Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan

Patrick Lynch - February 15, 2018

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klan – Mental Floss

4 – The Jim Williams Lynching – 1871

This was one of the most infamous crimes carried out by the first incarnation of the KKK. Captain Jim Williams was an African-American militia leader in South Carolina’s York County. He had been a slave but escaped during the Civil War and fought for the Union. Although the North ‘won’ the war and slavery had been abolished, Southern radicals were still bitter and determined to make free blacks, and whites sympathetic to their cause, suffer.

Williams was gravely concerned about black residents in York County, and, along with a local preacher named Elias Hill, he met a group of Klan leaders to talk about the safety of African-Americans in the area. Sadly, the negotiations failed, and on February 12, 1871, a group of at least 500 Klan members murdered eight black men. While the KKK is synonymous with wearing white outfits, they were wearing black gowns and masks during this attack. They continued to raid black residences for months afterward.

Local whites claimed that Williams threatened to kill them and also suggested that his militia was beginning to stockpile weapons. Other slurs included a rumor that Williams said he wanted to rape white women, and also that his militia was responsible for committing arson on a number of white properties. These were highly dubious claims and seemed like an attempt to justify the horrors of what happened next.

On March 6, 1871, a group of approximately 70 Klansmen, led by James Rufus Bratton, traveled five miles to William’s cabin. As they didn’t know where he lived initially, they beat up Andy Timons, a member of the Union League, in a desperate attempt to find the location of the intended victim. Williams was clearly alerted to the danger because he was found hiding under the floorboards when the Klan arrived. With no concern about police intervention, the KKK were free to drag Williams from the house and place a noose around his neck. They tied the rope to a tree and forced their victim to climb to the limb.

A KKK member named Bob Caldwell pushed Williams who grabbed the limb in a hopeless attempt to survive. Caldwell began to cut off Williams’ fingers until the unfortunate man let go and plunged to his death. Williams’ body was brought to Bratton’s office, and the Klan leader performed the inquest. While members of the Union League swore revenge, nothing happened. In October 1871, Elias Hill, who assumed leadership of the league, helped a number of local African-Americans to flee to Liberia to escape the Klan.

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Images of the three victims – CBS News

5 – The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders – 1964

This is the nickname given to the heinous triple murder of three civil rights activists by the Klan on June 21, 1964. James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) while Andrew Goodman was a college student who volunteered as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. As is the case with several entries on this list, the triple murder was the culmination of several months of tensions. During the summer of 1964, the KKK burned 20 black churches in Mississippi and targeted Mount Zion Baptist Church; ostensibly to get their hands on Schwerner. The Klan apparently wanted the activist dead for some time.

On the fateful day, the three men visited the ruins of the Mount Zion church. They met at the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) HQ in Meridian and Schwerner told members of COFO to start looking for the trio if they didn’t return by 4 pm. Their station wagon was known to local law enforcement as a CORE vehicle. After visiting the church, the group elected to return to Meridian via Highway 16 and then Highway 19. Along the way, one of the tires became flat soon after passing the city limits of Philadelphia. Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price spotted the vehicle and pulled them over for speeding.

Meanwhile, workers in the COFO office in Meridian were concerned because the men did not get in touch. At 4:45 pm, the Meridian office contacted the Jackson office with the news that the group had not returned from Neshoba County. It was later revealed that the police lied to COFO and claimed they didn’t know the whereabouts of the three activists. Meanwhile, the three men were held and informed that they had to wait until the Justice of the Peace arrived to process the fine. Eventually, they allowed the men to leave after collecting the fine; it was about 10 pm and Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were never seen alive again after leaving the police station.

It transpired that Klan members had been waiting to gain the ultimate revenge on freedom fighters all summer. When the police released the three men from the station, it was only so they could carry out their cowardly deed. Price followed them as soon as they were released and coordinated with a lynch mob to murder the trio as soon as they found a suitable location. All of the above was carried out with the assistance of Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey.

