The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the murderous, bumbling Ku Klux Klan

The home of Vernon Dahmer, a Black civil rights activist in Laurel., Miss., was firebombed by local Ku Klux Klan members in January 1968. Dahmer died of his injuries shortly afterward. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
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Tom Landrum was an ordinary man: a sharecropper’s son who’d put himself through junior college playing football, put in two years of military duty, married his high school sweetheart and settled into a job at the courthouse in his hometown, Laurel, Miss., 140 miles northeast of New Orleans. That’s probably why FBI recruiters approached him in July 1965, because they knew that no one in the White Knights of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan would ever suspect a man like Landrum of being an informer.

In his vivid new book, “When Evil Lived in Laurel: The ‘White Knights’ and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer,” Curtis Wilkie, a former longtime reporter for the Boston Globe, follows the four years that Landrum spent spying on the Knights from deep within their ranks. The timing was critical. Since the late 19th century, White Mississippians had enforced their state’s version of Jim Crow with a particularly vicious mix of legality and brutality. When the civil rights movement dared to challenge the legal side of that regime in the 1950s and early 1960s, the brutal side rose to its defense. Black activists faced attacks everywhere in the South. In Mississippi they endured a decade of terror, led by a phalanx of politicians, police officers, Klansmen and assorted vigilantes.

For most of that time the FBI let the violence run, on the premise that arson, kidnapping, assault and murder were state crimes and therefore beyond the bureau’s reach. Then, in June 1964, the Knights executed three civil rights workers — two of them White — in Neshoba County, an hour and a half’s drive north of Laurel. Amid the national outrage that followed, the bureau decided that jurisdictional distinctions weren’t that important after all. The next summer it drew Landrum into what had become a concerted campaign to bring the Knights to justice.

He joined the Knights’ Laurel branch in August 1965. From the inside it was a less-than-imposing organization. Its “imperial wizard” was a small-time businessman given to raging about the Bolsheviks who supposedly controlled Washington, its spiritual adviser a part-time preacher obsessed with the threat of interracial sex. Its head of security had a drinking problem. And its members seemed content to fill their secret meetings with talk of attacks that no one ever staged — until, on Jan. 9, 1966, a faction of them triggered yet another national outcry by murdering Vernon Dahmer, a 57-year-old African American farmer, entrepreneur and activist who’d spent the previous 20 years pushing against the disenfranchisement that anchored Jim Crow’s rule.

Landrum hadn’t been in on the assassination’s planning or its execution. So when the FBI descended on Laurel — within a week it had more than 100 extra agents in the field — he couldn’t provide his handlers with the incriminating information they needed to file charges. What he could do was document the disarray that swept through the Knights as the bureau closed in. In the second half of “When Evil Lived in Laurel,” Wilkie follows along, through the ludicrously conflicting stories the Knights concocted to cover themselves; the spiraling fear of informers they couldn’t manage to identify; the wild-eyed accusations they started to level at one another; the threats of trials and expulsions and retribution that ran through the ranks; the desertions, the confessions, the breakdowns, the collapsing membership and the deepening despair. “I feel ridiculous being in this group of four men with a Bible and a gun in a bitterweed-infested pasture,” Landrum reported after another dismal meeting in June 1966, “talking about letting the Lord solve our problems.”

The FBI made its first 14 arrests for the Knights’ violation of Dahmer’s civil rights barely three months after his murder, based in part on intelligence from informants better placed than Landrum had been. Over the next year and a half the bureau amassed reams of additional evidence that it handed over to Mississippi’s state authorities, who extended the charges to murder. The results were mixed. In April 1968 an all-White jury took just two hours of deliberations to convict the Knights’ homicidal preacher, while four separate juries deadlocked rather than find the imperial wizard guilty of a crime he’d clearly committed. But by then the organization he’d run had been destroyed by the fecklessness that its terrorism had hidden and, as Wilkie writes, by the willingness of a few ordinary men to stand against the evil it embodied.

Landrum closed his final report, in 1969, with the story of a recent encounter he’d had with a Klansman from another county. “He asked were things quiet in [Laurel],” Landrum wrote. “I said yes.” It’s still quiet there, Wilkie writes, thanks to a racial peace that would have been impossible to imagine half a century ago. But now the virulent white supremacy that once coursed through Laurel has reached into the center of our embattled democracy. Maybe that evil will also be brought down and peace built on its ruins. Or maybe our current crisis should force us to see that the evil of the Knights had never really been broken at all.

When Evil Lived in Laurel

The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer

By Curtis Wilkie

382 pp. $28.95