In politics you don’t get much idle reading time, but the past few nights before going to bed I’ve been reading “Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign Against the Jews” (1993) by Jack Nelson, a Pulitzer winning journalist for The Los Angeles Times. The book follows the efforts of the FBI and Mississippi law enforcement in finding and stopping - by any means necessary - a Klan cell directed by Sam Bowers engaged in bombing a Jackson and a Meridian synagogue, as well as the home of a Jackson rabbi (among other dastardly deeds). I picked it up at the recommendation of my friend Jeff Perkins.
If you read about the fight against racial terrorism in the Mississippi 1960s, you begin to get familiar with certain areas: Laurel, McComb, Philadelphia, Meridian; but I had not before read about the bombing in my own neighborhood…just a few blocks down the street at a house I’ve driven by hundreds of times.
From the book:
A layman engaged in religious work with poor people in Jackson, Robert Kochtitzky was active in civil rights. He had worked with Nussbaum and Reverend Johnson on the Committee of Concern. He had urged his minister, Reverend Warren Hamby of the Galloway Memorial Methodist Church, to speak out against racial violence. And he had been credited in news accounts with originating the idea of the “walk of penance” after the Temple Beth Israel bombing. His wife, Kay, worked with Ken Dean at the Council on Human Relations. The Kochtitzkys had occasionally had blacks as houseguests. There had also been a report, unfounded but widely disseminated in a White Citizens Council publication, that the Kochtitzky house on Poplar Street had been the site of a meeting between Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights leader, and Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was attorney general of the United States.
In hindsight, Kochtitzky also concluded that because of his name the Klan may have concluded, mistakenly, that he was Jewish.
On the night of November 19, Kochtitzky and Reverend John Adams, a Methodist minister from Washington who was staying with him, returned home after a meeting and sat in the living room talking until about 11:00 P.M. Mrs. Kochtitzky and her six-month-old son were also in the house.
Minutes after the two men went to bed, a powerful bomb exploded on the front porch of the two-story house. It tore away the porch, ripped through the front wall, shredded the couch on which they had been sitting. The blast shattered windows in the baby’s room, showering his crib with shards of glass; miraculously, the child was unhurt, as were the three adults.
The bombing at 1704 Poplar Boulevard was on November 19, 1967.
On November 20, The Clarion Ledger reported, “Bombing Here Puzzle To Enforcement Men.” [I have corrected some of the typos from the newspaper.]
The latest victim is Robert B. Kochtitzky, whose two-story frame house on a tree-shaded Jackson street was heavily damaged by a dynamite blast late Saturday night…. Kochtitzky said Sunday he had received “no threats, no letters, no phone calls” to alert him that an attack might be planned, but had noticed some suspicious men sitting across the street in a car several times during the summer. Kochtitzky, in an interview, attributed the bombing to “the attitude my wife and I have on race - our attitude toward Negroes as human beings is basically the issue.” His wife, the former Kay Hagerty, is a former reporter for the Jackson Daily News. He said, however, that he had not been active in civil rights work, although he did take part in interracial religious affairs. “At the time of all the (civil rights) activity a few years ago I was either chicken or decided it was discreet not to be involved,” he said. He has lived in Jackson since 1940….Sunday, Kochtitzky found a sign that said, “Keep The Faith, Baby.” The Rev. Mr. Adams posted it over a board covering part of the damage.
As the Kochtitzky family picked through the damage that Sunday morning, their pastor, the Rev. Warren C. Hamby, senior minister of Galloway Memorial Methodist Church visited with them. Later that day he addressed the situation from the pulpit and the message was printed in the Clarion Ledger on Tuesday, “Minister Calls For Justice in Bombing.” Here is the message:
In the early hours of this morning I stood at the corner of St. Mary Street and Poplar Boulevard in this city in front of the residence of Bob and Kay Kochtitzky and their infant son, John, horrified and incensed as I viewed the destruction of this dwelling and the apparent danger to their lives wrought by the explosion of a large bomb planted there earlier in the night.
I was approached by a news reporter from a local television station, who learning who I was and sensing my agitation by what had happened, invited me to make a statement. I declined on the judgment that an unprepared statement in the white heat of emotion would not likely serve any constructive end.