Price caught the CORE vehicle and pulled it over as it was heading toward Union in Mississippi on Highway 492. Witnesses later said that Alton W. Roberts, a U.S. Marine who was dishonorably discharged, shot all three men. James Jordan was later said to have also shot Cheney. The bodies were covered up with a bulldozer; the autopsy later found that Goodman was probably buried alive. Price told his fellow thugs that they had “struck a blow for the white man.”

Investigators found the smoldering CORE station wagon two days later, and the remains were located with the help of an informant. Horrifyingly, the remains of eight African-American men were found during the search in Mississippi. The bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, were found on August 4. While 18 men were charged, only seven were convicted; including Price. None of them served more than six years in prison. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter and received a 60-year prison sentence.

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Michael Donald – Pinterest

6 – The Murder of Michael Donald – 1981

The death of Michael Donald has the infamous distinction of being the last ‘recorded’ lynching in America. It was yet another sickening chapter in the race hate crimes committed by the KKK, and while justice took a long time coming, at least in this case, some of the perpetrators were properly punished. Donald had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 1981, an African-American man named Josephus Anderson was charged with the murder of a policeman in Mobile, Alabama but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict. This angered Klan members who believed that Anderson only got away with it because there were black members of the jury. Even before the verdict, there was a meeting of the United Klans of America, and they resolved to get revenge. The organization’s #2, Bennie Jack Hays, supposedly said: “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.” While the Anderson case was declared a mistrial, he didn’t ‘get away’ with it at all. He was convicted of murder in 1985.

In any case, the Klan had already set their mind on murder and burned a three-foot cross on the lawn of the Mobile County courthouse on the night the mistrial was declared. Next, Hays’ son, Henry, and James Knowles started looking for a black person to attack. They spotted Donald walking home after buying his sister some cigarettes. The men pulled over and asked Donald for directions to a club, but when he approached, they forced him into their car at gunpoint.

Knowles and Hays drove outside the county and sought out a secluded wooded area. Donald knew what was coming so he tried to escape. He knocked the gun from Knowles’ hand and ran into the woods. Unfortunately, the two thugs caught Donald and started beating him with a tree limb. Hays proceeded to wrap a rope around Donald’s neck and pulled on it while Knowles continued beating the victim. After Donald stopped struggling, Hays finished him off by slitting his throat three times. Then, they left him hanging from a tree in a mixed-race neighborhood named Herndon Street, just across the road from Bennie Jack Hays’ house.

Local police tried to suggest that Donald was killed in a drug deal gone wrong but the FBI looked into the case, and it didn’t take long to get a confession out of Knowles. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1983 while Hays was tried for murder in December that year. Knowles turned state’s witness, and Hays was found guilty and given the death penalty. He was executed in 1997; the first man to be executed for white-on-black crime since 1913 and the only execution of a Klan member for the death of an African-American in the 20th century. Donald’s mother won a civil case in 1987 and was awarded damages of $7 million.

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Willie Edwards – The Black Social History

7 – The Murder of Willie Edwards – 1957

Once again, the death of Willie Edwards was a case of the KKK getting away with murder. His ‘crime’ was apparently saying something offensive to a white woman, and for Klan members in Alabama, it was worthy of a death sentence. The known facts of the case are as follows: Four Klan members brought Edwards to Tyler Goodwin Bridge overlooking the Alabama River. One of the men pointed his gun at the 24-year old truck driver and told him to jump. Edwards complied and fell 125 feet to his death.

When Edwards’ murders returned to town, they joked that their victim had ‘jumped in for a swim.’ It took three months before the decomposed body was found 10 miles west of Montgomery. One of the men involved, Henry Alexander, was diagnosed with cancer and confessed his involvement in Edwards’ murder to his wife, Diane. Alexander said that he falsely identified Edwards as the man who had offended the white woman. He claimed that on the bridge, the Klansmen told their victim to run or jump. According to Alexander, they had no intention of shooting him and believed he would run. They were shocked when he elected to jump.

