America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
THE BLOOD OF MARTYRS
the 1964 (NESHOBA COUNTY) MISSISSIPPI BURNING MURDERS
June 21, 1964. The three civil rights workers traveling the dirt roads in Neshoba County knew the dangers of driving at night—two whites, one black driver—in Sam Bowers’s Mississippi. Just two weeks earlier, at 9 PM on June 8, white vigilantes had forced three New York graduate school students over to the side of the road in nearby McComb County. When the students refused to exit the vehicle at gunpoint, the vigilantes beat the men with brass knuckles after breaking the windows of their car. Many believe the only thing that saved the graduate students’ lives was the likelihood that passing motorists would witness the crime.
When they left the Meridian, Mississippi, office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on June 20, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white New Yorkers of Jewish descent, and James Chaney, black and Mississippi-born, told Sue Brown, the CORE chapter secretary, to start making calls if the three men did not return by 4 PM. The three men then began their dangerous mission: to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which had occurred five days earlier in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
The men reached and inspected the remains of the church. They interviewed three black parishioners who told them a harrowing story. According to the interviewees, on the evening of July 16, as many as thirty men surrounded and confronted several church members leaving Mount Zion. The mob beat several congregants and then set fire to the church. But the parishioners added something that must have greatly disturbed the trio: The mob demanded that the members of Mount Zion provide them with information on “the goatee” or “Jewboy.” The reference would have been clear: The attackers wanted Mickey Schwerner.1
Schwerner had established himself as a man of action since arriving with his wife, Rita, in February 1964. “The first white civil rights worker based outside of the capitol of Jackson,” he had “earned the enmity of the Klan by organizing a black boycott of a white-owned business and aggressively trying to register blacks in and around Meridian to vote,” according to law professor Douglas O. Linder.2 If he did not know earlier, Schwerner knew for certain on June 21, from the congregants at Mount Zion, that he now was a major target for local racists. No one knows if Schwerner realized what many historians now suspect: that the burning of Mount Zion was a trap, set by members and associates of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi with the hopes of luring Schwerner to his death.
What is clear is that the men took the less direct path back to Meridian, bypassing Highway 491, by which they had come to Mount Zion, instead choosing Highway 19, through the county seat of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Linder believes that this was the less dangerous route to the CORE chapter in Meridian, one less open to an ambush. They left at approximately 3 PM.
But the Klan’s plan of attack was unfortunately more elaborate than simply running a few men off the road in the off chance that they happened to pass a posse of Klan members. It is true that the unfortunate events that ended the three men’s lives may well have started as a case of mistaken identity. While passing the trio on the highway, Neshoba County deputy sheriff Cecil Price noticed a black man (Chaney) driving the prototypical CORE vehicle, a blue Ford station wagon. Price thought that Chaney was another target of interest, activist George Raymond, and radioed this into his headquarters. Price then gave chase and arrested the men just as they were about to pass Philadelphia’s city limits. Arrested on the trumped-up suspicion of having set the Mount Zion Church fire, the three civil rights workers were taken to the jail in Neshoba County, under the direction of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, a member of the White Knights. But once it became clear that Schwerner was among the men in custody, the operation to kill him (and the others) went into effect. The accidental arrest by Price likely triggered what many experts believe was a general plan hatched weeks in advance to kill Schwerner.
The sheriff consulted with White Knight Kleagle Edgar Ray Killen and finalized the particulars of a murder conspiracy. According to Horace Doyle Barnett, a racist from Louisiana and an associate of Mississippi KKK members, calls were placed for those in the local area willing to help on “a job.” Barnett claims that he first discovered the particulars when he and his friend Jimmy Arledge visited a trailer park in Meridian. Edgar Ray Killen—known as Preacher Killen because he pastored at a number of small rural churches—told a crew of several men that “these three civil rights workers were going to be released from jail and that we were going to catch them and give them a whipping.”3 Foreshadowing something much more sinister, Killen then made sure that all the men present wore gloves. The men drove to Philadelphia in separate vehicles, arriving at approximately 9:30 PM.
