We are pleased to share this guest post by Michael Grant, currently in his final year at the Georgetown University Law Center. At Georgetown, Michael is the Senior Submissions Editor for the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics. He is also involved in Home Court, an annual charity basketball game between Georgetown faculty and staff and members of Congress that raises money for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. After law school, Michael is planning to work as a litigation associate in New York City. Michael wrote this reflection for the Law and Religion Practicum taught by Professor Stephanie Inks.
“Our values were being challenged . . . [t]he traditions we had known and accepted for decades were being destroyed before our eyes.”[i] These words sound like they might be uttered today by many a disgruntled partisan—say, a conservative who believes the Supreme Court has unjustly redefined their traditional view of marriage, or a liberal who believes that the economy has left them behind in favor of the 1%. It is not hard to imagine how such a perspective could lead one to anger and hate.
And while these words may resonate with people today, they were the thoughts of a high-school-aged Thomas Tarrants, a young, white Alabamian growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Filled with anger towards his changing society, Tarrants found himself pulled into darkness and into the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. Once labeled the most dangerous man in Mississippi and a domestic terrorist,[ii] Tarrants’s story could have ended there—a man who was unable to escape from his evil thoughts and actions. But in his book, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation, Tarrants tells the incredible story of how he found refuge in God, which provides invaluable lessons on how we can live together peacefully in a pluralistic society today.
Tarrants was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1946. As a child, he witnessed a number of socially tumultuous events, including the decision in Brown v. Board of Education leading to the desegregation of schools, the Civil Rights movement, and the overarching fear of a Communist invasion. These events challenged Tarrants, as they challenged many Southerners. Additionally, he had a strained relationship with his father, an alcoholic who worked long hours. As a high school student, Tarrants immersed himself in literature from various Neo-Nazi groups and spent his free time meeting with leaders of these groups. He grew to hate Jewish people, Communists, and all those that were “the enemies of America.”[iii] As he sunk deeper and deeper into this worldview, Tarrants contacted leaders of the KKK in order to serve “the Cause” of “preserving America and white supremacy.”[iv]
On June 29, 1968, Tarrants and an associate of his named Kathy Ainsworth drove through Meridian, Mississippi, to the neighborhood of Meyer Davidson, a prominent Jewish leader in the community. Tarrants was armed with an explosive and a handgun, planning to bomb Davidson’s house “to send a message” to the Jewish people, who Tarrants believed were behind the civil rights movement.[v] As he walked up the driveway towards the house, gunfire erupted all around him. Tarrants dropped the bomb, which did not go off, and sprinted back to the car. A bullet pierced his leg. As the two attempted to flee, Ainsworth was shot and killed, and Tarrants crashed the car after being hit by a police car. He ran from the car, firing bullets at the police. He was hit with another bullet. As he attempted to hide from the police, he was shot again from short range. Right before the police could kill him, an ambulance driver who witnessed the scene showed up and rushed him to the hospital. The emergency room doctors gave Tarrants forty-five minutes to live, but several surgeries saved his life. After a month of hospitalization, Tarrants faced his punishment—jail and a prosecution seeking the death penalty.
While in jail awaiting trial, Tarrants realized he could no longer serve “the Cause,” and he fell into a deep depression. This led him to attempt suicide by swallowing a stash of pain killers, though this effort failed. Still committed to the KKK and the tenants of white supremacy, he refused to cooperate with law enforcement and give up his fellow Klansmen. He was prepared to accept the death penalty. His defense attorney attempted to convince the jury Tarrants was insane, which only infuriated Tarrants, who believed he served a worthy cause.[vi] The jury was unpersuaded by the argument, and his fate lay in the hands of the judge. Instead of granting the prosecution their wishes, the judge spared Tarrants’s life, sentencing him to thirty years in Parchment Prison, one of Mississippi’s most notorious institutions.