I should now like to make my statement. I do not propose to speak for anyone else on the staff of this church, I do not propose to speak for the Official Board, I do not propose to speak for the congregation. I speak for Warren Hamby. I speak with an awareness of the hypocrisy of thinking that to issue a statement is the adequate discharge of responsibility. I speak from the pulpit that has been entrusted to me with the sacred obligation of maintaining its integrity in the proclamation of the Christian gospel. I speak with the full awareness that many of you will perhaps be disturbed that I elect to do so. I speak because of the greater disturbance of my own conscience should I fail to do so. I speak in the hope that so speaking I will contribute to some constructive action on the part of this congregation, its official leadership and its professional staff. Action that will redeem such a statement from the hypocrisy of assuming that in so speaking we have fulfilled our responsibilities. I offer this statement in an awareness of the truth once spoken by the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, when he said: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”
The news reporter asked me, what Mr. Kochtitzky done to prompt this kind of violence? It was a fair question, but at the time I declined to answer. I now attempt to answer. What had he done? He had kept the integrity of Christian witness as a sensitive Christian in a society not yet willing to such a witness. He had taken seriously the convictions that were imparted to him by the teachings of the church school and the witness of the pulpit of this church. He had dared go beyond the respectable acquiescence of the polite forms of Christianity that so often characterize the poor witness of most of us.
The truth of this is so profound that it turns the question around so that it becomes, not what has he done, but what have we done to prompt this kind of violence? The act was perpetrated by paranoiac cowards who would by their dastardly deeds of violence keep alive the fear that has spawned their breed and offered them not only silence and sanctuary for their deeds but a mandate to continue them under the illusion of public approbation.
Let us not, however, draw a small circle of guilt, for we are all indicted. The so called decent and responsible people of our city, state and section are the Sauls at whose feet lie the clothes of the whole affair (along with numerous repetitions of it in recent weeks.) Upon our consciences the whole matter must rest. Justice Brandeis once said: “The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”
Who is to blame? Every pulpit where justice and mercy and goodwill have not been enough proclaimed; every alleged Christian who has thought more of his or her prejudices than of seeking the will of God and the spirit of Jesus Christ in attitude and behavior; every newspaper that has defended indefensible positions and voiced its own prejudices; the responsible elected officials of city and state who have been more concerned with expediency than integrity- here, my friends, is the accumulated and collective guilt that is ours.
I have said this poorly and inadequately. I have no desire to be dramatic or controversial. I wish only to defy the cowards who will otherwise rule us by the fear of a return to barbarism. I wish only to vicariously and publicly identify with the principle which they would destroy.
To Bob and Kay Kochtitzky (and the many others who in recent weeks have been victims of similar acts - among them a Jewish rabbi and his congregation in this city, and a Methodist minister and his family in the city of Laurel) I offer my personal support and prayers. I offer thanks to God that no personal physical injury has been the result of any of these acts. I call upon the people of this congregation, the citizens of this city and state to rise up in determined resolution that the perpetrators of these crimes be sought out and brought to justice. I do so ‘in meekness and fear’ but with all the responsibility of my office.”
That message was printed in Tuesday’s paper. Tuesday night the bombers struck again, destroying much of Dr. Perry Nussbaum’s home at 3410 Old Canton Road. And the violence by that Klan cell continued.
I thought it appropriate that I finished this book Sunday night, the same night we learned of the death of Osama Bin Laden. I recalled the words of Governor Haley Barbour when he spoke at the 40th anniversary commemoration of the civil rights murders in Neshoba County on June 20, 2004.
Barbour compared the sacrifice of our soldiers fighting terrorism overseas to the sacrifice made by the slain civil rights workers in Philadelphia; and he compared the “extreme hateful intolerance” during those days of segregation to “today’s evil of fanatical Islamic terrorism.”
History taught us that sin and evil must be recognized, confronted and confessed before redemption can be achieved. We know that when evil is done it is a complicit sin to ignore it, to pretend it didn’t happen even if it happened 40 years ago. You have to face up to your problems before you can solve them.
We must stand for the proposition that intolerance is intolerable. We must not limit ourselves to opposing murder or terrorism or other obvious evil. Let’s commit ourselves today to rooting out the small intolerances too. Especially those in our own mind, words and deeds. When we disagree, let it be agreeably. Let us learn to tolerate opposing views even if we work to uphold in our own lives the values and standards we claim to cherish. For those of us that are Christians, let us try to obey Jesus’ commandment that we should love our neighbors even as he loved us. If we do that evil will find this a very poor place to take root and to do its damage.
The lessons from the civil rights struggle in Mississippi can teach us not only about our past - sometimes in our own neighborhood - but also perspective on the current fight against terrorists and murderers around the world. I recommend the book and without spoiling the ending, I’ll share that in the midst of shootings and bombings, there are many stories of redemption including one you might not expect.