On June 16, 2021, Curtis Wilkie discussed his new book When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer as part of the History Is Lunch series.
In the 1960s Vernon Dahmer was a prominent farmer, grocery store owner, two-time president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP, and the chief advocate for voting rights in a county where Black registration was ruthlessly suppressed.
“This put Dahmer in the crosshairs of the White Knights, headquartered in nearby Laurel,” said Wilkie. “Already known as one of the most violent sects of the KKK, that group murdered Vernon Dahmer in a raid that burned down his home and store.”
A year before that incident, Tom Landrum, a young man from a family with deep Mississippi roots, joined the Klan to become an FBI informant. He penetrated the White Knights’ secret circles, chronicling their clandestine activities in almost daily journal entries. For his book, Wilkie drew on those journals to re-create the conversations, nighttime meetings, and plans for the murder, and the eventual conviction and imprisonment of many of those responsible for Dahmer’s death.
Tulane professor Walter Isaacson wrote that “Curtis Wilkie’s riveting account of the murder of Vernon Dahmer by the KKK is a window into the depths of racism and white supremacy. But it is also a beautifully written tale of courage and morality featuring a man with deep local roots that knew right from wrong. When Evil Lived in Laurel can help us understand the Civil Rights era in the South and also our country today.”
Curtis Wilkie covered civil rights activity in Mississippi in the 1960s and afterward served as a national and international correspondent for a quarter century at the Boston Globe. After nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter he joined the journalism faculty at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, where he worked another 19 years before retiring at the start of 2021 He lives in Oxford.
History Is Lunch is sponsored by the John and Lucy Shackelford Charitable Fund of the Community Foundation for Mississippi. The weekly lecture series of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History explores different aspects of the state's past. The hour-long programs are held in the Craig H. Neilsen Auditorium of the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum building at 222 North Street in Jackson. Book sales and signing to follow.