Both to prevent Tarrants’s escape and to protect him from in-prison retaliation, the warden placed Tarrants on death row in the maximum-security section of the prison. There, he was confined to a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell twenty-four hours a day. During this time, Tarrants remained committed to the white supremacist movement. A bit of luck resulted in his transfer to the hospital unit of the prison, where Tarrants planned an escape. After recruiting two others to join him and coordinating with them, the trio used butcher knifes to overpower the guards and escape the prison. A KKK getaway car picked them up, complete with guns, grenades, and other necessities to assist the group on their journey to freedom. The group hid in an abandoned barn while the FBI launched a thorough search to bring them back to prison. They took turns watching guard, armed and ready. One night, Tarrants was relieved early from his shift. Less than fifteen minutes later, he found himself in the midst of another gunfight—the FBI had found them. After shooting the man on guard, the FBI arrested Tarrants and the other fugitive and brought them back to prison.
The short-lived escape landed Tarrants back in the maximum-security unit of Parchment Prison. Still angry and harboring white-supremacist views, he continued to read everything he could on the subject, which only deepened his depression and hatred. He attempted suicide a second time, but a guard on an unexpected patrol saved his life.
With no other refuge but books, Tarrants continued to read, but he started to study philosophy. Plato and Aristotle led him on a “desire for truth.”[vii] These books opened his eyes to all the misconceptions and errors in his former beliefs. His “mind was becoming free.”[viii] This journey brought him to the Bible. Through reading Scripture, Tarrants repented of his ways and became a Christian.
He remained in prison, but this did not stop him from continuing on his spiritual journey. He befriended countless persons in jail, including many prison officials. One such individual, Sergeant E.R. Moody, saw great change in Tarrants and risked his own job to give Tarrants a chance to perform clerical work in one of the prison offices. Tarrants later befriended the prison chaplain, who gave him the opportunity to work in the chaplain’s office and leave the maximum-security unit. Over time, Tarrants began to minister to other inmates, and he formed friendships with his former enemies, including an FBI agent, Frank Watts, who had first interrogated him in jail. He began to meet African-Americans and Jews. Even a prominent Mississippi Jewish attorney, Al Binder, who had worked rigorously to help break up the KKK in his home state, met with Tarrants. When the meeting was first proposed, Binder refused, stating, “Let him rot in hell.”[ix] A few months later, he accepted the invitation, and the two men gradually formed a friendship.
Many believed Tarrants had truly changed, and they began to advocate for his early release, a complicated process requiring the ultimate approval of the state governor. Understandably, the governor was not too fond of the idea of releasing a former terrorist back into society. The governor’s special counsel, however, vouched for the authenticity of Tarrants’s conversion and recommended his release.[x] The governor approved the early release on this recommendation from his special counsel—Al Binder.
After his release from prison, Tarrants continued his spiritual journey. He studied at the University of Mississippi before moving to Washington, D.C., and attending seminary. He entered the ministry and co-pastored a church. Tarrants later received his doctorate in Christian spirituality and became the President of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C., where he continues as president emeritus today.
In a word, Tarrants’s story is miraculous—a former KKK domestic terrorist turned Christian minister. It is easy to believe this could never happen again or think that this story is a one-off exception. But through his story, Tarrants teaches us how we can live together peaceably in our pluralistic society. He lays out five principles to promote this end. First, we must understand that hatred is a sin and forgiveness is key. Second, we must realize that it is possible to hold different views and not be enemies. Third, we have to educate ourselves about both our own beliefs and others’, rather than uncritically accept our own worldview without question. Fourth, we must be open to meeting and befriending others of different religions and perspectives. And fifth, we must attempt to listen, understand, and empathize with others.
If we want to live in a pluralistic society, we have to realize we cannot hate or resent those that are different from us. For Tarrants, this was a major step along his journey. He had to leave hate behind and forgive both those who put him in jail and himself. Like Tarrants, we also must first learn to live without enmity. If animosity clouds our thoughts and judgment, we will never be able to open ourselves up to others.
