‘Devils Walking’ a sprawling investigation of cold case Klan murders

“Devil’s Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s” by Stanley Nelson

“Devil’s Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s” by Stanley Nelson

At 8:01 p.m. on Feb. 27, 1967, Wharlest Jackson clocked out of his job at the Armstrong Tire Plant of Natchez, Miss. Recently promoted to a position that had only been held by whites, Jackson drove from the parking lot in his green Chevrolet pick-up and, after a few blocks, switched on his left turn blinker.

Jackson died instantly when his car exploded in a blast that shattered the windows of nearby homes. An FBI investigation determined that a charge had been placed under the truck’s cab directly below the driver’s seat, with a blasting cap wired to the turn signal.

The death of Wharlest Jackson counts among multiple killings — by car bomb, arson, drowning and more — investigated in the book “Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s.” The volume represents a massive undertaking by award-winning author Stanley Nelson, editor of The Concordia Sentinel, a small weekly newspaper in Ferriday, La. “Devils Walking” reflects Nelson’s reportage from 190 articles written over a seven-year period, primarily on “cold cases” of decades-old Klan violence in northeast Louisiana and Mississippi.

The book focuses closely on eight murders and other activities of “The Silver Dollar Group” (SDG) essentially a domestic terrorist cell of Klansmen disaffected with the larger white supremacist groups and dedicated to more lethal means of racial suppression. Leader Raleigh “Red” Glover, who gave recruits silver dollars as a symbol of their solidarity, comes across as a nasty piece of work who laughs whenever he tells a story about pouring salt over a victim’s bleeding wounds.

Glover worked at the same factory as Wharlest Jackson, but other SDG affiliates include members of local law enforcement, such as Frank DeLaughter, a Ferriday police offer known for favoring fire hoses and leather straps in beating prisoners. Such brutality proves both shocking and relatively minor by the standards of the bloody setting.

“Devils Walking” untangles the internal structures and petty infighting of rival Klan organizations of the day, with Nelson describing one group holding a trial (with 150 White Knights in attendance) over a member accused of violating his oath of secrecy. The Klansmen’s glorified language for themselves can be at odds with their humble surroundings, like the mention of a state meeting to elect a “grand dragon” held “at a shed in the woods.”

While Klan violence and the FBI efforts to control it take center stage, Nelson also provides concise, heartbreaking portraits of the slain. Some were civil rights advocates operating in dangerous hometowns: Wharlest Jackson worked with the Natchez NAACP. Others come across as citizens simply trying to negotiate their communities’ fraught color lines. Frank Morris sold shoes to black and white customers in Ferriday for three decades until the night he was fatally burned in his own shop.

The narrative mostly unfolds chronologically from 1964 to 1967, which provides context for simultaneous events taking place on the local, state and national levels, including successful civil rights activism and the legal maneuverings in Southern school desegregation. From the perspective of the present day, the murders seem like desperate attempts to stem the tide of history.

Nelson can provide vivid anecdotes about the book’s subjects, but he unspools so many narrative threads that it can become a challenge to keep track of which Klansman or G-Man connects to which case. Readers may need to make frequent reference to the photos and appendices to keep up. Sometimes it feels like Nelson has amassed enough raw material for a shelf of true crime books between “Devils Walking’s” covers.

For most of the book, Nelson writes in a spare, informative way that keeps the reporter “invisible” and avoids florid language or editorializing. Sometimes the reader needs no emotional guidance. When Nelson says that the FBI investigation of the Jackson bombing involved 180 agents and cost of $300,000 but led to no murder convictions, there’s an unavoidable sense of frustration at justice denied.

A mystique can surround accounts of cold case investigations, which offer a chance to disinter the past and redress historic wrongs. Yet such ambitions are likely to hit dead ends, given the difficulties of uncovering fresh evidence decades after the fact. The title “Devils Walking” has more than one meaning, suggesting both demons incarnate and guilty parties walking scot-free.

Some of the book’s most memorable moments come in its final chapters, when Nelson switches to first-person accounts of some of his recent investigations. His descriptions of personal interactions with aging sources and their families have an immediacy lacking from the book’s historic recreations. He also offers a direct critique of the FBI’s apparent inaction in some cases, one involving an elderly suspect who died before charges were filed. He finally gets to directly express some of his moral outrage kept implicit for hundreds of pages.

At a time of charged discussions over race in America, particularly involving law enforcement, “Devils Walking” articulates how high a level of violence and bigotry used to be tolerated in parts of the South. The book can be partially reassuring at how much things have improved, but also serves as a cautionary tale, with some of the racists’ rhetoric resonating uncomfortably with current events. Depending on your perspective, the Klan murders of the 1960s can as remote as ancient history or as relevant as just a day ago.


‘Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s’

By Stanley Nelson

Louisiana State University Press

$29.95, 280 pgs.