White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at a 2007 event

The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. They originated in Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1960s under the leadership of Samuel Bowers, its first Grand Wizard.[1] The White Knights of Mississippi were formed in 1964,[citation needed] and they included roughly 200 members of the Original Knights of Louisiana. The White Knights were not interested in holding public demonstrations or in letting any information about themselves get out to the masses. Similar to the United Klans of America (UKA), the White Knights of Mississippi were very secretive about their group. Within a year, their membership was up to around six thousand, and they had Klaverns in over half of the counties in Mississippi. By 1967, the number of active members had shrunk to around four hundred.[2]

Murder of civil rights activists

The White Knights were responsible for many bombings, church burnings, beatings, and murders. In 1964, they murdered three civil rights workers: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner (as later depicted in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, loosely based on these events). The victims were members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

White Knight member Samuel Bowers had targeted Schwerner because of the civil rights worker's efforts to promote racial equality and to get Blacks to register to vote during Freedom Summer.

In his first attempt to kill Schwerner, Bowers assembled 30 White Knights on the evening of Memorial Day 1964 and surrounded the Mount Zion Church while a meeting was taking place inside. Bowers thought Schwerner would be in attendance, but after failing to find him when the meeting let out, the Knights started beating the blacks who were present, then set the church on fire after pouring gasoline inside.

Schwerner had been in Ohio at the time working on helping the National Council of Churches find more students to help with the Mississippi Summer Project. When he found out about the church burning, he decided to drive back to Mississippi. Accompanying him were 21-year-old James Chaney, a black man, and Andrew Goodman. They were heading to Longdale in Neshoba County, where the sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, and his deputy, Cecil Price, were members of the Klan, although the Klansmen never publicly announced it.[3]

When the three activists got to Neshoba County, Price saw their car driving down the highway and pulled them over on the premise of possible involvement in the burning of Mount Zion Church. They were locked up, denied their right to make phone calls, and kept there, while Price worked out the details of their murder with a White Knight member, Edgar Ray Killen aka "The Preacher". Hours later, Price released them but followed them from behind in his car. The trio knew they were being followed, and they eventually stopped their car, at which point Price ordered them into his vehicle. Two cars of Klansmen pulled up, and all three activists were shot at close range. Their bodies were placed together in a hollow at a dam site on a farm belonging to trucking company owner Olen Burrage and then covered with tons of dirt using a Caterpillar D-4, most likely by heavy machinery operator Herman Tucker.

It was months before any indictments were made. Rainey and Price were indicted in 1965, but not until 1967, when 18 members of the White Knights who were also involved in the crime were indicted. Six men were convicted, including Sam Bowers and Deputy Price. Seven men were found not guilty, and one was acquitted of all charges. Bowers and Wayne Roberts (who shot the gun) each received the longest prison sentences, 10 years.[3]

Among those indicted was Edgar Ray Killen, who was saved from conviction only because one of the jurors flatly refused to convict a man who she knew was a preacher. However, Killen was eventually convicted of the murders in June 2005, 40 years after the fact; at age 79 he was sentenced to "three 20-year terms, one for each conviction of manslaughter in connection with the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964."[3]