How did a violent Klansman become a champion of racial reconciliation? In his new book, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love, former white supremacist Tom Tarrants tells a remarkable story of transformation by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Join us as Scott interviews Tom as he tells his story of Klan involvement, prison, and redemption. You won’t want to miss this one!
More About Our Guest
Tom Tarrants is President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute, where he served for more than 20 years. Tom holds a Master of Divinity Degree, as well as a Doctor of Ministry Degree in Christian Spirituality. He is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance and a member of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Here today with a very special guest, Tom Tarrants. Has a new book out that has a very arresting title to it, I must admit. It's called Consumed By Hate, Redeemed By Love, subtitle, Powell A Violent Klansmen Became A Champion Of Racial Reconciliation.
This is an absolutely fascinating story. John Grisham called it a riveting memoir. Having gotten through some of it myself, I can attest to, Grisham was right about that. It's just an incredible story of gospel transformation. So, Tom, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us and being willing to tell your story.
Tom Tarrants: Well, thank you, Scott. It's just a real privilege and honor to be on the program with you today.
Scott Rae: Now you're book, Tom, recounts this remarkable story, of being a seriously involved member of the clan in the 60s. Prison term, coming to faith, and now a champion of racial reconciliation as a form of discipleship and faithfully following Christ. Tell us, I think our listeners, I think I just whetted their appetite a bit for what I think is going to be quite a story. So tell us just a sketch of that story.
Tom Tarrants: Well, I grew up in the deep South, Mobile Alabama, in the 60s, came of age in the early 60s. Been raised in church, very regular I would say. Good Bible believing church, and all the rest. Baptized when I was 13, but not converted. Didn't know it though. When I was about 17, desegregation began, in my town there. I became very angry about it. Wasn't raised to be a racist, but I became very angry, like many, many other people in Alabama at that point.
This was a kind of populist wave that began to sweep through the South, probably identified with Governor George Wallace more than anybody else. So, I got on board that train, so to speak, and began reading racist, anti-Semitic, far right materials distributed at the high school that I was attending, and became indoctrinated, and just found my heart being changed. It was a change of worldview. Very much a change of worldview.
So, I took on board a lot of hatred. It was rooted in fear, the changes that are happening in society. Where is the world going? And, this is not right, it's not the way it has been. So, fear of change producing anger at perceived enemies. And over time that anger, anger is a cancer of the soul, and it spread, and I came to the point where I wanted to affiliate with the Klan over in Mississippi, which was the most violent right-wing group in America at that point. So, that's kind of the quick summary of how I got into all that.
Scott Rae: Let me stop you here, just ask a follow-up question just on that part of the story.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah, yeah.
Scott Rae: I think many of our listeners are not old enough to have been alive during the 50s and 60s. Some of them are. Just tell us a little bit about what the general culture was like in the South in the 50s and 60s when you were going up.
Tom Tarrants: Great question, Scott. I grew up in, as I said, in Mobile Alabama. It was founded in 1703. Never known anything but segregation. And of course, that was what people thought was normal. That's what I thought was normal. It never entered my mind to think otherwise. If you went into any public place, you would have water fountains, bathrooms that have a sign over the door. It would say either Colored or White.
Well, that's just symptomatic of the whole culture. That's just the way it was structured. Black people lived in a certain section of town, white people lived in their areas, and there was no overlap, no mixing at all. People had pretty well defined roles. I never met an African-American person who had a college degree, or was in any kind of position of authority, responsibility, or anything like that. So, it's very easy for me to look at black people and think, you know, by the narrative of they're inferior, they're not as smart as white people, etc, etc.
So that just permeated the whole culture, the white culture. Although there were some that were not that way, but the vast majority of people, that's sort of the way it was. And not just in Mobile, but across the South. And there's a fair amount of that kind of racist mentality in the North as well. It took a different form, but...
Scott Rae: Okay. So, then you were affiliated with the Klan in Mississippi.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah.
Scott Rae: So, continue the story.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah, well I came in right as it was... It had been involved in a lot of terrible violence, that you can read about in history books. But I came in right at the tail end of that. One night, two of us were going to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman who had spoken against the Klan, and was pro civil rights and that sort of thing. Well, we arrived in the wee hours of the morning to deliver this bomb, and in the process of trying to do so we stepped right into an ambush. The FBI had discovered the plan, they had local, what we call a SWAT team there, 26 men heavily armed.
There was an intense gun battle, the person with me was killed. I was shot four times at close range with double buckshot. When they got me to the hospital they said it would be a miracle if I lived 45 minutes. But, God spared my life. It was just mercy. It was just purely God's mercy. After several weeks I was put in jail, then given a trial, sent to state penitentiary, which was considered one of the worst in the country. For 30 years, that was my sentence.