Alexander had also been involved in several bombings in Montgomery in early 1957, including one that destroyed the front of the house of civil rights leader, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy. About ten days later, a group of Klansmen was discussing a case of a black truck driver insulting a white woman. They knew he drove for the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain and operated on the Montgomery to Sylacauga route. One of the men involved, Raymond Britt, later told his lawyer what happened next.

He received a phone call and was told to meet at Henry Alexander’s house. They brought pistols and other guns, got into a car and started looking for the driver. Edwards was on duty that night, filling in for another driver who got sick. Britt and the others forced Edwards into their car and started interrogating him. He denied insulting a white woman but was driven to the bridge. They threatened him with castration and then gave him a choice to flee or jump.

When Edwards’ body was found, the level of decomposition made it impossible to determine the cause of death. The case was finally reopened in 1976 and Britt, Alexander, James York, and Sonny Kyle Livingston Jr. were charged with murder. Britt signed an affidavit in exchange for immunity and confessed to beating Edwards and forcing him to jump into the Alabama River. However, as the cause of death wasn’t determined, the men were not convicted. While Edwards’ cause of death was changed from ‘unknown’ to ‘homicide’ in 1997, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
John W. Stephens – Caswell County

8 – The Murder of John W. Stephens – 1870

The murder of John W. Stephens was one of the most controversial and reprehensible acts carried out by the first incarnation of the Klan. Born in 1834, Stephens served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War but did not see action as his role involved commandeering horses and helping the South find draftees. After the war, he worked as a tobacco trader and became known as ‘Chicken Stephens’ for shooting a chicken that ventured on to his property. He spent a night in jail for the incident and allegedly confronted the chicken’s owner when he got out of prison.

Upon his move to Yanceyville in 1866, Stephens became involved in politics and joined the Republican Party and Freedman’s Bureau. Part of his work resulted in politically organizing the black population of the state of North Carolina, activities that earned him a lot of enemies. Stephens’ popularity amongst the state’s black population helped him to win election to the North Caroline Senate. The white population of Caswell County ostracized him, and because of the threats to his life faced during that time, Stephens took out a life insurance policy reportedly worth $10,000.

North Carolina’s Klan was enraged with Stephens, and they held a ‘trial’ where Stephens was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to death. Before the fateful day, Stephens was warned that his life was in danger, but he ignored the advice. The Klan had already lynched four black men, but when these actions didn’t gain the attention they craved, they knew it was time to carry out their ‘death sentence’ on Stephens.

On May 21, 1870, the Klan confronted Stephens in a backroom in Caswell County Courthouse. He was there to attend a Democrat meeting and was trying to get one of their party to run as sheriff as part of the Republican ticket. The man he was trying to ‘turn’ motioned to follow him downstairs and Stephens complied, not realizing that he was walking into a trap. Up to 12 Klansmen were waiting for him and carried out a particularly gruesome murder.

According to the story, Stephens asked if he could look out the window to see his home and children playing in the distance. Then, the Klan attacked, stabbing and choking their victim before holding him down and slashing his throat. Stephens bled to death on the floor although the KKK caught his blood in a bucket. As you’ve probably guessed, no one was charged with the murder.

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant – The Grio

9 – The Murder of Emmett Till – 1955

This was one of the most notorious Klan crimes of the 21st century and was arguably the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant who worked as a cashier in the town of Money, Mississippi. Four days later, Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped and beat 14-year old Till before shooting him in the head. This disgusting crime took place on August 28, 1955, and on November 1, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery. Parks later wrote that “the news of Emmett’s death caused me… to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights.”

Till was born in Chicago in 1941 and was visiting relatives in Money in August 1955. On August 24, Till spoke to Bryant in a small grocery store and was accused of flirting and whistling at the cashier. Decades later, Bryant admitted that allegations of Till being menacing and sexually crude towards her were not true. Indeed, what happened on that day is still a matter of dispute. The only thing that’s clear is that whatever Till’s conduct if he was even guilty of anything untoward, did not warrant the death penalty.

