Former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Samuel H. Bowers
Rogelio Solis  /  AP file
Former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Samuel H. Bowers of Laurel, Miss., is escorted from the Forrest County Courthouse, in Hattiesburg, Miss., in this August 1998 file photo.
updated 11/5/2006 9:49:53 PM ET 2006-11-06T02:49:53

Former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel H. Bowers, who was convicted eight years ago of ordering the 1966 bombing death of a civil rights leader, died Sunday in a state penitentiary, officials said. He was 82.

He died of cardio-pulmonary arrest, said Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth.

Bowers was convicted in August of 1998 of ordering the assassination of Vernon Dahmer Sr., a civil rights activist who had fought for black rights during Mississippi’s turbulent struggle for racial equality. He was sentenced to life in prison.

“He was supposed to stay there until he died. I guess he fulfilled that,” Dahmer’s widow, Ellie Dahmer, told The Associated Press on Sunday. “He lived a lot longer than Vernon Dahmer did.”

Booth said that the Klansman died at approximately 11:30 a.m. in the Mississippi State Penitentiary Hospital in Parchman, a sprawling prison carved out of the cotton and soybean fields in the impoverished Mississippi Delta.

Victim died in 1966
Dahmer, who championed equal voting rights for blacks, died at the age of 58 after being fire-bombed outside his Hattiesburg-area home on Jan. 10, 1966. The attack came after Dahmer announced that residents could pay their poll taxes at his grocery store, which was next to his home. The home and store also were torched.

When the Dahmer family awoke to honking horns in the pre-dawn hours that January morning, two carloads of Klansmen were waiting outside. They firebombed Dahmer when he exited the home, according to court testimony during a four-day trial in Forrest County Circuit Court in 1998.

Dahmer was able keep the Klansmen at bay with a shotgun while his family fled, but flames had already seared 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’ lawyers claimed he was “sacrificed to the media” to further the political ambitions of the attorney general at the time, Mike Moore.

Earlier trials divided
Earlier trials for Bowers, including at least two before all-white juries, ended in mistrials. A 1968 state jury split 11-1 in favor of guilty, while a 1969 jury split 10-2 in favor of conviction.

Bowers’ conviction was just one in string of civil rights killings to be successfully prosecuted in the South decades after the crimes were committed.

In 1994, Mississippi won the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 sniper killing of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

In Alabama, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 of killing four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963. In 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted.

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.

Dahmer’s widow said Bowers’ death brings 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.”

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