Blood On Our Hands
Reviewed by Stetson Kennedy
Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 22-24
Terror in the Night, by Jack Nelson (Simon & Schuster, 1993, 287 pages).
What Stalingrad was to World War II, Mississippi was to the Overcoming; and what Jack Nelson has given us here, while not purporting to be the whole story of all that took place on that crucial battlefield in the 1960s struggle to purge America of apartheid and white supremacy, is one of the most revelatory accounts yet.
Everyone who found the film “Mississippi Burning” to be an eye-opener would do well to focus now on Terror in the Night, which belongs on every shelf having to do with America’s on-going struggle to fulfil her ideals. The general reader too (who most needs to get the message) will find this true cloak-and-dagger story as engrossing as anything in fiction.
Jack Nelson is familiar to millions as a panelist on the PBS show “Washington Week in Review.” He grew up in Mississippi, and was Atlanta bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, supplying it with on-the-scene coverage of many of the events detailed in his book. A Pulitzer Prize winner, his exposes of some of the excesses of Hoover’s FBI almost got him (Nelson) fired.
Although Terror in the Night comes a quarter-century after Nelson first reported on these happenings, the book is by no means a rehash of his original frontline dispatches. He recently went back into Mississippi and interviewed many of the surviving principals (colleagues accused him of ingratiating himself with these scoundrels by “walking the walk and talking the talk”).
Be that as it may, he did persuade the once-comely Marie Knowles, secretary to Meridian’s detectives, to let him see a lot of confidential memos she had hidden away all these years. To get the FBI to do the same, it took a demand under the FOIA.
The net result of Nelson’s backtracking is a lot of old evidence that is brand new, in that it has never before been exposed to public view. As it turns out, those who kept it out of sight had good reasons for doing so….
As we have known all along, the arch villain in the Mississippi scenario was Wizard Sam Bowers of the White Knights of the KKK, which by the mid-60s had an estimated five thousand members in the state. An FBI tab turned up by Nelson points to Bowers as the authorizer of nine murders and three hundred bombings, burnings, and beatings during the reign of terror. No one got blown away unless Bowers first issued a “No. 4” death warrant which stipulated that all assassinations be carried out in a “quiet Christian-like manner.”
Mississippi blacks bore the brunt of the terror. In May of ’64 Charles Eddie Moore, twenty, and Henry Dee, nineteen, disappeared, their dismembered bodies surfacing downstream in Louisiana two months later…. In January of ’66 Hattiesburg NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer perished when his home was firebombed…. In July, Ben White, a Korean war vet, was picked up at random and executed by the Klan’s “Cottonmouth Gang”…. Seven months later, Wharlest Jackson, treasurer of the Natchez NAACP, was blown up by a bomb placed in his truck…. As early as 1964 forty-four black churches had been bombed or burned.
But the main focus of Terror of the Night lies elsewhere: it was when the Klan started planting its dynamite beneath synagogues and the homes of rabbis that the terror took on a new dimension. First to be bombed was Temple Beth Israel in Jackson. Founded in 1861, the new structure was but seven months old when the blast oc-
curred in September of ’67. Its rabbi, Canadian-born Perry Nussbaum, had been letting interracial ministerial groups meet in it, and furthermore had been helping raise a $750,000 fund to rebuild bombed black churches. He happened not to be in the Temple when the bomb went off, but he and his wife were in their home when the Klan dynamited it soon afterward. They escaped, but narrowly.
The synagogue in Meridian was next to go, in May, 1968. From inside the Klan the FBI had gotten firm word that the next time a synagogue would be bombed it would be while it was conducting services. Then FBI agent Frank Watts got his hands on the local Klan’s hit list. The “Big Four” names at the top were Police Chief Roy Gunn, followed by Jewish businessmen Meyer Davidson, I.A. Rosenbaum, and Al Rose. Also high on the list was Watts’s own name. Needless to say, all concerned were agreed that something had to be done, fast.
Jackson FBI agent-in-charge Roy Moore told some Jewish business leaders that it would take big money to buy informers high enough in the Klan to give advance warning of when and where the next bombing would take place. The sum of $100,000 was raised for the purpose. Two such Klansmen were found, but in addition to the money they wanted an absolute guarantee that they would not have to appear in court and thus risk the virtual certainly of being liquidated themselves. The FBI and Chief Gunn concluded that this meant there was but one way to go: ambush with intent to kill.
They got just two days notice that Bowers had issued a No. 4 to bomb the home of Meyer Davidson on the night of June 29, 1968. Active on interracial councils, Davidson had incurred the wrath of the Klan by proclaiming that the bombing of Beth Israel “was an attack on all Jews.”
