Four decades later, an ex-Klansman returns home with a message of tolerance and apology. Can his former victim forgive him, or believe him?

Walking slowly across the grounds of Murphy High School in Mobile, Ala., which he has not visited since graduating in 1966, Stan Chassin looks for the spot where “the most violent thing I’d dealt with in my life” happened.

“Here’s where it took place,” he says, coming to a covered walkway by the auditorium. He touches his chest.

“I can feel my heart racing again.”

Persecution

It was spring 1964, not long after the court-ordered desegregation of the all-white high school. Law enforcement was present to keep order, but Murphy was relatively calm.

Chassin’s days were ordinary: classes, sandlot baseball, an after-school job and youth group meetings at the synagogue where his grandfather had been rabbi.

Then one day, an older student named Tommy Tarrants approached him. At 6-foot-3, he towered over the 5-foot, 6-inch Chassin. Chassin knew Tarrants only by reputation. “He did not know who I was,” he says, thinking back, “but what I was.”

Tarrants passed and said, “Kike bastard.”

“Hood bastard,” Chassin returned.

Tarrants grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against a wall. “If I see you again, Jew bastard, I’ll kill you!”

Chassin did not report the confrontation to school officials, but it was all the talk among students. The next day, Chassin was summoned by the principal, R.B. Taylor. “Stay away from Tommy Tarrants,” he told Chassin. “He’s dangerous. He could kill you.”

Around that time, Tarrants painted a swastika on Chassin’s synagogue, and hate calls were placed to the two rabbis in Mobile and to black civil rights leaders in the area.

That summer, Tarrants was pulled over by Mobile police late one night while driving through a black neighborhood with a sawed-off shotgun. He was placed on probation until his 21st birthday.

But in 1967, he was arrested in Mississippi in a stolen car with a .45-caliber submachine gun – and in the company of Sam Bowers, leader of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Tarrants returned to Mobile on bond, but dropped out of sight.

Then, on July 1, 1968, Chassin read this story from Meridian, Miss.: “A commando squad of policemen, defending the home of a prominent Jewish businessman, sprang a trap on suspected nightriders early Sunday, wounding a young Alabama man and killing his woman companion.”

While chased by police in Meridian, Tarrants fired a submachine gun, wounding one officer. Tarrants was shot in the arm, leg and abdomen. Chassin remembers his feeling at the time: “I hope the son of a bitch dies.”

As a Jew in Alabama, Chassin grew up feeling different – “in school you were known as the Jewish child” – but he never encountered harsh anti-Semitism, until Tarrants. “I saw the evil, the hate, in his eyes,” Chassin says.

Tarrants was convicted of attempted bombing for having 29 sticks of dynamite intended for the home of Jewish businessman Meyer Davidson. He was sentenced to 30 years in Mississippi’s Parchman penitentiary.

On July 24, 1969, while working in the prison hospital, Tarrants escaped with two other inmates. Two days later, they were ambushed by the FBI, and one of them was shot dead. They five hand grenades, two rifles, two pistols and a bayonet in their possession.

Tarrants was slung into solitary.

In the late 1970s, Tarrants’ surfaced again: experiencing what he described as a powerful religious conversion. He became, it was said, a changed man.

He started reading Greek philosophy, immersed in the Scripture and gained support from a black inmate and a prominent Jewish lawyer in getting parole. Tarrants was released, attended the University of Mississippi, and published a memoir in 1979.

Tarrants moved to Washington, D.C., became a minister and president of the C.S. Lewis Institute, named for the late scholar and author of the “Chronicles of Narnia.” In this capacity, Tarrants was invited to speak at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church in Mobile.

A friend of Chassin’s knew got him interested in attending. “A flood of impressions of Tommy Tarrants came back to me,” Chassin says. “I began to think about it in an aggressive manner, my feeling of watching his career.”

Later, Chassin was in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting and praying when “Tarrants’ name came up in my mind.” He heard a voice say, “I want you to perform a mitzvah.” (Mitzvah is the Hebrew word for “good deed.”)

Chassin believes the voice was God’s. Still, he was uncertain.

“I figured I’d go see for myself,” Chassin says, “if he had changed.”

Reflection

Softspoken and humble, Thomas A. Tarrants III looks down at a headline from Nov. 28, 1968: “Tarrants Found Guilty, Sentenced to 30 Years.” The 60-year-old sees a mugshot of himself at age 21 next to the story:

“A self-styled guerrilla waging a ‘holy crusade’ against a ‘Communist-Jewish conspiracy’ was convicted Wednesday night of the attempted bombing of the home of a Jewish businessman.”

