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|Samuel Kenneth Bowers|
August 25, 1924|
New Orleans, Louisiana
|Died||November 5, 2006
Mississippi State Penitentiary
Sunflower County, Mississippi
Samuel Kenneth ("Sam") Bowers (August 25, 1924 – November 5, 2006) was a leading white supremacist militant in the American state of Mississippi during the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968). In response to this movement, he cofounded a clandestine violent organization, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers was a mastermind of two notorious murder events of civil rights activists in southern Mississippi: the 1964 triple murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney near Philadelphia, for which he served six years in federal prison, and the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, for which he was sentenced to life in prison 32 years after the crime. He also was a mastermind of bombings of Jewish targets in the cities of Jackson and Meridian in 1967 and 1968 (according to the man who was convicted of some of the bombings, Thomas A. Tarrants III). He died in prison at the age of 82.
Bowers was born on August 25, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Sam Bowers Sr., a salesman, and Evangeline Peyton, daughter of a well-to-do planter. On both sides of his family he was deeply rooted in the southern Mississippi—New Orleans area. His mother's father had a plantation, while his father's father, Eaton J. Bowers, was a four-term Congressman from Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Representative Bowers was an explicitly virulent opponent of equality for African Americans. In a speech to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1904, during his freshman term, he said: "Let me say to the gentleman from Massachusetts that it is evident that we have at least two theories as to how the negro should be dealt with. One may be termed his idea of the development by higher education, social equality, and the like, while the other might be dominated [sic] the Southern idea of the absolute segregation of the two races, the fitting the negro for that sphere and station which, based upon an experience born of more than a century's knowledge of him as a slave and nearly forty years' experience with him as a freedman, we believe he can acceptably and worthily fill, with absolute denial of social intercourse and with every restriction on his participation in political affairs and government that is permissible under the Federal Constitution. . . . The restriction of suffrage was the wisest statesmanship ever exhibited in that proud Commonwealth . . . . We have disfranchised not only the ignorant and vicious black, but the ignorant and vicious white as well . . . ."
Sam Bowers Jr. attended high school in Jackson, Mississippi. While a high school student, Bowers worked part-time at the newly established Mississippi School Book Depository in Jackson. He was among the first group of staff members hired after the state legislature approved of and passed a free textbook program championed by Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. During World War II, he served in the United States Navy. Eventually, he settled in Laurel, Mississippi and started his own small business, Sambo Amusement Company, variously reported to be a pinball machine business and a vending machine business.
White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Bowers, along with many other southern whites, was highly disturbed by and deeply feared the "civil rights movement" that was undoing the persecution of African-Americans. He perceived the new civil rights legislation and forced integration as threats to the "Southern way of life."
Bowers perceived the original Ku Klux Klan as being too passive. On February 15, 1964, at a meeting in Brookhaven, Mississippi, he convinced about 200 members of the original Knights to defect and join a highly secret Klan, to be called the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, that would not hesitate to use violence to achieve its goals. He became the group's "imperial wizard" (supreme leader).
Bowers adopted a strict code of secrecy with the purpose of preserving white supremacy in the South.
Philosophy of the White Knights
His Klan, as Bowers wrote in one of his internal memoranda, was "a nocturnal organization that works best at night. We must remember that the Communists who are directing the agitators want us to engage in pitched battles in the streets so they can declare martial law."
In an "Imperial Executive Order" issued at a Klan meeting June 7, 1964, and recorded by the FBI, Bowers wrote:
- "This summer, within a very few days, the enemy will launch his final push for victory here in Mississippi. This offensive will consist of two basic salients [...]
- One. Massive street demonstrations by blacks [...] designed to provoke white militants into counterdemonstrations and open, pitched street battles [...] to provide an excuse for:
- Two. A decree from communist authorities in charge of the national government [...] declaring martial law [...]
- When the first waves of blacks hit our streets this summer, we must avoid open daylight conflict with them [...] we must counterattack the individual leaders at night."
