Below is an excerpt from “The Awful Grace of God” from Counterpoint Press:
On April 3, 1968, an American Airlines flight from Atlanta to Memphis was stuck at the departure gate. The pilot made a general passenger announcement that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on board and that the airline had received a bomb threat. For everyone’s safety, they would have to delay their takeoff until all the baggage had been examined.
The More Than Nine Lives of Martin Luther King Jr.
For Dr. King, the April 3 bomb threat was just one more warning. In the thousands of pages of files the FBI collected on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there are dozens, if not hundreds, of reported threats against Dr. King’s life. Almost all were similar to the plane threat: menacing but harmless. They came mostly by phone, often to newspapers, often anonymously. When law enforcement could trace these threats to their source, they often led to drunks and mentally disturbed individuals. Yet in some cases, such as the January 1956 bombing of Dr. King’s home in the midst of the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, the attempts were far from innocuous. Indeed, from the time of that first bombing until his assassination in 1968, law enforcement investigated serious threats against King, some foiled only by the vagaries of chance. In one sense, these ongoing public threats simply constituted a constant level of “noise”; Dr. King had no choice but to live with them if he wanted to continue his mission.
When asked a question about when he had personally been most frightened, King replied that it had been during a visit to Mississippi. His visit was not only to mourn the victims of the Mississippi Burning murders but also to bring public scrutiny and pressure on law enforcement to pursue justice in what history now calls the Mississippi Burning killings, the brutal slayings of three young civil rights workers. King offered a prayer in which he had said, “O Lord, the killers of those boys may even be within the range of my voice.” At that moment, he overheard a big burly sheriff standing near him say, “You’re damn right they are.”
At the time Dr. King had no way of knowing that the individuals who had killed the young civil rights organizers were associated with the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi and that the order for their murders had come from its leader, Samuel Holloway Bowers. King had no idea that Sam Bowers had himself targeted King for murder and that Bowers was part of a network that had incited and planned attacks on King over a period of years. King also did not know that a local Mississippi sheriff ‘s deputy would eventually be one of those convicted in the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—the three young men for whom King had prayed. As we shall see, King’s visits to Mississippi, to bring national attention to these murders and to the 1963 assassination of his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) colleague Medgar Evers, brought King into the crosshairs of committed radicals.
The nature of the radical network that was targeting Dr. King was more national in scope and more united in purpose than has been previously thought. There was a series of systematic attempts on his life by a little known subculture that was obsessed with King’s murder. These efforts to kill King provide the best window into the likeliest conspiracy behind King’s murder in Memphis. But when examined in depth for links and commonalities, these plots also reveal a glimpse into a sinister, clandestine movement within American history, one that entwined religious zealotry, reactionary politics, and out-and-out hatred, a story that—if told at all—is often disconnected from the tumult of the 1960s or, just as important, from the twenty-first century terrorism to which it bears such a close resemblance.
The First Contract: Birmingham, Alabama, 1958
Alabama was the scene for one of the first serious recorded efforts to kill King, one that came against the backdrop of the heated civil rights battles that engulfed Birmingham, Alabama, in the late 1950s. This plot did not even originally target King but rather the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, who was arguably even more defiant and strident in his efforts to desegregate Birmingham than King was in Montgomery. Shuttlesworth famously said of the repeated attempts to “dissuade” him (including beatings, bombings, and general harassment), “We mean to kill segregation or be killed by it!” Having seen that the local white establishment, led by Birmingham’s notorious commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, could not deter the indefatigable Reverend Shuttlesworth, the state’s Ku Klux Klan sought another avenue to stop him: a contract killing.
For this, they summoned Jesse Benjamin “J. B.” Stoner, a Georgia native who supported the Nazis during World War II for their stance on racial purity and anti-Semitism and who was the founder of the new and virulently racist and anti-Semitic National States Rights Party (NSRP) Stoner, who earned national attention for a public feud with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (famously telling Muhammad that “you want white blood pumped into your race”14), had originally been contracted by local Klan leader Hugh Morris to bomb Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church. But Stoner offered to include the contract killing of Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders, with Dr. King notably at the top of the list. Stoner offered a special reduced rate of $1,500 to kill King and only failed because law enforcement— in conjunction with the FBI—had been running a sting against the Klan and stopped the plot in advance.
