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When Evil Lived in Laurel: The "White Knights" and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer Kindle Edition
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One of NPR's Best Books of the Year
Finalist for the 2022 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime
The inside story of how a courageous FBI informant helped to bring down the KKK organization responsible for a brutal civil rights–era killing.
By early 1966, the work of Vernon Dahmer was well known in south Mississippi. A light-skinned Black man, he was a farmer, grocery store owner, and two-time president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP. He and Medgar Evers founded a youth NAACP chapter in Hattiesburg, and for years after Evers’s assassination Dahmer was the chief advocate for voting rights in a county where Black registration was shamelessly suppressed. This put Dahmer in the crosshairs of the White Knights, with headquarters in nearby Laurel. Already known as one of the most violent sects of the KKK in the South, the group carried out his murder in a raid that burned down his home and store.
A year before, Tom Landrum, a young, unassuming member of a family with deep Mississippi roots, joined the Klan to become an FBI informant. He penetrated the White Knights’ secret circles, recording almost daily journal entries. He risked his life, and the safety of his young family, to chronicle extensively the clandestine activities of the Klan. Veteran journalist Curtis Wilkie draws on his exclusive access to Landrum’s journals to re-create these events—the conversations, the incendiary nighttime meetings, the plans leading up to Dahmer’s murder and its erratic execution—culminating in the conviction and imprisonment of many of those responsible for Dahmer’s death.
In riveting detail, When Evil Lived in Laurel plumbs the nature and harrowing consequences of institutional racism, and brings fresh light to this chapter in the history of civil rights in the South—one with urgent implications for today.
From the Publisher
― Kevin Boyle, Washington Post
"Reads like a Greg Iles novel.... Rich with details."
― Debbie Elliott, NPR
"When Evil Lived in Laurel is set during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but its concerns could not be more central to our current moment: voting rights, white supremacist terror, and the ground-level mechanisms of white radicalization. With meticulous research and all the tools of a novelist, Curtis Wilkie chronicles the Klan-ordered murder of activist Vernon Dahmer, and Tom Landrum’s infiltration of the White Knights. Read this book if you want to understand how racist words and ideas turn into violent, murderous action."
― Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America
"I’m a longtime admirer of Curtis Wilkie’s deep and insightful work, and his chilling journey through the KKK’s murder of Vernon Dahmer will stay with you long after you close this book. This kind of violence is where tacit encouragement of extremists leads, and Wilkie shows you how."
― Greg Iles, New York Times bestselling author of Natchez Burning
"Curtis Wilkie’s riveting account of the murder of Vernon Dahmer by the KKK is a window into the depths of racism and white supremacy. But it is also a beautifully written tale of courage and morality featuring a man with deep local roots that knew right from wrong. When Evil Lived in Laurel can help us understand the Civil Rights era in the South and also our country today."
― Walter Isaacson, Leonard Lauder Professor of American History and Values, Tulane University
"When Evil Lived in Laurel is an extremely useful book, in addition to being impossible to put down. It’s about evil; terrible men doing terrible things to their fellow humans. But it’s also about convention and cowardice and hypocrisy and ignorance and public lies―and also about quiet heroism―all matters of vital concern to us in America at this very moment."
― Richard Ford
"Though the frightful history of the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi is a familiar one, Curtis Wilkie’s account of the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer is astonishing. Drawing on voluminous, remarkable FBI documents, court records, congressional hearings, and interviews, Wilkie paints a compelling picture of the dogged pursuit of justice by law enforcement officials, heretofore untold acts of courage by ordinary citizens, and the involvement of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan―alternately pernicious and inept. When Evil Lived in Laurel may well be the finest book on the Civil Rights era."
― Richard Howorth, Square Books
"Represents a landmark in the history of the Klan, how they operated in the Deep South, and the complex, often frustrating role of law enforcement. Most of all, When Evil Lived in Laurel demonstrates the continued impact of racial violence on the current political climate in America. Readers will find a wealth of historical detail in this engaging narrative."
― Booklist, starred review
"A tension-filled account of an FBI informant’s efforts to bring a notoriously violent chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to justice in the 1960s.... Wilkie vividly conveys the turmoil of the era and the high stakes of the mission. This real-life thriller is a worthy tribute to the courage of those who put everything on the line for civil rights."
