The trials of a Southern state still haunted by its racist past

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The Independent Online
THE CEILING fans are turning slowly in the Forrest County Court House, stirring the dust-laden air with its scent of old documents and floor polish. It seems a tranquil place. Yet this room, in the centre of the old Mississippi town of Hattiesburg, has witnessed pitched battles in the war between the state's white supremacists and black citizens who simply wanted their rights.

Today one of the last chapters in that war will unfold when the trial of a white-haired, grandfatherly old man opens in Hattiesburg.

Sam Bowers is accused of murdering Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights worker, in 1966. He has been in this court before, charged with the same crime. But no jury would convict him - not in a courtroom that flies the Mississippi state flag with its Confederate cross in one corner; not here, where the memorial to the Confederate dead stands proudly outside on Main Street, just down the road from the Masonic Temple and the Methodist church.

This time it may be different. Mississippi has changed a lot in 30 years. The jury will be selected today, and it is unlikely to be an all-white body, as it has been before. Nor will he face a judge who, like those who have sat in judgement in the past, is essentially in sympathy with a man who was once the Imperial Grand Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But there are still some people in town who do not see why the case should be exhumed, who called the local paper, the Hattiesburg American, after it ran a special report and asked why it had bothered.

It bothered because Vernon Dahmer wanted nothing more than to help black people to vote. For that crime, he was hated by white supremacists. He always suspected they would come to get him, especially after his friend Medgar Evers, who also worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was killed.

One night, they came for Mr Dahmer, fired at his home at Kelly Settlement and threw Molotov cocktails into the house. He fired back and his family were able to escape, but he died in hospital the next day.

Sam Bowers was arrested for the murder, along with others; but four separate juries could not decide on his guilt. Four other Klansmen were tried and convicted, but the Imperial Wizard himself was not. The case was buried for nearly three decades, only to be reactivated when a new District Attorney was elected.

In the District Attorney's office next door to the courthouse, Bob Elfrich, the assistant DA, sits in an office all but submerged in documents: faxes, scribbles on scraps of paper and neat summaries on yellow legal pads line every surface.

Mr Elfrich pulls intermittently on a Camel Light as he outlines the reasons why it is important to go through the case all over again.

"My Dad died when I was 12 years old," he says. "I think of him almost daily, when I'm driving in my car, or whatever. I can't imagine the things that are going through the minds of the Dahmer family. They saw their father, with the skin burnt off him."

Beyond any personal feelings, this is part of cleansing the name of a state which for decades was synonymous with racism, savagery, injustice. "The Klan is what gave Mississippi the bad reputation. But they do not represent Mississippi then, or now. They are a small number of people." But, he says, "It's a side of Mississippi that has to be resolved. You just don't get away with murder." Of course, "there are quite a number of people that don't want it opened up. But it needs to be done." He falls silent again, and taps the ash off his cigarette.

Sam Bowers was, is, a very bright man, different from many who wore the hoods and carried the burning crosses. "The typical Mississippi redneck doesn't have sense enough to know what he is doing," he once told a supporter. "I have to use him for my own cause and direct his every action to fit my plan." His group was one of the most violent in the country. It was not just a racist group: it was a well-organised terrorist gang.

There is new evidence against him: one new witness who was there, and another who has recently appeared on the scene.

Two other men were arrested with Mr Bowers: Charles Noble, 55, and Deavours Nix, 72, who is fighting lung cancer. "As ironic as this sounds, he was complaining because he has lung cancer and the radiology burned his lungs up," said state Attorney General Mike Moore. "Guess what? That's exactly how Mr Dahmer died." If convicted, each faces life - which means 10 years. For Mr Bowers, 73, that will be life.

Some in the civil rights community are sceptical, however, saying that whatever they may think of Mr Bowers, he may not get a fair trial. Besides, they say, what about the crimes that continue, and which the law enforcement agencies do not pursue?