Justice delayed is worth a wait Klan murder case: New trial ordered in 1966 slaying of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer.

June 08, 1998

LAWYERS for 73-year-old Sam Bowers are livid. The old Ku Klux Klan leader will be retried this summer for allegedly masterminding the 1966 assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer. "When are they going to retry Brutus for killing Caesar?" asked one attorney.

But giving the ancient Roman a posthumous prison term isn't comparable to bringing Bowers to justice. His conviction would send a powerful message to the racist groups that still infest this nation and call him a hero.

Sam Bowers was imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in the 1960s. Unlike the rival United Klan, whose members relished the spotlight, the White Knights clung to the shadows to instill fear.

Bowers' faction was responsible for the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, whose decomposed bodies were found in an earthen dam.

All the evidence, including the testimony of accomplices, pointed to Bowers in the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, who died of smoke inhalation after his house was firebombed. Dahmer was a Hattiesburg, Miss., cotton farmer who also owned a general store. Dahmer fueled racist anger by heading an NAACP voter registration drive.

Bowers was tried twice by the state of Mississippi for Dahmer's murder. Each time there was a hung jury. Evidence from the recently opened secret files of the defunct Mississippi Sovereignty Commission indicates those juries were tampered with.

The commission was formed in 1956 to spy on civil rights groups. Information in its files also led to the successful 1994 retrial of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

Justice must be pursued in all such cases where racism once routinely blocked the truth. The Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings mean other terrorists in this nation are resorting to Klan tactics to instill fear. They must never think their despicable acts will one day be forgotten.

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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