At 10:30 PM Sheriff Rainey released the three civil rights workers. The trio again took Highway 19, but this time Deputy Sheriff Price tracked their movements in his patrol car. Price relayed their bearings to other patrolmen, who in turn told the convoys of Klansmen, two cars’ worth, to hustle after the civil rights workers. Once the bigots caught up in their vehicles, Price forced the blue station wagon to the side of Rock Cut Road. Striking the driver, Chaney, with a blackjack, he then stepped aside as the KKK members finished their operation. While six men, including law enforcement officers like Price, were involved in the ambush, Barnett’s description of the killing focuses on two individuals: Wayne Roberts, a twenty-six-year-old ex-marine and Meridian window salesman with a reputation for being “as mean as a junkyard dog,” and James Jordan, a motel clerk and illegal speakeasy operator.
Before I could get out of the car Wayne ran past my car to Price’s car, opened the left rear door, pulled Schwerner out of the car, spun him around so that Schwerner was standing on the left side of the road, with his back to the ditch and said “Are you that nigger lover” and Schwerner said “Sir, I know just how you feel.” Wayne had a pistol in his right hand, then shot Schwerner. Wayne then went back to Price’s car and got Goodman, took him to the left side of the road with Goodman facing the road, and shot Goodman.
When Wayne shot Schwerner, Wayne had his hand on Schwerner’s shoulder. When Wayne shot Goodman, Wayne was standing within reach of him. Schwerner fell to the left so that he was laying alongside the road. Goodman spun around and fell back toward the bank in back.
At this time Jim Jordan said “save one for me.” He then got out of Price’s car and got Chaney out. I remember Chaney backing up, facing the road, and standing on the bank on the other side of the ditch and Jordan stood in the middle of the road and shot him. I do not remember how many times Jordan shot. Jordan then said, “You didn’t leave me anything but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger.” The three civil rights workers were then put into the back of their 1963 Ford wagon.4
The perpetrators left the workers’ vehicle in the woods, singed from blue to black by fire, for other authorities to find. They buried the bodies of the three men in an earthen dam at the estate of Olan Burrage, known as Old Jolly Farm. The disappearance of two northern whites scandalized the nation and resulted in one of the largest federal investigations in history. The FBI would call the crime the Mississippi Burning murders (abbreviated as MIBURN), the name for which it has become famous thanks to a 1988 Hollywood movie of the same name. (We will alternately refer to them as the Neshoba murders.) In the forty-four days it took to finally find the bodies, Mississippi governor Paul B. Johnson Jr. joined a chorus of segregationists in insisting that the three activists had staged the whole affair for the sake of publicity. But in Oxford, Ohio, where civil rights veterans were training hundreds of volunteers for the Mississippi Freedom Summer, where Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney had in fact been residing in the days before reports of the Mount Zion Church arson drew them back to Mississippi, longtime activists knew the score right away. “People have been killed,” SNCC leader Bob Moses told the young idealists. “You can decide to go back home, and no one will look down on you for doing it.”5
If, as many believe, the goal of the Mississippi Burning murders was to halt the approach of Freedom Summer, set to begin in a matter of days, it did not work. Many of the volunteers bravely ventured forward to proceed with the plan, conceptualized in October 1963 by leaders of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella civil rights group that included organizations such as CORE, SNCC, and the SCLC. The thrust of Freedom Summer was to publicize the need for voting rights protections in the South and also to educate the people of Mississippi about the power that could come with such rights.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by the U.S. Senate on June 19 promised the end of legal discrimination in the South. But President Lyndon Johnson removed voting rights provisions from the bill to guarantee its eventual passage. Although blacks enjoyed the franchise under the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, southern states still determined voting qualifications under the principle of federalism. They enacted a host of measures, from poll taxes to literacy tests, that effectively denied African Americans their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
Even if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and various Supreme Court decisions, such as Brown v. Board of Education, guaranteed some form of equality in theory, the lack of voting power made such prospects hollow. Blacks could not choose local officials to fund mostly black schools or to monitor efforts to integrate schools, hotels, or hospitals; they could not hold officials accountable. A major thrust of Freedom Summer was to make black citizens of Mississippi aware of the potential their votes could have in combination with the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Veterans of the civil rights movement in COFO enlisted hundreds of volunteers from across the nation, including many middle-class whites like Goodman and Schwerner. If the activists could publicize to the nation that there was widespread demand for the right to vote, even in a state as poor as Mississippi, it would become a major impetus for a voting rights act to join the Civil Rights Act.