Birmingham Again, 1963
Birmingham continued to be a flashpoint in the civil rights struggle and was the scene for two other attempts on King—one involving another bombing and the other a planned shooting. In the spring of 1963, a large dynamite bomb was thrown at room at the A.G. Gaston Motel where King had set up the headquarters for his efforts to integrate Birmingham’s eateries and businesses. An apparent response to countless King-led sit-ins, marches, and protests—efforts that scandalized the local business community into reaching a prointegrationist agreement with King and his aides-the bomb left a five-by-five-foot hole in the motel wall and destroyed two adjacent house trailers. King narrowly escaped death, as he had unexpectedly abandoned plans for a celebration at the motel and had left Birmingham. Law enforcement strongly suspected that the bombing was the work of the Eastview, Alabama, Klavern known as “The Cahaba River Group” or “The Cahaba Boys,” a militant KKK subgroup that J. B. Stoner heavily influenced.
Another attempt on King occurred as the nation once again turned its attention to segregationist violence in Birmingham, this time in the wake of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls in September 1963.The four men who reportedly plotted this attempted assassination of King included William Potter Gale, a Californian who organized racist and anti-Semitic paramilitary organizations on the West Coast; Admiral John G. Crommelin, a National States’ Rights Party luminary who would one day run as a vice presidential candidate on their national ticket; Sidney Crockett Barnes, a suspected serial bomber who fled a crackdown on racial violence in Florida to settle in Alabama; and Noah Jefferson Carden, a violent racist from Mobile, Alabama.
The plotting against King—which involved cooperation with local extremists—actually started just before the Sixteenth Street Church bombing and was among the first plots the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) considered when Congress reinvestigated the King murder in the late 1970s. The plot apparently continued into 1964, and though details of the exact murder scheme are somewhat sketchy, conversations secretly taped by the Miami Police between Barnes and police/FBI informant William “Willie” Somersett suggest that Carden may have received a rifle from Gale, who hoped that Carden would do the deed. Police even arranged to provide Barnes with a rifle so as to trace it back to the extremist colonel from California.
Birmingham was apparently one of several sites in Alabama considered for a King attack, with Mobile being another preferred location. In fact, the four men even planned a larger wave of statewide violence to lure King to these other areas, notably the sites of the first experiments in school desegregation in Alabama. King may well have been saved from these attempts by another act of violence in Saint Augustine, which drew him to Florida and away from Alabama.
“Nothing left but white faces . . . “: Saint Augustine, Florida, 1964
In 1964, civil rights activist Robert Hayling and others were kidnapped at a Klan rally in Saint Augustine, Florida, beaten unconscious, and nearly burned to death. This drew King and his focus away from Alabama and toward Florida. In fact, it was King’s response to the growing civil disorder in Saint Augustine, Florida, that triggered the next major attempt on his life.
After four sit-in organizers had been badly beaten and guns fired into their homes, Saint Augustine protests degenerated into serious racial violence, extending over several months in 1963 and 1964 as civil rights activists battled against southern reactionaries. Some of this antagonism was stoked by J. B. Stoner and his erstwhile friend the Reverend Charles “Connie” Lynch from California, a minister in a white supremacist church with nationwide reach who, commenting on the four young girls who died in the Birmingham bombing, said that they were not children, but “little niggers . . . and if there’s four less niggers tonight, then I say ‘Good for whoever planted the bomb!'”
Stoner and Lynch, known as a two-person “riot squad,” consistently followed King and staged counterrallies, where they inflamed white audience members, often to the point of violence. In one Saint Augustine rally, Lynch promised, “There’s gonna be a bloody race riot all over this country. The stage is being set for a bloodbath. When the smoke clears, there ain’t gonna be nothing left but white faces!” The aftermath of this rally sent nineteen blacks to local area hospitals.
In response to the ongoing violence, Dr. King visited Saint Augustine in May 1964 and announced his support for demonstrations, even telling President Lyndon Johnson that “all semblance of law and nonviolent order had broken down in Saint Augustine.” King was tempting fate once again in his trips into Florida. Although little is known as to the exact identities of those who did the deed, a suspected group of Klansmen opened fire on King’s rented beach cottage near Saint Augustine, perforating walls and shattering the furniture inside with their bullets. King had been in California at the time, having been warned of plots against his life in Florida.
Enter the White Knights: Jackson, Mississippi, 1964
The next reported effort to kill King came in the spring and summer of 1964 and involved a new and very serious group of players in the white supremacist movement, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi.
