As neo-Confederates mythologize the 'nobility' of the Jim Crow South, a series of recently reopened murder cases recall the bloody nature of American apartheid.
To hear the ideologues of the neo-Confederate movement tell it, the Deep South of the 1950s and 1960s was a marvelous place indeed. Little wonder, then, that it so fiercely resisted giving voting rights to blacks, desegregating the schools and dismantling Jim Crow laws.
The "good people" of the South, writes William Cawthon, a founding member of the League of the South (LOS), wished merely to preserve "the high standards that their society had thus far achieved."
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Cawthon enthuses, "in his first inaugural in 1963 spoke the noble words: 'Let us rise to the call of the freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny... ."
What Cawthon doesn't quote tells it all.
The very next words Wallace spoke, a world-famous phrase that does not find its way into Cawthon's rosy portrait, were these: "... and I say, 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.' "
As LOS President Michael Hill put it with a little more bluntness in his own writings, Wallace "stood foursquare against the Yankee-imposed ideology of egalitarianism," a lonely but noble stalwart who put himself "between us and absorption into the pagan global village."
Hill, Cawthon and a host of other neo-Confederates engaged in rewriting the history of the South omit more than just a phrase or two. Virtually unmentioned in their writings, their speeches and their other political activities are the realities of the era that saw the struggle for civil rights in the American South — the violent, often ghastly, campaign of terror conducted by men spurred on by Wallace and his ilk, a repression that left scores of men, women and children dead.
'A Lot of Little Nuremburgs'
Much has been said and written about the reopening of murder cases from the civil rights era in the South — a reexamination that since 1989 has included new probes of a total of 18 killings in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The trend reflects the appearance of a new generation of Southern prosecutors, a new willingness on the part of white jurors to convict, the recently wakened consciences of long-silent witnesses. It underscores the notion that justice, even if long delayed, should never be denied.
But it also serves as a hair-raising reminder of what the South was really like in the days that Hill and his ilk remember so fondly.
"There is a sort of 'Happy Days' version of Southern history that is being presented," says Brooks Simpson, an Arizona State University Civil War historian (see White Lies). "Clearly, these were not happy days in any way."
Boys were mutilated for looking the wrong way at white women. Black men were forced to jump off bridges, fire-bombed for trying to register voters, shot dead as a lure to attract civil rights leaders — with the thought that then they, too, could be slain.
White preachers, students, reporters and even a housewife were murdered for trying to help spread voting rights to blacks. And tens of thousands of others were terrorized into silence, browbeaten by the Klan and its uptown allies in a bid to maintain the "high standards" of Southern culture to which Cawthon, Hill and many of their neo-Confederate friends would like to return.
Now, with the reopening of so many cases — so far, there have been a dozen arrests, six convictions, one acquittal and one mistrial — the spotlight is once again on the "high standards" of the "good people" of the civil rights era South. To more than one expert, there is a comparison to be made to Nazi war crimes.
The new prosecutions represent "a lot of little Nurembergs," says David Halberstam, a leading historian of the civil rights movement. "This handful of cases were sort of legalized murders because no jury was ever going to convict anybody. The facts were known, but there was an inability to get a conviction."
Despite the nostalgia of the Michael Hills of the world, the South has changed — convictions are clearly now possible. And, say many less one-sided lovers of the South, they are just as clearly needed. "It's not just digging up old dirt," says David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi. "It's finishing that unfinished business.
"I don't know if it's good for our image. But I think it's good for our soul."
Murder, Lies and Official Complicity
With that in mind, the Intelligence Report set out to detail some of the cases that have been or are being reinvestigated. These stories — fleshed out with a series of interviews and other reporting across the South — are presented as an antidote to the toxic historical revisionism of the modern neo-Confederate movement.
Of the 40 killings listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., only two resulted in first-degree murder convictions in the 1960s — the killings of Vernon Dahmer in 1966 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Families of five other victims obtained some justice with federal conspiracy convictions, but in those cases murder indictments were never brought.
The numbers remained unchanged until the 1970s, when Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley decided such crimes of the past shouldn't go unpunished.
Baxley pursued the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church — the infamous Sunday attack that left four little black girls dead and horrified the world.
He prosecuted white supremacist J.B. Stoner for the unrelated 1958 bombing of a Birmingham church. And he tried to resurrect the 1957 case against the killers of Willie Edwards Jr., who was forced to jump off an Alabama River bridge in Montgomery after being mistaken for another black man who was supposedly seeing a white woman.