To make pluralism work peacefully, we also must learn and accept that it is possible to hold different views than others and not be enemies with them. Tarrants learned this lesson through others. While in prison, he was visited by a civil rights leader and the former FBI agent who worked to bring him down, but he realized these individuals were not his enemies. This helped him later forge friendships across religious and political lines. In our current political environment, it seems we must choose one side or another and view those on the other side as enemies bent on undermining our values and destroying our culture. Even in the ostensibly professional environment of a law school, I have seen people scoff at others because of their political views and values. Increasingly, this polarization seems to be cutting across religious lines as well, whether between religious groups or between the religious and areligious. This perspective is dangerous and must be countered. Our differences do not make us enemies of one another. The ability of the citizenry to hold different views and practice different religions makes our country strong, and we must work together to protect this right.
I am a proud Catholic, and I love my religion. In my spiritual development, it was important for me to learn and understand my beliefs and their origins. For Tarrants, this was especially important on his journey out of hate. For many years, Tarrants accepted the tenants of the KKK without questioning or learning about these beliefs. But as he began to read books that enlightened him to other points of views, he was able to understand that much of what he believed was rooted in prejudice, falsity, and hate. Facts helped set him free. The same is true today, even for the vast majority of us who do not harbor such bigoted and extreme views as Tarrants did. Deepening our understanding of our own and others’ worldviews can help us understand one another and defuse polarization and animosity.
While it is important for us to understand that we are not enemies with those whose views contrast with our own, we must also go a step further. We must form friendships outside of our respective social and cultural bubbles. For Tarrants, friendships with those he used to hate helped him break free of his racist and hateful views. While in prison, he was treated by an African-American doctor who first showed him the fallacies of his views. This interaction with “a real human being” broke Tarrants’s stereotypes.[xi] As he continued to open his mind, Tarrants formed friendships with Agent Watts and Al Binder. These surprising friendships helped Tarrants achieve early release. They helped him open his mind and change for the better. As Tarrants continued to find God, these friendships helped him remain faithful and not descend into doubt. Like Tarrants, we all can benefit from friendships with those who are different from us. Through these friendships, we can also help those friends similar to us open up to others. We can be a faithful presence in our communities, serving as a witness and a reminder that our differences from others do not have to lead us to view suspiciously or even hate those who are different from us.
Of course, commonalities with others may be hard to find. Tarrants formed a friendship with a former leader of the Black Panthers through their common love for and devotion to Jesus. We should all look for similar shared values with others, even if those shared values may seem small. Perhaps it is a mutual love of cooking, sports, or a community. Like for Tarrants and the former Black Panther leader, so too for us, this will often require us to step out of our comfort zones and to have conversations that at first seem difficult or impossible. But, as a classmate of mine once said, “it is hard to hate in person,” and by taking these steps and having these conversations, we can break down barriers and help defuse animosity and hate in our communities. Such actions will then enable us to act with kindness and empathy towards others. Granted, it is impossible to form friendships with everyone. But as we go about our daily lives, we can do our best to treat everyone we encounter with kindness. It does not take a lot to smile and ask how someone is doing. If we can treat others as we would like to be treated—a fundamental tenet of many religions and a value commonly held among the areligious as well—we can go a long way towards ridding the world of hate and living peacefully in a pluralistic society.
Tarrants walked an evil path for a long time, but through the grace of God and the power of friendship, he was given a second chance. Our own stories may not be as dark as Tarrants’s, but we all can learn from him about the importance of forming friendships with those different than us to combat hate in our world. If we can practice kindness in our daily lives and make an effort to learn about other religions and perspectives and befriend those of other faiths and worldviews, we can make a difference in achieving peace in our pluralistic society. The burden is on us. We may experience unjustified and unprovoked hate, but we must never succumb to a desire for revenge or hatred. Each day, we must aim to work together to improve our world. In doing so, God willing, we will not only protect religious freedom but also make our communities and nation a more peaceful, less polarized place, to the benefit of all.
[i] Thomas A. Tarrants, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation 56 (2019).
[ii] Id. at 156.
[iii] Id. at 59.
[iv] Id. at 3.
[v] Id. at 5.
[vi] Id. at 30.
[vii] Id. at 118.
[viii] Id. at 120
[ix] Id. at 144.
[x] Id. at 160.
[xi] Id. at 89.