Klan leader who targeted Mississippi Jews dies

Sam Bowers, who started a violent offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan that hit Jewish targets in Mississippi in 1967, as well as killing three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia in 1964, died on Nov. 5 at Parchman Prison in Mississippi.

Born in New Orleans, Bowers was a Navy veteran who thought of the KKK as being too passive during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. He formed the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a group that would use violence when needed, and served as its Imperial Wizard.

In May 1964, in a Laurel restaurant, he authorized the execution of activist Mickey Schwerner, calling him “a thorn in the side of everyone living, especially white people” that “should be taken care of.”

Bowers’ involvement in the murders of Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney that summer in Philadelphia was described during the “Mississippi Burning” trials that followed. He was found guilty in 1967, serving six years in prison for civil rights violations — not murder.

At the time, he noted the acquittal of Edgar Ray Killen — who was finally convicted last year — and stated he was happy to be convicted “and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man.”

In 1966, members of the White Knights killed Vernon Dahmer, who was working to register blacks to vote and allowed his store to be used for collecting the poll tax from blacks. Member T. Webber Rogers testified that Bowers had given the order to have Dahmer killed. Four trials ended in deadlock, but Bowers was finally convicted in 1998 and sentenced to prison. He died while serving that sentence.

In 1967, the White Knights decided the blacks had not been the problem during the Civil Rights struggle, but the Jews were. The Klan bombed Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson and the home of its rabbi, Perry Nussbaum. Temple Beth Israel in Meridian was bombed in May 1968.

Funds were raised to pay Klan informants and an FBI deathtrap was set at the next target, the home of Meyer Davidson in Meridian, on June 29, 1968. One member of the bombing team — kindergarten teacher Kathy Ainsworth — was killed, while Thomas Tarrants III was wounded. He would later serve time in jail, undergo a conversion, and now heads the C.S. Lewis Institute and lectures on reconciliation and repentance.

According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Bowers has no known relatives or property, and likely will be buried in a pauper’s grave at Parchman.

“It would be poetic justice for him to be buried in a pauper’s grave, dying friendless,” author Jack Nelson told the Clarion-Ledger. Nelson’s 1993 book, “Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign Against the Jews,” detailed Bowers’ actions. “He sure wasn’t a friend to that many people,” Nelson added.