Baxley experienced partial success. Stoner went to prison. A judge in the Edwards case tossed out the indictments against the accused. In 1977, a jury convicted Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss in the killings of the four little girls. Chambliss would die while serving a prison sentence eight years later.
Baxley left office before he could pursue other suspects in the church bombing. His successors never bothered to follow his lead.
Once again, the unsolved cases languished.
Then a small event inspired a single prosecutor. In 1989, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., printed leaked documents from a now-defunct segregationist spy agency known as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which was then headed by the governor.
Those documents showed that at the same time the state was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the June 12, 1963, murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the state-funded Sovereignty Commission was secretly assisting Beckwith's defense, seeking to acquit him.
Revelation of the state's secret assistance to Beckwith in his April 1964 trial prompted widow Myrlie Evers-Williams to seek justice. Then-prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter of Jackson, Miss., listened and began to explore whether Beckwith could be reprosecuted.
New witnesses came forward, and before 1990 ended, Beckwith was indicted for Evers' murder. Four years later, a jury convicted him in the same courtroom where he had been tried 30 years earlier.
'Doing Something About Dahmer'
DeLaughter's victory inspired more, including one that would come to the family of Vernon Dahmer (pronounced DAY-mer), who died on Jan. 10, 1966, defending his family in Hattiesburg, Miss., from a nighttime firebombing by the Klan. Dahmer had made the mistake of trying to register blacks to vote.
In the 1960s, juries did convict four Klansmen in the case, but the man identified in testimony as ordering Dahmer's death — Mississippi White Knights Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers — walked free when a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of his guilt. FBI documents now confirm the longstanding suspicion that the Klan had tampered with that jury, enabling Bowers to go unpunished.
In 1991, Dahmer's widow, Ellie Dahmer, and other family members met with local district attorney Glenn White. Although White reopened the case, his interest soon waned and the case did not go forward. Enter a new district attorney, who in 1996 promised the family he would pursue the case if possible.
Still, things looked hopeless until the next spring, when a new witness came forward. A gambling addict, Bob Stringer spoke to authorities as part of his struggle to come to terms with his addiction and to own up to his past.
Part of that past included working as an errand boy for Bowers. Stringer said that a few days before Dahmer was killed, he overheard Bowers speaking to Klansmen about "doing something about that Dahmer nigger down south." In May 1998, Bowers was arrested along with his longtime fellow Klan leader, Deavours Nix, and a man identified as going on the fatal raid, Charles Noble.
On Aug. 21, 1998, a jury convicted Bowers of the killing of Dahmer, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Nix died before going on trial. In 1999, Noble received a mistrial, and prosecutors still haven't decided whether to retry him.
Midnight, Murder and Marriage
The prosecutions of Beckwith and Bowers gave other families hope — including the family of Rainey Pool, a man from Midnight, Miss. Pool never had any role in the civil rights movement, but that did not stop a white mob from beating the one-armed sharecropper unconscious for daring to come near an all-white bar on April 12, 1970.
Two mob members threw Pool into the Sunflower River, where he drowned. The case went untried for 18 years.
In 1998, district attorney James Powell of Durant, Miss., re-opened the case at the request of Pool's family. Within months, authorities had charged five men, and in 1999, one of those men, Dennis Newton, went on trial.
But Newton was acquitted for lack of evidence, and Powell changed his approach before the next trial. This time, he made a plea agreement with one of the members of the mob — Joe Oliver Watson, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Pool's murder and was given a four-year sentence in exchange for his cooperation in the case. Watson went on to testify against three fellow mob members, Hal Crimm and his half-brothers, James "Doc" Caston and Charles Caston.
The prosecution was also aided by a surprise witness, Candy Bradshaw, who once lived with Doc Caston's son. Bradshaw told jurors that as they dined on armadillo steaks with Doc Caston at the family's mobile home one Saturday in 1986, Caston told the couple they should get an AIDS test.
"I got mouthy," Bradshaw testified. "I told him he was the one who needed the AIDS test." With that, Bradshaw told the jury, an enraged Caston replied, "Bitch, I've killed one nigger man. I won't hesitate to kill again."
All three defendants were convicted of manslaughter and each was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In the wake of their convictions came another revelation about how prosecution of the Pool case was derailed in 1970. At the time, a woman named Margaret Berry told authorities that Crimm had confessed the murder.
