Around midnight on June 30, 1968, Kathy Ainsworth and Thomas Tarrants approached the home of Meyer Davidson in Meridian, Mississippi with 29 sticks of dynamite.
Davidson was Jewish. He was a businessman and a member of the Anti-Defamation League. Ainsworth and Tarrants were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Tarrants, a month earlier, had bombed the Beth Israel Synagogue in Meridian. Ainsworth, before that, had a hand in bombing a synagogue in Jackson, Mississippi.
Meridian police and FBI agents were waiting for Ainsworth and Tarrants, however. They had been tipped off by a Klansman, free on bond after being convicted in connection with the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The informant was paid by leaders of the Jewish communities in Meridian and Jackson, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
Ainsworth stayed in the car as Tarrants walked up to the house with the box of dynamite. Police ordered him to stop. He dropped the box, ran back to the car, and took off. A chase followed until officers rammed the car they were pursuing, making it stop. Tarrants jumped out of the car and began firing at officers with a machine gun. They fired back. The gunfight continued as he ran through a neighborhood and was eventually found severely wounded in someone’s backyard. Ainsworth was dead in the car with a bullet wound in the back of her neck and a loaded pistol in her purse.
Tarrants, who was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, was just 21 years old. Ainsworth, 26, was born in Chicago, but she was working as an elementary school teacher in Jackson. She had been married for almost a year, and she was three months pregnant.
Why would these young people hate so much that they would join a group that had killed those three civil rights workers trying to help African Americans register to vote? Why did they want to belong to a group that killed little girls Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama? What drew them to a group with a member who murdered Mississippi’s NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers?
According to the American Psychological Association, psychologist John Horgan, PhD, who directs the Pennsylvania State University’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, has found the following tendencies among people who are more open to terrorist recruitment and radicalization: They feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised; they believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change; they identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting; they feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem; they believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral; they have friends or family sympathetic to the cause; and they believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.
Tarrants says he wasn’t raised to be racist, but he had access to racist propaganda distributed around his school as integration began, and that at age 17 his critical thinking skills certainly weren’t developed. The anger he felt was led by Alabama Gov. George Wallace more than anyone, Tarrants says.
No one thought Tarrants would survive the shootout after being shot four times at close range with double-aught buckshot. But he did survive. He was sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary where he’s said he only had one thing on his mind, and that was getting out and going back to what he was doing before.
In his cell he says he dug deeper into racist philosophy, and at that time an inmate could pretty well read whatever they wanted. He started with Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” followed by other books that reinforced his own views.
“When you take hatred into your mind and heart, it has an affect,” said Tarrants in a Dallas Theological Seminary interview with Bill Hendricks with The Table Podcast earlier this month. Like cancer, the hate metastasized, Tarrants said, so that anyone of a different race, faith or political view was an enemy. You can watch the interview online at https://voice.dts.edu/table podcast/leaving-hate-behind/
In prison, Tarrants started reading Greek philosophers, and then scripture. But he stresses that he had already decided what he was doing as a terrorist was for God and country. He wasn’t looking for a new outlook, but he found it in the gospels, and he went through a life-changing conversion.
With the support of a Jewish community leader and an FBI agent, Tarrants was released from prison after eight years. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1978 and has worked in Christian ministry since then. He is now president emeritus of the CS Lewis Institute.
“God delivered me from all that racism and hatred when I was converted,” Tarrants said. “Actually, before I was converted I saw the fallacies of racism and anti-Semitism. But after I came to the Lord he put love in my heart for people, and so it was really interesting. I didn’t have problems relating to African Americans and developed some really good friendships, and began to understand a little bit about what life was like in that community, and saw the problems and issues that even we’re dealing with today.
“So that was good but it was not the focus of my ministry or anything. It was just a normal part of life. Basically what I tell people is, ‘Look, you don’t need to get on some crusade about this issue. Just love your neighbor regardless of the color. You know, the ethnicity, the political views or whatever. Jesus said love your neighbor.’ And say: ‘Well, you don’t know some of my neighbors. They’re enemies.’ I says: ‘Well, okay. Jesus said love your enemies too.’ There’s no way out of this.”
Tarrants notes that part of the danger of periods of populist sentiment, even today, is that it often comes in times of social upheaval, and it’s rooted in fear, which gives rise to anger. He tells his story in his book, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation, published in 2019.
No matter what a person’s make up is – including any religion or none at all – hate is a choice.
Steve Gillespie is editor of The Times Dispatch. Email him at email@example.com.