IN Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. ... Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
This quote from Martin Niemoeller, which appears on the frontispiece in Jack Nelson's "Terror in the Night," sums up what was at stake when the Ku Klux Klan decided to enlarge its reign of terror beyond Mississippi's black citizens to its Jews as well. The Jewish community fought back, demanding support from white Christians, who up to that point had largely ignored Klan violence against blacks.
The year was 1968. The evening news was saturated with cataclysmic national events, from the Tet offensive in Vietnam to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to the stepping aside of President Johnson and the rise of Richard Nixon.
Reporting on the Ku Klux Klan's activities in Mississippi, Nelson, then Atlanta bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, received some Page 1 play. But the story didn't make much of a dent in the national consciousness. As the years went by, Nelson, now Washington bureau chief of the Times, kept in touch with the principal players among the Federal Bureau of Investigation, local police, black and Jewish groups, and even the Klan.
Finally, Nelson decided only a book could fully deal with the complexities of the story he uncovered. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he gained access to FBI files. Sources provided local police files and other inside information.
The story, as intriguing as anything a Hollywood hack taps out (and a good deal better written), centers on the towns of Jackson and Meridian, Miss. In Jackson, a synagogue is bombed by the Klan, eliciting moral outrage, first among the Jews of the city, then among mainstream Christians. As a columnist in the strongly segregationist local newspaper put it in an open letter to the bombers, "Every now and then you kill a Negro just to show you `mean business,' but this time you've destroyed a beautiful pla ce of worship where people who share a common belief come together to worship. You've bombed churches before, but never one where white people worship. This is Mississippi and we've had enough. We'll get you and all the rest of your gutless friends."
The man responsible for the synagogue bombing, Thomas Albert Tarrants III, eventually heads for Meridian to bomb the home of a prominent Jewish leader. Because he shuns the Klan's rallies and other public activities, the mysterious Tarrants is known only to a select few other Klansmen, making him an ideal hit man. His partner in the Meridian plot is Kathy Ainsworth, surely one of the strangest characters in the book: a sweet young grade-school teacher and wife by day, a bomb-wielding Klan terrorist by n ight.
With the skill of a novelist, Nelson builds the action to a climax: the stakeout of the Jewish leader's home, a trap set for Tarrants. In the gun play that erupts, Tarrants is severely wounded and Ainsworth, a last-minute partner on this job, is killed. A police officer and an innocent bystander are cut down as well.
In the aftermath, the Meridian police department claims a job well done. The FBI begins to back off in acknowledging its role in the incident (which Nelson proves conclusively). The Klan withdraws from overt acts of violence.
Clearly, Nelson says, the event turned the tide in the war against the Klan in Mississippi by showing how the organization could be infiltrated by informers and by taking one of its best operatives off the streets.
As an impartial reporter, Nelson makes no attempt to judge Mississippians and why it took attacks on whites before most of them began to act against the Klan. But in the tradition of great investigative reporters, he raises another, less politically correct question. Was the operation against Tarrants a "hit" carried out by local police, sanctioned by the FBI, and funded by Jewish leaders? Was Tarrants supposed to die in the shootout? Were his civil rights violated?
In an effort to answer these questions, Nelson finds he must "burn" his valued sources in the Southern Jewish community. He is cut off by FBI sources on orders of former Director J. Edgar Hoover, a status he cannot shake until William Webster reforms the bureau years later.
In an ironic denouement, the imprisoned Tarrants becomes a devout Christian, renounces his Klan ties, and makes peace with some of the very Jewish leaders he had intended to kill.
Nelson shows the price an investigative reporter pays - in some cases the loss of long friendships with sources - and gives the reasons why he decided to publish his findings over their objections.
His decision to pay one of his sources is a questionable, and troubling, journalistic tactic, though Nelson carefully explains why the Times agreed to do so. A selection of black-and-white photographs, identifying most of the long list of principal characters, is best scanned first to set the players in mind.
To those wanting a well-written, on-the-scenes assessment of a frightening, yet fascinating, era in recent American history, "Terror in the Night" makes for rewarding reading.