cover image When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer

When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer

Curtis Wilkie. Norton, $28.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-324-00575-9

Journalist Wilkie (The Fall of the House of Zeus) delivers 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 traces Tom Landrum’s decision to infiltrate the White Knights in his hometown of Laurel, Miss., back to his disgust over seeing how enthusiastically a local crowd cheered for the execution of a Black prisoner in 1951. Fourteen years later, Landrum, after serving in the U.S. Air Force, playing college football, and returning home to become a teacher and youth court counselor, was recruited by an FBI agent to go undercover with the White Knights. In 1966, Vernon Dahmer, a grocery store owner and founder of a local NAACP chapter who was leading a campaign to register Black voters, was killed when the White Knights firebombed his house. Landrum’s meticulous note-taking and insights into the inner workings of the White Knights helped bring some of those responsible for Dahmer’s murder to justice, though imperial wizard Sam Bowers wasn’t convicted for ordering the killing until 1998. Drawing on Landrum’s contemporaneous journals, FBI reports, and interviews with Landrum and his wife, 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. (June)