A battle-hardened veteran of the hate movement, Ron Edwards is the imperial wizard, or national leader, of the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), one of the nation's largest Klan groups. Edwards' organization uses his Kentucky compound to host its annual Nordic Fest, a music festival that brings together Klansmen, skinheads and members of other violent hate groups and which has been the scene of violence. In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Edwards, the IKA and several members of the IKA on behalf of a teenage boy beaten by at least two of the group's members at a Kentucky county fair.
In His Own Words
"Yours for White Victory"
— Ron Edwards' signature tagline in Imperial Klans of America mailings
— Tattoo on Ron Edwards' shaved head, inked in 2008
A battle-hardened veteran of the hate movement, Ron Edwards was the imperial wizard, or national leader, of the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), once one of the nation's largest Klan groups. Edwards' organization used his Kentucky compound to host its annual Nordic Fest, a music festival that brought together Klansmen, skinheads and members of other violent hate groups and which had been the scene of violence. In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Edwards, the IKA and several members of the IKA on behalf of a teenage boy beaten by at least two of the group's members at a Kentucky county fair. A $2.5 million verdict against Edwards and three other IKA members in 2008 decimated the organization. Edwards later stepped down and was sent to federal prison on drug and weapons charges.
Ron Edwards, who once led one of the largest Klan organizations in the United States, got his start in the Klan in the early 1990s, when he was the head of a Kentucky klavern (or local unit) in the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. That group, originally started in 1974 by David Duke, but now led by Thom Robb, tried to portray itself as a kinder, gentler Klan, seeking to "adopt" highways for cleanup and follow other strategies meant to improve its image. But the group split in July 1994, when nine chapters departed to form the Federation of Klans over an accusation that Robb had absconded with funds raised through a telephone hotline and also a $20,000 gift that was allegedly meant for the group. Edwards was briefly with the federation, led by former Robb follower Ed Novak, but the group collapsed around 1995.
In 1996, Edwards created his own group and named it the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), which at one point in the early 2000s was the largest of some three dozen competing Klan groups around the country. In April 1998, federal agents raided Edwards' home as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to blow up a federal building. Investigators eventually dropped Edwards as a target, but an adherent of the anti-Semitic Christian Identity theology, Kale Kelly, was sent to prison on weapons charges. In his 2008 book, Into the Devil's Den, former FBI informant Dave Hall wrote that Kelly had been involved in a plot to assassinate Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees in 1999. Hall also wrote that he suspected that Edwards was involved in that plot, but authorities were unable to substantiate that and Edwards was never charged.
Beginning in 2000, Edwards used what was then his compound in Powderly, Ky., to host Nordic Fest, an annual Memorial Day weekend two-day concert featuring violently racist "hatecore" bands — a strategy that has helped connect Edwards to younger, more vital parts of the American white supremacist movement. That first year was marred by violence when three vanloads of Outlaw Hammerskin hooligans showed up at the IKA compound, looking to start trouble because, at that time, Nordic Fest was heavily attended by their rivals from the skinhead group, Hammerskin Nation. The Outlaw Hammerskins were heavily armed, and when IKA security refused to allow them into the festival, they fired a volley of shots into the air, in effect putting Hammerskin Nation on notice of their importance.
In 2001, more than 300 people attended the second annual event. However, the next year, Edwards had a falling out with the two major backers of the concert, racist music distributors Panzerfaust and Resistance Records. Erich Gliebe, then the manager of Resistance (and now the national leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, which owns Resistance), spoke for both distributors when he attacked Edwards' "personal conduct," the "treatment of our bands," and "threats" and violence at the previous year's event. The pullout hit Edwards hard, and by 2003, with Nordic Fest now being held at Edwards' new and smaller property in Dawson Springs, Ky., just 60 people attended.
During the 2006 Nordic Fest, another violent attack that sowed major discord between various white supremacist groups occurred immediately following a speech by a Missouri member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, Steven Boswell. Boswell had just delivered what was supposed to be an electrifying call to action, but which actually caused great offense. Within seconds of starting his talk, Boswell told some 150 racists that the movement would never be helped "by belonging to a social club where all we do is drink and shoot the shit every Saturday night." He went on to say that Aryans "are far more stingy than Jews" in supporting their own cause, and then, pouring salt into the wound, added that "our women are deserting us wholesale … because we are weak."
Boswell's comments ignited members of the violence-prone Vinlanders Social Club, who took his comment about "social clubs" very personally. He was set upon by at least five skinheads, his face bloodied and his NSM patches torn from his faux SS uniform. His 10-year-old daughter, spotting the brawl behind the festival stage, screamed out, "They're killing my daddy!" With that, a huge melee broke out as close to 50 skinheads, mostly Vinlanders headed by an extremely violent skin known as Eric "The Butcher" Fairburn, but also apparently including members of other groups, attacked all five NSM men present. Armed IKA security men initially stood by, only stopping the fight after several minutes.
Accompanied by sympathetic members of the neo-Nazi Creativity Movement (then known as the World Church of the Creator), the bloodied NSM crew left the concert immediately afterward, women and children in tow. On the way out, they were told by IKA security and members of Maryland and Pennsylvania racist skinhead groups that they'd offended the Vinlanders and also that many skins had problems with then-NSM leaders Bill White and Mark Martin.
On July 30, 2006, two IKA members, Jarred R. Hensley, 24, of Cincinnati and Andrew R. Watkins, 26, of Louisville, attacked Jordan Gruver while the 16-year-old was enjoying the Meade County Fair in Brandenburg, Ky., because they thought he was Latino (they used racial slurs, including "spic," during the attack). Gruver was beaten to the ground and kicked with steel-toed boots by his attackers, one of whom was 6 foot 5 inches and 330 pounds; Gruver weighed 150 pounds. The Klansmen cracked Gruver's ribs, broke his arm and broke his jaw. Hensley and Watkins were later sentenced to three-year prison terms for the attack.
The SPLC filed a civil lawsuit against the IKA in July 2007, naming Ron Edwards, the IKA's founder, and several ranking members as defendants. By the summer of 2008, Edwards and several others had been deposed. During the trial, Edwards would defend himself by arguing that his racism consisted of only words and symbols. No matter how offensive his views might be to some people, he argued, he has a constitutional right to freedom of speech. "Nobody in America should be persecuted for what they believe in," he said.
But the SPLC made the case that the First Amendment did not immunize Edwards' activities. Edwards, the SPLC lawyers argued, enlisted men with violent histories and then sent them out to recruit new members — all in an effort to line his pockets with membership dues. Rather than try to control his recruiters by prescribing rules to govern their conduct, Edwards added fuel to the fire by preaching hatred and encouraging violence. For these reasons, the SPLC legal team said, Edwards should be held liable for Gruver's injuries.
The trial was held in November 2008. After deliberating for more than six hours, the jury returned the verdict finding that Edwards had failed to properly supervise the Klansmen who attacked Gruver and that he had encouraged their violence. The jury awarded just over $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages to Gruver. Based on the jury's apportionment of responsibility for Gruver's attack, Edwards was responsible for 20% of the compensatory award as well as the entire punitive damages award. Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant and serve as a deterrent to future misconduct.
Following the decision, Edwards resigned as leader of the IKA. Many of his remaining supporters deserted him upon his 2010 arrest for trafficking methamphetamines and painkillers. Edwards pleaded guilty to federal drug and gun charges and began serving a four-year prison sentence.
In March 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the SPLC’s victory against Edwards and three other IKA members. By then, the once-formidable organization – which had 39 chapters in 26 states in 2005 – had dwindled to a mere two chapters and was largely inactive.