But the white power structure of the South recognized that black voting rights posed an even greater threat than civil rights to the system of white supremacy. The very officials who benefited from white-only voting in parts of the South that included high concentrations of blacks stood to lose their offices in a fair election. This group included mayors, state legislators, local sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges. The law enforcement officers had a powerful arrow in their quivers, however: absent access to voter registration, blacks could not serve on juries. Potential jurors are selected from voter rolls. It may not be surprising, then, that in places like Jackson, Mississippi, or Selma, Alabama, the most hostile and violent opposition to voting rights often came not only from the KKK but from law enforcement—people like Sheriff Lawrence Rainey. If the law enforcement officers themselves were not members of the KKK (a phenomenon pervasive in many southern towns), they offered tacit approval for the KKK to victimize anyone of color hoping to vote. Part of Freedom Summer, in fact, would include the Freedom Vote—a voter registration campaign to bypass racist registrars and to create provisional ballots for blacks to cast in upcoming statewide elections. This parallel apparatus attempted to allow Mississippi’s black population to vote with less risk of violence and intimidation.
Basic opposition to voting rights for blacks and to what southern nationalists referred to as “outside agitation” by northerners likely motivated the men who arrested, followed, and ambushed the three civil rights workers. Nothing in the public record suggests that men like Rainey, Price, Roberts, or Jordan had any connections to, much less awareness of, Christian Identity theology. Yet nothing suggests that the men who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church the year before were anything other than southern nationalists and bigots either. But the men who killed Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney did not do so impulsively. They were under orders. And to understand just how insidious the ideology of Christian Identity is, to see how it likely tainted some of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in American history, one must go beyond the men who follow orders to those who instigate and exploit these events. One must look at people like Samuel Holloway Bowers.
Bowers, the first Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi (WKKKKOM) and the mastermind behind the murder of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, fifty years ago, did not fit the caricature of a backward racist. Educated as an engineer at the University of Southern California and at Tulane University (he did not complete the degree), he was described by associates as an ideologically driven strategist.
“He is very intelligent. I have no question about that,” Thomas Tarrants, once the self-described chief terrorist for Bowers, told journalist Patsy Sims for her book The Klan. “And I believe he was like I was, indoctrinated, brainwashed. . . . Absorbed into an ideology that took on the awe of a holy cause and blinded his mind to everything else. I think Sam believes what he is doing is right and has the sanction of God.”6
Tarrants later renounced racism and is currently an ordained evangelical minister. But at one time he saw himself as occupying the same unique space as Bowers in the counterrevolution against integration and desegregation: that of a holy warrior. As Bowers described it to theologian Charles Marsh in 1994:
There are two really powerful figures in the world: the priest and the preacher. I think I came here as a priest, though not a preacher. A priest is interested in visible, public power relations; this is what makes him powerful as a warrior. A preacher is an evangelist; he will tell people what to do. But the priest will arrange the means and operations to implement this into concrete action. When the priest sees the heretic, he can do only one thing: he eliminates him.7
Scholars have been confused by Bowers’s protestations that religion drove his activities. Religion, to many historians, was simply a cover for white supremacists of all stripes to retroactively justify their racial animus—epitomized by the ritual burning of the cross. Despite this mind-set, Marsh chose to view Bowers through the prism of mainstream Christianity. Marsh recognized religion as a motivating force behind Bowers’s activities. For Bowers, anyone who accepted communism—which for him included almost anyone in the civil rights movement—had embraced a godless ideology and relinquished God’s grace. Consequently, Bowers used creative interpretations and rationalizations of the Bible to justify his militant actions. In this rendering, Bowers is still a reactionary, vigilante racist, but one who attempts to sincerely reconcile his actions with his conventional Christian faith.