I escaped about six months later with two other inmates. Was recaptured a couple days later. FBI, SWAT team, and one of the guys that escaped with me was killed in the gun battle there, right where I had been five minutes before, where I should have been. He came and relieved me early from standing watch. There's another instance of God's mercy. You can tell from what I've said so far, I did not deserve any kind of breaks, any divine help here. I was put back in prison in the maximum-security unit, and that's where things began to change in my life.
Scott Rae: Okay, so in solitary confinement?
Tom Tarrants: I was in a cell by myself. There were other cells along the cellblock. I couldn't see anybody, I just see a court or in front of me. But I was by myself in that cell, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week, that was it.
Scott Rae: So you say things started to change about that time. I take it that's when your genuine conversion to faith started happening.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah. But it's quite honestly because, when I got back in that cell, of course to keep from going crazy, I had to read all the time. And what did I do? Well, I jumped right into all the a racist, anti-Semitic books that I had not read before. I didn't reach for the Bible.
Scott Rae: Not exactly plan A.
Tom Tarrants: No. I hadn't learned the first law of holes, when you're in one, quit digging. So I was digging myself ever more deeply into this darkness and deception. But at a certain point I felt drawn to read classical philosophy. So I read through Plato, and Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius. Obviously that didn't cause me to repent and believe the gospel. But it did give me the... I came away with the very clear conviction that there was such a thing as truth, objective truth, and that it was there for us to discover. And also Socrates, and his comment on examined life is not worth living.
So, that sent me on a quest for truth. I had no idea where it would go, and I'd never dreamt that it would take me away from my far right ideology. And it wasn't a search for God, it was just a search for truth, kind of abstract search for truth. But what happened in that journey is at a certain point I felt drawn to read the Gospels. That's where I was ambushed by the Holy Spirit. My eyes began to be opened, and I began to see what I had never seen before. The meaning of those words became clearer to me, and I became convicted of my sins, which I think is a crucial part of true conversion. Why do you need Jesus if you don't have a sin problem, you know?
I became convicted of my sins, God granted me repentance. My heart was really moved with sorrow for my sins, and tears of contrition and... I got on my knees one night and prayed a very simple prayer. I asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins and take over my life. Something changed inside of me, and I haven't been the same since. That was 50 years ago.
Scott Rae: And this happened basically without much meaningful contact with any other person. It was basically the work of the Holy Spirit and EU.
Tom Tarrants: It was the work of the Holy Spirit. But, here's a little footnote to the story. I did not know this at the time, but the wife of the FBI agent who set up this capture in the bombing attempt had a prayer group. She was a very serious praying Christian, and so were the other ladies in that group. I guess they hadn't had time to get [inaudible], You believe they just believed it was true what they read in the Bible. They said, "God can save this guy. God can do miracles. Let's pray for the Lord to save him." They met weekly for two years, praying for my conversion. And so that's the story behind the story.
Scott Rae: Yeah. That's quite a cadre of people praying for you.
Tom Tarrants: It is.
Scott Rae: And sort of ironically situated too.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah. I say sometimes, the kingdom of God moves forward through the prayers of little old gray haired ladies on their knees.
Scott Rae: Yeah, who are very effective.
Tom Tarrants: Yes, yes.
Scott Rae: So, you come to faith in prison. How much more prison time did you have to serve at this point?
Tom Tarrants: Six more years.
Scott Rae: Okay. What happened when you got out?
Tom Tarrants: Well, that was a miracle in itself. Because the warden was an atheist, and he had no... He was completely unimpressed by my story of how my life changed. But he said, "It's obvious to me your life's changed, and you can leave next week." So I went to the University of Mississippi, went there to study classics. I've been doing what I could. While I was in prison I took courses in New Testament Greek and stuff like that. Well, done all I could. Anyway, I went to Ole Miss, got into a good church, connected with believers around the campus. My growth really took off a lot more because I was in a church, a good, healthy church setting. I was muddling along while I was in prison growing, but when you don't have all the ingredients you need for a healthy spiritual growth, it's not quite as robust. But, boy, it was great.
Scott Rae: When you got out of prison, did the Klan try and reconnect with you?
Tom Tarrants: They were so diminished by then that nothing was going on. A lot of those people were in prison already. They tried to get me killed in prison, and it fell through. That was probably a couple of years before I was released. So, I didn't have any problems that way, at that point.
Scott Rae: Okay. So tell me a little bit about how your discipleship help root out the racist ideology that you had bought into for so long.
Tom Tarrants: Great question. Actually, this is a kind of hopeful thing on a broader scale, I saw the errors of racism and anti-Semitism before I was converted, through reading actually a conservative philosopher. I just stumbled on this. It basically deconstructed most of those things pretty quickly. Of course, there's a big difference between that and actually loving your neighbor.
