allegiance among veteran members was a pronounced overlap in the personnel profiles of the respective Klan organizations.

Such transitions were often predictably contentious, complicated by competing allegiances to Bowers versus McDaniel.  When several White Knight klaverns gathered in Lauderdale County in February 1965 to discuss a move to the UKA, many adherents expressed dissatisfaction with Bowers’ failure to provide financial support for klansmen implicated in the previous summer’s killings in nearby Neshoba County.  A majority voted to leave the White Knights, though a dissenting group maintained their loyalty to Bowers and stormed out of the meeting.  Within the WKKKK, another debate raged in the summer of 1965 when Bowers sought to introduce a resolution to forbid members’ associating with the UKA in any capacity.

These inter-Klan battles were further enabled by McDaniel’s intense dislike of Bowers, which fueled in part what federal investigators characterized as his “attempts to destroy” the White Knights.  That personal conflict likely was rooted in McDaniel’s contentious exit from the White Knights in 1964, related to a fallout with Bowers after the Imperial Wizard accused McDaniel of financial improprieties (this was not the first time that McDaniel had been insubordinate; in early 1964 he had been expelled from the Original Knights after he threatened his Klan superiors and encouraged other members to revolt) .  Before formally resigning, McDaniel had maintained a secret alliance with the UKA, helping to organize klaverns in Natchez and McComb for Shelton and winning a commendation “for outstanding work” at the UKA’s national “klonvokation” meeting.12

The KKK in Southwest Mississippi

Mississippi’s full complement of segregationist organizations were most fully on display in Natchez and other communities in the southwest corner of the state.  Militant white supremacy flourished particularly strongly in Adams, Franklin, and Pike Counties.  There, the UKA and other like-minded organizations exploited the inter-racial tensions that arose over competition for the recent influx of manufacturing jobs.  The largest swath of the area’s industrial economy was located in Natchez, Adams’ county seat, which drew many workers from the local community as well as from neighboring Franklin County.

Natchez Mayor John J. Nosser, during hearings held in Jackson by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1965, acknowledged his city’s distinctive labor dynamic when questioned about the kinds of jobs black workers held in his community.  “We have got a lot of them working in these big industries right next to the white people,” he responded, with apparent pride.  “They get along fine all these years.”  This disingenuous claim of racial harmony was belied by the fact that two of Nosser’s sons were at that time members of the White Knights.  The Mayor himself was well aware of the prevalence of racially-motivated violence in Natchez, as he had personally been victimized.  In September 1964, stink bombs had been thrown into the two Jitney Jungle grocery stores that he owned, and shortly thereafter his house was bombed in response to an interview he granted to the Chicago Daily News that some in the community felt was overly critical of Klan-style terrorism.

In this charged climate, Natchez’s industrial plants were considered “prime recruiting grounds” for the Klan in 1964 and 1965.  Federal investigators tried to convince the manager of Natchez’s International Paper Company factory to fire known Klan members, after discovering that nearly half of the area’s 200 klansmen were employed there.  At the time, interracial competition for jobs was mostly a potential rather than actual threat.  Each of Natchez’ three major industrial plants – Armstrong Tire and Rubber and Johns-Manville, along with International Paper – adhered to segregated traditions, reserving most desirable jobs for whites, hosting segregated Christmas parties, and supplying separate white and black bathroom and cafeteria facilities.  But still, as there existed virtually no other industry in southwest Mississippi, many whites saw their economic position as tenuous, and increasing civil rights pressures locally and nationally contributed to an unstable racial climate in the factories.13

Some of the area’s most brutal Klan-perpetrated acts were tied to these workplace settings.  George Metcalfe, who in 1965 was a 53-year old shipping clerk at Armstrong Tire and Rubber, was president of Natchez’s NAACP branch and had long campaigned to desegregate the Armstrong plant and other Natchez institutions.  His NAACP activity and willingness to host visiting SNCC workers had drawn vigilante ire in early 1965, in the form of a gunshot that shattered his front window.  That summer, he presented a desegregation petition to the local school board, and his name appeared prominently in a related story published on the front-page of the Natchez Democrat.  The newspaper’s account included personal information about Metcalfe and other petitioners, though they had explicitly requested that signatories’ identities not be disclosed, given the acute threat of “reprisals and harassment.”  Two days later, a bomb attached to Metcalfe’s car engine exploded when he turned the ignition key in the Armstrong parking lot, throwing him completely out of the vehicle and leaving him with serious leg, arm, and eye injuries.  Despite widespread suspicion that Klan members employed by Armstrong were responsible, including a report made to FBI agents that Silver Dollar Group leader “Red” Glover had admitted planting the bomb, police arrested no one.14

