Making Wrong Right
09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was January 1966, and local businessman Sam Bowers, who also happened to be head of the state White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was holding court in the back booth of John's Cafe in Laurel, Miss. The civil rights struggle that was sweeping the South had finally arrived at Bowers's back door, and he had learned that grocer Vernon Dahmer, a local officer of the NAACP, was collecting poll taxes from his black neighbors outside Hattiesburg, 25 miles to the south. Bowers knew that any citizen, black or white, who paid the $2 tax was one who could legally vote. And if blacks voted, that meant change.
Bowers was furious. Slamming his fist on the table at John's, he declared, says a witness, that "something has to be done about that Dahmer nigger down south." According to Bob Stringer, then a strapping 19-year-old factory worker who sometimes ran errands for Bowers and was at the cafe that day, Bowers and his men mulled their options before settling on Project Four—Klan code for murder.
Stringer didn't have the courage to speak out against Bowers that day. "There was no one to trust. The police and law enforcement were involved with the Klan," he says. But he deeply regrets his silence. Days later, on Jan. 10, 1966, two carloads of Klan night riders, armed with shotguns and 12 jugs of gasoline, firebombed Dahmer's house as three of his eight children slept inside. (Four older sons were away in the armed services.) Dahmer defended his home with a shotgun long enough for his wife, Ellie, and kids to climb through a back window. But he died in his wife's arms at a hospital 12 hours later, his lungs seared by fire.
Four Klan members went to jail for the gruesome crime while their ringleader, Bowers, now 74, escaped conviction in four separate trials during the 1960s that ended in deadlocked juries. But Bob Stringer, now 52, finally found his voice—three decades later. In 1994 he made the phone call he believes he should have made long ago after seeing members of the Dahmer family appear on TV to publicize the state's reopened investigation into Vernon's death.
On Aug. 21, at the Forrest County courthouse in Hattiesburg, Bowers (who had previously served six years in prison for his part in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss.) was finally convicted of murder in the Dahmer killing—partly due to evidence provided by his former errand boy Stringer. "Bob came along at a very critical time," says Dennis Dahmer, 44, one of the children who escaped from the 1966 inferno. "I'm not sure where we'd be today if he hadn't." Of the guilty verdict, delivered after less than three hours of deliberation by a racially mixed jury, Dahmer observes, "We are living in a new South, and more particularly a new Mississippi."
Until recently, though, Stringer was a living reminder of the old Mississippi. Born in Laurel (pop. 28,000) in 1946, he was raised by his mother, Frances, and a series of relatives after his parents divorced the next year. Although he recalls no racist talk in his family, Stringer, an Episcopalian altar boy, attended segregated public schools and rarely mixed with blacks. "I just accepted it," he says. "We loved to eat the food blacks cooked, we loved their music, and we let them raise our kids, but we didn't associate with them."
Strapped for cash, Stringer worked odd jobs after school, including behind the cash register at Laurel's Bee-Hive Newsstand, where he met Bowers, owner of a jukebox and pinball business—which he called the Sambo Amusement Co.—in 1960. It was a watershed year. "Sam was good to me," says Stringer, a fatherless 14-year-old whom Bowers treated as a son. "When I got off work at night, he would pick me up, take me home. He treated me with respect." With his word-perfect knowledge of the Bible, Bowers was the most intelligent person Stringer had met.
But 1960 was also the year that Stringer's new mentor became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Beneath the Nazi flag in his office, Bowers allegedly ordered cross-burnings, bombings and racial attacks across the state. Stringer was never asked to join the Klan—"I protected you because of your age," Bowers would later tell him—but he did help print and deliver Klan propaganda.
Seven months after Dahmer's murder, Stringer left Laurel, eventually settling with his wife, Evelyn, his onetime high school sweetheart, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Their only child, a son, was born in 1977, but Stringer's life began to sour in the early '90s, when Mississippi legalized casino gambling. He developed an all-consuming passion for blackjack. "I lost my son's college fund," says Stringer. "I was jobless and penniless."
Out of work and in danger of being abandoned by his wife and son, Stringer began attending a 12-step program for addicts in 1994. He credits the program with saving his life. The program also led him to confess to the Dahmer family, since one of the steps encourages participants to "make amends" to people they have harmed. Stringer looked up the Dahmers in the phone book and made the fateful call. "I had to tell them what I knew," he says.
Vernon Dahmer Jr., now 68, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant living in Hattiesburg, had received many calls from strangers claiming to have information about his father's death. In 1991 his family had persuaded a state prosecutor to reopen the case after the indictment of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. (Beckwith was convicted in 1994.)
It took only a few conversations with Stringer—who initially refused to give his name—to convince Dahmer that "Bob was for real," he says. After the men met last year, Stringer agreed to gather evidence and to testify against Sam Bowers. According to Forrest County District Attorney Lindsay Carter, Stringer's help "really got us rolling."
Now dealing with his gambling habit and running a lawn maintenance business, Stringer joined the Dahmers for a quiet celebration after the trial. "The most important thing I got out of all this," he told them, "was getting to know people like you." And the satisfaction of helping deliver justice, however long delayed. Said Vernon at his father's grave: "Dad, we've come to the end of a long journey. You can rest in peace."
Bob Stewart and Jerry Mitchell in Hattiesburg