Scott Rae: Right.
Tom Tarrants: And so I was delivered of the ideological stuff. But it was through reading the word. You're not going to grow in grace if you don't immerse yourself in the word. And so as I read the word, again and again, I spent six, eight hours a day reading Scripture. Had plenty of time on my hands.
Scott Rae: I was going to say, that's a pretty healthy diet.
Tom Tarrants: It's a healthy diet, indeed. So I began to see that God said, "Love your neighbor. Love your neighbor." It didn't take an expert in math... You know, two and two was about all you needed to realize that neighbors come in all different colors, size, shapes, and colors, and even political views, and theological views. So, my job was to love my neighbor, like Jesus said. That's a crucial thing I think that a lot of us probably know, but don't really take it seriously as we should. We find reasons not to love our neighbor. Their political views, or their skin color, or their ethnicity. You name it.
Scott Rae: Yeah. So, the subtitle of your book talks about how you've sort of kept off this transformation by becoming a champion of racial reconciliation. Tell us a little bit about what you've been doing particularly in that area, as a part of your discipleship in following Jesus?
Tom Tarrants: Yeah, well what I have done, I suppose I would say that my major focus... Having grown up in a kind of Bible Belt nominal Christianity, it's always been my concern to try to speak to that so that people would discover authentic Christian faith and discipleship. So that's been my major thrust in ministry all these years. Dealing with the racial thing is just one part of that.
I wrote a book with John Perkins, who was a pretty well-known black leader, on racial reconciliation. I tried to have some influence, bringing together some pastors to talk about that, I've gone out and done some speaking. But mostly it's been just living my life, not becoming a crusader for racial issues, but saying, "This is just a normal part of how any Christian should live." And building friendships with people that are different, African-Americans.
The more I have done that over the years, I've been enabled to see life from a different perspective. Whites are the majority culture, and we have the luxury of not really having to think about any of this. But getting these relationships, these really good friendships with African-Americans, you begin to realize what life is like for a lot of people, and how can we love our neighbor? Well, you got to understand the problem first.
Scott Rae: You indicated in the book, you wrote about your experience back in the 50s and 60s some time ago, and you are republishing this and adding to it because of some things you see going on today. Why did you decide to republish this and retell the story now?
Tom Tarrants: Well, Chuck Colson just insisted that I get the book out again. This was years ago. I ignored it. My concern-
Scott Rae: That's saying something, because he's pretty tough to ignore.
Tom Tarrants: He was very tough to ignore. But he was a good friend, we've been friends for many years. I just didn't want to get... It didn't connect with me. I was in the middle of doing all kinds of other ministry. But, I came to the point the last few years of feeling like it was important to get that message out again. Because we're back into another populist wave, and things go haywire in times of populism.
What's happening is what I saw when I was in the 60s. People are all in kind of a turmoil, the social upheaval. Folks are saying, "What in the world is happening to the country and the world," etc, etc. And then there are folks coming along saying, "Well, I can answer that question for you. Just come over here and let me talk with you."
And that's going on now in spades with people far right, racist kinds of groups, and you've got the emergence of what's called the alt right, and then you've got the left-wing version of that. And here on the West Coast, just go up to Portland, and they love nothing better than to get out and have street warfare. Well, that's a real challenge. But it's not just on the West Coast, it's not just in Portland, it's all over the country that these racist and anti-Semitic incidents are skyrocketing. Attitudes are really becoming more and more inflamed. It's creating a worsening situation in America over these issues. And of course the whole political thing, all the polarization, it's creating just a perfect storm.
So my concern, I'm not a politician and that's not my area, but my concern is discipleship, and that believers not get swept up into this sort of stuff. Which is so easy to do, in such an inflamed kind of world that we're living in, that believers really focus on following Jesus. And loving him, and loving their neighbor.
Scott Rae: So it sounds to me like you've got a pretty unique perspective on this, having lived through this in the 50s and 60s. And now seeing a lot today, a lot of the factors that are drawing people to these extremist groups in common with what drew you to this in the 50s and 60s. Would that be accurate?
Tom Tarrants: Absolutely.
Scott Rae: Okay. Can you be a little more specific? What are some of those things that you see in common?
Tom Tarrants: Well, I think... Let's see the best way to pull this together. I suppose the political thing is very significant, for example. Governor Wallace was very much opposed to all the desegregation. So the Communists were behind it, and so people listened to that, they respected him. In Alabama at least, and all over the South. Took on board a lot of these things. It changed the way they looked at things. And that opened the door for other stuff to come.
