Home News Stories 2006 January A Byte Out of History - The 1966 KKK Firebombing

A Byte Out of History - The 1966 KKK Firebombing

A Byte Out Of History
The Case of the 1966 KKK Firebombing

01/09/06

Firebombed home of Vernon Dahmer (AP Photo)
The firebombed home of Vernon Dahmer.
AP Photo.

Around two in the morning on January 10, 1966—40 years ago Tuesday—African-American civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer and his family were awakened by the sound of honking horns outside their farmhouse, some five miles north of Hattiesburg.

As they scrambled out of bed, two carloads of Ku Klux Klan members set their home and adjacent grocery store ablaze with gasoline and blasted the buildings with shotguns to make sure no one came out alive.

Dahmer’s bravery partially foiled their plan. In the midst of roaring flames, he fired his gun in the direction of the attackers to hold them off while his wife and three children escaped out of rear windows. The Klansmen drove away. Dahmer managed to escape the house, but he was so badly burned he died later that day. His 10-year-old daughter also suffered painful burns, and the family home, grocery store, and car were destroyed.

Let the investigation begin. At 3:15 that morning, an FBI agent in Meridian, Mississippi, got a phone call about the attack and quickly opened an investigation in concert with local authorities. Nearly 20 FBI agents began canvassing the area. They interviewed local Klansmen and Klan informants and gathered 120 pieces of evidence—including tire tracks and shell casings—that were analyzed by the FBI Lab in Washington. They also learned that the day before the attack, a Sunday radio program had announced that Dahmer would help blacks register to vote by making his country store one of the few spots in the area where they could pay their $2 poll tax.

Our agents soon identified a number of suspects and compiled a 1,100 page report outlining the case. On March 27, a complaint was filed against fourteen men. Thirteen were arrested by the next day. The 14th—Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who had ordered the attack—turned himself in several days later.

Making the charges stick proved more difficult. Several trials ended in deadlocked juries. We later found out that these mistrials were often the result of jury tampering by Klan supporters. Only four of those involved in the murder were found guilty and sentenced under federal law. Sam Bowers went free after several trials ended in hung juries. (Bowers did spend six years in jail later, however, for his role in the infamous 1964 “Mississippi Burning” case.

In the 1990s, local District Attorneys twice reopened the case. Witnesses who had been unwilling or unable to testify earlier came forward and sought to set the record straight about that horrific night. Our agents assisted as well, providing evidence to prosecutors and other investigative help as needed. Our informants also provided crucial testimony.

This time around, justice was served. On August 21, 1998, Sam Bowers was convicted for ordering Dahmer’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

To learn more about our work in protecting civil rights, which dates back as far as the 1920s, see our Civil Rights webpage.