1999: Bartholomew Sullivan, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Tuesday, May 25, 1999
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting

Bartholomew Sullivan

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Perkins fans, many of them stars, pay homage to the man

January 24, 1998

Giants of five decades of country and rock music paid a songful tribute Friday to Carl Perkins, with Wynonna Judd at one point noting, “Y’know, the Beatles were in his fan club.”

Former Beatle George Harrison, rockabilly’s Jerry Lee Lewis and country stars Garth Brooks, Ricky Skaggs and Billy Ray Cyrus led a list of luminaries at the overflow funeral at the R. E. Womack Chapel on the campus of Lambuth University.

In an impromptu tribute toward the end of the 1 1/2-hour service, Judd asked Harrison to join musicians onstage. Retuning an accoustic guitar borrowed from Skaggs, Harrison said, “I think somebody out there must know this. It’s from Carl’s first album.” The congregation was electrified as the aging rocker sang the old rockabilly lyrics: “True love, baby, that’s what you give to me.”

Except for an organ flourish, Harrison’s contribution ended the church service. It was the benediction.

Everyone who spoke at Friday’s service recalled Perkins’s humility and charity, his sincerity and abiding faith. The son of sharecroppers, Perkins rose to fame singing of blue suede shoes. He died Monday after a series of strokes. His death at 65 prompted an outpouring of respect from legends of the music world as well as lifelong local friends from Jackson, his hometown.

His old friend and Methodist minister Dr. John A. Jones recalled Perkins’s kindness to a girl whose father had died, his work for abused children, his humor and his travails.

Using the 23rd Psalm for a text, Jones said he had seen Perkins “waller in green pastures” but said Perkins “knew the Lord had taken him to still waters.”

“Today all of Carl’s longings are satisfied,” he added. Later, Jones exhorted the crowd to join him in a chorus of Old Time Religion.
Judd - who joined Cyrus and Skaggs in a rousing version of Perkins’s Daddy Sang Bass as the crowd got to its feet - also sang the hymn How Great Thou Art with a mixed chorus. At another point, she reminisced about talking to Perkins and seeing a document she said belonged “in a vault”: proof of the Beatles’ fan club status.

“Carl was the coolest cat I’ve ever known,” she said. “I never heard Carl sound resentful for the fact that he wrote a song somebody else pretty much got most of the credit for,” an apparent reference to Elvis Presley’s success with Blue Suede Shoes.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney, in a video clip played to the crowd, described his former band members’ admiration for Perkins’s sound as kids growing up in Liverpool, although he said they had to slow it down to get the lyrics. “We became really serious, big fans of Carl Perkins,” he said.

The congregation also heard recorded musical tributes from Elton John, Eric Clapton and George Martin.

Judd also read from a note pinned to a flower arrangement sent by Bob Dylan: “He really stood for freedom. That whole sound stood for all the degrees of freedom. It would just jump right off the turntable. ... We wanted to go where that was happening,” Dylan wrote.

Gov. Don Sundquist recalled college days dancing to Blue Suede Shoes in blue suede shoes.

“Our state of Tennessee is known the world over for our music,” Sundquist said in tribute. “Our friend Carl Perkins is one of the reasons. ... His music and style changed music itself, influencing generations of performers.”

“Tennessee has lost a dear friend, a great ambassador, a big part of our musical soul.”

Billy Ray Cyrus was on the program to sing Amazing Grace but instead strummed a song he said he wrote after a walk in the woods this week. “Angels will sing when they call out your name,” he sang as he strummed his left-handed guitar. “Goodbye.”

Singer Johnny Rivers said “being around Carl and his guitar was like going to school. ... He had a gentle, soft-spoken manner.”

“Carl, the world is a better place because you were here,” he added. “No one can ever step on your blue suede shoes, but we can be glad we were able to touch them. They’re way too deep to fill.”

Many in the crowd of 650 that filled the red brick chapel stood in the damp, 40-degree chill for three hours before getting into the 2 p.m. service. An overflow of several hundred more watched proceedings from the Lambuth student union, where Jackson’s ABC television affiliate WBBJ ran the event live and without interruption.

After the service, Harrison, 54, gave 62-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis a bear hug and introduced him to his wife, Olivia, as a crowd of students and fans trampled the muddy perimeter of a rope line. Harrison left for the cemetery in a Lincoln bearing the vanity licence plate “Suede.” Someone shouted, “Thanks for coming, George.”

Jeannie Sims, 55, drove down from Paris, Tenn., to stand in the long line and pay her respects. “I was the right age to be very wound up by all that,” she said of Perkins’s music. “And he was truly a very good person.” Leroy and Sadie Gipson of Jonesboro, Ark., drove 175 miles to give their idol a sendoff. For both, the music and Perkins’s evident faith made it more than a funeral, they said.
“It was more rejoicing,” said Leroy, 65. “It’s hard to explain, but this was a celebration.”