The White Knights formed in the cauldron of anti-integrationist resistance that was Mississippi in the early 1960s. As one of the few states with a majority nonwhite population, Mississippi’s white establishment vigorously opposed efforts to give equal rights to minorities. Yet some white Mississippians did not feel that the reactionary moves made by the wealthy White Citizens’ Councils and the government-backed Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission went far enough. To some, even the existing Klan regime in the Magnolia State was too passive, and they abandoned their Klaverns in large numbers, coalescing to form the White Knights, led by the devilishly brilliant Samuel Holloway Bowers and eventually becoming the most successfully violent KKK subgroup in the nation. The FBI would connect the White Knights with more than three hundred acts of racial violence, including the Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights workers and the murder of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer.
In one 1964 incident, however, FBI reports indicate that the White Knights sought outside criminal help to try to kill King. Specifically, the White Knights contracted with a bank robber and highly respected contract killer from Oklahoma, Donald Eugene Sparks, to eliminate King if he came to Mississippi, as he eventually did in July 1964 in response to the Mississippi Burning murders. According to the FBI sources, Sparks waited at a motel in Jackson, Mississippi, to conclude the deal but backed out of the plot when the White Knights could not raise their promised bounty. Two separate sources described this earlier plot to the FBI after King’s murder, but the FBI did only a superficial investigation. Although they found that Sparks was known in White Knights circles, they dismissed the bounty reports because they could not find Sparks’s name in any motel registry in Jackson at the relevant time. Beyond having failed to look for any one of his many aliases, they also missed a report in their own files from 1964 that strongly corroborated the story.
White Knights Grand Dragon Billy Buckles told a group of Klansmen (which apparently included at least one FBI informant) that the White Knights were contracting with a criminal to perform an act of violence that would “make the death of Medgar Evers look sick [by comparison].”
There are other reports in the FBI files that describe additional King murder plots for June/July 1964, but they presently lack the level of corroboration and specificity available for the Sparks effort in 1964. However, it appears that these later reports convinced at least one very important person that King was in danger. President Lyndon Johnson personally ordered additional federal security for King in response to these Mississippi threats as well as those from Alabama.
In response, one Mississippi sheriff, Lawrence Rainey, openly protested the additional federal guards. Within a matter of weeks Rainey himself would become infamous for his suspected role in the conspiracy behind the Mississippi Burning murders. Rainey had, in fact, been an active member of the Mississippi White Knights when he wrote to the government claiming that his officers—some of whom were later convicted for their roles in the Mississippi Burning murders —could provide all the protection King needed while he was under threat of assassination.
The White Knights Try Again: Selma, Alabama, 1965
An account from the FBI’s most trusted inside source on the White Knights indicates that they tried once again to kill King in early 1965. This time the plot was targeted for the state of Mississippi, and the White Knights apparently planned to handle it themselves.
The location was in Selma, where Dr. King had been leading a voter registration drive, without much success. The primary attack was to be by snipers, with a backup plan of rigging a highway bridge with explosives if King escaped the shooting. Advanced word of the attack appears to have come from a deep informant named Delmar Dennis, a minister who had been close to Klan leader Samuel Bowers but who turned on Bowers because of his suspicions of Bowers’s patriotism and reservations over the White Knights’ excessive violence. The attack did not occur, but only because King’s route was changed at the last minute. We are still searching FBI files for further details on this plot.
Dennis’s informant file deals mainly with administrative matters related to paying him for his services, and available files on Bowers and the White Knights do not directly mention the plot. But most of the three hundred acts of violence the FBI officially attributes to the White Knights are not directly mentioned in these summary reports, which consist of small vignettes aggregated from local field office files. But in addition to the autobiographical account from Dennis, one of the FBI’s most trusted informants, there are strong hints in the FBI files that something bigger was brewing in Selma. Reports emphasize that at this same time, Bowers was questioned for housing explosives in Alabama. This came just as other, simultaneous in format reports show that Bowers was asking his White Knights to bury their weapons in preparation for a future major insurrection. This mystified his followers but is consistent with a larger strategy Bowers contemplated—his belief that a major provocation, such as murdering Dr. King, would result in federal intervention and ultimately a race war.
Attack on the Palladium: Los Angeles, California, February 1965
On one of the few occasions where an arrest was made in connection with a King plot, right-wing extremist Keith Gilbert was captured in late 1965 trying to evade arrest by fleeing to Canada after authorities found large quantities of stolen dynamite among an arsenal of weapons (including a 60-mm mortar) and right-wing paraphernalia in his Glendale, California, residence.