But new research suggests that religion not only drove Bowers’s violent activities but also influenced his tactics in ways that were opaque not simply to outside observers but even to rank-and-file members within the WKKKKOM, the group Bowers led from 1964 through 1968. Bowers made a point of hiding his true motivations, according to Delmar Dennis, a high-ranking WKKKKOM member who became the FBI’s most important informant inside the group. “The typical Mississippi redneck doesn’t have sense enough to know what he is doing,” Dennis described Bowers as saying to him privately. “I have to use him for my own cause and direct his every action to fit my plan.”8
The historical record now makes it clear that Bowers’s goal was to incite a holy race war. Marsh and other experts on Bowers recognize that as of 1967, Bowers had embraced the radical interpretation of Christianity espoused by the Christian Identity movement, which devalued people of color as subhuman and saw Jews as satanic conspirators against Anglo-Saxon whites. What many have failed to see was that, in the hands of a militant like Bowers, this theology became the driving force behind his violent strategy and tactics. The record indicates that Bowers likely embraced this theology early in his tenure as the head of the WKKKKOM, possibly before he became its leader. Evidence suggests that Bowers likely planned the Neshoba County murders with this religious worldview as his guide. Viewed through the lens of religious terrorism, the murders on the night of June 21, 1964, of Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney become even more dark and twisted than they appeared at the time. Rather than simply trying to thwart the Freedom Summer set to begin shortly after the three civil rights activists disappeared, Bowers’s plans appear to have been more ominous and far reaching.
There is little doubt that the religious dimensions to Bowers’s racism began before he became a Grand Wizard. Born in New Orleans in 1924, Samuel Holloway Bowers Jr. told Marsh that he developed his interest in religion during World War II. But it was in 1955, when he was disillusioned to the point of near suicide, that Bowers experienced a life-changing spiritual event. According to Marsh:
On a drive along a two-lane highway on a late summer afternoon in south Mississippi, contemplating suicide and equipped for the task, Bowers felt suddenly transported by a power greater than he had ever before experienced. In a moment of mystical intensity, God spoke to him. . . . “The living God made himself real to me even when I did not deserve it.”9
This religious impulse would manifest itself in the way Bowers ran the WKKKKOM. He opened every meeting with a prayer and was always seen with a Bible. Even as the group he commanded engaged in a bonanza of violence—including, per Marsh, “nine murders, seventy-five bombings of black churches, and three hundred assaults, bombings, and beatings”—Bowers believed that “a Solemn, determined Spirit of Christian Reverence must be stimulated in all members” of the WKKKKOM. When he was finally convicted, three decades late, for the murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, Bowers’s defense lawyers relied on witnesses who pointed to Bowers’s service as a Sunday school teacher in the 1990s in hopes of bolstering Bowers’s character in the opinion of the jury. And there were a lot of “character flaws” to overcome. In 1966 Bowers arranged for Dahmer’s home to be firebombed, almost killing Dahmer’s wife and children; the voting rights activist died from smoke inhalation and burns he incurred while laying down cover fire as his family escaped the residence.
But what seems like a fundamental contradiction to anyone familiar with the nonviolent teachings of Jesus in the New Testament was, to Bowers, something consistent with the worldview of a rapidly growing and militant Christian sect: the Christian Identity movement. It now appears likely that this radical offshoot of Christianity may have gained purchase with Bowers by 1964, the year he took command of the newly formed WKKKKOM, and that it likely played a key role in motivating and shaping the contours of the Mississippi Burning killings.
Specifically, Bowers likely planned the Mississippi Burning killings with the same theological motivation described by Tommy Tarrants. It was the same mind-set that likely motivated Noah Carden and his fellow Identity followers to attempt to kill Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham: to further provoke already boiling racial tensions in hopes that such killings would trigger a holy race war.