A similarly tragic story unfolded two years later.  Wharlest Jackson, a former NAACP treasurer and Metcalfe’s good friend, left his shift at Armstrong Tire and Rubber at eight o’clock in the evening of February 27, 1967.  He had normally ridden to and from work with Metcalfe, but a recent promotion meant that he worked days rather than his usual evening shift.  His new position was as a chemical mixer, a job traditionally reserved for whites, and he had been selected for the promotion over two white men.  His wife had begged him not to accept it, given the associated racial tensions, but his doing so allowed her, a Lupus sufferer, to leave her own job.  On his way home from work, a bomb planted under his driver’s seat detonated when he activated the car’s turn signal.  He was killed instantly, and again, no arrests were made.15

Racial competition at Armstrong Tire and Rubber and other area industries meant that klavern membership followed employment patterns and Klan action often crossed community lines.  Franklin County’s two active klaverns – the WKKKK’s Unit No. 1 was located in Meadville and another WKKKK klavern was based in the Bunkley community – overlapped significantly with those in neighboring Adams County, as a large proportion of active klansmen in both counties were employed by International Paper and Armstrong Tire and Rubber plants in Natchez.  Such cross-county connections were on display during the 2008 trial of James Ford Seale for the Moore and Dee murders, when former WKKKK member Charles Edwards testified to the involvement of the Bunkley klavern as well as members from Natchez in the crimes.  Indeed, at least three members of the Seale family living in both Franklin and Adams Counties were core members of area KKK units; their affiliations served to directly link the memberships of WKKKK and UKA klaverns in both counties, as well as the network of militant klansmen affiliated with the Silver Dollar Group.

In this environment, African-Americans, especially those linked to civil rights activities, received little protection – and often hostility and harassment – from local or state law enforcement. Despite the high level of anti-civil rights violence across the region, there was a consistent lack of serious investigation by police, even though prominent klansmen were well-known to law enforcement personnel in this area.  Adams County Sheriff Odell Anders and Natchez Police Chief J.T. Robinson, in a 1965 interview with federal investigators, were clear that they were familiar with many local WKKKK and UKA members, though their knowledge failed to result in successful investigations of any the area’s racially-motivated crimes.

In many cases, this “familiarity” extended to outright collaboration.  As a matter of policy, both the WKKKK and UKA sought to develop partnerships with law enforcement.  It was common knowledge in southwest Mississippi that the KKK had infiltrated local police to some degree in every county in the region.  During James Ford Seale’s 2008 trial for the Moore and Dee killings, FBI Agent Reesie Timmons testified to that effect, echoing reports filed by federal investigators in 1965 that noted that Adams County Sheriff Anders was a member of the White Knights.  Sheriff Anders and Natchez Police Chief Robinson also maintained an open relationship with UKA Grand Dragon McDaniel.  After Jack Seale – James’ brother, and a reputed member of the Silver Dollar Group – was arrested for the bombing of a local jewelry store in December 1966, Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission investigator L.E. Cole, Jr. arrived at the county jail to find Seale outside of his cell, “telling jokes” with Anders, McDaniel, and two other UKA officers.

Chief Robinson later testified to federal investigators that he attended an “impressive” UKA rally at Liberty Ball Park. “I couldn’t see anything that night that would make you think they were anything but upstanding people,” he reasoned.  Later, Robinson accepted an invitation to speak at a local APWR meeting, and insisted that membership in that organization would not be grounds for dismissal from the city police force.  Similarly, Franklin County Sheriff Wayne Hutto was widely assumed to be affiliated with the Klan. “We was concerned with Sheriff Hutto, his deputies,” explained Mississippi Highway Patrol officer Donald Butler.“Simply because we – we never knew if he was in the Klan or not, but he was extremely friendly with a lot of the klansmen. We knew that.”

