Trial By Fire
A former KKK Grand Dragon claims that life of hate and violence is behind him, but is he a changed man? And why should anyone believe him?
Brian Tackett couldn't believe the day had actually arrived. Gazing out the bus window at the stretching Midwestern countryside, he tried to remain composed. For more than a decade freedom had been merely a vague idea, a blurry notion he knew better than to dwell upon. Now the reality of the situation stared him in the face. Ahead lay his new home of Memphis and a strange, uncertain world. Behind was the Federal Correctional Institution of Greenville, Illinois, the last stop on a 12-year prison tour for the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon.
The night back in 1991, when he had torched the Bowling Green, Kentucky, church, seemed like another lifetime. He was barely 20, a kid more or less. Now in his early 30s, Tackett was about to start life over from scratch and it was "scary as hell," he recalls. He knew the battles he would soon face. An arson record was bad enough. A record as a church arsonist for the Ku Klux Klan, however, was a stigma not easily erased. Combined with a long rap sheet of stealing farm equipment and cars, he was not touting an especially impressive resume. He sat back and watched the scenery pass as the bus rolled along and memories from his former life flashed through his mind.
Tackett grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, working most of his life on his father's farm. Seasonal workers, mostly ex-cons, were hired to help with the day-to-day chores. Surrounded by con men, convicts, and Klan members, Tackett couldn't help but pick up tips and tricks for earning easy money.
It didn't take long for the young Tackett to get lured into a life of theft — everything from farm equipment to tools and cars. His mentor? Ernest Pierce, an older man who taught the boy the ropes. But Pierce was more than just a thief — he was also the Imperial Wizard of the Kentucky Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. "He was 40 years my senior," says Tackett. "I looked up to him, and tried to emulate him and believe what he believed. It's a mistake a lot of people make, and I certainly was one of them." The bond Tackett and Pierce formed was based not only on Pierce's but on Tackett's financial independence. For years, the duo built a relationship forged of crime and hatred, and Tackett eventually "earned" his way into the Grand Wizard's Klavern. The Klavern, a loosely organized Ku Klux Klan group headed by Pierce, acted as hate-mongers and vigilantes, with Tackett and Pierce at the helm. Pierce gave the orders, Tackett carried them out — no matter how heinous.
Tackett's first orders? To castrate a man Pierce believed raped a 15-year-old girl. Though Tackett was almost certain this was not the case, a Klansman did not argue with the Wizard. He enlisted the help of two others, and fully robed, they headed out into the night to carry out Pierce's orders. They found the man at a local motel, dragged him to a muddy riverbank, and blindfolded him. Tackett pulled his buck knife from his pocket, leaned over the shivering, sobbing man, and fulfilled his orders.
They left the man screaming by the river, tossed the bloody knife into the swirling waters, and piled back into the truck. Tackett was certain he'd just attacked an innocent man. He felt sick to his stomach, the screams of his bleeding victim still ringing in his ears. The others saw things differently.
"Congratulations," one said. "You just made Grand Dragon."
Pierce's next target? Larry Craig, the preacher of the all-white Bowling Green Baptist Church but also the editor of the Green River Republican, a weekly newspaper in Morgantown, Kentucky. A vocal opponent of the Klan, Craig had the power of both the print and the pulpit at his disposal. But it was an article penned by Craig calling the Klan "a putrid cancer on the body politic of society" that spurred Pierce to revenge on the outspoken Craig.
The church would be burned, Pierce decided, and the Grand Dragon, Tackett, would do it. In the December chill of a Kentucky night, Tackett and a few of his "brothers" stole a car, drank to calm his nerves, and drove to the Bowling Green Baptist Church. At 2 a.m., the church and the nearby neighborhood stood dark and quiet. Tackett gathered the fuel, kicked in a basement window, and proceeded to soak the Sunday School classrooms with the accelerant. Although he'd been ordered to burn the entire church, Tackett says something stopped him. He couldn't make himself douse the sanctuary.
"I can't explain the feeling. It was powerful. I knew that this was the beginning of the end even as I was lighting the fire. I felt I was punishing a whole community for what one man was saying. They didn't deserve to be punished too," he explains, struggling even now to make sense of it all. He had no problem, however, leaning down to light the trail that would burn the lower level of the church. Flames quickly licked through the classrooms, and Tackett raced back to the car.
