White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are considered the most militant as well as the most violent chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in history. They originated in Mississippi in the early 1960s under the leadership of Samuel Bowers, its first Grand Wizard. The White Knights of Mississippi were formed in 1964, and they included roughly 200 members of the Original Knights of Louisiana. The White Knights were not interested in holding public demonstrations or in letting any information about themselves get out to the masses. Similar to the United Klans of America (UKA), the White Knights of Mississippi were very secretive about their group. Within a year, their membership was up to around six thousand, and they had Klaverns in over half of the counties in Mississippi. But by 1967, the number of active members had shrunk to around four hundred.
Murder of civil rights activists
The White Knights were responsible for many bombings, church burnings, beatings, and murders. In 1964, they murdered three civil rights workers: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The victims were members of the Congress Of Racial Equality.
White Knight member Samuel Bowers had targeted Schwerner because of the civil rights worker's efforts to promote racial equality and to get Blacks to register to vote during Freedom Summer. The Klan saw Schwerner as an enemy because they believed he was a white man helping the cause of black supremacy.
In his first attempt to kill Schwerner, Bowers assembled 30 White Knights on the evening of Memorial Day 1964 and surrounded the Mount Zion Church while a meeting was taking place inside. Bowers thought Schwerner would be in attendance, but after failing to find him when the meeting let out, the Knights started beating the blacks who were present, then set the church on fire after pouring gasoline inside.
Schwerner had been in Ohio at the time working on helping the National Council of Churches find more students to help with the Mississippi Summer Project. When he found out about the church burning, he decided to drive back to Mississippi. Accompanying him were 21-year-old James Chaney, a black man, and Andrew Goodman. They were heading to Longdale in Neshoba County, where the sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, and his deputy, Cecil Price, were members of the Klan, although the Klansmen never publicly announced it.
When the three activists got to Neshoba County, Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price saw their car driving down the highway and pulled them over on the premise of possible involvement in the burning of Mount Zion Church. They were locked up, denied their right to make phone calls, and kept there, while Price worked out the details of their murder with a White Knight member, Edgar Ray Killen. Hours later, Price released them but followed them from behind in his car. The trio knew they were being followed, and they eventually stopped their car, at which point Price ordered them into his vehicle. Two cars of Klansmen pulled up, and all three activists were shot at close range. Their bodies were placed together in a hollow at the dam site and then covered with tons of dirt using a Caterpillar D-4.
It was months before any indictments were made. Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Price were indicted in 1965, but not until 1967, when 18 members of the White Knights who were also involved in the crime were indicted. Six men were convicted, including Sam Bowers and Deputy Cecil Price. Seven men were found not guilty, and one was acquitted of all charges. Bowers and Wayne Roberts (who shot the gun) each received the longest prison sentences, 10 years.
Among those indicted was Edgar Ray Killen, who was saved from conviction only because one of the jurors flatly refused to convict a man whom he knew was a preacher. However, Killen was eventually convicted of the murders in June 2005, 40 years after the fact; at age 79 he was sentenced to "three 20-year terms, one for each conviction of manslaughter in connection with the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964."
The end of the White Knights
In 1989, The White Knights of Mississippi attempted to go national and appointed professional wrestler Johnny Lee Clary, whose stage name was "Johnny Angel", as its new Imperial Wizard to succeed the retiring Samuel Bowers. Clary appeared on many talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Morton Downey, Jr. Show, in an effort to build a new, modern image for the Ku Klux Klan. It was thought that Clary could build membership in the Klan due to his celebrity status as a professional wrestler.
Clary tried to unify the various chapters of the Klan in a meeting held in the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, Pulaski, Tennessee, only to have it fall apart because of infighting which occurred when the Klan's various chapters came together. Clary's girlfriend was revealed to be an F.B.I. informant, which resulted in distrust of Clary among members of the different Klan chapters. Clary resigned from the Klan and later became a born again Christian and a civil rights activist.
With the conviction of Killen in 2005, the bloody chapter of the White Knights of Mississippi came to a close. Price died in 2001; Wayne Roberts is also deceased. Today, the MS White Knights are led by Imperial Wizard Richard Green, with over 1000 members in Mississippi.
In art, entertainment, and media
- The film Mississippi Burning (1988) is based on the events surrounding the White Knights' murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.
- The lyrics of Don McLean's hit folk song "American Pie" (1971) refer to the murders: "Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry."
- Nelson, Stanley (1 October 2008). "Gunshots in Morgontown signaled changes in Klan membership". The Concordia Sentinel. Retrieved 25 October 2008.
- Linder, Douglas. "The Mississippi Burning Trial: U.S. vs. Price et al.". Retrieved 16 October 2008.
- O'Brien, P. (March 3, 1999). "Understanding the lyrics of American Pie: The analysis and interpretation of Don McLean's song lyrics". The Octopus's Garden. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
- Nelson, Jack (1993). Terror in the Night: The Klan's Campaign Against the Jews. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-69223-2.
- Former KKK leader convicted of 1966 murder CNN.com, August 21, 1998.
- Biography of Sam Bowers
- Handbook of Texas
- Johnny Lee Clary speaks against racism Former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
- Alexander, Charles C. The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.