A former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who was serving a life sentence for the fatal bombing of a civil rights activist, has died in custody after suffering a heart attack. He was 82.
Samuel H. Bowers, an Imperial Wizard of the white supremacist group, was convicted eight years ago for ordering the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer Sr, who campaigned for black rights during Mississippi state’s turbulent struggle for racial equality.
Mr Dahmer, a champion of equal voting rights for black people, died at the age of 58 after being fire-bombed outside his home in the middle of the night. The attack also saw his house and grocery store being torched.
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Tara Booth, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, said that Bowers had died yesterday at 11.30am in the Mississippi State Penitentiary Hospital in Parchman, a sprawling prison carved out of the cotton and soybean fields in the impoverished Mississippi Delta.
“He was supposed to stay there until he died. I guess he fulfilled that,” Ellie Dahmer, Mr Dahmer’s widow, said in response to the death. “He lived a lot longer than Vernon Dahmer did.”
According to court testimony from the four-day trial in 1998, the Dahmer family awoke on the night of the murder to the sound of blaring horns outside their home, where they found two carloads of Klansmen were waiting outside.
Mr Dahmer was targeted as he left the home, keeping the extremists at bay with a shotgun while his family fled. But the flames destroyed his lungs and he died in his wife’s arms about 12 hours later.
During the trial, prosecutors claimed Bowers ordered the attack after becoming enraged that Dahmer was trying to register blacks to vote. Bowers’s lawyers claimed he had been “sacrificed to the media” in order to further the political ambitions of Mike Moore, the attorney general at the time.
Earlier trials for Bowers – including at least two before all-white juries – ended in deadlock, with a case in 1968 ending in a jury split of 11-1 in favour of a guilty verdict, while a trial a year later resulted in a 10-2 split in favour of conviction.
Bowers had a history of violence and served a six-year sentence after being convicted in 1967 on federal conspiracy charges of violating the civil rights of three civil rights workers.
The three men were stopped by Klansmen while in Mississippi to register black voters during 1964. They were beaten and shot and buried in an earthen dam.
Vernon Dahmer Jr., son of the activist, now aged 77, said that Bowers had “caused a lot of pain, suffering, and death for many innocent individuals and families of my race.”
“During his life, he never apologised or asked forgiveness for his actions. Apparently, he felt justified for what he did to his many victims,” he said. “Now that he has passed from this life, God will be the judge.”
Bowers’s conviction was just one in string of civil rights killings to be successfully prosecuted in the South decades after the crimes were actually committed. The case was reopened after black leaders and family members urged for justice to be carried out, resulting in new leads being found.
In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted for the 1963 sniper killing of leader Medgar Evers, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), while in Alabama eight years later, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted of killing four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963.
Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman, was convicted last June of manslaughter in the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
Mrs Cadhmer said that Bowers’ death brought little closure to a wound she has nursed for decades. “It won’t bring Vernon back,” she said. “I lost a wonderful husband and my children lost a father. We lost a community leader. We lost a Christian man who saw good in people.”