The basement would burn for a while before anyone saw flames, and the neighboring homes were still dark. No one but his brothers and Pierce would know of the crime. The group drove to Pierce's house to let him know pastor Larry Craig had been sent a fiery message that night.
"It's done," Tackett declared simply.
"Thanks," replied Pierce. "That's what I wanted.
It seemed as though the men had gotten away with the crime, but three months later, in March 1992, Tackett was charged for his role in a statewide tractor theft operation. Soon after, a girlfriend of Tackett's tipped off authorities about the church fire, and Tackett, Pierce, and several others involved found themselves facing charges ranging from grand theft auto to possession of a handgun to arson.
Out of loyalty, Tackett refused to inform on Pierce or any members of his Klavern. So while the rest were out on bail, Tackett awaited trial for three years in various holding cells, certain that his loyalty would be rewarded.
When the trial began, Tackett discovered how loyal his fellow Klansmen really were.
Pierce testified under oath that not only did he have nothing to do with Tackett's "fencing business," but also denied he ordered Tackett to burn Craig's church. Tackett vigorously denied the allegations, claiming he was in Ohio watching a football game the night of the crime. The alibi didn't pass muster with the jury. The testimony of two others against Tackett sealed his fate.
When the 10-day trial was over, Tackett was sentenced to 12 years in prison — along with Pierce — who received 52 months for solicitation and conspiracy to commit arson. Tackett's parents paid the price, too. Grayson and Linda Tackett lied to federal agents during a critical portion of their son's arson investigation, and found themselves convicted and sentenced to 18- and 21-month terms, respectively.
Pierce and Tackett's eyes met briefly as they passed one another leaving the courtroom.
"There was nothing he could say," recalls Tackett. "He was just a frail old man and I knew then that what I had gotten myself into was a real bad deal. I wasn't so mad at everybody else as I was at myself, for being that damn stupid. When you find yourself in that position you just know it's over. Life is over now."
As he was led out of the courtroom, headed for Manchester Federal Prison, Tackett was furious. Furious that others who'd lied were now free. Furious that he'd protected them, and furious at himself for the choices he'd made. "I wasn't upset about being punished," he notes. "I deserved it for what I'd done. But I was, I guess you could say, in a state of disbelief that my life was about to change forever." Brian Tackett was 22.
For the next few years Tackett behaved as if his life was, in fact, over. Angry and bitter, he wanted to escape. He racked up an extensive disciplinary record, regularly clashing with guards and refusing to obey prison rules. For one stretch he even stopped eating and grooming himself, totally indifferent, he says, to whether he lived or died. During the seven months Tackett served at Manchester, he spent six of them in "the hole," or solitary confinement. "It's a miserable place to be," he says. "No visitors, no phone calls. I wasn't getting any medical treatment [Tackett had been shot in the stomach in his late teens during an altercation at a party]. I was completely out of touch. I remember I was in the hole when the Oklahoma City bombing happened, and also during the 9/11 attacks."
His behavior resulted in a transfer to the maximum-security U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. '"One of the guards told me as he was leading me out of isolation for the transfer that Leavenworth is the kind of place that makes or breaks a man," recalls Tackett. "He said he hoped it made me."
Leavenworth was a no-nonsense environment and his defiant attitude landed him in the hole for extended stretches. Rotting away in solitary confinement for months on end, Tackett was forced to reflect on his situation with honesty. Had any of it been worth it, he wondered? Instead of enjoying the best years of his young adulthood, he was lying on the floor of a cold, unforgiving jail cell in Kansas — miserable, alone, staring at the sorry excuse for a toilet where those same years were being flushed away before his eyes. Here, Tackett says he went through a painful process of acceptance, eventually coming to terms with the fact his perspective on the world was fundamentally flawed. His dogmatic convictions had resulted in nothing but his own demise, and it was time to explore new ideas.
"There was a simple truism I picked up around that time; that you would rather have a mind opened by wonder than closed by belief," Tackett says. "That was the main thing. I just started to think more instead of working off feeling and emotion. When you start to use your mind and think, you start to do a whole lot better in life."