― Publishers Weekly
"[Wilkie] skillfully examines a case full of cloak-and-dagger intrigue: passwords, death threats, secret codes, clandestine meetings in wooded areas after dark, and well-maintained suspense about whether the White Knights would discover the spy in their midst. In different ways, [Tom] Landrum and [Vernon] Dahmer risked their lives to fight appalling injustices, and anyone looking for underappreciated civil rights heroes might profitably start with either man. A true-crime tale that offers a rare insider’s perspective on the KKK in its heyday in Mississippi."
"An interesting account of civil rights–era Mississippi.... Recommended for readers interested in civil rights history."
― Library Journal --This text refers to the paperback edition.
About the Author
- ASIN : B08L6XNCG5
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company (June 15, 2021)
- Publication date : June 15, 2021
- Language : English
- File size : 15912 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 389 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 1324005750
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #519,480 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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To be sure, I heard plenty about the Klan when I was growing up. I don’t ever recall them parading through town, but there were playground rumors that Laurel once served as homebase for the KKK. Unfortunately, that fact was never discussed by my family or teachers, and as a kid, I guess I had more important things to do than heading to the library for research. As a result, I never got any of the details.
Thankfully, When Evil Lived in Laurel lays out most of them. In the process, it documents a largely overlooked moment in American civil rights history. For that alone, Wilkie deserves plenty of credit. He earns bonus points for putting a seemingly affable informant at the center of the book, giving some structure to a complicated, winding narrative.
The book isn’t perfect, though.
For starters, it’s a little dry. That’s partly the nature of the genre—after all, Wilkie is trying to write an accurate account of historical events, so throwing in too many adjectives, adverbs, and writerly, poetic passages would work against him. But his clinical approach does make the book slightly less engaging to read.
The other problem with the book is that it doesn’t really address the larger question of racism in Mississippi or elsewhere. Wilkie alludes to it in passing several times when he mentions the Citizens Councils, which espoused views just as vile as those of the Klan—the differences being that (a) Citizens Council members tended to come from middle- and upper-class families, while Klan members were typically working-class, and (b) Citizens Councils preferred subtle, systemic racism like redlining policies to the Klan’s headline-grabbing, violent tactics. Sadly, Wilkie never really takes the Citizens Councils to task in the same way as the Klan, and to me, it feels as if he gives the Councils a pass.
The really disappointing thing is that Wilkie misses a major opportunity to draw strong parallels between the events of the mid-1960s and those of today.
Racists still exist in droves, in Mississippi and across the nation. The same Country Club bigots that populated Citizens Council still flee from one gated community to another to avoid living next to non-white neighbors. The same disenfranchised, working-class whites—the ones who feel as if no one’s looking out for their interests, as if the world is changing and leaving them behind—still belong to alt-right movements that gained alarming prominence during Trump’s years in office.
So, even though the book offers a variety of endings for the main characters in the Dahmer story, I wish Wilkie had noted that that’s not the end of problem. Racists still exist, most of them just aren’t wearing hoods these days.
Tom Landrum was asked by the F.B.I. to go undercover as a member of the so-called "White Knights" and report on their activities. Despite the dangers involved Landrum agreed and much of the results of the book are due to the notes that he kept during his years of undercover work. One member of the hate group was named Jaycees man-of-the- year for his community involvement and was arrested shortly thereafter. Imagine the embarrassment! Also, a woman was a 5th grade teacher by day and a terrorist by night. She was shot and killed in a fire-fight with the F.B.I. Imagine the shock to her 5th graders!
Those involved in the murder of Vernon Dahmer were tried with convictions resulting in most cases and the hate group of "White Knights" were dealt a death blow. Paranoia reigned among group members as they blamed members of being involved with the F.B.I. The ultimate goal of the "White Knights" had been to have a president of the United States who shared their views. Do this sound familiar today?
This sick "White Knights" hate group would begin their meetings with a prayer and their filthy language and plotting of bombings and murders aptly illustrates just how hypocritical they were in their thinking. Our country is by no means free from bigotry. We now have around 1,000 various hate groups in our country who would love to carry out their agenda. Now many of these n'er-do-wells wear suits and run for political office and with voter suppression laws being enacted their chances of being elected increase.
The fight against hatred and bigotry has increased in America and this book called "When Evil Lived in Laurel" should be a wake-up call that evil still still lives in America. The book contains eight pages of photographs.
It is well written and an interesting read.