BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jack Nelson, author of “Terror in the Night: The Klan's Campaign Against the Jews”, why did you feel the need to write this story?
JACK NELSON, AUTHOR, "TERROR IN THE NIGHT: THE KLAN'S CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE JEWS": Well, Brian, I covered it back in the late '60s when the Ku Klux Klan decided that the blacks weren't the problem; maybe the Jews were the real problem. They decided that because they had the idea that the Jews had the money behind the civil rights movement. They had sent civil rights lawyers down to the South to represent demonstrators. A large percentage of the college students who came south in the '60s to demonstrate against Jim Crow laws in the South were Jewish students. So they decided that, and I covered the story.
It was something that when I looked at it -- I couldn't believe what was happening to begin with. They changed from attacking blacks to blowing up synagogues, a rabbi's house, and then one of the most unusual things happened that I'd ever seen as a reporter. The Ku Klux Klan began to become such a problem to the white community -- not the black community, but the white community -- that the FBI got together with the Jewish community. The Jewish community was very small in Mississippi at the time. This was Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi, and the community was very small but also had a lot of clout. They were people of some means. They got together with the FBI and the Meridian Police Department, and essentially what happened was that two members of the Klan were set up in a death trap. I wrote a lot about it at the time. Some of it I couldn't tell in as much detail as I would have liked. I didn't know a lot about the Jewish community at the time I wrote my stories back in the late '60s. It was something that sort of gnawed at me, and I always wanted to go back and find out more about it; how it happened, why it happened. I worried about whether the ends justified the means here, because what happened was, they did carry out this plot. It ended the Klan violence, but it was something that I always wanted to write more about.
LAMB: Where is home?
NELSON: I was born in Talladega, Alabama. I never knew about it, but it was a KKK stronghold. I was born there and raised in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. My roots are probably more deeply planted in Biloxi, Mississippi, where my mother still lives. My sister lives there. So I'm probably more a Mississippian, I guess, than anything else.
LAMB: When did you go to work for the L.A. Times?
NELSON: I went to work for the L.A. Times in 1965. I opened up the Atlanta bureau and covered the South out of there. That's what I was doing then. For five years I covered the South -- some politics but mostly civil rights. This was when civil rights was really the hottest story going, not just in the country but part of the time in the world. I covered Martin Luther King right up through his assassination in 1968.
LAMB: What is the Ku Klux Klan?
NELSON: The Ku Klux Klan really got started right after the Civil War, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the main originator of it at the time. It was set up, I guess what some of the Southerners thought at that time, to reclaim the South from the Northerners who had come in after the Civil War. In the beginning it was not, I think, supposed to be a terrorist organization, but it always turned out to be a real terrorist organization, involved in a lot of lynchings of black people -- hundreds of them over the years. The more modern Klan came about after the school desegregation decision in 1954. Part of this book goes back to that because a rabbi who was involved in this case, one of the major figures in the book, came down to Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after the 1954 school desegregation decision.
LAMB: You're talking about Rabbi [Perry] Nussbaum?
NELSON: Rabbi Nussbaum. There he is in that particular picture, emerging from his wrecked house which had been bombed by the Klan, with his wife [Arene] who emerged hysterical, both of them pulling glass out of their hair and out of their face. He died back in the late '80s. His wife still lives in San Diego.
LAMB: I know you talk about going back and talking to some of the people that were the characters, and even the Klansmen. Have you ever spent enough time with the Klansmen to find out why they hate?
NELSON: Why they hate?
LAMB: Why they hate. What is at the base of their hatred for either the blacks or the Jews or somebody that's not like them?
NELSON: An awful lot of it is economic, of course. They see blacks and Jews as people who are taking from them or they believe in some way have some advantage over them. A lot of these people are religious fanatics. They believe, for example, that God meant for them as pure, white people -- at least in their thinking -- to be the dominant race and the dominant people, very much, I'd say, like the Nazis in World War II -- not much different from them.
LAMB: As a reporter, was it hard to cover them objectively?
NELSON: Not just covering the Klan. I think covering civil rights, it's hard to say you're 100 percent objective because I'd say of anything I've ever covered in 45 years as a reporter where your emotions get involved, it has to be civil rights because there are not many gray areas you see in some of this. It's pretty much black and white. I mean, you see justice and you know it, and you see injustice and you know it, so you become involved in the story. There's not much question about that. You want to get to the bottom of it, and you can pretty clearly see, I think, the justices and the injustices.
LAMB: Go back again so we can just get the time frame. Exactly what were the dates around which this story was told?
NELSON: About 1967, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were the murderous of all of the modern Klans. It was headed by a fanatic by the name of Sam Bowers. What you're showing there is the cover of a hate sheet of the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, which was a front for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If anybody saw Mississippi Burning, they were the Klan that was portrayed in that. Sam Bowers, this religious fanatic who headed it, was known, I believe, by the FBI to be -- that's Sam Bowers. He still lives in Laurel, Mississippi, walks the streets a free man, served six years on a federal conviction in the slaying of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964, and was tried on another murder case a couple of times, but mistrials were declared both times because of hung juries. But he was held responsible by the FBI for nine different murders, 300 bombings, beatings and burnings, but only the imperial wizard of the White Knights could have ordered it, according to the FBI. As I say, he still walks the streets a free man.