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Tornado sneaks into Manila, killing 2 kids just as sirens wail

April 17, 1998

It killed first, then it came into town.

With almost no warning, a tornado dropped from the skies over northeast Arkansas just before 3 a.m. Thursday, smashing the mobile home of 5-year-old Brittany and 2 1/2-year-old Kasey Lomax just as warning sirens began to wail.

Then it crossed a plowed but unplanted field, smashed a brake-parts factory and a Dollar General Store, and spun down Olympia Street, snapping 100-year-old trees like pencils.

"It was one excellent, big, humming roar," said Larry Carpenter, 38, who saw what was coming and climbed into a laundromat dryer to wait out the storm.

The Lomax children died before rescue workers and their parents, Wayne and Candy Lomax, could lift the floorboards from their shattered bodies, a shaken and muddy Manila Police Chief Jackie Hill said later.

"When you pick up two small kids and hold them in your arms - I’ve got kids - it breaks your heart," he said.

The twister also injured 21 people - several seriously - and damaged or destroyed 163 homes and 25 other buildings in this usually quiet Mississippi County town of 6,410 about 70 miles northwest of Memphis.

Gov. Mike Huckabee toured the town in the early afternoon and later declared Mississippi County - as well as Craighead, Lonoke and Pulaski counties, which suffered minor damage from tornadoes - a disaster area.

After he met with the grandparents of the Lomax children, he said, he "walked away with the most helpless feeling," but vowed to commit the resources at his disposal to help those in need.

Manila Mayor Jimmy White declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew to prevent looting as 30 National Guardsmen from the 875th Engineer Battalion, based in Jonesboro, began arriving in the late afternoon.

"We had virtually no warning," White said. "But when you’ve got one that comes out of nowhere, you never have enough time."

Mississippi County Sheriff Leroy Meadows said sirens went off just 30 seconds before it hit. Several residents said they were already seeing serious damage by the time they began to hear the sirens.

"When the siren went off, there was already a tree lying on my porch," said Mabel Healey, 67. "If I’d have gone out, it would’ve killed me."

But as the whine of chain saws rent the air all around, Healey said she’d gotten off comparatively easy. "On down the street - it makes you cry."

National Weather Service meteorologist James W. Duke said the region was placed under a severe thunderstorm warning at 2:36 a.m. At 2:42 a.m., it was upgraded to a tornado warning, and the Memphis weather service office called the Manila Volunteer Fire Department phone number, automatically alerting all 25 of its members through a system in place for such emergencies.

Someone set off the town-wide alarm seconds later.

Manila Patrolman Joni Isebell, 32, was on duty and driving down Main Street when her car was lifted off the ground.

"It was just floating. I was scared," she said. But she was most worried for her children, Mikki and Dennis, staying with their grandmother west of town, where reports of trapped children - the Lomaxes - were coming over her police radio.

By the time she got there, the wall of her mother’s house had been torn away, but her children had escaped injury wedged between a bed and a couch. If they had been at home in her trailer home, they might not have made it, she speculated later. The trailer was blown to smithereens - a pile of debris mixed with evergreen boughs.

"I’ll never live in another trailer," Isebell said. As Isebell described the evening, another siren began wailing in the distance, and some relatives monitoring a police scanner reported funnel clouds sighted in Lake City and Black Oak. Thursday’s noon tornado warning was lifted at 4 p.m.

The destructive power of the predawn storm knocked Brian Pate’s house off its foundation and dropped a huge black walnut tree onto his Taurus station wagon.

"My 6-year-old woke us up around 3 o’clock and said the siren was going off," said Pate, 29. "We got in the hallway and that’s when it picked the house up and moved it about three foot."

By his neighbors’ assessments, Melvin Browning, 53, had the nicest backyard in Manila, with an old English walnut, ferns and a row of pine trees - a 27-year labor of love. Now, it’s demolished, the trees bent and snapped off at odd angles; a shed upended.

Browning said he was asleep when the wall of his bedroom began to cave in. He made a race for the storm cellar, but got only as far as the utility room.

The afternoon before the storm, Browning videotaped his granddaughter in the backyard, collecting hidden Easter eggs. As he ate a bologna sandwich supplied by the American Red Cross, he said he was most grateful his granddaughter’s life had been spared.

"It was a sad sight when daylight came," he said as he crunched through hallways strewn with glass. "But all this can be replaced. Life can’t."

As he spoke, neighbor Therese McDonald, 44, dropped by with her daughter, Dreama, 4. The child had "sensed something" moments before the storm hit, McDonald said. "She was just jerking from head to toe."

"I grabbed her and said ‘Dreama, let’s go,’ " McDonald said. "We got in the bathtub and went to praying."