For the remainder of his incarceration Tackett dedicated himself to reading. He worked with a counselor he credits for "saving his life." He studied the Klan's origins, the fall of Nazi Germany, and a wide range of American history. He often pulled Congressional debates from the Civil War and Civil Rights eras out of the Federal Depository Library, and devoured legal texts. Tackett also took to the task of writing his memoirs. He earned a law degree from the University of Southern California's correspondence program, and that degree is what would lead him to Memphis.
While in Leavenworth, Tackett befriended a Memphis man with troubles of his own. With his newly earned law degree, he began helping his buddy — the notorious Memphis strip-club mogul Danny Owens — get ready for his appeal. One of the witnesses in Owens' upcoming trial befriended Tackett, and she soon began visiting him at Leavenworth regularly. On July 9, 2003, Tackett left Leavenworth with his new bride, and they headed to her hometown of Memphis.
Tackett was ordered to spend his first six months in town in a halfway house in Midtown, and his marriage fell apart after about a year. "Let's just say that after 12 years of incarceration I found it difficult to be faithful," Tackett admits. Attempts to find work over the ensuing months were also discouraging. "I figured out pretty quick nobody was going to hire me," says Tackett. "McDonald's wouldn't have hired me. They do a background check on me and it's over. I had no idea what I was going to do, where I was going to go, nothing."
He became convinced he needed to take a different route and eventually decided to start his own contracting corporation. At first the corporation was little more than a name on paper, yet it did allow him to be released from the halfway home in early 2004. Felony convictions notwithstanding, there was no denying Tackett knew contracting work. Tackett began to slowly acquire equipment and bid jobs at prices people couldn't refuse, and it wasn't long, he says, before a solid list of references and completed projects was under his belt.
"I just went and talked to people in the community and told them I would do this or that for them at this price," he says. "I was very up-front with them and told them they wouldn't have to worry about any problems. They believed me and gave me a chance and I worked myself up that way at a pretty rapid rate."
Jobs kept coming in, the company was slowly adding employees, and for the most part, his Klan background had yet to affect business. That would change, however, following a highly publicized legal dispute — one that ultimately resulted in Tackett dusting off the pages of his yet-to-be-published memoir. The drama began last December after his company (he asked the name not be used) bid on a lucrative water-line extension project in Coahoma County, Mississippi. Although his bid was nearly $100,000 cheaper than his nearest competitor, Tackett lost the job. He couldn't figure out why, and started digging.
Upon discovering the county engineer knew of his Klan background and inquired about it during reference checks, Tackett decided he had been slighted. He filed suit in circuit, then federal court, claiming discrimination. Not surprisingly, the case caught substantial media attention and his quiet existence was blown. Radio stations and newspapers around the Mid-South wanted to know about this former Klansman who had burned down a church and was now suing a Mississippi county. (The lawsuits have since been thrown out.) Although wary of publishing the book until he was much older, Tackett now felt he had nothing to lose. This April, he self-published Inside the Ku Klux Klan: The Rise and Fall of a Grand Dragon through AuthorHouse.
He had fears about publishing the book, of course. Mostly for his business, not so much for his safety. But Tackett insists that he had to write the book "to keep other young people from doing what I did."
"It was just a way to rebel against society, and we chose a bad form of it. I formed all these judgments and opinions on the way I thought things ought to be but didn't know everything I should have known," he says. "I was real strong-willed and bullheaded — more than most people, I admit that — but I really feel like if I had had a little more education at a lot younger age that I would have applied all that energy and determination into something more productive in society as opposed to being anti-productive."
Tackett pauses for a few seconds as he considers his last words. "I'm not saying I would have been a preacher or something," he clarifies. "I probably would have still been trying to make money, which you know is not necessarily the best thing you can do; but I wouldn't have been going against society."
As for his former Klan brethren, he has never spoken to or seen them since the trial, nor does he intend to. He's not even sure if Pierce is still alive. "I have nothing to say to any of them. I'm not angry. It's a part of my life that is over. Gone. It is in the past, and it will stay that way. It's the future that I care about now. It's the only part I can control, and I plan to live my life making up for what I did. Doing right."