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

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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 coun 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.


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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 coun 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.

30 review for When Evil Lived in Laurel: The "White Knights" and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sara Broad

    "When Evil Lived in Laurel" is a nonfiction book centering around the FBI investigation of the murder of Vernon Dahmer and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Laurel, Mississippi. This book is really interesting look into the specific attack launched against Dahmer and his family for Dahmer's role in speaking up for Black people to vote in the South and how he was ultimately murdered for his activism. Tom Landrum, an FBI agent, infiltrates the KKK, along with many other FBI informants who are "When Evil Lived in Laurel" is a nonfiction book centering around the FBI investigation of the murder of Vernon Dahmer and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Laurel, Mississippi. This book is really interesting look into the specific attack launched against Dahmer and his family for Dahmer's role in speaking up for Black people to vote in the South and how he was ultimately murdered for his activism. Tom Landrum, an FBI agent, infiltrates the KKK, along with many other FBI informants who are mostly unnamed in this book, to investigate Dahmer's murder and the overall daily Klan activities that terrorized life in the South. Something this book really highlighted for me was the infighting that occurred within each Klan faction and among the different factions, and increasing disinvestment from Klan members as a result thereof, that really contributed to the Klan's downfall. Wilkie relies on Landrum's first-hand accounts to layout the details in this really well-written and informative book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Richard Read

    I grew up in Laurel. This isn’t quite the full story. I was born in 1968, as the main events of this book winding down. I recognize the names, the locations, and some of the faces, too. And yet, I knew almost nothing about this story. 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, a I grew up in Laurel. This isn’t quite the full story. I was born in 1968, as the main events of this book winding down. I recognize the names, the locations, and some of the faces, too. And yet, I knew almost nothing about this story. 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.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Cobb Sabatini

    I won a copy of When Evil Lived in Laurel: The "White Knights" and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer by Curtis Wilkie from Goodreads. When Evil Lived in Laurel: The "White Knights" and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer by Curtis Wilkie focuses on the experiences of Tom Landrum, an undercover informant for the FBI, during the murder of Vernon Dahmer in Mississippi in the 1960s. With the pacing of an excellent fictional murder mystery, Wilkie delivers Landrum's nerve-racking true story wherein the informant ri I won a copy of When Evil Lived in Laurel: The "White Knights" and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer by Curtis Wilkie from Goodreads. When Evil Lived in Laurel: The "White Knights" and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer by Curtis Wilkie focuses on the experiences of Tom Landrum, an undercover informant for the FBI, during the murder of Vernon Dahmer in Mississippi in the 1960s. With the pacing of an excellent fictional murder mystery, Wilkie delivers Landrum's nerve-racking true story wherein the informant risked his own life, as well as his family's safety, to bring down the KKK. Using facts and eyewitness testimony, the author helps readers get to know the individuals involved and to understand the circumstances and events. Intense and frightening, When Evil Lived in Laurel is a case study in how to take down a terrorist organization, and an informative, very moving book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Curtis Wilkie, who reported extensively on the Civil RIghts movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, tells the story of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Jones County, Mississippi, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer in 1966. Dahmer was an NAACP officer and voting rights activist; his home was firebombed and he was killed by a group of night riders from the Jones County White Knights. In parallel, the book tells the story of Tom Landrum, a counselor for troubled youth and former high school foot Curtis Wilkie, who reported extensively on the Civil RIghts movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, tells the story of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Jones County, Mississippi, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer in 1966. Dahmer was an NAACP officer and voting rights activist; his home was firebombed and he was killed by a group of night riders from the Jones County White Knights. In parallel, the book tells the story of Tom Landrum, a counselor for troubled youth and former high school football coach, recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the local klavern and serve as an informer. Wilkie catalogs the planning, commission, and prosecution of the crime, his report blostered by Landrum's diaries and FBI reports. Most surprising, Landrum's role was never revealed until after his death, and the death of all the principles in the commission of the crime. It's fascinating reporting.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Belva

    Very interesting, though disturbing true account of the 1960's KKK activity in rural Mississippi. The book centers on the FBI's investigation of the murder of Vernon Dahmer for his role in encouraging black residents to register to vote. The FBI was able to infiltrate the Klan with the help of Tom Landrum, an informant posing as a Klan member. Fear was rampant during this time, not only were the black residents living in fear, but the Klan members were also fearful of being discovered as well. M Very interesting, though disturbing true account of the 1960's KKK activity in rural Mississippi. The book centers on the FBI's investigation of the murder of Vernon Dahmer for his role in encouraging black residents to register to vote. The FBI was able to infiltrate the Klan with the help of Tom Landrum, an informant posing as a Klan member. Fear was rampant during this time, not only were the black residents living in fear, but the Klan members were also fearful of being discovered as well. Many members were law enforcement and other prominent members of the community who would be ruined if their secret evil activities were revealed. Wilkie heavily researched this very informative and haunting book and it is definitely worth the read for anyone interested in this era of history. My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a galley of this book for review.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kara