Mississippi, a state with the most serious history of racial violence in the nation, would be a perfect place to start such a conflagration. Mississippi had one of the largest concentrations of people of color in the entire South. This not only included African Americans but Chinese Americans (present since the construction of railroads) and Native Americans. Together, these groups represented a near majority of the state’s population, and in certain areas of Mississippi a clear majority. The civil rights movement threatened the social and political fabric of Mississippi, undergirded by white supremacy, like no other state in the South. Something as simple as a lunch counter sit-in, which in states like Tennessee broke segregated dining places with little or no retaliation, elicited horrific violence in a city like Jackson, Mississippi. Such hostility, much like the 1962 Ole Miss race riots, came from people with no obvious KKK affiliations; it was spontaneous mob violence. If he looked to the black community, Bowers saw civil rights groups committed to a policy of nonviolence but that, as in Birmingham in May and September of 1963, could tip into violence under the right circumstances. The murder of Medgar Evers broke a period of relative calm in June 1963 and nearly caused a major race riot in Jackson. Mississippi held the promise, to someone immersed in Christian Identity eschatology, of white-versus-black violence.
With the newly formed White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, five thousand strong according to some estimates, Bowers had the vehicle to initiate this strategy. No state had more racial lynchings in its history than the Magnolia State, yet violence before 1963 did not stop the Civil Rights Act. By the end of 1963, hard-core racists in Mississippi believed that their local White Citizens Councils, more actively pro-segregation than most similar groups throughout the nation, were too passive. Even other active Ku Klux Klan groups, such as the United Klans of America, appeared too weak to a sizable subset of Mississippi racists. Bowers and others formed the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi from the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a reactionary group with membership in northern Louisiana and southern Mississippi. The WKKKKOM quickly grew its membership to an estimated five thousand people. But these were southern nationalists, not Christian Identity radicals. Bowers told Delmar Dennis that he had to manipulate these “rednecks” to fit his plan. He also described that plan to Dennis:
Bowers outlined on a blackboard the overall strategy of which the White Knights were merely a part. He said he was trying to create a race war, and open violence on the part of white Mississippians against native Negro citizens and civil rights agitators. He predicted that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would be required to send troops into Mississippi to restore order. Martial law would be declared and the state would be under full dictatorial control from Washington. The excuse for the control would be the race war he was helping to create by engendering hatred among whites in the same manner as it was being fomented by leftist radicals among blacks.10
Unfortunately, Dennis is not clear on the timing of this revelation, although the context suggests it was in 1964. That Bowers shared the same vision as Tarrants and his Identity mentors is likely not an accident. Bowers could have been influenced by the same kind of ideology at roughly the same impressionable age Tarrants was when he became enthralled by Swift. In 1947, sixteen years before Tarrants had dropped out of high school to become a true believer in the white supremacist cause, Bowers was an engineering student at the University of Southern California. This was the same time that people like Bertrand Comparet, San Jacinto Capt, and Wesley Swift were formulating and propagating two-seedline Christian Identity. There is no direct evidence that Bowers was exposed to Swift’s message when Swift was beginning his ministry. But, according to Marsh, in the late 1940s, after his stay in California, Bowers returned home to Mississippi and began studying religion alongside Nazi ideology.
What is without question is that within twenty years, Bowers, like a number of bigots in Mississippi, was undoubtedly under the sway of Wesley Swift and the Christian Identity movement. FBI documents show that in 1967, when Bowers set up a covert hit team led by Tarrants, WKKKKOM leaders referred to it as the Swift Underground. Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell describes Bowers and Tarrants enthusiastically discussing Swift’s latest taped sermons. Even experts on Christian Identity, such as the late Ole Miss professor Chester Quarles, believed that Bowers joined the Christian Identity movement no later than 1967. The key question, when it comes to the motive for the Mississippi Burning murders, is whether or not Bowers fell under the influence of Swift as early as the summer of 1964. Some might argue that his lack of attention to targeting Jewish institutions and individuals in 1964 (in contrast to the wave of anti-Jewish attacks he ordered in 1967) suggests that Bowers was not yet under Swift’s influence.
But it appears as though Bowers tried to get the WKKKKOM to target Jews but failed. FBI informant reports show Bowers attempting to convince the WKKKKOM to move in an anti-Jewish direction as early as 1965. According to informants, Bowers told the group that there are two kinds of KKK groups: those that target “niggers” and those that target Jews. He hoped the WKKKKOM would focus on the latter, as Jews, in Bowers’s estimation, were the root of the racial problems in the South. But Bowers could not convince his rank-and-file members to target Jews. To the average racist, blacks, outside agitators, and the federal government were the obvious threats to white supremacy, not southern Jews. It was only after the success of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when his membership had diminished to a few hundred hard-core followers, that Bowers could redirect his efforts against Jews, and then only with a closely controlled group of Swift followers who, like Tarrants, shared Bowers’s anti-Semitic sensibilities.
