Historic account of a troubled time
Editor's note: This is the final of a four-part series on a new book by historian Hewitt Clarke, a Meridian native. The book depicts the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but also describes an era of honky tonk fighters in Meridian, never equaled before or since. The East End Tea Room was not a Klan hangout but a colorful beer joint during that bygone period of Meridian's history.
By J. Pat Baughman / special to The Star
Oct. 5, 2002
Hewitt Clarke continues his historic account of a time most folks in and around Meridian would just as soon forget, but a time and place in which the world most certainly chose to present the people of Mississippi in a narrow context.
He provides the reader an important insight into the forces that affected the small group of misguided Klan reactionaries who struck out at the people and organizations they deemed as enemies.
Part III of the book begins with the intense FBI investigation of the unfortunate murders of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County. In the federal trial at Meridian that followed indictments of the Klan members, a number of White Knights were convicted. The story covers the entertaining account of Klan night riders in their attempt to burn a cross at attorney Bill Ready's home. Then the attempted bombing of Meyer Davidson's home by a mysterious bomber named Tommy Tarrants operating out of Jackson, and the dangerous shootout with the Meridian police that followed.
A chapter called "The Big House" describes in detail the scary incarceration of Wayne Roberts at Leavenworth and other federal prisons obtained from 360 pages of information from the Federal Prison System. Then the book covers Wayne Robert's last years when he mellowed into a religious, caring person.
I read Clarke's book all the while remembering standing on the fifth floor balcony of an office building near the Windsor Tunnel in Detroit, Mich. That night I viewed a city with its black neighborhoods burning all across the horizon during a time when Northern civil rights activists were in Mississippi.
The numerous deaths and vast destruction in most Northern cities were not represented in such a way that it stigmatized those people and places. The South never burned and Clarke so clearly states that the events which took place in Mississippi produced images the liberal historians have used to paint the people with a broad brush of racism and intolerance.
This book is important because it gives proper perspective and balance to these events in light of one-sided accounts.
The final chapters reveal the forces that led to the dissolution of the White Knights as pressure was applied and payments made by the FBI for information. Several key witnesses gave information leading to the discovery of the civil rights worker's bodies and the ultimate conviction of a number of White Knights.
The Klan is, thankfully, no longer a significant force or presence in Mississippi. The misguided young men in the Klan were passionate advocates in error, but later in life Wayne Roberts didn't die a dangerous man and Tommy Tarrants disavowed the Klan and became a preacher.
When considering this much-needed illumination, I congratulate Hewitt Clarke for the courage to gather the information required for the broad view of history in this important book, which he has presented for the reader.
And finally, I have read Clarke's four books and recommend them as a basis for cultural understanding to the people of the South, particularly those living in Lauderdale, Neshoba and Kemper counties. In fact, these books would give locals, both black and white, a better understanding of who they are and where they came from.
Meridian, Mississippi! A great hometown with good people doing wonderful things. May it always be so!
J. Pat Baughman was born in Meridian and has relatives still living here. A songwriter and retired college professor, he lives on an island off Vancouver, Canada.