In 1967 when the trial was held for the slaying of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, that was about the time [the Klan] decided that the Jews were the real problem, more than the blacks, and decided to target them. They still targeted a few blacks, but it was mostly Jews. They blew up a synagogue in Jackson, Mississippi, blew up Rabbi Nussbaum's house, blew up a synagogue in Meridian, had a long death list with various names on it -- rabbis, police chiefs, FBI agents. Roy Moore, agent in charge of the FBI in Jackson, Mississippi, was on the death list. Roy Moore had been sent to Jackson, Mississippi, to open a special office there by J. Edgar Hoover, then the FBI director. Remember the disappearance of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia whose bodies subsequently were found in an earthen dam? Well, Roy Moore went down there to open up this big FBI office in Jackson to try to solve that case and really to break up the Klan. They did a tremendous job. There's not much question about that. They infiltrated the Klan.
I know that Hoover was criticized by some civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, for having used a lot of southern FBI agents, because King said that they had sympathies with southern segregationists. He may have had a point to some extent there, but on the other hand there were southern FBI agents who were uniquely qualified to infiltrate the Klan, to deal with the Klan, because they knew the South and they knew the South's mores and they did not really identify with the Ku Klux Klan or the terrorists down there. Frankly speaking, what happened was that the FBI smashed the Klan, and this was the case more than any other where they ended the Klan violence. A lot of people think, and I think some historians have thought, that the Klan violence pretty much ended after the trial of the Klansmen and the slaying of the three civil rights workers. That didn't end it at all. There were a series of 17 unsolved bombings and burnings of churches and synagogues after that trial. But this ended it.
LAMB: You say this was in the '60s, the middle to late '60s, when this part took place. When did you start going back to Mississippi to begin your process of writing this book?
NELSON: Actually I didn't start going back to Mississippi to write it until about, say, three or three-and-a-half years ago or so. I'd always thought about writing this book. It's the only story I ever worked on in 45 years -- I was a teenaged reporter; seriously, right after high school I became a reporter -- but it was the only story in 45 years of reporting that I saved everything. I saved all of my notebooks. I could even read the old notes. I saved my notebooks, a tape-recorded interview with a key detective involved in the case who gave me so many details on it. I saved all of my original documents and everything, and then, oh, I'd say about five or six years ago I began to collect more documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, always within the back of my mind that I'd go back and do this story one time.
Then finally, I have a very good agent by the name of Ron Goldfarb who said, "You've got to do the book," and so I finally decided to do it. It's kind of interesting, when I went back to Meridian, Mississippi, there's a lawyer there, a good friend of mine by the name of Joe Clay Hamilton, and Joe Clay Hamilton had been a reporter on the Atlanta Journal back when I'd been a reporter on the Constitution way back in the '50s. Joe Clay actually was a district attorney in Meridian who helped prosecute a Klansman who was caught in this death trap -- an attempted bombing down there. He told me when I was there, "You know, Jack, your timing on doing this book is perfect. If you had come in any earlier nobody would have talked to you, and if you'd have come much later there would have been more people dead and fuzzier memories." The fact is, of course, that some of the main players are now dead, and some do have fuzzy memories, but I got there in time enough to talk to a lot of people whose memory was very good, and most of the principals are still living.
LAMB: Sam Bowers, the Klansman who went to jail, is out now, and you tell the story about trying to get him to talk to you. Would you recount that for us?
NELSON: Yes. Well, the first thing I did was, I tried to get him by the telephone. One of his top aides, another Klansman by the name of Devours Nix, and Devours Nix said, "Look, I've been trying to get Sam to agree to an interview for 25 years. He's never agreed to do it, but I'll try to help you get one with him." Then he called me back and he said, "Well, Sam says he's doing his own book. If you'll help him place his book he'll give you 10 percent of the royalties." I said, "Well, I can't do that, but if he has a manuscript I'd be glad to turn it over to my agent if you'd like that." Anyway, that never worked out, so finally he said, "Well, okay, Sam wants to see you."
Actually, what happened was my wife Barbara Matusow, who is a writer for The Washingtonian magazine, had worked with me some on the book along with Dick Cooper, the deputy bureau chief of the L.A. Times who worked with me on the book. My wife went with me to Meridian, Mississippi, at one time doing research, and I called over to Laurel where Sam Bowers lives, and that's not far away, and I found out he was in town. I thought if I would go by and just try to see him, maybe he would see me on the spot. He wasn't in, but I went by his old place called Bowers' Amusement Company, and it was like in a time warp. I went back in there, and there was the Sambo Amusement Company, his firm, right across the street from the old Crown Zellerbach plant. All of a sudden, coming out between the two houses was this old Lincoln automobile, driven by none other than Sam Bowers. I recognized him right away, and I told Barbara, "That's Bowers."