Gilbert had been on the run since February 4, 1965, when he was reported to have been involved in the dynamite robbery that eventually led to his conviction. The robbery came as threats began to pour in that King would be killed on February 25 at the Palladium theater in Los Angeles when he came to speak, in honor of his Nobel Peace Prize. One report in particular, that the entire theater would be destroyed in an explosion, caught the attention of not only authorities but also the local papers. Authorities received general information that the bombing was to be attributable to the Christian Nationalist State Army, while the day after King spoke, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner received information directly tying Gilbert to the threat. The paper reported the six-foot twenty-two-year-old as a racist member of the militant antigovernment group the Minutemen, who was heavily armed and a direct threat to Dr. King (as Gilbert was not yet captured). The report did not highlight the most salient aspect of Gilbert’s biography—that he was a committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian whose views on the superiority of the white race would continue to inspire racist extremists on through
the 1990s, thanks in part to Gilbert himself.36 In referring to the failed effort to kill King the day before—probably due to tight security precautions-the paper’s source also ominously promised that the mistake would be fixed the next time, when King would be killed with a “high-powered rifle.”
The Ohio Plot: Yellow Springs, Ohio, June 1965
In a series of events reminiscent of the Gilbert crime and occurring only a few months later, Daniel Wagner was arrested on suspicion of armed robbery with weapons, including dynamite, that he later testified were to be used in a provocation to “start a civil war within this country” between blacks and whites.38 Wagner also described two closely connected plots to kill Martin Luther King Jr. and other public officials. The more sensational of these schemes involved Wagner shooting King when he was set to speak at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in June 1965.
Wagner testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and in a ten-page letter described the plans that ten other men would detonate explosives while attendees fled the shooting. The nineteen-year-old Wagner said Eloise Witte, a bleached-blonde forty-year-old Grand Empress of the Ku Klux Klan in the Cincinnati, Ohio, region, approached him for the plot. The plot failed because Witte could not convince ten other people to join Wagner as a unit. Witte, a rare female in a leadership position within the KKK, denied these reports to HUAC, but a second eyewitness, a young National States’ Rights Party member named Richard Hanna, corroborated Wagner’s story.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wagner’s account to HUAC relates to an earlier plot that inspired Witte to recruit Wagner. Wagner said that when Witte recruited him for her own effort against King, she referred to a recent $25,000 bounty offer on King emanating from the KKK in Georgia. Though this component is close to hearsay, there is some corroboration. First, police did confirm that the dynamite that Wagner and a colleague obtained to spur the hoped-for civil war did indeed come from Klan sources in Georgia, notably from Klan associates of Imperial Wizard James R. Venable. Moreover, Witte’s immediate connections were to Venable, who had far-reaching influence as leader of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (NKKKK).
In 1915 Venable’s family had supplied the land used for the cross-burning ceremony that launched the modern KKK revival in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where the NKKKK headquarters continued to serve as a symbolic Mecca for the “Hooded Order.” In 1965 Venable, a lawyer who with fellow racist J. B. Stoner represented individuals accused of racially motivated crimes (and who shared an Atlanta legal office with Stoner), launched an outreach program to place several additional out-of-state Klans in the Midwest under the umbrella of his organization, including Witte’s Klavern. Witte’s story, as Wagner related it, of a $25,000 bounty offer is also consistent with the available records.
An FBI memorandum of February 8, 1965, from their Atlanta office warned bureau field offices in Mobile, Alabama, and Washington, DC , (locations where King was expected to travel) that Venable was actively involved in organizing plots to kill Dr. King, and other FBI reports from the same period implicate Stoner in those efforts. Venable will eventually be tied into a specific White Knights bounty that will prove to be integral to deciphering the true circumstances behind Dr. King’s murder on April 4, 1968.
Manufacturing a Pretext: The White Knights’ Effort s in 1966
In two of the previously described assassination attempts, white supremacists planned to take advantage of acts of violence committed in conjunction with King’s travels to protest racial injustice. They saw that even attempting to kill King could escalate the violence that could be expected in response to efforts at public integration. In 1966 the White Knights decided to reverse that tactic, performing acts that would lure King to a “kill zone” in Mississippi.
King came to Birmingham in the wake of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing; he came to Jackson after both the Medgar Evers assassination in 1963 and the Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. Most recently he had come to Mississippi in the wake of the attempted murder of James Meredith, the man who had desegregated the University of Mississippi by being the first black student to apply to and attend the school in 1962 and who in 1966 was leading his March Against Fear to encourage blacks to register to vote despite racist intimidation. That King, as a national figure, would respond in person to well-publicized injustices would be obvious then to anyone who wanted to strike at him.