"He sat on the bed and was real nervous," Berry told police in 1970. "I asked him if they had found that Negro. He said, 'Hell, no, they ain't going to find him.' He said he killed that Negro and threw him in the river. I laughed at him because I thought he was kidding, but he told me that he was not kidding."
Despite such an implicating statement, Margaret Berry never testified against Hal Crimm. The reason? Crimm married her. Like many other states, Mississippi bars the testimony of current and former spouses against their mates.
The Klan Baits a Trap
Days after Pool's killers went to prison in November 1999, an investigation would begin again into another long-forgotten killing in Mississippi, the June 10, 1966, murder of Ben Chester White. Like Pool, the 67-year-old farmhand had no connection to the civil rights movement.
But the color of his skin apparently was all that mattered on June 10, 1966, when a group of Klansmen decided they wanted to kill Martin Luther King Jr. by luring him to Natchez to fight race hate.
White, the Klansmen decided, would be the bait.
According to authorities, Ernest Avants, James Jones and Claude Fuller asked for White to help them find a dog. The trio allegedly took White out to a secluded area, where Fuller opened fire and Avants then joined in.
The state did take the lead in prosecuting this case. But Jones expressed remorse at his trial, and his jury couldn't reach a unanimous verdict. Fuller was never tried.
Avants' lawyer argued his client shot White after he was dead — meaning he couldn't be held responsible for murder — and Avants was acquitted of the murder charge, precluding further state prosecution. Further action against Avants, the lone suspect who is still alive, was considered hopeless.
But what no one knew was that the killing took place on federal property in a national forest. After ABC News' "20/20" reported this fact — meaning federal charges for violating White's civil rights could be brought — federal authorities reopened the case. Asked to assess what might happen if he were to wind up back in court, Avants told "20/20," "If I was tried now, hell, I'd be convicted."
On June 7, FBI agents arrested Avants in connection with the murder.
In the wake of the federal reopening of the case, there were new revelations regarding how Mississippi authorities handled the case originally. FBI documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger indicate then-Adams County Sheriff Odell Adams, who led the investigation of White's murder, was a Klansman.
(In an interview, Adams denied he was in the Klan, but admitted attending some Klan meetings.) Other documents showed Avants confessed to authorities just months before his 1967 Mississippi murder trial — a confession prosecutors didn't bother to use.
'The Prosecutors Walked Away'
Two months after reopening White's killing in late 1999, the FBI learned from The Clarion-Ledger that White's killing wasn't the only civil rights era slaying in which federal officials might have jurisdiction.
Agents then reopened the 1964 killings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, who, like Ben Chester White, were apparently killed in the Homochitto National Forest.
The two, both 19-year-old former college students, were beaten by Klansmen near Meadville, Miss., and thrown into a river. Mississippi never prosecuted the case.
Nearly 1,000 pages of FBI documents detail the widespread fear in Meadville at the time — and the fact that the FBI had collected enough evidence for the case to be presented to a Mississippi grand jury. But it never was.
Two suspects were arrested in the case, James Ford Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, but charges were soon dropped, despite the fact that documents show both admitted involvement. According to FBI documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger, authorities in 1964 confronted Seale and told him they knew he and others took Dee and Moore "to some remote place and beat them to death.
You then transported and disposed of their bodies by dropping them in the Mississippi River. You didn't even give them a decent burial. We know you did it. You know you did. The Lord above knows you did it."
"Yes," Seale was quoted as replying, "but I'm not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it." For his part, Edwards admitted beating Dee and Moore, but claimed they were alive when he left, FBI documents say.
"The Mississippi Highway Patrol did their jobs, and the FBI investigators did their jobs," said former FBI agent Jim Ingram of Jackson, who originally investigated the case. "The prosecutors walked right away from it."
At around the same time as the White case was reopened, one of the least anticipated investigations — the police department in Jackson, Miss., reexamining the May 12, 1967, killing of Ben Brown, who was shot in the back — also got rolling. What is so striking about that investigation is that two suspects in the case are former members of the very same Jackson police department.
Eliminating the Queen Bee
Also last year, Mississippi Atty. Gen. Mike Moore reopened the notorious June 21, 1964, killings of three civil rights workers — Michael Scwherner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — after The Clarion-Ledger revealed the contents of a sealed interview. Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers had given the interview to a state archivist with the promise that it would remain secret until after his death.
