By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
The man who once headed the nation's most violent Ku Klux Klan organization admitted he thwarted justice in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers and said he didn't mind going to prison because a fellow Klansman got away with 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," Sam Bowers, former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said in a secret taped interview he gave more than a decade ago to state archives officials. "Everybody - including the trial judge and the prosecutors and everybody else - knows that that happened. This hurts the imperial authority when they have to stoop to conquer, and I think that I did make them stoop to conquer.''
Bowers' interview, contained on three tapes about an hour each, sheds new light on the Klan's killings of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in 1964 near Philadelphia.
Bowers' admission that he thwarted justice shows that true justice never took place, said Chaney's brother, Ben Chaney.
Both he and Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, called for a grand jury inquiry into the matter. "Isn't it time for the state of Mississippi to really inquire into the role it played instead of continuing to duck responsibility?" Bender asked.
Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were among the many civil rights activists trained to work in "Freedom Summer," registering black Mississippians to vote.
On June 21, 1964, the trio were jailed on traffic charges by Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price. Shortly after their release, Price and other Klansmen captured them. They were shot and buried beneath a 15-foot earthen dam.
The trio were missing for 44 days, and some branded their disappearances a hoax. Then an informant told the FBI where the bodies were buried.
Other informants named names, but state officials refused to prosecute the case, so federal authorities stepped in, using a conspiracy charge because there was no federal murder statute.
In the U.S. District Court trial in Meridian in 1967, witnesses testified that Bowers ordered the killings of the trio. Klansman James Jordan pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified against fellow Klansmen. Bowers, Price and five others were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the trio by killing them, seven others were acquitted and three others had mistrials. The most any Klansman served in prison was six years.
In addition to information from Bowers' taped interview, The Clarion-Ledger has obtained the FBI confessions of Jordan and Klansman Horace Doyle Barnette.
Jordan testified in the case, but the jury in the 1967 trial never heard his confession or that of Barnette, both of whom implicated Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen as having helped plan the killings.
Barnette claimed Killen initially said that "three civil rights workers were going to be released from jail and that we were going to catch them and give them a whipping." Later, when the group of Klansmen arrived in Philadelphia, Barnette said Killen told him, "We have a place to bury them, and a man to run the dozer to cover them up." "This," Barnette said, "was the first time I realized the three civil rights workers were to be killed."
Jordan said Killen told him "they had three civil rights workers in jail in Philadelphia and that they needed their `asses tore up.' Killen said it had to be done in a hurry since they were being held on a minor charge."
Joe Sullivan, who headed the FBI investigation into the killings, said testimony in the case pointed to Killen as an instigator. "He was the moving force," Sullivan said.
Killen had an alibi for the night the trio was killed, and a jury couldn't agree on his guilt or innocence. A mistrial was declared.
Contacted for comment, Killen denied Barnette's and Jordan's claims that he helped plan the killings. Killen said that Jordan "fabricated more than 90 percent of what he told. He was not a close associate of mine."
He said the FBI regularly harassed him and threatened him because agents believed he was a Klansman involved in the killings. "You name it," he said. "They did it. I never understood why they could lie and it not be against the law."
As for his alibi that night, he said he spent the night preaching two funerals, one for a 2-year-old child. "It wasn't a set-up alibi. It was something unplanned," he said. "Country folks, if we set up, we'd set up with family."
After the killings, Killen said, he learned Schwerner and Goodman were "underground agents with the Communist Party. The CIA had them under constant surveillance."
As for those who killed the civil rights trio, he said, "I'm not going to say they were wrong. . . . I don't believe in murder. I believe in self-defense."
Killen said he didn't know the "main instigator" Bowers was referring to and didn't even know Bowers until they met at the trial. "According to the news media, he was my boss," he said.
Another detail the federal jury in 1967 didn't hear was Barnette's claim that Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Price and an unnamed city policeman met with Klansmen after the civil rights trio had been killed. Barnette quoted Rainey as saying, "I'll kill anyone who talks, even if it's my own brother."
Rainey said he was visiting his sick wife in the hospital the night the trio was killed, and the jury acquitted him on conspiracy.
Rainey said Barnette is lying in the confession and that he never knew Barnette prior to the trial.
He was never in the Klan, he said. "The damn FBI was paying all those witnesses to lie. I attended some of the (Klan) meetings. They had open meetings, but that was all."
Asked about Bowers' statement about the "main instigator" getting away with murder, Rainey said, "I thought Bowers was the head man on all of that. I never heard of anybody else."
Both Sullivan and Public Safety Commissioner Jim Ingram, who headed the civil rights desk for the FBI, said the real "main instigator" in the killings was Bowers. "He was the one man responsible," Ingram said.
During his interview, Bowers denied direct involvement in the killings, but said that if authorities "had wanted to put a charge on me they could have gotten me for obstruction of justice."
Bowers said he did "everything I could to frustrate the investigation. . . . I was up there doing everything I could to keep those people from talking and everything else."
He did not specify further; however, The Clarion-Ledger, has documented that the White Knights used harassment, intimidation and attempts to influence or tamper with juries in trials.
Bender said Bowers' admission that he thwarted justice "raises the question of what did he do - who got away with it and what did he do to make it happen?"
Bowers' taped interview, reviewed by The Clarion-Ledger, was recorded by Debra Spencer, an oral historian for the state Department of Archives and History in October 1983 and again in January and November of 1984. The tapes are sealed until Bowers' death under his agreement with archives officials.
The reclusive Bowers, who never talks with the media, referred to himself as "a criminal and a lunatic," justifying lynchings and killings as ways to preserve the Southern way of life. "Citizens not only have a right but a duty to preserve their culture," he said.
"By taking someone's life though?" Spencer asked on the tape.
"If that person wants to put his life on the line in order to destroy that culture, yes," Bowers replied.
The FBI blamed the White Knights for not only the killings of the civil rights trio, but seven others in Mississippi, plus dozens of bombings of churches, homes and businesses in the 1960s. Bowers, the Klan leader, was convicted in only one murder, that of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.
Bowers said he had nothing to do with the deaths, but he expressed pride that most of the killings remained unsolved.
"Every stone in the Watergate conspiracy has been uncovered, exposed to the light of day," Bowers said. "Yet in the Philadelphia case and dozens of other cases in Mississippi, very, very little is known, much of what they think they know is inaccurate. The case has never really been solved in the sense that Watergate has been solved. So, here is a bunch of semiliterate rednecks in the state of Mississippi really putting up a better show against imperial authority than Richard Nixon and the Republican Party did in Watergate."
Bowers confirmed in the interview that a mob of Klansmen had killed the civil rights trio, but he maintained that he and two others who were convicted of conspiracy weren't involved. Bowers did not name those men.
Goodman's mother, Carolyn Goodman, said Bowers' statements show Mississippi should reprosecute the case. "At that time in 1964, the state would never even hear a murder charge. Now in 1998, it's a different matter. People are prepared to look back."