He pulled around and he went down the street, and I whipped my car around in the middle of the street and followed him. He went very slowly. He must have known that he was being followed, and he pulled down into the county library parking lot there. I jumped out and went around, and when he got out of his car he was carrying a manila folder in his arms. I ran up and I put my hand out, and I said, "Hello, I'm Jack Nelson." He looked at me, and he said, "I know who you are. I'm not talking to you," and so he left. He wouldn't talk to me. Later Devours Nix told me that Bowers had written an introduction for my book, and he would like to give it to me. He wanted me to come to Laurel. I said, "Well, I'm going to Biloxi. I can't make a trip to Laurel, but I'll meet you halfway between." So I took one of my sons -- my son Steve, who is a weight-lifter -- and we went up to Wiggins, Mississippi, between Laurel and Biloxi, and met Sam Bowers and Devours Nix in a coffee shop.
I sat right opposite the two of them, my son and I did, and he handed me this thick sheet of papers where he had written actually in print, and he prints very nicely. I thumbed through it to see what it was, because I thought that he might give me some information of some kind. But it was sort of incomprehensible kind of jabbering. It was not anything. I finally looked at him, and I said, "We can't use this." Bowers looked at me, and he said, "I hope you don't sell any books."
You know, he had this same mad gleam in his eyes that I had seen back in the late '60s when I tried to interview him and he told me he wasn't talking to me. He's an unusual guy because, you know, he's not at all ignorant. He doesn't fit what people think of as the ordinary kind of Klansman. Here's a guy who's the grandson of a man who was a Mississippi congressman for two terms. He went to Tulane University and he went to Southern Cal for a year, had two years of college. What you have to say is that he just has sort of a warped sense and a warped mind. Well, he's unusual.
LAMB: There are two books here. What's book one and what's book two?
NELSON: Book one -- I write that in the third person -- that's all about what happened: the Jewish community, the background of how this tiny Jewish population in Mississippi dealt with the civil rights crisis, how they tried to walk a thin line and to fit in with the predominantly Christian and mostly fundamental, at times, religion there. It's about then what happened when the Klan turned on the bombings and so forth and the shoot-out at Meridian, Mississippi That's all in the third person. Book two is about -- and I write that in the first person -- how this story began to draw me into ways that I would have never expected. You know, Detective Scarbrough, who is a principal figure in the case, told me one time, "You know, Hollywood couldn't make up this story," and I think that's true, and he didn't know half of the story. He didn't know half of the story, but Hollywood couldn't have made it up.
I talk about then how after the shoot-out at Meridian, Mississippi, I went to Chief Roy Gunn. Now, Chief Roy Gunn was an interesting character because he was the gruff police chief of Meridian, Mississippi, and he was as segregationist as you get. He used to say that "the only thing we need around here to enforce the law is a bunch of nigger-knockers and burr-head sticks." That's the way he talked, and that's the way a lot of blacks were treated at that time in Meridian.
Then one day Chief Gunn had sort of a religious experience in church, and he told this to a minister friend of his. He said he decided that if the law was to be enforced and enforced fairly that he had to do it, and he had to do it for all people. He declared war on the Klan and the Klan declared war on him. So I write a lot about that, and I write a lot about other people who had this sort of transformation, actually. Al Binder, there's a Jewish lawyer who's a major figure in here, too, Brian, and Al Binder was a Jewish lawyer in Jackson who was a segregationist like most of the Jews in Mississippi were. After all, they had all been brought up in that same society, and they had been there since Civil War times. As a matter of fact, he was very proud, and a lot of the other Jews in Mississippi were proud that Judah Benjamin was a major figure in the Confederate government, and they were proud that there were Jewish soldiers who fought on the Southern side in the Civil War.
So they were Southerners like most of the whites there. He even prosecuted freedom riders when they came down and were arrested. He was a good friend of the segregationist governor. But Al Binder also went through an amazing transformation. One of the things was that he went down and he visited Martin Luther King when he was in a jail cell in Albany, Georgia. The mayor of Albany had called the mayor of Jackson, knowing that they had dealt with a lot of demonstrators, and said, "We've got King down here in this jail and we don't know how to handle him. Can you send somebody down?" So they sent Binder down, and Binder went down to Martin Luther King, and he said, "Dr. King, I can get you out of prison here if you'll just promise to leave Albany and never come back." King looked at him and said, "You don't understand. I'm in here to stay because I'm in here for my people's freedom. I'm in here because we're demonstrating against unjust laws."
It had a profound effect on Binder. Binder went back to Jackson, and he had several other experiences like that. Then what really turned him around was he realized the vulnerability, of course, of the Jewish community. They bombed the synagogue, they bombed his rabbi's house. He had to hide his rabbi out to protect him. The Jews in Jackson, Mississippi, they went to the synagogue with guns, sat up at the bema in the synagogue, armed to protect the rabbi. You know, the FBI played a tape for members of the Jewish community of the Klansmen saying that they would blow up the synagogue with women and children inside. So I mean, these were dangerous, touchy times. People were very, very concerned. But you had in here people like that that had real changes of heart, real dramatic changes in the way they saw things.
LAMB: You've written a few other books, [noted] on the flap here, with some of your colleagues. Ron Ostrow was one of them, and Jack Bass and Gene Roberts. How does this book fit into all the things you've done in your life?
NELSON: I guess particularly with some of the reaction that I've been getting from the book already, although it's just really come out, I'm probably about as proud of it as anything I've done. I feel deeply about it. I always wanted to do it. It really essentially is in the same kind of books I've been doing. I've done other books that had to do with civil rights, injustices, censorship and that sort of thing, but this one means a lot.
