March 10 2010

Washington Post article
January 30, 1993

‘The Light Came On’ for Klansman

Former Inmate Brings Message Against Racism to His Urban Ministry

by Carey Kinsolving

In summer 1967, J. Edgar Hoover ordered FBI agents to Mississippi in an all-out search for a Ku Klux Klan member of the notorious White Knights, who had begun bombing several Jewish synagogues. Almost a year later, the hunt ended after a car chase and shootout that left one woman dead, an FBI agent seriously wounded and the bomber lying in his own blood after receiving four shotgun blasts at close range.

Few thought Tom Tarrants, who was caught carrying a bomb to a Jewish businessman and civil rights leader’s house, would live. But the man an FBI agent once called a “mad-dog killer” not only lived, he has been transformed. That is according to his own account, those of an FBI agent and a Jewish leader who helped put him in jail, and now a journalist, Jack Nelson, who has written a book that revolves around Tarrants’s story.

Tarrants’s conversion to Christianity did not come immediately. Reported by prison officials to have been the most brilliant inmate ever to serve time in the Parchmount, Miss., prison, Tarrants escaped once and spent three years in solitary confinement in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

For the first year, Tarrants continued to feed the hate that fueled his previous activities by reading books such as “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and “Mein Kampf.” But the breakthrough came as he plunged first into the Greek philosophers and then the Bible.

Tarrants said he gleaned two thoughts that led him to take a more critical look at his life – “the unexamined life was not worth living” and “truth exists independently of what we may believe.” The wall of hate that Tarrants had built around himself crumbled.

“The light came on,” said Tarrants, who spent eight years in prison for planting a bomb. “I found myself knowing I needed the grace of God and the forgiveness of my sins. For the first time, what Jesus did on the cross became really precious and personally important to me.”

Tarrants, 46, now serves as co-pastor of an interracial Washington church – which he prefers not to identify because he still fears retaliation – and is a noted speaker against racism.

Last year, he spoke at a high school in the Harrisburg, Pa., area against anti-semitism after neo-Nazi activities had been reported there. He told the group, “Hate becomes like a cancer that obsesses you. Anti-semitism is a distortion and misinterpretation of facts.”

He frequently attends an inner-city prayer meeting, and has begun an independent urban ministry.

“I’m far more radical now than I ever was as a KKK member,” Tarrants said. “My radicalism is a reckless abandonment to Jesus Christ, obedience to Him and a lifestyle of love for everyone, no matter what their color.

“I try to be an agent of reconciliation, to get people reconciled to God and to one another. That’s radical.”

“Demonic” is how Tarrants now describes the Klan.

Tarrants wrote his own story several years ago in a book, “Conversion of a Klansman.” But, cautious about seeing his background exploited, unless it is to advance the cause of Christ, he said he doesn’t even own a copy of his book and he declines invitations to appear publicly with Nelson.

Nelson’s new book, “Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign Against the Jews,” relates his experiences as a young reporter covering the racial violence in his home state of Mississippi.

Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and now a close friend of Tarrants’s, said he is asked repeatedly, “How do you know Tarrants is still not a hater?”

“He’s gone straight all these years,” Nelson said. “He’s obviously involved in the Lord’s work now. I guess you have to say that there’s such a thing as redemption.”

Nelson cited the lobbying efforts for Tarrants’s early release by Al Binder, the Jewish leader and lawyer who raised money to pay informants for information about Tarrants, and FBI agent Frank Watts, who wanted to secure Tarrants’s cooperation and testimony to bring other Klan members to trial.

In a telephone interview from Gulf Breeze, Fla., Watts recalled the dramatic change in Tarrants when Watts visited him in solitary confinement. Tarrants threw his arms around him and hugged the man who had called him a “mad-dog killer” and helped convict him.

“At that point, I knew in my heart that there was such a thing as a born-again experience,” Watts said. And remarkably, Watts said, Tarrants’s conversion helped him to become a believer. He said it was as if the Lord said, “’Now do you believe?’ Here it is.” They talk at least once a week by telephone and visit frequently.

In the Washington church where Tarrants serves, he is teaching a class on discipleship. He describes the proper motivation for all service to God as “overflowing gratitude” in response to His love.

One of the Scriptures that Tarrants cited Sunday from the Gospels seemed to encapsulate his odyssey. In Luke 7:47, Jesus rebuked those who took issue with the woman who used her hair to wipe his feet as she anointed them with oil and tears.

Jesus’s response to her critics was, “So I tell you that all her sins are forgiven, and that is why she has shown great love. But anyone who has been forgiven only a little will show only a little love.”