And so, we have that kind of thing working today, and a kind of Populist climate. But, a lot of folks getting out there talking about the race issue. Again, blacks... Well, I'll tell you one of the big drivers, is the whole thing of light apocalypse. Now, that basically says that by, drawing on Census Bureau projections, about 2044, white people will no longer be the majority race in America.
And so that is being used with great effect, to say, "We need to stand up. White people need to stand up for their rights. Black people have the NAACP. White people need to stand up. All these group have their organizations to stand... So, you need to stand up for your rights. And besides, consider this, white people built America. White people built Western civilization, and on and on. If we don't stand up and be counted, and defend our race, and our culture, and our history, where will things go?"
Now, this can be spun in a pretty persuasive way for some folks. And there are folks doing this in button-down collars and tweed jackets on university campuses. They're not quite like back in the 60s though, where everybody supposedly was a Christian in these racist groups. These are more Nietzschen folks.
Scott Rae: I see.
Tom Tarrants: And it's the whole power thing, so it has a different philosophical foundation.
Scott Rae: But that apocalyptic mentality was definitely in play in the 50s and 60s too.
Tom Tarrants: Absolutely.
Scott Rae: That's, I think, a really helpful way to put that.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah. I mean, the sky was falling. If we desegregate, then whites and Blacks spending time together, they will begin to date, and then marry, and then, of course the great horror, if they marry and have children, well that dilutes the capacities of the whites. And so that's a catastrophe for civilization. So part of the narrative in those days was, "We have to fight for white Christian civilization."
Scott Rae: Yeah.
Tom Tarrants: Well, it's back with us again.
Scott Rae: Okay, so here's... That's really interesting, that those two things were so clearly linked, white Christian civilization back then.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah.
Scott Rae: So what would you say today to the extremists who are also claiming that Christian mantle?
Tom Tarrants: Well, it's a very difficult situation, but I think that, at least for me, if one were to approach this, I think relationship is an important thing, one on one relationship. And to build some kind of relationship in which you can communicate meaningfully with another person, instead of just yelling at them, yelling facts at them or something like that.
Scott Rae: Right.
Tom Tarrants: That may not be the easiest thing to do, and it's not clear how many people would want to do that on the extremist side of things. But, it's possible, if you've got enough of a relational base established, to communicate about some of these things, and look at the issues, and look at the facts. All these racist, anti-Semitic ideas, if you know the facts, you can help people. You can at least present truth to them.
So, that's one thing. But if somebody's really immersed in ideology, really captured by ideology, it's really difficult. Because somebody who's an ideologue has already determined in advance what the truth is, and they will not accept any evidence you give them that contradicts their presuppositions.
Scott Rae: Right.
Tom Tarrants: No matter what you show them.
Scott Rae: "My mind's made up. Don't confuse me with the facts."
Tom Tarrants: Exactly. That's the problem with ideologies. Not everybody's that deeply immersed. But ultimately this is a spiritual issue, and prayer, and fasting are important parts of it. And also, if people are willing to listen to it, help them understand what authentic Christianity is, not this culture religion that has been adapted to...
Scott Rae: Yeah. Throughout our conversation in the last few minutes you repeatedly sort of made the claim that racist attitudes are fundamentally a failure of discipleship.
Tom Tarrants: Right.
Scott Rae: A failure to fully follow Jesus, to fully love your neighbor, regardless of race, ethnicity, any other thing that we would make distinctions based on. So let me, I have one final question, Tom. In the area of racial reconciliation today, what gives you hope for racial reconciliation going forward?
Tom Tarrants: Well, I was talking about this with an African-American friend a few minutes ago here, and I've heard it from others. The area in society where there is the most reason to be helpful is the Millennials. If you look at churches where you have this kind of openness that we're talking about here, and loving across all these different lines, for the most part millennial's are at the heart of it. There are some exceptions. So, I think Millennials get it, three quarters of Millennials believe that this is a good thing. That might be a good place to focus our efforts. Of course, people all along the spectrum shouldn't be ruled out.
Scott Rae: But in your view, that's cause to be encouraged.
Tom Tarrants: I would say so, yeah.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I'm glad to hear that.
Tom Tarrants: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Well, Tom, this has been a rich conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and for your book. I want to commend to our listeners, again, your book, Consumed By Hate, Redeemed By Love, by Thomas Terrence, subtitle How A Violent Klansmen Became A Champion Of Racial Reconciliation. I commend you for publishing this, for Chuck Colson finally getting through to you to write it down and to tell your story like you have. So, this has been just a rich time. I commend your book to our listeners, and thank you so much for coming on with us.
Tom Tarrants: Well thank you, Scott. It's been a pleasure.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations On Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Thomas Terrence, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. That's Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.