LAMB: The Orangeburg Massacre with Jack Bass, is that the same Jack Bass that has the book out on Judge Frank Johnson?
NELSON: That's the same one. Jack Bass is now a professor of journalism at Ole Miss and continues to be a good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, he and I are going to be doing some joint appearances in Mississippi on his book on Judge Frank Johnson, this famous federal judge in Montgomery, Ala., who was in the forefront of the civil rights movement. I'm going to be doing them at Oxford, Mississippi, and in Memphis, Tenn., with Jack Bass.
LAMB: On the back flap there is advance word on “Terror in the Night”; in other words, praise on the flap comments that so many books have, from Artie Gelb, the president of the New York Times; Willie Morris, author; Hodding Carter III; Bill Moyers; Bill Kovach; John Seigenthaler, and Paul Duke. As a matter of fact, one of the things that seems to be a threat is the Paul Duke comment, "A spell-binding thriller by one of America's greatest reporters." The gentleman that said to you you couldn't make a movie about all this. Is this a movie?
NELSON: I think it is. I guess you never know until one is made, but we ran excerpts of this book in the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, and it rang almost every bell in Hollywood. We've had a lot of producers from different production companies and television and movie companies talking to my agent on it, so I think it will be. You never know the ones made, but I think it has strong characters in it, and it certainly has strong moral issues involved. So we'll see.
LAMB: Go back to the root of why you get into this in the first place for the audience sitting out there saying, "All Jack Nelson is doing is making money off of a tragic situation." What do you say?
NELSON: I say that I could have made more money writing a book about Bush, about Reagan. The fact is, the editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew, was interested in my writing a book about the presidents. My agent was interested in me writing a book about the presidents. I cover them. I didn't want to write a book about people I'm covering today. I could write this one and it doesn't in any way interfere with what I'm doing now. You know, I'm the Washington bureau chief of a very large newspaper. I didn't think that I could handle that, for one thing, and I never knew whether this would be a big seller or not. It may not be, and it may not make a movie. Who knows? But whether it does or not, I'll always be glad that I wrote it.
LAMB: You know, also there are a lot of other little things in here, like checkbook journalism.
NELSON: Yes, that's right. What happened was that when I went to Detective Scarbrough to get the story from him, Chief Gunn told me one of the reasons they cooperated with me so much back at the time was they didn't think they had gotten enough credit for what they did in setting up this death trap.
LAMB: This is what city now?
NELSON: This is in Meridian, Mississippi. I went to Chief Gunn, and Chief Gunn said, "Detective Scarbrough will cooperate with you." Well, I went to Detective Scarbrough and he said, "Well, yes, but I worked awfully hard on this, you know." That's Detective Scarbrough, a wonderful man, a great detective, and Detective Scarbrough said, "I didn't get enough credit for what I did on this, and I worked awfully hard, so I think I ought to get something for what I've done here." I said, "Well, I'll see what I can do." He said, "I think I should be paid something. I have these documents that you wouldn't believe. They are documents that show the meetings between the informants and the FBI and myself and the Meridian Police, day in and day out as it led up to this trap, this ambush." I said, "Well, I'll see what I can do," so I called up Ed Guthman, our national editor at the time, and he said, "Offer him $500." I said, "Well, look, I never paid" -- and I still have never paid, except for this one time -- "for any information." I figured it would be okay to pay for this because I wasn't paying him to tell me something, I was paying him to produce documents. The documents would speak for themselves, and they are the highest evidence.
I said, "It's worth $500 from what he told me. It would be worth more, at least $1,000, and I don't want to haggle on price." Ed said, "Offer him $1,000," so I offered him $1,000. I probably could have got it for $250 if he took it like that. I went in, and Ed had a $1,000 cashier's check sent to him.
LAMB: Again, what year is this?
NELSON: By this time it's late 1969. And so I went in to see him. Actually, Scarborough came up to my motel room in Meridian, and he brought all these records of these documents. I took it naturally like, "Thank you very much, and I'll be back in a few minutes. I'm going to get a copy." Then I walked out and I ran as fast as I could down to Joe Clay Hamilton's law office, and he let me use the copy machine. I copied them all and brought them back up there. He didn't have them signed or anything, so I had him initial every page to make sure that it was all exactly right. Then I came back and I wrote about a 6,000-word story in the L.A. Times, and I got this letter. Actually, before I got the story written, I got a letter from Detective Scarbrough enclosing the $1,000 check, and he said, "You can't write this story." By this time, see, the FBI knew that I was going to write the story. They knew that I was going to write that it was an ambush. I had gone to Jackson to talk to Roy Moore about it ...
LAMB: Roy Moore, again ...?
NELSON: Roy Moore is agent-in-charge of the Jackson FBI office. Roy Moore said, "Jack, where have you been? I've had calls about you from New York, from Washington, from Atlanta, from New Orleans, and people say, 'What's he up to? What does he want?' Come on in here and let's find what this is all about." I went in to see him, and he told me, "If you write this story, Jack, it'll yank the rug out from under law enforcement in Mississippi."