Till probably whistled at Bryant as she left the store; an act that broke the well-known taboo relating to social conduct between the races in the South. Coming from a big city, young Emmett was probably unaware of this unwritten rule. In any case, Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, knew there could be trouble and drove away from the scene as fast as he could. On August 26, Bryant’s husband, Roy, returned to town after being away hauling shrimp in Texas.

Roy heard rumors of what happened while in town and confronted his wife. After she told him her version of events, he resolved to kidnap Till and teach him a lesson. With the aid of his half-brother, J. W. Milam, his wife, and a black man named Johnny Washington, Bryant went looking for Till. Bryant caught and beat one black teenager, but it was a case of mistaken identity. At around 2:30 am, Bryant and Milam learned that Till was staying at the house of Moses Wright. They kidnapped him and probably shot him in Leslie Milam’s barn. They tied a fan to Till’s neck with barbed wire and threw him in the Tallahatchie River.

Till’s body was found three days later, and an estimated 50,000 people filed past his coffin in the funeral chapel. Although Bryant and Milam admitted kidnapping Till, they claimed they let him go in the town of Money. With the aid of the County Sheriff, H. C. Strider, the two men were acquitted despite overwhelming evidence against them. Strider even claimed that the body in the river wasn’t Till’s. After deliberating for just 67 minutes, the all-white, all-male jury allowed Bryant and Milam to walk free. The local Citizen’s council, a KKK offshoot, visited the jury to ensure they voted the ‘right’ way Once again, the vile racists had escaped justice.

Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan
Jason Smith – Urban Intellectuals

10 – The Mysterious Death of Jason Smith – 2011

This is unquestionably a controversial entry as the unexplained death of Jason Smith hasn’t even been classified as murder. However, it has to be one of the strangest cases of accidental drowning ever recorded. When 14-year old Smith was found dead in a local lake in Eros, Louisiana on June 6, 2011, it barely made a dent in news cycles. After all, it was just a simple case of a teenage boy getting himself in trouble and drowning. However, the African-American boy was missing his organs.

His family are convinced that he was killed by local KKK members but given the complete lack of investigation into the most unusual of deaths, it is impossible for them to prove anything. A petition was created to call for a further investigation, but it was closed as it only gained around 1,000 petitions.

Smith’s family say that not only is their son’s killer a Klan member; he is also the son of an FBI agent. Those who read this piece probably think it seems a little far-fetched but how else can you explain how this bizarre case suddenly ended up being of the ‘open and shut’ variety? If his death was accidental, why did he have no organs? Disturbingly, Smith’s parents believe their son suffered horribly before he died. They are of the opinion that he was raped before his murder.

Perhaps his death has an even darker undertone. According to the World Health Organization, at least 7,000 kidneys are harvested each year illegally, not to mention other stolen organs. Other cases of black men being found dead without organs include Kendrick Johnson, Vance Anderson, and Ryan Singleton. Although the possibility that Smith died at the hands of a KKK member remains strong, was he murdered so his organs could be sold on the black market?



1963 Birmingham Church Bombing Fast Facts – CNN

These Unforgettable Images Expose the Horror of the Tulsa Race Riots – Huffington Post by Lilly Workneh

The Greensboro Massacre: Nov. 3, 1979: A Day That Still Divides City By Joe Killian

The Lynching: A Powerful look at 1981 Klan Murder in Mobile – by Lawrence Specker

Murder, Memory and the Klan: A Special Report; Widow Inherits a Confession to a 36-year old hate crime – New York Times by Adam Nossiter

Klan Murders Senator Stephens – History Engine – Emmett Till

Famous Trials – The Emmett Till Murder Trial: An Account

Murder in Mississippi –

Reckoning with the Ghost of Jim Williams – Oxford University Press Blog – Petition to reopen investigation of Jason Smith’s murder