For Bowers to target Jews in 1964, he had to align his anti-Semitic worldview within the broader framework of violent resistance to integration. Just as he had told Delmar Dennis, Bowers had to manipulate his rank-and-file members without their knowledge. He could not explicitly attack Jews unless Jews were directly involved in promoting civil rights. The evidence suggests that the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney provided Bowers with just such an opportunity.
To say that the murder of the three civil rights workers in the Mississippi Burning murders was an act of religious terrorism is not the same thing as saying that anti-Semitic animus played a role in the murder of the two Jewish men. Anti-Semitism had a long history within the Ku Klux Klan going back to the 1920s, when a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, directed in large part at Jews and Catholics, helped fuel a resurgence of the KKK, with membership growing into the millions. When the KKK revived from its post–Great Depression dormancy in the 1950s in response to the civil rights movement, anti-Jewish rhetoric was still a feature of Klan literature. What distinguished ideological (Christian Identity) terrorist groups like the NSRP from conventional racist organizations like the United Klans of America was their willingness to both violently attack Jewish targets and use extreme, provocative violence even when it was certain to invite a federal response. The goal for the religious terrorist is to create a new world order, and for the Swift follower in the 1960s, this meant eliciting a holy race war. Three lines of evidence suggest that, while the actual perpetrators of the awful crimes of June 21, 1964, were not religious terrorists, the attack itself was shaped by Sam Bowers’s religious worldview (likely without the actual perpetrators’ knowledge).
One line of evidence relates to Sam Bowers’s own rhetoric, which is both cryptic and suggestive. Many scholars have pointed to the comment by Bowers that the attack on the three civil rights workers was “the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew.”11 This is in keeping with the prevailing view of the crime, that its chief target was Schwerner, who had worked in the WKKKKOM stronghold of Meridian on behalf of CORE for weeks before Freedom Summer. The more telling rhetoric, however, comes from the earliest pieces of propaganda produced by the White Knights in the wake of Freedom Summer. In the fall of 1964, several weeks after law enforcement found the bodies of the three men in an earthen dam at Olan Burrage’s property, Bowers produced a new edition of the Klan Ledger, a periodical, much like the NSRP’s The Thunderbolt, that spread racist propaganda. “The ‘long, hot summer,’ has passed,” the periodical read. Referring to the civil rights activists who worked to register black voters during Freedom Summer, Bowers claimed they had “no laurels to their credit, and the general public of Mississippi has had a fill of their very existence. . . . For the success of our struggle against this scum, we offer our thanks to Almighty God, our Creator and Saviour.”12 What followed was an extended rant, theological and political, directed at civil rights sympathizers and the federal government, but primarily at Jews. It is here that the early Identity influence on Bowers becomes evident.
The rant begins by referencing two sections of the book of Revelations: 2:9–10 and 3:9. These passages reference the “Synagogue of Satan” and those who “lie” and “say they are Jews.” As Chester Quarles has noted, these specific New Testament passages are foundational texts for two-seedline CI adherents. Under two-seed theology, Jews have conspired to convince the world that they are the chosen people, when in fact they are the offspring of Satan. If there is any doubt that this is the thinking of Bowers, the Klan Ledger continues, “Today’s so-called Jews persecute Christians, seeking to deceive, claiming Judea as their homeland and they are God’s Chosen. . . . They ‘do Lie,’ for they are not Judeans, but Are the Synagogue of Satan!” It adds, “If a Jew is not capable of functioning as an individual, and must take part in Conspiracies to exist on this earth, that is his problem.” Passages also reference “Jew consulting anti-Christs” and assert that “Satan and the Anti-Christ stalk the land.”13
Again, anti-Semitism was common to KKK groups in the 1960s. But it was often in the same form as anti-Semitism the world over—the claim that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. The refusal of Jews, the chosen people of the Old Testament, to accept Jesus as their Messiah is the other long-standing grievance leveled against Jews by hostile gentiles. What distinguishes Christian Identity from other forms of anti-Semitism is the blatant rejection that Jews were ever the chosen people, that they were ever in a position to accept Jesus as their savior in the first place. Swift and his followers frequently referred to what he called Ashkenazi Jews as imposters. That this line of thinking is evident in a periodical so close to the MIBURN murders suggests that Bowers had accepted this idea before 1967. Was this theological worldview a motivation for the actual MIBURN crime?