All down Olympia, Boston, Baltimore and Ark. 18, aluminum siding hung from utility wires, fiberglass insulation clung to tree limbs and trash was scattered everywhere. So many evergreen trees were knocked down or stripped that some areas smelled like a Christmas tree lot; other areas smelled of natural gas. At one house, open to the sky after a roof had been torn off, dolls still sat on a bookshelf, undisturbed.

Charles Galloway, 42, said his family huddled in the hallway as his house "kind of jumped up and down." The back of the house blew away and a tree landed on his car.

Cherokee Sammons, 25, said she tried to make it to a shelter with her 4-month-old son, but was lifted off the ground and thrown under a car. She received nine stiches to her scalp. She was trying to get a ride to Memphis, where her son, Tyler, and daughter, Danielle, 4, had been airlifted to Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center.

William Martin, 36, went outside to cut off the natural gas when he saw the storm throwing debris into the air from his bedroom window. When he got outside, he was looking up into the eye of the storm. "It’s not over. We’re in the middle of it," he recalled thinking. He and his wife hid in a closet as a utility pole crashed down on their roof.

Grace Halpain had lived 82 years without seeing a tornado. Her cats woke her up as the wind picked up and the power went out Thursday morning.

"It come up all at once," she said, as she tuned one ear to a battery-powered radio.

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Bowers convicted of killing Dahmer ex-klan leader gets life term in ’66 murder

August 22, 1998

It has taken 32 years, but it looks like justice has finally come to Ellie Dahmer and her children.

In slightly more than three hours of deliberations Friday, a Forrest County jury found Sam Bowers, the former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, guilty of the 1966 murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer.

The historic verdict and life sentence followed four mistrials in the 1960s in which jurors deadlocked on charges that Bowers orchestrated the firebombing that killed Dahmer, injured his 10-year-old daughter and destroyed his home and grocery. Witnesses said Bowers, now 73, ordered the killing because Dahmer (pronounced DAY-mer) was allowing black voters to pay their poll taxes in his store.

Immediately after reading the verdict, Circuit Judge Richard W. McKenzie polled the jury, then ordered Bowers into custody. He will be sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman sometime next week. Before sentencing, McKenzie asked Bowers if he had anything to say. "No, sir," he said. He had taken off the Mickey Mouse lapel pin he’d worn all week.

The conviction of Bowers, combined with a guilty verdict four years ago in the retrial of the man accused of killing Medgar Evers, was seen by some as proof of a changing racial climate in Mississippi.

When McKenzie banged his gavel at the close of the four-day trial, the courtroom erupted in cheers. Forrest County Asst. Dist. Atty. Robert B. Helfrich choked back tears. Retired FBI agents who’d spent the prime of their lives battling Klan violence and had returned to testify this week embraced each other, misty eyed. Mrs. Dahmer, in a balcony overlooking the defense table where she had spent all week, hugged her children.

Outside the courthouse, dabbing her eyes with a balled-up tissue, she spoke for her family and her husband.

"I’m filled with joy," she said. "The tears I’m shedding, I’m shedding for Vernon. I know he’s looking at us today. ... It’s a happy moment for us - one we’ve waited for for about 30 years."

Said Helfrich: "This is the Dahmers’ day. They have waited too long for it."

Everyone in the Forrest County Courthouse this week knew that history was being made. Named in 1909 for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the original Ku Klux Klan, the county and its county seat have been a focal point in the civil rights struggle since the late 1950s.

Dist. Atty. E. Lindsay Carter noted Friday that he had been asked by many people not to reopen the case, and was widely praised for the courage to take it on.

Others, like Bob Stringer, the surprise witness who came forward last year to say he’d overheard Bowers and Deavours Nix plan the attack, said it was the right thing to do. Nix, 72, faces trial on arson charges in the same incident.

"I’m just proud. This is about people helping people. I’m just glad I could help," Stringer said.

But what some saw as courage and righting a wrong, the defense team saw as pandering to a political constituency, the theme of defense lawyer Travis Buckley’s often wandering closing argument.

"I started out by telling you that this was a case that was wound up by political expediency and driven by members of the press," Buckley told jurors. "I say to you now that this is a case where Mr. Bowers’s life is being offered upon that altar to be sacrificed ... to promote political ambition." Later, he vowed to appeal the conviction.

Most will remember the Bowers defense for the testimony of Nix, who said he joined the Klan when he heard of its "benevolent" mission and its delivery of fruit baskets at Christmastime.

Atty. Gen. Mike Moore, who attended the trial Thursday and was here for the verdict Friday, poked fun at the strategy of putting Nix on the stand.

"Fruit baskets at Christmas: that about sums up the defense in this case," he said. "The jury laughed at the defense the entire trial."

