Although Curtis Wilkie’s new book is mostly about the Ku Klux Klan in Jones and Forrest counties in the 1960s, Pike County and a well-known Klansman of the McComb area are included.
Wilkie, who grew up in Summit and went on to become a nationally-known journalist and author, is gifted at turning research and interviews into highly readable narratives, and this book is no exception.
“When Evil Lived in Laurel” — “The ‘White Knights’ and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer” offers a gripping insight into the inner workings of the Klan in the turbulent 1960s, as well as FBI tactics that, at times, seemed to cross the line of legality.
The main character in the book is Tom Landrum, a former coach, then youth court counselor, who was persuaded by an FBI agent to join the White Knights and become an informer.
Needless to say, it was dangerous and stressful work. Landrum often heard at Klan meetings threats to kill any informers detected.
Before he died at age 87 in 2019, Landrum made available to Wilkie journals he kept while he secretly reported to the FBI. Landrum and his wife Anne submitted to extensive interviews with the author who also drew on other research for the book.
The White Knights in Jones County was an extremely violent group, its leaders considering the rival United Klans that operated in nearby Forrest County and also in the McComb area as not tough enough.
It was White Knights from Jones County who ventured into Forrest County to burn out and murder Vernon Dahmer, a voter registration leader in the Hattiesburg area.
Two years before the Dahmer raid, however, members of the United Klans were doing violence in the McComb area in 1964.
Wilkie’s book notes: “it seemed as though sticks of dynamite were being tossed about as casually as July fireworks. The violence earned the region the unwanted title of ‘Church Bombing Capital of the World.’”
By 1966, the violence had subsided in McComb, following the arrest of some bombers and a stand by many citizens for law and order.
That year the House UnAmerican Activities Committee conducted a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Klan activities.
Sam Bowers, the leader of the White Knights in Laurel, stonewalled the committee, invoking the Fifth Amendment, as did others.
But, as reported by Wilkie, Emmett Thornhill, described by then as “a former member of the United Klans klavern in Pike County,” was more forthcoming.
Thornhill was an uneducated man who made millions of dollars by securing oil leases. I remember him well, and I was always under the impression that he often was in partnership with leading businessmen and professionals in the area in securing the oil leases. They put up the money for the leases. He did the leg work.
He made no bones about being in the Klan in 1964 when hundreds of people attended an open to the public United Klans rally featuring a speech by its national leader Robert Shelton at the Pike County Fairgrounds.
I recall attending that along with Enterprise-Journal reporter Charley Gordon. We both agreed Shelton made a long-winded and boring speech.
By the time he testified in Washington, Thornhill claimed he no longer was a member of the Klan, saying he was disturbed by the violence.
As quoted in the book Thornhill said: “They was doing some things I didn’t approve of, so I thought maybe I would get out…Everybody knew that I was in the Klan and they thought I was head of it…I didn’t know a thing about what was going on…Everybody was accusing me of doing it anyway, and I said well, I would just get out of it.”
However, Thornhill characterized the United Klans as a benevolent group that had committees to care for the sick and needy as well as a committee to screen public school libraries to make sure they had no “sex books.”
I was a pretty good reporter in the 1960s, but I missed anything good the Klan did.
In my opinion, what made Klansmen so dangerous was that, although some were just thugs, others truly believed they were preserving Christianity by participating in or condoning violent acts, even murder.
Misguided “true believers” can be more dangerous than criminals who are just in it for the money.