    This book plus Jerry Mitchell’s “Race Against Time” both go through the history around the high profile cases of the KKK in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era. This book was so well put together with all of the first hand accounts with Tom Landrum, the FBI informant. A fascinating look of which I am thankful to him for his service- a great personal risk. I thought it was also good that his wife knew and was an encouragement to him. What a legacy and help he provided. The people in this book This book plus Jerry Mitchell’s “Race Against Time” both go through the history around the high profile cases of the KKK in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era. This book was so well put together with all of the first hand accounts with Tom Landrum, the FBI informant. A fascinating look of which I am thankful to him for his service- a great personal risk. I thought it was also good that his wife knew and was an encouragement to him. What a legacy and help he provided. The people in this book and Jerry’s books cross over, and that’s why I think the reader should read both. This history is important to read, and what devastation the KKK brought to so many families. I am thankful for how far we’ve come, but understand we still have a ways to go.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paperwitch

    This book paints an accurate and haunting picture of Mississippi during the civil rights era, when the KKK was at its most powerful, and evil. I was aghast at the actions the KKK took, and how involved/encouraging the police and governments both local and not were. I was surprised by how informative this book was, and how much I had missed about the movement. The author has created a great nonfictional book that handles the subject matter with grace - but it does not sugarcoat it. Overall I highl This book paints an accurate and haunting picture of Mississippi during the civil rights era, when the KKK was at its most powerful, and evil. I was aghast at the actions the KKK took, and how involved/encouraging the police and governments both local and not were. I was surprised by how informative this book was, and how much I had missed about the movement. The author has created a great nonfictional book that handles the subject matter with grace - but it does not sugarcoat it. Overall I highly recommend this book. I will be buying it. I want to sincerely thank netgalley and the publisher for giving me access to the ARC!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kendra

    With this book, author Wilkie tries to tell the story of Tom Landrum, an undercover agent for the FBI in one of Mississippi's Klans in the 1950s and 60s. I really wanted to read more of Landrum's own words and descriptions, rather than Wilkie's somewhat plodding and long paraphrases. Wilkie is also too often fatphobic and otherwise prejudiced in describing people, as if there is a certain look or body type found more often in bigots. Another round of edits could tighten this up, work in more pri With this book, author Wilkie tries to tell the story of Tom Landrum, an undercover agent for the FBI in one of Mississippi's Klans in the 1950s and 60s. I really wanted to read more of Landrum's own words and descriptions, rather than Wilkie's somewhat plodding and long paraphrases. Wilkie is also too often fatphobic and otherwise prejudiced in describing people, as if there is a certain look or body type found more often in bigots. Another round of edits could tighten this up, work in more primary sources, and make it a much better book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mark Mathes

    A stunning story of heroism, murder and spying on the deadly Ku Klux Klan organization in south Mississippi in the 1960s. Journalism is the first draft of history and Mississippi author Wilkie reported about the South for decades for the Boston Globe and others. He’s researched this era thoroughly where he lived and worked and had access to journals and other records that bring these heroes and murderers to life.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Carol Macarthur

    Wilkie's novel tells the tale of Mississippi in the late 1960's, a time when the Klan reigned supreme. This is the story of how one young white man infiltrated the KKK to bring some justice to the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Wilkie's novel tells the tale of Mississippi in the late 1960's, a time when the Klan reigned supreme. This is the story of how one young white man infiltrated the KKK to bring some justice to the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra

    Great book on a time period in US history that is disturbing but nonetheless part of this country’s history. Anyone that is a fan of the movie Mississippi Burning will see the similarities in this book. There are even references to the Mississippi Burning murders.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ron Frampton

    A true story of the white knights and the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    Free giveaway. I currently live 30 minutes from Laurel, Mississippi, and this was eye-opening because I'm not from the south. Free giveaway. I currently live 30 minutes from Laurel, Mississippi, and this was eye-opening because I'm not from the south.

  14. 4 out of 5

    toni

  15. 4 out of 5

    Scott

  16. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Rackley

  17. 5 out of 5

    Carol

  18. 4 out of 5

    JoAnn Bishop

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dean

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mike

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sandy Brady

  22. 5 out of 5

    Hector Razo

  23. 4 out of 5

    Cam

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Tresser

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Courtwright

  26. 4 out of 5

    T D Up

  27. 4 out of 5

    donna j king

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andy

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stan Buckley

  30. 4 out of 5

    Heather Zehnder

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