The stakeout was a formidable one, and included three carloads of FBI agents. Almost everyone wore black T-shirts. Detective Luke Scarborough was designated pointman, and FBI agents Frank Watts and Jack Rucker took up vantage points atop an adjoining home which they commandeered for the occasion.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the Klan hit car turned out to be an old green Buick with two people in it. Just such a Buick, with a woman driver, had been previously reported as possibly casing targets, but it seemed so un-Klannish no one had checked it out.
According to Nelson, a man got out carrying a Clorox carton in his left hand and a 9mm automatic in the other. Still according to Nelson, Det. Scarborough went through the formality of shouting “Halt! Police!” and “thought be saw” two flashes from the 9mm before opening fire with his shotgun. A fusillade followed, and turned into a gunfight.
Hits were scored on both the dynamiter and his dynamite, but it failed to explode, and he managed to get back into the Buick. A chase ensued, ending in a crash and ramming. The driver came out running and spraying the officers with a machine gun. An electrified fence finally knocked him out, and officers crawled to within fifteen feet and emptied their shotguns into his body.
The dynamiter turned out to be twenty-one-year-old Thomas Albert Tarrants III. Although shot to pieces, he lived, pled insanity, went to jail, and got “born again.” His accomplice, Kathy Ainsworth, a twenty-six-year-old school teacher, died in the fusillade.
In and around the bloody Buick police recovered a 9mm submachine gun, a Walther 9mm automatic pistol, a 6mm Browning automatic, two hundred rounds of ammo, a hand grenade, fourteen blasting caps, a seven-foot fuse, mace, and handcuffs.
FBI director Hoover insisted that his men were only there as “observers,” but the fact was that they played the lead role in everything—the fundraising, negotiating (they chiseled on the $100,000 promised), and the fusillade.
A reviewer for The New York Times complained that Nelson was remiss in not at least ending his reportage with some analysis of its portent. I will undertake to fill that gap.
Champions of democracy will be sorely tempted (as I confess to being) to condone, in the circumstance, this ambush of racist terrorists by officers of the law. But we are obliged to remind ourselves—without waiting for the ACLU to do it for us—that, given any such green light, lawmen would no doubt ambush far more rights activists than racist terrorists. That is what happened in the assassination of Florida NAACP leader Harry Moore in 1951, in Mississippi Burning in 1964, and countless other times before and since.
In taking his scalpel to the scar tissue which had overgrown the terror in Mississippi, Nelson has laid bare the festering question—fundamental in every society—of whether the policeman’s function is to apprehend suspects, or to also act whenever he feels like it as judge, jury, punisher, and even executioner. That the question is not at all moot even in our fair land is known to all the world, thanks to the televising of the beating of Rodney King. We can’t indulge in such as that and this, and still hope to find acceptance as “leader of the free world.”
Law enforcement has enough problems with trigger-happy cops (who see “probable cause” in every dark skin) and beating orgies, without turning to assassination as an alternative to crowded dockets and prisons, as in Haiti.
It is bad enough that resort to force is so often the option of choice in law enforcement; it is far worse, in this reviewer’s opinion, that it is also so often the option of choice in foreign policy. What the rationale of “self-defense” does for the former, “national interest” does for the latter.
Everybody else knows, if we do not, that it was the CIA on a do-it-yourself or contract basis that blew away Mossadegh in Iran, Diem in Nam, Allende in Chile, and did its best to do the same for Castro, Noriega, Khadafi, and Hussein. What’s more, those Meridian hit men were kissin’ cousins to the Death Squads—often funded, armed, and trained by the CIA—whose job it is to liquidate heads of state, rebel chieftains, labor leaders, and dissident poets in many a Third World nation. And I for one American can’t help but feel that many of the shooting wars we humped into in this bloodiest of centuries were also manifestations of this same predilection for force as problem solver.
It is too much to ask cops, who are underpaid even for risking their lives to protect us, to take on the added burden of deciding who is guilty and who is to be executed.
By the same token, it is too much to ask those Supercops at the CIA or Big Brass at the Pentagon or Tycoons in the Foreign Service, to decide who our overseas enemies are, and order them to be bumped off in our name and with our money. All such actions are unconstitutional, criminal, and immoral. And so long as we smirk and go along, the blood is on our hands.
“Which-n-all-is-why” Terror in the Night, though it comes late, is as timely as can be.
Stetson Kennedy is a lifelong full-time rights advocate who, at 76, is still at it in his hometown, Jacksonville, Florida. A contributing editor of Southern Changes, he first wrote for the SRC in 1946.