Bowers’s rhetoric on the eve of the murders strongly suggests it may have been. In a speech on June 7, 1964, two weeks prior to the Neshoba murders, Bowers predicted a groundbreaking event to his followers—most of whom had no idea that the attack in Neshoba was in the works. Many have assumed that Bowers was simply foreshadowing the upcoming conflict over Freedom Summer. But the proximity of the speech to the murder of the three activists, and Bowers’s certainty that there would be violence and federal intervention within days, suggests the likelihood that Bowers had the upcoming killings on his mind when he spoke to the rank and file. Many experts believe that planning for the crime had begun as early as May, after Mickey Schwerner began his work in Meridian, Mississippi, on behalf of CORE. Two elements of this speech are worth highlighting, and they point to the likelihood that Bowers saw the Neshoba murders as a potential entrée into the cycle of violence that Swift followers believed would escalate into an end-times race war. Taken together with other facts, they represent two additional lines of evidence suggesting the crime was an act of religious terrorism.
In his June 7 speech, Bowers begins with a prayer and then tells his audience, “This summer . . . the enemy will launch his final push for victory here in Mississippi.” Bowers then speaks in military terms, saying that the enemy will have “two basic salients.” The first would be “massive street demonstrations and agitation by blacks in many areas at once, designed to provoke white militants into counterdemonstration and open, pitched street battles,” which would then lead to a “decree from the communist authorities in charge of the national government . . . declaring martial law.”14 Bowers then outlines the WKKKKOM’s plan of response—a combination of outwardly “legal” resistance alongside local authorities and a “secondary group” who use guerrilla tactics as part of a “swift and extremely violent hit-and-run” strategy. To the rank and file to whom he was speaking, Bowers presented this as an unfortunate but necessary (and imminent) future. But again, he was addressing people who had never heard anything like Christian Identity theology in their churches on Sundays. More to the point, Bowers surely knew that federal intervention of any kind in the South, especially in Mississippi, was bound to be offensive to his audience. These were many of the same people who had violently attacked National Guardsmen sent by President Kennedy to protect James Meredith when he integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. To welcome such intervention would be anathema to a group of people schooled in the idea that the northern military occupation of the South during Reconstruction was a travesty of the first order.
. . . If anything, Bowers’s actions after the Neshoba murders only would have courted the federal intervention that most of his followers abhorred. Bowers escalated the violence in Mississippi—as many as sixty-five bombings occurred during Freedom Summer15—at a time when polls showed that the general public favored massive federal intervention in Mississippi if the violence in that state persisted. When he outwardly placed a moratorium on violence in response to the growing presence of federal law enforcement, Bowers stopped bombings only in counties that were subject to intense law enforcement scrutiny. In fact, he actually asked for violence to increase in outlying counties to divert the FBI’s resources. It seems likely that at least part of the violence that marked Freedom Summer was intended to provoke further federal intervention. To say otherwise is to impute a level of ignorance to Bowers that none of his contemporaries describe.
But one aspect of the Neshoba murder plot certainly suggests that Bowers was creating the very conditions likely to generate federal intervention and thus his envisioned racial holy war. This was the decision to bury the three men deep beneath the earthen dam at Old Jolly Farm. Many scholars believe the decision to use the dam was conceived as far back as May, a level of planning that itself was remarkable. Certainly, disposing of bodies was not unknown in Klan violence. But it was almost always ad hoc—as evidenced by the other bodies discovered in Mississippi swamps and marshes during the search for the three missing activists. To make arrangements to carefully bury bodies weeks in advance of a crime is largely unknown in the annals of racial violence. For someone hoping that federal intervention would antagonize white southerners, such an action was a stroke of genius. It would all but guarantee that federal law enforcement would spend days, if not weeks, searching through Mississippi to find the three men, especially if the activists’ burned car was left out in the open for law enforcement to find first. And recall that during the mounting federal intervention to find the men, the WKKKKOM expanded its reign of terror. Other records show that if Bowers had had his way, things likely would have gotten much worse in Mississippi.