With that in mind, Bowers appears to have conceived of one of the more hideous acts of his violent reign of terror killing a perfectly innocent black farmer in hopes of luring King into a shooting gallery in Mississippi. The victim was Ben Chester White, who agreed to help three unassuming white men look for their supposedly missing dog when he entered their car, never to be seen alive again. His body was found battered and riddled with seventeen bullet holes in a creek near a national forest in Natchez, Mississippi.
The three men who were arrested-Ernest Avants, Claude Fuller, and James Jones-escaped justice for decades. Jones admitted his guilt and implicated the other two, but Avants’s claim that he only shot White’s already-dead corpse earned him an acquittal, while Fuller (the accused triggerman) was never even tried. Even Jones (in the face of his own admission) was set free by a hung jury. Justice was only served in 2003, when Avants was finally convicted for his role in the crime. It was at that later trial that previously unreleased FBI documents showed that the three men were members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and that Samuel Bowers put them up to killing White in hopes of enticing King into a death trap.
An Open Contract: The White Knights Bounty Offer in 1967
The White Knights were not deterred by their previous failures to kill King. Motivated by forces much stronger than just maintaining the culture of Jim Crow, the White Knights appear to have accelerated their efforts to murder Dr. King even as their leading members were finally going to prison for crimes such as the killing of activist Vernon Dahmer.
Driven by the increased scrutiny of law enforcement on a national as well as local level, the White Knights increasingly turned to outsiders for acts of violence. At a time when similar offers appear to have been circulating in a number of different prison systems, a Leavenworth penitentiary prisoner- Donald Nissen-reported being approached by an openly prejudiced fellow inmate with a $100,000 White Knights-sponsored bounty on King’s life.
The inmate knew Nissen was leaving Leavenworth penitentiary and would make his way to King’s home base of Atlanta and told him to contact a series of intermediaries, known in the criminal and intelligence world as “cutouts,” to confirm his role, which would involve both scouting King’s movements and (if Nissen wanted) actually assassinating the civil rights leader. Nissen remained quiet for fear of upsetting the inmate but revealed the details of the offer to the FBI several months before King was murdered.
There is considerable corroboration for Nissen’s story-which includes names of conspirators-and it provides the key to understanding the forces that led to King’s death in Memphis. According to the HSCA, similar offers were circulating in the federal penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri, and likely caught the attention of a soon-to-be escapee, James Earl Ray, the only man arrested and convicted for King’s murder.
Racism or Religion?
It would be easy to say that what united those who made serious efforts to kill King was a deep reactionary form of racism, a combination of contempt and fear seen manifested in the brutal beating of peaceful activists at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. But while this has an element of truth to it, it is also an oversimplification. By 1966 King had achieved almost all his goals in ending de jure racial discrimination and was shifting toward deeper issues of economic and social justice. Killing King remained a top priority for these same people, however, and not as a matter of pure revenge for his past successes. At the planning level of each of the major assassination efforts from 1958 onward were individuals devoted to a hateful Christian denomination led by the Reverend Wesley Swift, who insisted that “pure-blooded whites are the lost children of Israel.” They joined Swift in promoting the idea of an apocalyptic race war, and killing King was the best means to that end.
This bond between conspirators can be seen if one simply traces a social network from retired Colonel William Potter Gale, the vituperative racist and anti-Semite from California. One month after reportedly plotting to kill King in Birmingham, Gale addressed a private gathering of extremists at the William Penn Hotel in Whittier, California; attendees included California NSRP leader James Paul Thornton, Atlanta’s White Citizens’ Council activist Joseph Milteer, and racist evangelist Connie Lynch. Thornton, Milteer, and especially Lynch were close associates of Stoner, and all were devotees-like Gale-of Swift. The Californians Lynch and Gale, while also members of Stoner’s National States’ Rights Party, were in fact ordained ministers in Swift’s Church of Jesus Christ Christian, as was Keith Gilbert. In his church role, Gale was personally invited (by Sidney Crockett Barnes) to administer the memorial services for Kathy Ainsworth, a White Knights terrorist who may have had inside knowledge of aspects of the King murder.
