During his reign as imperial wizard of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Jeff Berry developed a reputation as a man who welcomed thugs and criminals into what came to be called, informally, the “bully-boy Klan.” A pugnacious and loud-mouthed white supremacist, Berry, a longtime police drug informant, finally went to prison in 2001 after holding two reporters at gunpoint. Four years later, after leaving prison, Berry was severely beaten by his own son but managed to survive. He died of lung cancer in 2013.
In His Own Words
“They’re hogs. They’re AIDS-infected niggers. We don’t need people like that in this country. Make a stand, join the Klan.”
— 1996 speech at a Klan rally in Knox, Ind.
“A nigger is a beast — it’s not a human being. … A race traitor is the most disgusting thing there is. You lie with a nigger, you become a nigger.”
— Comment on a 1997 edition of “The Jerry Springer Show”
“We hate Jews, we hate niggers… . I’m a Yankee and I have never heard the word ‘thank you’ in the nigger vocabulary. … We don’t like you niggers. … Tell me one thing your race has accomplished.”
— 1998 speech at a Klan rally in Jasper, Texas, after the truck-dragging murder there of James Byrd Jr.
Berry was charged in 1994 with three counts of theft and one count of fraud after bilking an elderly neighbor out of thousands of dollars for home improvement work that he never completed. Prosecutors dropped three of the four charges after learning that Berry was a narcotics informant who had provided information leading to at least 70 arrests. He pleaded guilty to fraud and was handed a three-year suspended sentence and three years on probation. Two years later, in February 1996, Berry was charged with two counts of battery after allegedly beating a former tenant who demanded that Berry repay a loan. Police searched Berry’s home and found marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and six firearms, including a MAC-90 assault rifle. Also in connection with charges made by his former tenant, Berry was arrested in March 1996 for receiving stolen property. But the tenant later withdrew his complaints, and all charges were eventually dropped. Berry and six other Klansmen were charged in June 1996 with disorderly conduct, rioting, obstructing traffic, and resisting arrest at a Klan rally in New Castle, Ind. Berry ultimately pleaded guilty to obstructing traffic and disorderly conduct, and the remaining charges were dropped.
Berry was arrested again in late 1999 after he and an armed fellow Klansmen held a TV reporter and camerawoman captive in his home until they agreed to hand him a videotaped interview of Berry. Remarkably, police declined to bring charges, saying the journalists’ story conflicted with that of several Klansman who were there. Berry also was arrested in 2000 for assault. Police said Berry, behind the wheel of a van full of Klan members and supporters, chased a black man who argued with him in a parking lot after a Klan rally for two miles, then rammed his car. After the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued Berry in 2000 on behalf of the journalists falsely imprisoned the previous year, prosecutors in Indiana, apparently embarrassed by the publicity, finally brought criminal charges against the Klan leader in the assault. In 2001, Berry was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to state charges of conspiracy and criminal confinement with a deadly weapon.
In 1999, when Berry was at the height of his power as national leader of the Indiana-based American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, then the largest Klan group in the country, he bluntly told the Intelligence Report: “We use the hate speech. Sometimes you have to, to get a point across.” And do he did. “We hate niggers!” he would yell. “We hate Jews!” Across the country, the American Knights rejected moderation, embracing calls for violence at a time when many other Klan groups were tamping down their rhetoric and repositioning themselves as “white pride” organizations. At the same time, Berry showed an insatiable desire for media attention and a taste for violence. He openly encouraged his followers to clash with counter-demonstrators, relishing both the bloodshed and the attendant spike in news coverage.
The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were formed in 1995 by Berry and others and based in Butler, Ind., where Berry then lived. Within four years, the group would grow to boast 27 highly active chapters around the country.
In 1996 and 1997, Berry made two appearances on “The Jerry Springer Show.” Both times Berry sparred verbally with anti-racist audience members, provoking physical clashes that were theatrically broken up by studio security guards. Springer granted Berry’s demand in 1996 to display the American Knights’ phone number on the television screen, although his producers insisted on displaying it alongside that of the SPLC. As a result, Berry claimed later, 6,200 viewers called him seeking membership applications. SPLC phone lines also lit up. But many of those callers were confused — they, too, wanted to submit Klan applications.