I raised the question of whether or not entrapment was involved. I said, "The information I have raises some serious questions about the way the FBI and the Meridian Police enforce the law here." He said, "Well, there's a thin line between law enforcement and entrapment, and this was good law enforcement. But if you write this story it'll yank the rug out from under law enforcement in this city." I told him I was afraid I was going to have to write it. Of course I went back to write it, and that's when Scarbrough wrote me this letter. He enclosed the check, and he said, "The blood of innocent people will be on your hands if you write this story."
LAMB: OK,because it's a bit confusing if you haven't read the book. let's go back -- Roy Moore running the FBI office in Mississippi. At the time, how many FBI agents were there in Mississippi working on this?
NELSON: On the Klan case there must have been 100; at least 100 agents working on the Klan cases.
LAMB: OK, 100 agents in Mississippi in the late '60s, and the set-up was where, and what was it around?
NELSON: The set-up was in Meridian, Mississippi, and what happened was that once they had bombed the rabbi's house and the third synagogue, they got together -- the Jewish community, the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League -- and said, "We've got to stop this." They got two informants.
LAMB: Two Klan members.
NELSON: The names were Raymond Roberts and Alton Wayne Roberts -- brothers. Alton Wayne Roberts was the guy who actually pulled the trigger that killed two of the three civil rights workers.
LAMB: Which one of these men is Alton Wayne Roberts?
NELSON: The tall one; the one without the hat. That's Alton Wayne Roberts, and he was sentenced to 10 years in the killing of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi. His brother, Raymond Roberts, was the other one. What they did was, they offered them a pot of about $80,000 if they would arrange for two Klan hit men to come down and bomb a Jewish businessman's home. What they were going to do was move the Jewish businessman, a guy named Meyer Davidson, and his family out of the house and be prepared to intercept them when they came in with the bomb, and they arranged it that way. They told the Klansmen, "Either you cooperate with us," then pointed to a gun, "or you get that." So, I mean, they threatened them.
LAMB: In order to get the money.
NELSON: That's right.
LAMB: How much money?
NELSON: Either they would get the money or they might die.
LAMB: Who went in this process to these Klansmen to get them to take the money, to inform on ... ?
NELSON: This is the FBI and Detective Scarbrough. They said, "You can either take the money or you can wind up dead," and so they decided, of course, to take the money. They set up, they thought, two hit men -- a guy named Thomas Tarrants, who had been a hater since he was a teenager, from Mobile, Alabama. That's Thomas Tarrants right there.
LAMB: Who is still alive?
NELSON: Who is still around, oh yes. He's very much around. It was a very interesting story about Thomas Tarrants.
LAMB: Now who is the person up above on this?
NELSON: Up above him is a pretty schoolteacher by the name of Kathy Ainsworth, 26 years old at the time, and she was an elementary schoolteacher in Jackson, Mississippi Nobody knew it, but she was a terrorist at night -- went around with Albert Tarrants and planted bombs. The night the death trap was set up, it was supposed to be Tarrants and a guy named Danny Joe Hawkins, another hit man. Danny Joe Hawkins was supposed to show up, but instead Kathy Ainsworth showed up.
LAMB: There is a picture here of Danny Joe Hawkins.
NELSON: With his family.
LAMB: Which one is he?
NELSON: Danny Joe Hawkins is the younger man standing, and that's his father, Joe Denver Hawkins, beside him. Then that's his mother and that's his son, Jefferson Davis Hawkins, there. They were known as the meanest Klan family in Mississippi, at least by the FBI. But Danny Joe was supposed to show up along with Terrence. Instead it was Ainsworth who showed up at the last minute. She was a substitute for him. They went out there that night, and the FBI and the Meridian Police Department were all back up in the bushes. Tarrants got out of the car with a load of dynamite and started walking up the driveway to the Jewish businessman's home, and [the businessman] had, of course, been evacuated. The police say that Tarrants turned around and fired. He has always said that they fired first.
Whatever happened, they shot at him and almost killed him on the spot. He dropped the dynamite, the dynamite got hit with two buckshots which could very easily have exploded and killed a lot of people. It didn't happen to. He dropped the dynamite, and he ran back to the car. When he got back to the car Kathy Ainsworth reached over and pushed the door open to let him in, and a bullet hit her right in the spine. She fell over to the side. He got hit, but he dragged his leg and got behind the car and took off. The police jumped in a police car and chased him for about a mile. The car ran into a fireplug and stopped. Tarrants jumped out with a submachine gun, turned around and raked the police car.
He hit one policeman in the heart, and he fell under the car -- he survived but fell under the car. Tarrants then dropped his machine gun, got hit again and ran, dragging his leg, bleeding, between two houses. He tried to climb over a fence, and the fence was electrically charged because the people were concerned about black neighbors who had moved into the area. He fell back when he hit the electrically charged fence. The cops ran up, and at a distance of 15 feet four of them unloaded buckshot at him. One of them told me, a sergeant, "We meant to kill him, I don't mind telling you." They pulled him out of the bushes, and they had practically blown away one arm, and he was still alive. Somebody said, "Is he alive?" and the other one said, "The son-of-a-bitch is still alive." So somebody ran up and put a gun to his head, and somebody else said, "Don't shoot. The neighbors are here," so they didn't shoot and he survived.
They took him to the hospital, and they finally even saved his arm through using pins and so forth. A year later he escaped from Parchman Prison and was brought back and stayed in a while. To tell the whole story, he began to find the Lord while he was in prison. Al Binder, the Jewish lawyer who had help raise funds for him, said, "There's a guy named Ken Dean who is involved in all this."Ken Dean is a ...