Gale’s connection to Mississippi racists likely stemmed from the active part he played in what many historians view as ground zero in the southern counterrevolution against integration and multiculturalism: resistance to James Meredith’s admission to and integration of the segregated University of Mississippi in 1962. Gale played a major role in fomenting the one-sided violence that required federal intervention and spurred a proliferation of white supremacist organizations. In fact, documents from the time describe an unknown, out-of-state military figure recruiting veterans across Mississippi into a mysterious, more militant racist organization (clearly the White Knights). These references raise the possibility that Gale, who as a World War II officer organized guerrilla operations for General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, may have been important in helping to actually form the White Knights.
Georgia Klan leader James Venable’s connections to this coterie of radical extremists involve his connection to the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (CKKKK). As with Witte’s organization in Ohio, the CKKKK was an offshoot of Venable’s umbrella organization, the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Venable even spoke to the CKKKK in 1967 at the invitation of its California leader, William V. Fowler, at a common meeting place for Reverend Swift’s religious sermons. Fowler, in fact, was a devoted minister in Swift’s church.58 Although Fowler handled the day-to-day operations of the CKKKK, FBI informant reports indicate that Swift had strong and direct influence on the group and that members were told to attend Swift’s religious meetings at least once a month. Venable liked to portray himself as someone above the fray, sympathetic to the political goals of the Klan but ambivalent, at best, to its more radical features. Yet, an informant described Venable as saying, in 1961, that he “did not believe in violence, but the time had come . . . when we have to do it.” The comment came after Venable insisted that “Martin Luther King Jr. should have been dead long ago and that he had to be killed.” Perhaps Venable’s urgency in wanting King killed reflected the same worldview as Swift, for Venable’s religious and historical writings make it clear that he shared the same antagonism toward Jews.
The notoriously racist Reverend Swift, for his part, was so close to many of these individuals that he was investigated in connection with their various King plots. The FBI looked at Swift when investigating the Crommelin/ Carden/Gale/Barnes plot in the early 1960s, as each of these men were Swift devotees. The FBI even raided Swift’s church in connection with the Gilbert plot in 1965. Of course in each instance, the accused men themselves (much less their religious leader) were never actually charged for attempting to assassinate King. And while the FBI may not have looked at Swift in connection to Stoner’s plots against King, Swift and Stoner clearly shared a lot in common. Swift kept a flag with a thunderbolt symbol in his office until the day he died; this was the logo for the National States’ Rights Party’s publication The Thunderbolt, a paper that was largely created by Stoner. Swift’s ministers were among the most active members of Stoner’s NSRP movement.
These cross affiliations between anti-King agitators illustrate the limits of the conventional historical picture of the white supremacist subculture in America. Without question, as HUAC detailed after its investigation of extremist movements in 1967, the Klan and similar groups were highly decentralized even if they were under the umbrella of several different multistate operations such as Venable’s National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Even within states, much less at the top of the organizations, it was common for infighting-over power and money-to fragment various Klans. That said, within these groups were a subgroup of people who were united by something far more potent and salient than simple resistance to integration.
White supremacists who plotted to kill King were motivated by a strong religious impulse, and at least some of those in the white supremacist movement in the 1960s should be viewed more as religious terrorists than as political reactionaries. The upper echelons of these groups were motivated by the white Christian separatism espoused by the Reverend Wesley Swift and his Church of Jesus Christ Christian. Swift had founded the Church of Jesus Christ Christian in 1946, and tapes of his white separatist sermons were literally being played at parties of like-minded extremists in places like Jackson, Mississippi, in the early to mid 1960s.
In one stroke, Swift gave Christian religious justification for beliefs in white supremacy and for the associated antigovernment communist paranoia appearing in many forms around the country, the latter casting the civil rights movement as a secret Soviet subversive operation. This also had an obvious appeal to those resisting integration as simply a threat to their way of life, giving cover to their violence. At times individuals would start as mere segregationists, only to become sucked into Swift’s vortex.
This radical variation of Christianity inspired highly devoted followers from around the nation even as the larger white supremacist movement lost its secular motivation following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They formed something akin to a national militant network under the informal influence of Swift. And while political causes die or evolve with new laws and elections, ideological causes-especially religious causes-can have a very long shelf life. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s victories for integration had substantially decreased overall Klan membership, and a sharp increase in successful prosecutions and federal surveillance had dramatically reduced what little remained of the white supremacist movement by the late 1960s. But for those who were motivated by religion-and the tapes and sermons of Wesley Swift-this pressure simply changed their tactics, as they increasingly turned to outsiders and core true believers to carry out even more provocative acts of extremism. Their obsession with assassinating King would become a holy cause, an act of civil war meant to spark a racial and religious Armageddon.
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