Sam Bowers was the imperial wizard of The White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan of Mississippi, a white supremacy organization that in 1964 included as many as 10,000 members. It was Bowers who, in May, 1964, authorized "the elimination" of "Goatee," the Klan's name for Mickey Schwerner, the head of the CORE office in Meridian since January of that year. The murder was intended to send a message to northern civil rights workers to stay out of Mississippi.
Bowers, then a thirty-nine year old businessman from Laurel, established the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan in the fall of 1963. He has been described as "typical of the semi-worldly, semi-literate" men who occupied leadership positions within the Klan. Bowers was a Navy veteran who briefly attended college, then became a partner in Sambo Amusements, a jukebox and vending machine business. He was known for his white supremacy, anti-Supreme Court views, a passion for guns and explosives, and "a swastika fetish."
By June of 1964, membership in the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan of Mississippi was estimated at 10,000. Serving under Bowers were exalted cyclopses (chapter presidents), leagles, kaliffs, kligraphs, klabees, kludds, klaregos, klexters, and klapeers, not to mention many well-armed tactical squads. The Lauderdale County (Meridian) chapter, or klavern as the Klan called it, grew tremendously following the arrival in January of Mickey and Rita Schwerner to head a new office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In a May meeting at a restaurant in Laurel, Bowers announced that Schwerner was "a thorn in the side of everyone living, especially white people" and that he "should be taken care of."
Evidence in the Mississippi Burning trial indicated that Bowers played a lead role in planning the killings. Delmar Dennis testified that Bowers had overseen the entire operation. Bowers was quoted as saying after the murders that "It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew." Bowers was found guilty and served his sentence in Washington state. After his release from prison, he resumed his management of Sambo Amusements in Laurel.
Bowers was also charged with ordering the 1966 murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, Dahmer had earned the Klan's enmity by allowing his store to be used by blacks to pay the $2 poll tax necessary to register to vote. Dahmer was killed on January 10, 1966 in a firebombing of his home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. After four previous trials had ended in deadlocks, Bowers was finally convicted in August, 1998, over thirty-two years after the killing, by a jury of six blacks, one Asian-American and five whites. He was sentenced to life in prison.