LAMB: Now this is still Tarrants?
NELSON: That's Tarrants, but there's a guy named Ken Dean who was a director of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, and he dealt with all of these people. He's another major figure in the book. He had dealt with the Klan and he had dealt with the FBI and everybody else because he believed in the redemption of all souls. That's Ken Dean. Dean had heard something about this death trap being set up and had tried to head it off that night but was unsuccessful. Ken Dean was very interested in Tarrants later and wanted to try to get him out of prison because he knew that he had had a change of heart and a change of faith and everything. So did an FBI agent named Frank Watts who also was a born-again Christian. Watts was one of the guys who helped set him up, you know. That's Frank Watts right there, and the other one is Jack Rucker who was another FBI agent involved in this. But Watts began to visit Tarrants in prison, and Frank Watts, the FBI agent, decided that really he had found the Lord and that his soul had been saved and he thought he ought to get out of prison early.
LAMB: You've got to read the book to get all the characters down straight, as you know, but on Thomas Tarrants, did he kill anybody at any time in this process?
NELSON: There's nothing in the book where he killed anybody, but what he was known as by the FBI was a mad-dog killer and the most dangerous man in Mississippi. That's what the FBI called him. There's nothing in the book that he killed anybody.
LAMB: What was he prosecuted for?
NELSON: He was prosecuted for bombing or attempting to bomb the Davidson home.
LAMB: That's all.
NELSON: That's right, and he was sentenced to 30 years.
LAMB: Is there other information that suggests that he might have bombed other places and killed people?
NELSON: I don't know about the killing, but there's no question he did do other bombings. He definitely bombed other places, synagogues, and shot into homes. So he did a lot of other things. There's never been any direct evidence that I know of concerning a killing.
LAMB: When he was bombing at night, what did he do in the day for employment?
NELSON: In the daytime he had worked at the Crown Zellerbach plant at Laurel, Mississippi, and that was right across the place from where Sam Bowers was.
LAMB: The Klan leader.
NELSON: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: How old is he today?
NELSON: Today he's 42. Today he's a minister.
LAMB: I just want to show the audience a picture because we showed it earlier. This is what this man looks like today.
NELSON: Yes, and this is what happened: Frank Watts, the FBI agent, Al Binder, the Jewish lawyer, and Ken Dean all worked to get him out of prison early.
LAMB: Ken Dean's a minister in Rochester, N.Y.
NELSON: That's right. He's pastor of the First Baptist Church in Rochester now, and he was originally from Tennessee. Al Binder, the Jewish lawyer in Jackson, went to the governor of Mississippi and said, "We need to get this man out." At first when Frank Watts went to Al Binder and said, "We've got to get him out," Binder said, "If you're asking me to tell the Jewish community that I will get this man out of prison early, you've got to be crazy. They wouldn't think of it. They would never think of letting this guy out." But finally they all agreed that he had found the Lord in prison and that he should get out. In fact, he was baptized in a pond where Frank Watts went and some Meridian businessmen. Then they did indeed get him out of prison early. It turned out that Albert Tarrants was a brilliant guy; probably, they say, one of the most brilliant prisoners they ever had at Parchman in Mississippi. They got him out and he went to Ole Mississippi He had been accepted at several different schools. Rutgers was one of them, I think, and Duke. Several colleges accepted him on the basis ...
LAMB: At what point?
NELSON: This was after he had supposedly found the Lord in the prison and had served several years. He wound up serving about six years in Parchman Prison.
LAMB: Did you interview him for this, by the way?
NELSON: For the book?
NELSON: I interviewed him extensively.
LAMB: And he talked.
NELSON: At first he was a little guarded, but in the end I had tremendous access to him and he talked to me a lot.
LAMB: Where does he live?
NELSON: I can't say that. He didn't want me to say because he says that the Klan has long memories, and Sam Bowers particularly, and for various other reasons he didn't want to say where he lives.
LAMB: Does he still use his name?
NELSON: But he uses his name, Thomas Albert Tarrants III. Actually, he's fairly well known in some circles, and my guess is that he will be known around. He's well know, for example, to the chaplain to the United States Senate, to a congressman named Tony Hall from Ohio. He has attended their prayer breakfasts. He's now a minister himself and co-pastor of a church.
LAMB: There's another political connection -- Chuck Colson.
NELSON: Chuck Colson. He came to Washington when he was still a prisoner -- he was out on leave -- and met Chuck Colson who was a Watergate figure during the Nixon administration. Chuck Colson was another one who found the Lord in prison, I think. Eldridge Cleaver he met, the old Black Panther. He met a lot of people like that.
LAMB: Let me just ask you this: This is the picture here of Kathy Ainsworth. She's dead. She was a teacher by day and a terrorist by night. What makes you think that Albert Tarrants doesn't still hate and isn't still involved in some kind of other activities?
NELSON: One thing, he's tried to save my soul several times, Brian.
LAMB: Did it work?