Under Berry’s leadership, the American Knights grew rapidly, partly because it maintained exceptionally lenient standards of membership, even for a Klan group. American Knights chapter leaders were a rogues’ gallery of convicted gang rapists, ripoff artists, narcotics users, alleged child abusers, and violent felons. One publicly threatened a massacre if the group were attacked. Another was arrested for shooting up a black man’s house. A third tried to arrange to have his wife shot.
During his reign as imperial wizard, Berry was arrested at least five times for drugs, weapons, receiving stolen property and, in his words, “getting into fights.” Though often entangled with the law, Berry still shrewdly exploited certain legal loopholes. In the spring of 1998, he directed American Knights members to insert racist fliers into free newspapers distributed in California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas; publishers were enraged to learn they apparently had no legal recourse. That fall, Berry sidestepped a Georgia law against participants in political demonstrations wearing masks — which was passed specifically to prevent Klan members from wearing hoods in public — by holding an American Knights rally on Halloween.
When the City Council of the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill., denied the American Knights a parade permit in March 1999, citing the high cost of police overtime and other security measures, Berry sued. City officials appeased him with a $10,000 gift check — a move that drew national condemnation — so that Berry would withdraw the suit and his plans for a march, as he did. Berry said he would use the cash to mail Klan materials to every household in the city of Cicero. Though he never did.
Berry’s lust for media coverage eventually proved his undoing. In November 1999, a Louisville, Ky., television reporter and his camerawoman came to interview Berry at the headquarters of the American Knights, which was Berry’s home. When Berry learned they had recently interviewed disgruntled former American Knights state leader Brad Thompson, he demanded that they turn over the videotape. When the journalists refused, Berry and his bodyguards locked the doors and again demanded that they turn over the tape. One Klansman in the room was carrying a shotgun and loudly racked a shell into the chamber. After consulting with their own bosses by telephone, the journalists surrendered the tape.
Police arrested Berry but did not prosecute him, saying that there more Klansmen who said the journalists were not threatened than complaining witnesses who said they were — a position that drew widespread derision from lawyers and others. So the SPLC filed a lawsuit against the Klan leader in 2000 on behalf of the Kentucky journalists, alleging that he had falsely imprisoned them. Recognizing the danger, Berry frantically attempted to hide his assets. The American Knights headquarters near Fort Wayne went to his father as a gift. Berry’s girlfriend purchased another property with an assessed value of $51,000 for the bargain basement price of $3,700. But SPLC lawyers successfully halted the transfers, and the journalists were eventually awarded a $120,000 civil judgment, which virtually bankrupted Berry and the American Knights.
In 2001, Berry pleaded guilty to several criminal charges related to the kidnapping incident that were brought by local prosecutors after the SPLC suit was filed. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Two years into his sentence, at the age of 51, Berry renounced the Ku Klux Klan and declared that he “turned his life over to God,” although it wasn’t clear how serious he was. Meanwhile, Berry’s son Anthony, in his 30s, raised to be a white supremacist and who had his own criminal history, underwent no such change of heart. He and at least one friend made efforts to rekindle the American Knights while his father was in prison.
Jeff Berry was released in January 2005. Eighteen months later, Anthony Berry and his pal, a 21-year-old Klansman named Fred Wilson, savagely attacked the former imperial wizard at a barbecue for reasons that have never been made clear. Anthony continued to violently beat his father after the elder Berry collapsed. Berry survived, although with injuries that doctors at first described as “life-altering.” After pleading guilty to a felony charge of criminal recklessness for the attack on his father, Anthony Berry was sentenced to a year on work release and ordered to pay $15,000 toward his father’s medical bills.
Despite an originally grim prognosis, within several months Berry appeared to have fully recovered. It wasn’t the storybook ending Berry, who once described himself as "the garbage man," probably pictured for himself when, in a 1999 interview with the Intelligence Report, he compared himself with civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King, Jr. “He fought and died for his people’s rights,” Berry said without the slightest hint of irony. “That’s probably what I’m going to do — die for my people’s rights.”
On May 31, 2013, Berry died of lung cancer at a hospital in Cook County, Ill. He was 64.