Allan Johnson preferred a different response to the Klan bombing than the demonstrators or the white ministers's resolution. Johnson was a forceful but moderating voice, never quite at home in organizations like SNCC or CORE--whose penchant for the dramatic he sometimes found sophomoric. Before moving to Laurel, he had once lashed out in anger at the movement leaders who'd trashed his Jackson church during a mass meeting. With a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, he told them. "I am sick and tired of all of you, and I want you to know you are not going to run over me and continue tearing up my church. I have collected whiskey bottles from my Sanctuary upstairs, I have caught couples upstairs in the 'act' and had to run them out, and I am going to say one more thing to all of you. You vomited on the floor and furniture upstairs and broke out several of my windows and if I hear any more shooting at my church I will be the one doing it."(1)
Aside from an occasional need to clear the temple of the moneychangers, Johnson's work toward Negro improvement had followed the long, patient arch of the NAACP. Since coming to Laurel in 1966, he had spent most of his time working with the Southern Christian Leadership's Negro Voter's League. But all that didn't really matter, his moderation and patience, when it came to dealings with the white thugs down the road. The Johnson family had many times been the target of late night phone calls, honking horns and catcalls. Earlier in the fall, shotguns were fired from a speeding car on Interstate 59, which cut through the neighborhood on elevated piers.
Johnson's response to the bombing was nothing short of genius. He invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak from his pulpit. And Dr. King, who had never been to Laurel, accepted for a date in early Spring.
On March 15, 1968, Reverend Johnson and his family hosted a dinner for the civil rights leader in the restored parsonage. Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Dorothy Cotton and Leon Hall, all members of the SCLC team, shared the table. In the sanctuary at St. Paul's later in the evening, King lamented the moral state of our country, a spiritual wasteland in need of renewal, an America "where houses have wall to wall carpet" while too many others have "wall to wall rats and roaches." While no one recalls whether King drove the oak-lined streets of the historic district before arriving at the church, his discourse captured the essence of the town's divided worlds.
King had come to Mississippi to promote the June camp-in on the Washington mall, part of his Poor People's Campaign to bring attention to America. His speech in Laurel was singed with a prophet's anger. "We're going to Washington to demand--not to beg--that something be done immediately to improve the lives of our poor people. We need jobs. We need jobs that will pay us something. We're tired of working on fulltime jobs for parttime wages." Two weeks later, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was murdered in Memphis.(2)
(1) Allan Johnson, cited in Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission report.
(2) The FBI's investigations into the White Knights's role in the April 4 assassination came to nothing, even though it was widely known among southern terrorists that Bowers had ordered an assassination of King on at least two earlier occasions. At a fundraising rally for the White Christian Protective and Legal Defense Fund at the Laurel Fairgrounds, Bowers's loony sycophant, Byron de la Beckwith, had urged the crowd of 300 to "start at the top and work down killing them." "The only time to be calm is when you pull the trigger," he added for emphasis. In 1965, Bowers had learned that Dr. King would be traveling through Mississippi between Philadelphia and Meridian, and made plans for his most ambitious Project Four. But the FBI, acting on a tip from a Klan informant, averted the disaster by notifying King.
In 1967, a klansmen from Vicksburg named James L. Jones went to trial for the 1966, murder of Ben Chester White, a local Negro with no obvious ties to the civil rights movement. White had been shot 17 times with a rifle and once with a shotgun. White's badly decomposed and headless body had been found floating in a creek near Natchez. Sam Bowers was implicated in the killing the following year, when White's relatives filed a $1 million dollar lawsuit against members of the Klan. Three men were arrested on murder charges--Jones, Ernest Avants, and Claude Fuller--though Jones would turn state's evidence at a June 7, 1966 preliminary hearing when he testified that White was lured into the car on the pretense of helping look for a lost dog. Jones admitted to driving the car, but claimed he had not done the killing. Claude Fuller had fired 17 shots into the 65-year-old Negro's body. Avants had then shot White once in the head. During the 1967 trial, Jones told the court that White had been murdered as part of a plot to lure Martin Luther King, Jr. to Natchez where an assassination was planned. At the time of the murder, King was in Mississippi taking part in the Meredith March Against Fear, but he did not come to Natchez when White's body was found. (Laurel Leader Call, November 11, 1968).