Weaving religion into the mix, he further declared "As Christians we are disposed to kindness, generosity, affection, and humility in our dealings with others. As militants we are disposed to use physical force against our enemies. How can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory philosophies? The answer of course, is to purge malice, bitterness, and vengeance from our hearts."
In 1964, civil rights workers, primarily from Northern states, launched Freedom Summer. Later that year, five of these activists: Charles Eddie Moore, James Chaney, Henry Hezekiah Dee, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered by Klansmen.
In January 1966, Bowers, along with a number of other members of the White Knights of the KKK, was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about Klan activities. Although Byron De La Beckwith gave his name when asked by the committee (but would answer no other substantive questions), other witnesses, such as Bowers, invoked the fifth amendment even in response to that question.
In 1966 the White Knights firebombed the house of Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer was a civil rights activist with four sons serving in the United States Military, and he was working successfully to register African Americans to vote. Dahmer died of horrendous burn injuries which covered forty percent of his body after the firebombing of his home.
According to later testimony by ex-White Knights member T. Webber Rogers, Bowers gave the direct order to have Dahmer killed "in any way possible." After four previous trials ended in deadlock (a 1968 jury split 11 to 1 in favor of guilty, and in 1969 a jury split 10-2 in favor of conviction), Bowers was convicted for the murder in August 1998 and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1967, the White Knights began a campaign against Jewish targets in Mississippi. Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson and Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian were bombed. Also, the home of Jackson's Rabbi Perry Nussbaum was attacked. The actual perpetrators of these crimes were Thomas A. Tarrants III and Kathy Ainsworth. The pair conducted their terror campaign in complete secrecy.
The FBI became involved in the case and, working with local law enforcement, began to track down the bombers.
The break in the case came when two Klan brothers, Alton Wayne Roberts and Raymond Roberts, met with the FBI and police in exchange for reward money and immunity. Alton Wayne Roberts previously had been sentenced to 10 years for violating the civil rights of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. He agreed to cooperate in order to receive a reduced sentence.
A joint FBI and local police operation ambushed Tarrants and Ainsworth. Ainsworth was killed in the gun battle and Tarrants was severely wounded.
Sam Bowers was convicted in the Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman killings and served more than six years at McNeil Island Federal Prison in Washington. He was released in 1976. At the time of his death, the former Imperial Wizard was serving a 1998 sentence of life in a Mississippi prison for the 1966 bombing.
Bowers served a life sentence for the 1966 bombing death of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer. According to the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), only one person visited Bowers during his incarceration. The visitor claimed to be Bowers' brother, and listed a false address and a fictitious Mississippi town as his residence. Bowers died in the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman) Hospital of cardio-pulmonary arrest on Sunday, November 5, 2006, aged 82.
After Bowers died, an out-of-state relative came forward to claim Bowers's body.
- Associated Press (November 5, 2006). "Ex-Klansman convicted in ’66 bombing is dead".
- Bloomberg News (June 23, 2005). "Killen Sentenced to 60 Years in Prison in 1964 Deaths (Update4)".
- Mitchell, Jerry (November 8, 2006). "Bowers remains claimed". Clarion-Ledger.
- Marsh, Charles (1999). God's long summer: stories of faith and civil rights. Princeton University Press.
- Marsh, Charles (2001). The last days: a son's story of sin and segregation at the dawn of a New South. Basic Books.
- New York Times (November 6, 2006). "Samuel Bowers, 82, Klan Leader Convicted in Fatal Bombing, Dies".
- Shurter, Edwin Du Bois, ed. (1908). Oratory of the South: from the civil war to the present time.
- Vollers, Maryanne (1995). Ghosts of Mississippi: the murder of Medgar Evers, the trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the haunting of the new South. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-91485-7.
- Washington Post (November 6, 2006). "Jailed KKK Leader Samuel H. Bowers".
- WLBT (November 7, 2006). "Bowers' Body Claimed by Relative".
- Whitehead, Don (1970). Attack on terror. New York: Funk and Wagnall's.
- Nelson, Jack (1993). Terror in the Night: The Klan's campaign against the Jews. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-69223-2.