NELSON: Well, I was going to say, I think he's probably got a bigger job there. Seriously speaking, though, he is a man who now is very much deeply involved in religious work. I'll tell you what, if Al Binder believes in him -- and Al Binder does believe in him and he stays in close touch with Al Binder. He stays in close touch with Frank Watts. He's a very good friend of Frank Watts, the former FBI agent. He's a good friend with Ken Dean. These people believe in him. Now, he's been out of prison for 16 or 17 years. He is a very mild-appearing man. Here he was, known as the "mad-dog killer," known as the most dangerous man in Mississippi, and he married into a wealthy North Carolina family -- it was described to me as a wealthy North Carolina family. He has two daughters. He is so opposed to violence that he doesn't let them watch most television. He's very careful about what they watch on television. And he spends his time in religious type work.
LAMB: There's a lot of detail, and during this whole period where you're describing the payoff of the Klansmen who were informing the FBI and then the actual bombing, you've got a lot of detail in here. You've got detail going on inside the car with Kathy Ainsworth, and only Albert Tarrants was there. How did you get all this stuff?
NELSON: I got it from a number of sources. I got it from Tarrants, of course. I got it from the FBI, I got it from the Meridian Police Department, I got it from documents. A lot of the details I got back at the time.
LAMB: How did you make sure that it was accurate?
NELSON: I just checked and re-checked sources. I don't guess you can cross every T and dot every I, but you will have a hard time finding a book that is more heavily documented than this one because I have in the book the daily logs that Detective Scarbrough filled out. I went back to a secretary in the Meridian Police Department named Marie Knowles and dictated to her every day. She was a tremendous source for me for the book, too, by the way, because she was right there in the Meridian Police Department. That was Marie Knowles right there. She still lives in Meridian, Mississippi She works at a school there in Mississippi. She sat in the Meridian Police Department and listened to this ambush being played out on the police radio, and she had attended all these meetings between the police and the FBI when they were plotting this thing. They would meet in a Holiday Inn, away from other members of the Meridian Police Department because they couldn't trust all of the members of the police department. Some of them were Klan sympathizers, some of them may even have still been members of the Klan, although Chief Gunn when he declared war on the Klan said, "You can either be a member of the Meridian Police Department or you can be a Klansman, but you can't be both," so he kicked out some members.
But there were still some like that, so Marie Knowles attended these meetings, see, and she heard them plotting. In fact, she would hear Chief Gunn say, "When you get out there, drop him, drop him," meaning kill him. So she said that when she was listening on the radio to what was going on that she had almost a guilt feeling about being part of a murder plot; that she felt bad about it even though, as she put it, "even though they were Klan members."
I had a letter she wrote to me just the other day after reading the book, and she said reliving this was very excruciating for her because she went through the same sort of fear and excitement reading it and also the same feeling of guilt. I don't know how many people had feelings of guilt about it because there are a lot of different, mixed emotions here. Ken Dean, for example, the Baptist minister who tried to head off the ambush, has always felt that the ends didn't justify the means here; that what the FBI and the Meridian Police Department did was really wrong and that there should have been some official investigation of it.
When my stories originally ran in 1970, there were two organizations who called for investigations -- the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee -- and my newspaper editorialized on it and a number of other newspapers editorialized on it. Essentially what they said was, no matter how bad it was you can't justify the ends with the means. On the other hand, a lot of other people feel differently. And myself, having gone back and gone over this territory and everything, I think there probably should have been an official investigation because the use of police powers like this is such an awesome thing that there probably should have been.
On the other hand, when I look back at it, I think if I had been a Jew in Mississippi and they had played this tape for me of Klansmen saying they would blow up synagogues with women and children inside, I probably would have been up at a bema with a gun and I may very well have done exactly what they did. For example, I got a letter just today from a doctor in Cincinnati, Ohio, who is from Meridian, Mississippi He wrote a very long letter because his father had been the superintendent of schools down there. He said the FBI did a terrific job. He said he thought J. Edgar Hoover had a real dark side to him -- no question about it -- but the FBI did a terrific job of breaking up the Klan in Mississippi. And they did, and you have to say that. People down there were afraid.
LAMB: Whose idea was it for the title and the book cover?
NELSON: “Terror in the Night” was one of a number of titles that we discussed. I first felt we ought to have a title called "Ambush: When the Klan Came for the Jews," and I tried to stick with that title for a while. I was finally convinced by Simon & Schuster editors, including Alice Mayhew, that it was a little too limited because the book is about a lot more than just the ambush. And it is. It's about the whole campaign of terrorism, it's about the whole thing of how the Jewish community had to deal with the Klan and the civil rights movement, and it is about justice and injustice and about the use of law enforcement methods to try to end this kind of violence.
LAMB: There are a couple of pages in there that are fairly personal in which Jack Nelson talks about his drinking. J. Edgar Hoover suggests that you are a skunk. The allegation is that you suggested that J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual. There must have been some interesting times back there. Could you explain more about why you included this in your book?
NELSON: Yes, well, let me try to take up the various allegations. One was, of course, Hoover did say that I was a drunk, and other FBI put that out. They tried to smear me back at the time these stories ran. I wrote some other stories that the FBI didn't like -- The Orangeburg Massacre was one of them -- and a number of other stories. The use of an agent provocateur in the Berrigan case -- I wrote a book about that with Ron Ostrow, The FBI and the Berrigans. So they kind of, in a sense, had it in for me. They spread the word around Washington, particularly among a lot of my colleagues, that I was a drunk. Hoover told the general manager of the L.A. Times that I was a Jekyll-Hyde personality, and when Mr. Hyde came out I would say I was out to get him and wreck the FBI -- totally untrue.