Hutto’s allegiances were clear as well in comments to his office staff.  “To hell with the FBI and the Highway Patrol investigators,” he told them, “the Klan will be here a long time after they are gone.”  His more active involvement was confirmed by a 1965 Congressional inquiry, in which several KKK informants reported that both Hutto and Odell Anders were in fact Klan members.  Likewise, during the 2008 Seale trial, Charles Edwards noted that Hutto and Mississippi Highway Patrolman Bernice Beesley were members of the WKKKK.  Edwards also claimed that Hutto was “in the plan” regarding the Moore and Dee kidnapping and killings.16

The Decline of the Mississippi KKK

Even in communities like Natchez or McComb, where Klan members exerted significant influence over anti-civil rights enforcement, their period of peak influence was quite narrow.  Both the White Knights and the UKA were in serious decline by late 1965 – less than two years after their initial arrival in Mississippi. Continued violence perpetrated by the White Knights – including the 1966 killing of Forrest County NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer and a later bombing campaign targeting Jews in Jackson and Meridian – further eroded the Klan’s public appeal.  Governor Paul Johnson referred to Dahmer’s killers as “vicious and morally bankrupt criminals,” and district attorneys and juries became less reluctant to indict Klan adherents.  Meanwhile, federal action – including an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and a highly-successful FBI counterintelligence campaign to infiltrate and neutralize the Klan – sapped the KKK’s resources. Organizational strife cut into membership as well; amidst accusations of financial improprieties, Shelton expelled McDaniel and the state’s other UKA officers in 1966 and began, with sharply diminishing returns, running the UKA’s Mississippi Realm from his Alabama home base.17

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 mainly made headlines in the courtroom.  In 1987, the UKA was driven out of business when a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center held Shelton and his organization liable for a 1981 lynching perpetrated by two UKA members in Mobile, Alabama.  Though he considered himself a klansman until his death in 2003, Shelton never again entered the KKK business.  Bowers, along with seven other klansmen, served prison time after a 1967 trial for the murders of three civil rights workers during the 1964 Freedom Summer project.  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.

More recently, two former members of the White Knights have been convicted for civil rights-era killings.  Edgar Ray Killen, a central player in the 1964 Freedom Summer murder conspiracy, was found guilty of manslaughter in 2005.  Two years later, James Ford Seale (Jack’s brother), was convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy in the murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee that same summer.  But for many other victims of KKK violence – in particular in southwest Mississippi, where the Silver Dollar Gang operated with virtual impunity – justice has remained more elusive.

Selected Bibliography

Cagin, Seth and Philip Dray. 1988. We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. New York: Scribner.

Chalmers, David M. 2003. Backlash: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Colby, David. 1987. “White Violence and the Civil Rights Movement.” Pgs. 31-48 in Blacks in Southern Politics, edited by L. Moreland, R. Steed, and T. Baker. New York: Praeger.

Crespino, Joseph. 2007. In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cunningham, David. 2004. There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Davis, Jack E. 2004. Race Against Time: Culture and Segregation in Natchez Since 1930. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Dirks, Annelieke. 2006. “Between Threat and Reality: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Emergence of Armed Self-Defense in Clarksdale and Natchez, Mississippi, 1960-1965.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1, 1: 71-98.

Dittmer, John. 1995. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hill, Lance. 2004. The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Irons, Jennifer. 2010. Reconstituting Whiteness: The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

MacLean, Harry N. 2009. The Past is Never Dead: The Trial of James Ford Seale and Mississippi’s Struggle for Redemption. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

McMillen, Neil R. 1994. The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-64. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Nelson, Jack. 1996. Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign Against the Jews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Payne, Charles M. 1995. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. 1965. Hearings Held in Jackson, Miss., February 16-20, 1965, Volume II: Administration of Justice. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Un-American Activities. 1967. The Present Day Ku Klux Klan Movement.  90th Congress, First Session. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Un-American Activities. 1966. Activities of Ku Klux Klan Organizations in the United States, Parts I-V.  89th Congress, First Session. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Whitehead, Don. 1970. Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Endnotes