Journalist Curtis Wilkie recently spoke for an ETSU Black American Studies virtual lecture, discussing racism and social justice issues predominant in today's society and his recent book, When Evil Lived in Laurel.
Wilkie is a journalist, retired professor, and historian born in the Mississippi Delta, where he also worked for the first 20 years of his reporting career.
Unlike many other Mississippians, Wilkie’s home environment as a child was far from racist.
“I was lucky that I lived in a home with two parents who appreciated higher education and disapproved of racial discrimination — my mother a schoolteacher, my step-father a Presbyterian minister. But most of my contemporaries during that era were segregationists,” Wilkie said.
In 8th grade, Wilkie’s school taught from a textbook that stated, “The life the Negro lived as a slave was much better than that which he lived in Africa. It was said that his condition would continue to improve more rapidly in slavery than as a free man.”
Wilkie’s home influence helped protect his mind from that propagandist and racist teaching viewpoint.
“I’d like to think that even as an eighth grader I thought that statement was incredibly stupid, an example of the mindlessness of segregation,” Wilkie said. “That line from an alleged history book stayed with me. I used it 20 years ago in a book I wrote as evidence.”
Social issues, specifically racism, dominated the news scene in Wilkie’s early career. “It was the biggest story in Mississippi when I became a journalist, and I found the story compelling,” Wilkie explained.
That influence bled into Wilkie’s life. Covering the social justice movement and learning more about its issues became a frame of reference for him for the rest of his career and his current role as historian and writer, and Wilkie noted, “My interest on this issue has only strengthened over the years.”
Resultingly, Wilkie continues to contribute to the current social justice scene, noting that if society is unaware of the historic racism intertwined into the entire culture of much of America just a few decades ago, society is much more likely to repeat that past. “So many events, historic or otherwise, are affected by the background behind them,” he said.
The front page of When Evil Lived in Laurel, Wilkie’s latest book, published in 2021, contains a well-known quote attributed to an 18th-century Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Wilkie embodies a solution to this problem, hoping for his legacy to be “simply that my writings as an author and a journalist might have contributed to better understanding and appreciation for the positive developments that have taken place in my lifetime.”
Contribute he does. When Evil Lived in Laurel “plumbs the nature and harrowing consequences of institutional racism and brings fresh light to this chapter in the history of civil rights in the South—one with urgent implications for today.”
The true-crime thriller is set in the 1960s, an era in which KKK involvement was ubiquitous throughout the South, its malicious influence interwoven into public roles such as sheriffs.
Walter Isaacson, Professor of American History and Values at Tulane University, said that the “riveting account of the murder of Vernon Dahmer by the KKK is a window into the depths of racism and white supremacy.”
The Klan slowly began lessening its power as Southern politicians gained enough control to supplement their influence, but as the book notes, “after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954, outlawing racial segregation in public schools, followed by a wave of new federal court orders and legislations out of Washington, white supremacists realized that extraordinary measures needed to be taken.”
This simmering scene led to “the resurrection of dormant clandestine organizations,” including the White Knights, a group of men “committed, in extreme cases, to murder and terror to preserve segregation.”
Tom Landrum, a 33-year-old man who worked as a Youth Court counselor at the Laurel courthouse after several years in the Air Force and several as a high school teacher and coach, joined the White Knights to become an FBI informant.
The book follows his journey, as well as the Klan’s murder of Vernon Dahmer — “a light-skinned Black man, he was a farmer, grocery store owner, and two-time president of the NAACP,” a Klan target because of his influential advocacy for voting rights “in a county where Black registration was shamelessly suppressed.”
Wilkie recreates these events with understanding and clarity, saying, “If my book accomplishes nothing else, I hope it exposes the menace that once held Mississippi in its grip.”
His desire to be known as a journalist who tried to always have integrity is evident in the quality of his writing, and he encourages aspiring journalists to do the same.
“Your success depends on your commitment to do as good and honest a job as possible,” he said.
With journalists and writers who continue to spread the raw and sometimes unpleasant truth and with a society that is open to change, Wilkie has a hopeful outlook on the world and racism’s eradication.
“We’ve still got lots of work to do, but racial relations in the South – and the rest of the country – are infinitely better than when I was a young man,” Wilkie asserted. “I’m hoping they will continue to improve.”
When Evil Lived in Laurel is available expansively, including on Amazon and Audible.