In the same June 7 speech where he foreshadowed “pitched battles” between whites and blacks in Mississippi, Bowers insisted that the primary targets for “any personal attacks” be “the leaders and the prime white collaborators of the enemy.” FBI evidence revealed in my coauthored book The Awful Grace of God suggests that Bowers had reached out to a criminal network, including a professional hit man, with the goal of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. if he came to Mississippi in 1964. Other FBI documents show that the WKKKKOM openly discussed the possibility of “eliminating” King at its meetings.16 But this goal presented a problem for the WKKKKOM: King rarely visited Mississippi before the summer of 1964, and he did so unexpectedly. What was clear, from the Birmingham bombing and the assassination of Medgar Evers the previous year, was that an outrageous act of violence would provoke King to visit the scene of the crime and to lead protests and services against such violence. It is speculative, but if Bowers wanted to lure King into an ambush, an act of violence like the Neshoba murders may well have been planned to trigger just such an opportunity.
This is not simply a case of imputing a level of cunning and tactical sophistication to Bowers after the fact. Many believe that the burning of the Mount Zion Church in Meridian, Mississippi, on June 20, 1964, was part of a similar plan: to lure Schwerner (and Goodman and Chaney) back to Mississippi. If so, it worked; the three men abandoned their Freedom Summer volunteer training sessions in Oxford, Ohio, and came to Mississippi on June 20 to investigate the Mount Zion Church burning.
In further support of this theory, evidence presented at the 1999 trial of one of the murderers of African American farmer Ben Chester White in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1966 showed that Bowers plotted White’s murder with a similar strategy in mind: to lure King to Natchez for an ambush. If King came to protest White’s seemingly wanton and senseless murder (White had no known connection to civil rights activity), King could be more easily and sensationally assassinated. Both the 1964 and the 1966 plots against King failed, as the terrorist acts did not result in King changing his itinerary—possibly because FBI informant Dennis had warned law enforcement about an assassination attempt in advance.
As with the CI/NSRP plots against King in the wake of the Birmingham bombing the previous September, any effort to kill King would have exacerbated racial tensions emanating from the Neshoba murders. The murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers the previous summer had provoked race riots in Mississippi. Any reasonable person would have expected that killing King, the spokesperson for the civil rights movement, would have a similar impact, one that would have the added bonus to an Identity enthusiast of being national in scope. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. had been a goal of Identity followers as far back as 1958.
It seems likely that Bowers was motivated by religious ideology when he planned the Mississippi Burning murders. On the other hand, there is no direct evidence that this ideology motivated the men who lured Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney to Mississippi, jailed them under false pretenses, shadowed them by car, and kidnapped and ultimately shot them in cold blood fifty years ago. These men, including law enforcement officers, were likely motivated by the bigotry and irrational fear that informed so many acts of violence in the South. But Bowers’s case shows how the leaders who planned and plotted these acts of violence could share an agenda that coincided and went beyond the goals of protecting the so-called southern way of life. The leaders of some of America’s most radical groups wanted to create their own version of Armageddon. They believed, alongside the Reverend Wesley Swift, that the secular world was in its final days and that soon the day would come when the forces of God would do battle with the forces of Satan.
Within two months of the Neshoba killings, America officially entered a conflict against the communist-backed North Vietnamese. By the end of 1964, growing frustration with the pace of political change had created a major schism within the civil rights movement, between those who continued to favor nonviolence and those who favored militancy and black nationalism. Together, these two developments would escalate social upheaval in the United States and around the world, forcing law enforcement to resort to unprecedented tactics in its fight against extremists on both sides, left and right. To those listening to the sermons of Wesley Swift, his message of impending crisis and spiritual renewal was becoming more appealing.