For most in the courtroom, the fifth Bowers trial and the verdict Friday was a victory as sweet as the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Evers in Jackson.

Dahmer’s killing occurred just as Klansmen were being called before the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. The firebombing was aimed at sending a message to Washington, according to testimony.

Dahmer, his wife and three children were asleep in the predawn hours of Jan. 10, 1966, when two carloads of Klansmen, bearing shotguns and 12 gallons of gasoline, attacked the Dahmers’ rural home and grocery about five miles north of Hattiesburg. Dahmer fired back at the attackers but was severely burned. He died that afternoon, his lungs seared by burning gasoline fumes. He was 58.

In their closing arguments Friday, Special Asst. Atty. Gen. Lee Martin and Helfrich urged jurors to look at the consistent evidence of guilt, not the moral character of the former Klansmen who testified against the former Imperial Wizard.

Billy Roy Pitts, the chief witness in the earlier trials and again this week, admitted on the stand to having an extramarital affair while in protective custody. Another witness left her Klansman husband shortly after the Dahmer killing and lived with a man without marrying him, a point the defense hammered home.

Martin asked jurors to consider the testimony of Cathy Lucy, the former wife of Klansman Burris Dunn of Jackson, who recalled Bowers arriving at her house with headlines of Dahmer’s death from the daily newspaper and "jubilant" at what his "boys" had done to the Dahmer family.

Helfrich banged an index finger on the rail of the jury box as he recalled Thursday’s testimony in which a string of Bowers’s Jones County friends testified that he was a solid businessman, a Christian - "a gentleman." One of the witnesses was Nix, who called Bowers a "real, real nice man."

"They talk of gentlemen," Helfrich whispered. Then, shouting, he said: "These people don’t have a gentle bone in their bodies. They were nightriders and henchmen. They attacked a sleeping family and destroyed all they owned."

Then recalling Pitts’s testimony that as he fled from the burning house he heard a man’s voice - "in distress" - Helfrich reached his conclusion. "A man’s voice is still in distress ... because Sam Bowers is still walking the street."

Since he was tried on an indictment that had been "passed to the file" at the end of his last trial in the ’60s, Bowers was found guilty under the law as it stood at the time. Although a current-day life sentence in Mississippi means life in prison, Bowers will be eligible to apply for parole in 10 years, said Martin of the Attorney General’s office.

Awaiting the verdict in the courtroom Friday morning were three of the four FBI agents who testified for the state in the case. Lindsay, the district attorney, called them "my right stuff."

Retired agents James W. Awe, Loren Brooks, Charles Killion and Jim Ingram, now Mississippi’s Commissioner of Public Safety, are walking Civil Rights Era textbooks on the Klan and its secret ways. Said Ingram: "We are about the only ones still alive or who still have their mental faculties who could be here, who could testify to the significant elements." Awe said they’d probably set a record for returning to testify after so many years.

But for all the agents who tried to bring peace through law enforcement, there were more who tried to use what Jeanette M. Smith called "the movement." She’d attended Bowers’s first trial in 1967.

Her late husband, Dr. C. E. Smith of Memphis, took over as president of the NAACP in Forrest County when Dahmer was killed, and she served in the same capacity later herself. Smith recalled the constant harassment her family received after her husband was invited to be one of the few black people in Forrest County permitted to vote, but refused if everyone couldn’t.

"The emphasis was on voter registration, but after Mr. Dahmer’s death, things began to escalate," she remembered. "They’d call and say `Do you know where your children are?’ They’d come by and throw skunks in the yard. They did all kinds of things to instill terror.

"It means so much to me to see justice done," she said.

But she doesn’t want revenge. "You have to forgive because some of the worst people I know have the finest children."

Rev. Will Campbell, 74, of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., who was the only white man present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and walked the first black children into Little Rock Central High, was greeted in the courtroom as an old friend by both Ellie Dahmer and Sam Bowers.

Asked about the ease with which he walked the divide, he said, "You don’t take sides in a tragedy. It is a tragedy and we’re all caught up in this drama."

The former Baptist chaplain at Ole Miss said he’d known Vernon Dahmer for years before he was killed, attending voting rights meetings. But he realized that he needed to talk to enemies of the movement while writing a book about an Episcopal priest caught in the integration struggles at the University of Mississippi and, through an intermediary, spent time with Bowers.

At one point, Bowers stopped at a cemetery to pray over a tombstone, Campbell recalled, and when he returned to the car, he had tears in his eyes.

"Animals don’t cry," said Campbell. "Human beings cry at the foot of a friend’s grave."

Plater Hamilton, who teaches "tolerance education" at Tulane University’s Southern Institute, said the lesson of the trial is that "the system works but it requires people to push it." There are other Klansmen still awaiting their day in court, he said.

"The message from Forrest County is that those people should be afraid -- that justice will catch up with them."

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