Religion in the PNW: A KKK Imperial Wizard in Tacoma

Seth Dowland

Yesterday I went on a bit of a historical detective hunt that spurred me to add an entry to my long-dormant Religion in the PNW section. The stories in this post came as a surprise to me.

I’m teaching an honors course called “Religion and Violence” this semester—it’s a delightful group of students, and we’ve read some excellent scholarship by Mark Juergensmeyer, Jonathan Ebel, Jennifer Graber, and Lynn Neal, among others. Yesterday I assigned the second chapter of Charles Marsh’s fabulous book God’s Long Summer. The chapter examines the theological worldview of Samuel Bowers, who founded and served as Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during the 1960s. In 1964, Bowers orchestrated the murders of Micky Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. The White Knights dropped celebratory pamphlets from a plane over the Neshoba County fair two months later, declaring the three civil rights workers were “Communist Revolutionaries, actively working to undermine and destroy Christian Civilization.” In January 1966, Bowers again ordered a “number four” (a killing) on civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, who died of smoke inhalation after members of Bowers’ organization firebombed his house. Bowers survived four state trials in the 1960s for the Dahmer killing, as each trial ended in a hung jury. Another Mississippi jury failed to convict him for the 1964 Neshoba County murders. But the federal government—which Bowers loathed—caught up with the Imperial Wizard in 1967. He was convicted of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, and was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington, in 1970.

As I was re-reading Marsh’s chapter this week, I perked up at this final detail: McNeil Island is visible from the west side of Tacoma, one of the few islands in the Puget Sound without scores of houses perched on cliffs. It was a federal penitentiary from the late 19th century through 1984 and served as a Washington state prison for another quarter century after that, closing as the oldest prison facility in the northwest in 2011.  I became even more intrigued when Marsh noted that Bowers completed his bachelor’s degree through a prison theology program offered by Pacific Lutheran University, where I currently teach. According to the alumni magazine, Scene, PLU began offering prison courses in theology in 1968, thanks to a connection between the prison chaplain and the Religion Department. In 1972, a new prison superintendent negotiated an agreement whereby PLU would offer five courses a semester at the prison, in a variety of disciplines. Scene boasted that Bowers’ 1975 graduating class “represented the second group in the nation to receive degrees at a prison commencement ceremony and to complete all requirements for a bachelor’s degree while behind prison walls.” Three of the four bachelors’ graduates also attended PLU’s graduation ceremony that year; I’m not sure if Bowers was one of them or if he remained in confinement. PLU Professor Emeritus Ken Christopherson, Bowers' primary instructor in prison, gave an interview to Marsh about his work with Bowers. Christopherson remembered Bowers as "very bright" and his writing as "exceptional;" Cristopherson actually copied one of Bowers' exam answers as a model for other students. By all accounts, Bowers was a well-behaved prisoner. He was released in 1976 and made plans to head back to Mississippi.

But Bowers wanted to make one stop before he left the northwest: the campus of his alma mater, PLU. To find out more, I spoke by phone yesterday with PLU Religion Professor Emeritus Paul Ingram, who taught in the prison program in the late 1970s. Paul told me that he visited McNeil Island weekly for a year, and that he enjoyed it save for the one week when a missing prisoner triggered a lockdown that lasted until 2:30 a.m. (The prisoner was eventually found in the warden’s office.) Professor Ingram also remembered Bowers, who was never his student but did make a memorable appearance at PLU. Upon his release in 1976, Professor Christopherson brought him to the faculty house to talk about what he learned from PLU’s theology program. As Paul told me this story yesterday, I was in my office, about thirty feet away from the site where an Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the KKK once gave an informal lunchtime talk to PLU faculty. All of a sudden, Tacoma didn’t feel so far away from Mississippi.

Bowers was mostly unreformed, though there is no evidence he rejoined the Klan when he returned to Laurel, Mississippi. When Marsh interviewed him in 1994, he asked Bowers what he had learned at McNeil Island. “The only thing that happened to me at McNeil Island was that information was gained and then applied to my theological and political ideas,” he said. “I’ve been about this task for a long time.” Bowers had a mystical experience during a 1972 Easter service at the prison, but it hardly changed his racist theology. While he said the experience eliminated his “anger … [and] murderous desire for the heretic,” he maintained a belief in a need to eliminate the heretic. “I returned to my cell that afternoon,” said Bowers, “feeling certain that I could never again condemn heresy from the standpoint of rage, but from a vigorous orthodoxy, from reason, as best I can.”

Bowers’ theology, as presented to Marsh in 1994, drew heavily on readings of Martin Luther that authorized vigorous resistance to religious authority. As Marsh put it, “Bowers understood the German reformer to claim that when any outside authority calls the Christian away from Jesus, that person is authorized to take matters into his own hands.” For Bowers, the priesthood of all believers meant that true believers like him could enact priestly purification rituals—violent murders, bombings, and harassment—on anyone they deemed heretical. Bowers took what he learned in McNeil back to Mississippi, where he served as a Baptist Sunday School teacher from 1976 until 1998, when a jury finally found him guilty of ordering the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Bowers was serving a life sentence when he died in prison in 2006.

In my Religion and Violence course, we have repeatedly come across figures like Bowers, who concoct rigorous theological worldviews that authorize or even mandate violence. These worldviews often seem quite distant and even psychotic. But Bowers’ brief interlude in the Pacific Northwest, during which he became my department’s most infamous graduate, reminded both my students and me of how close the racial violence of the past is to our present. It also reminded us of the complex motivations that fuel religiously inspired violence. 


newer post older post