In that interview, Bowers talked about the 1967 federal conspiracy trial in which he and six others were convicted, eight were acquitted and three received mistrials.
None of the men were ever tried for murder. "I was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man," Bowers said. "Everybody — including the trial judge and the prosecutors and everybody else — knows that that happened."
Bowers didn't name the man who walked away, but in their confessions two participants name Edgar Ray Killen, known as "Preacher" Killen, and say he gave orders to Klansmen that night that included where to bury the bodies.
Killen denies any role in the killings.
But in an interview, he called Schwerner and Goodman "communists." And their killers? "I'm not going to say they were wrong."
One of the new witnesses is the same Bob Stringer who testified in Bowers' 1998 murder trial. In an interview, Stringer said he was at a meeting where Bowers gave the orders to kill Schwerner, known by the Klan as "Goatee" because of his beard.
"Goatee is like the queen bee in the beehive," Stringer says Bowers told Killen. "You eliminate the queen bee and all the workers go away."
'The Absolute Last Straw'
Perhaps the most heinous crime of the era came on Sept. 15, 1963, when Klan plotters blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.
The attack — in a city nicknamed "Bombingham" thanks to the frequency of Klan dynamite bombings — inspired outrage around the world and united the civil rights movement.
"It galvanized the nation because it showed the extent to which the white resistance would go to stop the movement — even to murdering children," says NAACP chairman Julian Bond. "Even though there had been other murders before, I think this was just the last straw, the absolute last straw."
In 1993, 16 years after Bob Chambliss was convicted in the case, the FBI began to reinvestigate the attack. Five years later, saying there was new evidence, officials presented the case to a federal grand jury in Birmingham.
Finally, on May 16 of this year, an Alabama grand jury indicted former Klansmen Thomas Blanton Jr., 61, of Birmingham, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 70, of Mabank, Texas, the only survivors among the four suspects the FBI had initially identified in the 1960s. A date for their trial has not yet been set.
New witnesses have come forward, including the ex-wife of Cherry, Willadean Brogdon, who told grand jurors she heard Cherry discuss the bombing. "Bob told me he didn't put the bomb together," she said. "He said, 'I lit it.'" In talks with her brother, Brogdon testified, "Bob would talk, and he'd get to crying and say he never intended to kill those girls. He said the only good thing about killing these girls was that they couldn't grow up to have more niggers."
Cherry's response is curt. "That's a lie," he says.
In an interview, Cherry told The Clarion-Ledger that on Sept. 14, 1963 — the night the bomb was planted — he was at the Modern Sign Co. in Birmingham, a few blocks from the church. "I know I left up there about a quarter 'til 10 because I was heading home to watch wrestling," he said.
And to back up his story, Cherry showed a reporter an affidavit from a friend, Flora Thomas, who swore Cherry "was at home at 10 o'clock Saturday night because he never missed wrestling on TV."
The problem with that alibi?
There was no wrestling on TV. Records show no wrestling appeared on television on Sept. 14, 1963. Instead, it was "Route 66" and "Films of the Fifties." "There was no damn 'Films of the Fifties' on," Cherry said after being told of the discrepancy. "Son of a bitch, something's wrong. Wrestling was on."
Shortly after the bombing, the FBI gave Cherry a lie detector test that concluded he showed "evidence of deception" when asked if he was present when the bombing was planned and showed reaction to the question, "Did you bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church?" But Cherry says the FBI examiner bumped the needle so it would appear that Cherry was lying.
"It might have been a gas leak," Cherry said of the bombing. "They had a nigger janitor. He died right after that."
Truth and Memory
These cases were not merely the criminal acts of a handful of psychopaths, examples of extreme violence wrought by the deranged. They were, in a very real sense, expressions of organized white supremacy — part and parcel of a terrorist apparatus meant to maintain the American South's apartheid.
They were to a large extent inspired and justified by such men as George Wallace, people who helped unleash the passions of the mob across the South. Ultimately, they were an all but inevitable product of a system that denies rights to a whole class of citizens.
But that's not the way neo-Confederates see it. Like deniers of the Holocaust, these white men are determined to see the old South through a lens of their very own making — a lens that grotesquely distorts truth and memory.
"Segregation," the League of the South's William Cawthon writes in an article typical of neo-Confederate revisionism, "is not evil or wrong. It is simply a policy to promote the integrity of a group. That there were some injustices in the segregation as practiced in the South I do not deny. ... [But] the segregated society of the South was far, far more moral than is modern American society."