Mississippi Klansmen finally brought to book for murder 30 years ago

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE a state where a group of people are segregated, stripped of their political rights, brutally subdued. Imagine that the government of this state runs its own secretive intelligence agency to keep tabs on those who want to rock the boat, an agency that has hundreds of agents spying on their friends and families. Imagine that this agency connives at murder with a terrorist organisation.

This is not South Africa in the apartheid years, where the sinister "Third Force" was used to maintain order. This is Mississippi in 1966, the year that civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer was murdered. The men who are alleged to have carried out that killing are at last being brought before a court that will try them properly.

But the price, for Mississippi and for many other Americans, is a long look into a dark period of history that is still desperately painful.

Vernon Dahmer, 58, was president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. He had fought hard for the rights of black people in Mississippi, and he knew he had many enemies. His friend Medgar Evers had been murdered in 1963, and Mr Dahmer had sat up all night, waiting to see if they would come for him. He and his wife slept in shifts, a shotgun by the bed.

But for the white supremacists, Mr Dahmer crossed the line in January 1966. He announced in Shady Grove Baptist Church that black people could pay the $2 poll tax at his grocery store, allowing them to vote. It was, for the racists, too much. That night, they came for him, two car loads of men with guns and fire-bombs. He and his wife were woken by gunfire, and the smell of burning as Molotov cocktails were thrown into the house.

While Mr Dahmer returned fire, his family escaped. But Mr Dahmer died hours later from smoke inhalation. "Vernon jumped up and grabbed a gun and yelled, `Jewell, get the children out while I hold them off'," said his wife. "They were shooting at us, and he was shooting back through the doors and windows. He sacrificed his life so that we could get out."

Eighteen men were indicted, 10 were tried, and only four were convicted. But on Thursday, 32 years later, three elderly men were led from their homes to face justice.

Foremost amongst them is the alleged mastermind, Sam Bowers, a former Imperial Grand Wizard of the White Knights, one of the most murderous of the groups that haunted the dark nights of Mississippi. Mr Bowers had faced trial four times for Dahmer's murder, but the juries deadlocked each time. In those days, with all-white juries and a corrupt and racist legal system, justice was in short supply.

Four years ago, justice started to catch up. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the murder of Medgar Evers, a landmark event in the South. That convinced the Dahmer family to renew their fight for justice. Last year, a witness came forward to say he had heard Bowers and another suspect, Deavours Nix, discussing the murder of Mr Dahmer. Another key piece of information was that Bowers had discussed rigging the jury with an FBI informant. The result was the arrest of Bowers, now 73, who had served time for the murder of three other civil rights workers, and the arrest of Charles Noble, 55, and Deavours Nix, 72.

For lawyers, the trial of Bowers - as the trial of Beckwith - raises disturbing legal aspects. Under the Constitution, they are entitled to a speedy trial and due process; both are in doubt when the crime was so long ago, and with much evidence "lost".

But, what about Mr Dahmer and his family? "They are old now, but that doesn't matter to us. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and as far as we are concerned, that applies to age," says Mr Dahmer's son, Vernon Jr.

And what about all the others killed during those bloody years? The Southern Poverty Law Centre counts 15 unresolved murders from Mississippi alone, among 40 or 50 in the South.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the case, for the nation as a whole, is that it means looking anew at the machinery of state repression that was constructed in the racist South.

Much of the evidence for the case will come from the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state body that collected intelligence on those fighting segregation and gave it to employers, the police and others; perhaps including the Ku Klux Klan. Citizens earned $100-150 for a tip. Some civil rights workers informed on each other. The files revealed that the commission screened jurors in Beckwith's trials, and more is likely to come out.

Many other nations have gone through the agony of reliving the past like this. South Africa, Argentina and Germany have all had to face the truth: that people collaborated with state organisations dedicated to repression and murder, and that justice could only come later.

Mississippi is facing the same ugly truths.