But one of the things I did say in there was that it was true that I did drink. There was no question about that. I was up here at the time from Atlanta. I had moved here. I had a wife and three children in Atlanta who had not come up here. I spent a lot of time at a bar called the Class Reunion where a lot of reporters spent a lot of time. We saw a lot of our news sources there. We got telephone calls there. So, I drank there, but I was not a drunk. I was able to do my job all the time, and this was a place that got known very well.
The other thing was, Robert Nelson was the name of the general manager -- no relation to me -- of the L.A. Times, and he told him that I'd gone around saying that he was a homosexual, and if I did that again he was going to sue me. I never once said he was a homosexual. I can't say I didn't think about it because for one thing, I got an anonymous letter on FBI stationery saying that he was a homosexual and that he and his top associate, Clyde Tolson, were homosexuals. I never cared whether he was or not. It didn't make any difference to me. If I had to guess, I would have guessed he was asexual, but I didn't know and I didn't care. However, there are other people who say that he is, and the fact is I think there is a television program getting ready to come out. I just had a public relations statement come out over my desk the other day saying that somebody is coming out with a program saying indeed he was. I don't know whether he was or not. But what happened was, they did start a campaign to kind of discredit me and undermine my credibility because of what I had written. Obviously it didn't work because a few years later I was named Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, and I've been with the paper now for 28 years, so it didn't have any effect on my career.
LAMB: On page 262 you say, "Ralph Nader is a muckraker and probably the best one in Washington if you judge by results." Is that an endorsement of what he's been doing?
NELSON: It's an endorsement of what he did earlier. I think so. It obviously is. I think he was a great investigative reporter at times. I haven't been quite as sold in recent years on some of what he's done because, for one thing, I think he's spread himself awfully thin and at times I haven't seen that his material is quite as solid as it was earlier. But there's no question about it, he has been a tremendous investigator and a tremendous force, I think, for good public service.
LAMB: You say, "William H. Webster, who was the FBI director in the 1980s and became my friend" -- why did you say that?
NELSON: Because he did and I thought I might as well be up-front about it. He became someone who I think trusted me. He was a very good person for me to talk to when he was CIA director and when he was FBI director. I think that he brought reforms to both the FBI and the CIA, and I thought by saying that he was now my friend was just being up-front about what the situation is.
LAMB: Did the L.A. Times always stay with you on this?
NELSON: The L.A. Times stayed with me to some extent. See, I was writing a lot about the FBI at the time, and I had some information about a particular FBI official that was high up, and I wanted to write on it. I had some stuff on Hoover, how he was using FBI agents to write his book Masters of Deceit, how he was getting the royalties from it, how the FBI lab was being used for his personal benefit, and that sort of thing -- things that today nobody would put up with. I had all this material, and I got called off of it because I had written so much about the FBI, my editors thought that I was beginning to look like maybe I was carrying -- the FBI accused me of having a vendetta at the time, and they were afraid that people would get the idea that I wasn't being fair on it.
So they didn't encourage me, and in fact the Times discouraged me. But that pales by comparison to the support I got overall from the editors, and particularly Ed Guthman, who is a national editor, on everything else. I mean, they supported me 100 percent, and they supported me in writing more about the FBI than anybody else did. The only other reporter writing very much about the FBI then, besides Ron Ostrow and myself, was Jack Anderson.
LAMB: How much longer do you want to be bureau chief of the L.A. Times?
NELSON: Oh, I don't know. I was just talking to my wife about that this morning. As long as they think I'm doing a good job and as long as I think I'm doing a good job.
LAMB: What else do you want to do in your career?
NELSON: I don't know. I'd like to close it off on a high note, obviously, whenever I do that. But I'd like to think that it's got a ways to go.
LAMB: Other books?
NELSON: I'll probably do another one or two, but they're tough. It takes a long time to do a book, and it's excruciating. It was Red Smith, the old New York Times columnist, who said that writing is easy; you just sit down and open up a vein. Writing is tough. It's real hard. It takes a lot of time and an enormous concentration. I did this book while continuing to do my job as Washington bureau chief. I wrote on weekends and early in the morning and on holidays. You'd find me writing on Thanksgiving and Christmas and this sort of thing, so it was tough doing it.
LAMB: If you were a Jew or a black, would you feel safe to go to Mississippi and live?
NELSON: Yes -- sure I would, today. Today it's so changed in Mississippi, for one thing. You've got over 350 black elected officials. A representative -- he's not a representative now -- Agricultural Secretary Mike Espy, a black from Mississippi, only 39 years old and the youngest member of the Clinton cabinet. You have a black Supreme Court justice in Mississippi. You have a lot of black police chiefs, sheriffs and other top officials. I don't think that the Jews, except for this reign of terror by the Klan, ever had that much of a problem in Mississippi.
LAMB: Our guest has been Jack Nelson. He's the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, but has this book in your bookstores called Terror in the Night: The Klan's Campaign Against the Jews. Thank you very much.
NELSON: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.