Tarrants is silent a long time. “I feel shame and disgust,” he says. “You can see what a head case I was.”

In his 1979 memoir, “The Conversion of a Klansman: The Story of a Former Ku Klux Klan Terrorist,” Tarrants sketched his slide toward vehement hatred of Jews and blacks.

While he was aware of Jewish people in town, he knew nothing of Jews personally, nor their religion. As a teen he became alienated from his family and stored a handgun, sawed-off shotgun and machine gun in his bedroom, all bought with money from after-school jobs.

It was anti-Red fervor of the 1950s and ’60s, and a conviction the Jews were behind an international Communist conspiracy, that focused Tarrants’ rage.

He devoured propaganda literature about an alleged Jewish plot to control the world. He linked up with the Klan, a secret paramilitary troop known as the Minutemen, and the National States Rights Party. He would drive through black neighborhoods, shooting into people’s homes. He prayed for race war.

“I thought I was a Christian fighting against the Communist-Jewish conspiracy,” he says sadly. “It was a noble thing. I was doing it for God and country.”

In 1963, the integration of his high school made Tarrants angrily call Gov. George Wallace for intervention. The response came from the FBI.. He was suspended for 10 days. Surely “the Jews were behind it,” he thought.

Yet he felt certain he would go to heaven. “I went about feeling like I had had my ticket punched,” he says. “But I had no change of heart, of life.” He was unbowed in that arrogance, even after his conviction in 1968.

In his 6-by-9-foot jail cell – “reading was the only thing that kept me from going crazy…cra-zi-er” – he began to reflect on the meaning of his life. He took to heart the wisdom of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thus began his “startling transformation.”

When looking back, he realizes he had close calls along the way – dropping a homemade dynamite bomb that didn’t go off. The police ambush. The prison escape.

“By God’s grace I was protected, despite my vile behavior,” he wrote in his memoir. “It was a miracle…Truly the living Christ was active to redeem me and work out his plan for my life.”

Redemption

Tarrants, 60, returned to Mobile not as a Klansman, but as a changed man. Chassin wanted to see for himself.

“My father always taught me to confront my fears,” he says. “But I wondered, ‘Do I have the internal fortitude to go through with this?'”

But when he saw Tarrants, Chassin flashed to high school. “I thought, he’s not so big, I could have taken him!” Slightly stooped, Tarrants had no hint of his teenage swagger.

With his modulated voice, and touches of a speaker’s humor, Tarrants spoke of his militant bigotry, how he learned to despise blacks and loathe Jews. He called sin “a cancer” that had come into his body and heart.

After Tarrants finished, he asked for questions. Chassin hesitated, then stood.

“It’s hard facing you,” he told Tarrants.

Chassin recounted how Tarrants grabbed him by the throat, called him “a kike bastard” and swore, “If I ever see you again, Jew bastard, I’ll kill you.”

A few in the audience were worried, at first, what Chassin might do – maybe to get even after all these years. But as Chassin’s voice got stronger, he grew calmer. He saw a look of pain on Tarrants’ face.

“God told me,” Chassin said, “‘You have to forgive him for what he did to you. And then, for all the hatred and disgust you felt toward him, you have to ask Tommy,” Chassin’s voice was breaking now, “to forgive you.'”

Quietly, Tarrants answered: “I appreciate you being so gracious and forgiving. I’m very grateful, Stan, for your having the courage to come and share your forgiveness.”

Tarrants turned to the audience: “Isn’t it amazing,” he went on, “what God can do?”

Chassin walked forward and held out his hand.

The two men embraced.

Chassin was weeping.

Postscript

Chassin now says his life has been changed. Tarrants says the encounter “raises questions that may lead to a new phase” in his own life, “a new journey.” “Where will this lead me?” he wonders.

Then, several weeks later, Chassin returned to his high school to walk the grounds and recall the encounter that “joined our lives.” He, too, speaks of reconciliation, of God’s presence, of “a new phase of my life.”

Then he turns a corner and spots a swastika spray-painted on a wall. For a moment, Chassin is taken aback. “It makes me so sad,” he says. Then he realizes his mission now, like Tarrants’, is to further education about hatred, about forgiveness.

“The ignorance,” he says, “never goes away.”

Roy Hoffman is a staff writer at The Press-Register of Mobile, Ala. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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