Jury Decision Against Ku Klux Klan Makes for Day of Reckoning

Record judgment cripples Klan group

In the largest judgment ever awarded against a hate group, a South Carolina jury in July ordered the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, its state leader and several other Klansmen to pay $37.8 million for their roles in a conspiracy to burn a black church.

"That jury's decision was a day of reckoning for the Klan," said Morris Dees, the Southern Poverty Law Center's chief trial counsel and lead attorney for Macedonia Baptist Church, which was burned on June 21, 1995.

"The verdict shows that there are still some things sacred in the country, still some lines that no one can cross."

After a five-day trial, the jury assessed punitive damages of $15 million against the Klan's national organization, based in North Carolina; $15 million against Horace King, the Grand Dragon of the group's South Carolina chapter; and $7 million against the organization's South Carolina chapter.

In addition, punitive damages were ordered against four Klansmen — $100,000 against each of three men and $200,000 against a fourth — who were earlier convicted of criminal charges in the case.

The jury also assessed $300,000 in compensatory damages.

The verdict will likely put the Christian Knights out of business. Center attorneys plan to initiate legal procedures to attach bank accounts, property and other assets belonging to the Christian Knights and the five men. Any money collected will go to Macedonia Baptist, which was rebuilt after the attack in Clarendon County.

And it could spark criminal charges. Prosecutors who followed the civil trial told reporters there was a possibility that new evidence that was disclosed at the trial could bring additional indictments.

Defense attorney Gary White painted King as a feeble old man merely exercising his right to free speech, saying King had not authorized the attack on the 125-year-old church. But witnesses told a different story, portraying King as a dynamic hatemonger who specifically spoke of burning churches and protecting his men from the law.

"This is a white man's country and if the niggers don't like it, put them on a rowboat and send them back to Africa to swing from coconut trees and eat one another," King shouted at a videotaped Klan rally two weeks before the Macedonia fire.

Another tape showed King at a Klan march in Washington, D.C., yelling, "If we had this garbage in South Carolina, we would burn the bastards out. ..."

Testimony showed that King portrayed black churches as demonic. He told his followers that black churches were plotting against white America.

Witnesses said that King and his followers were particularly infuriated after members of Macedonia's congregation complained to police about the Klan's nearby rallies. Racial epithets blasted over Klan loudspeakers could be heard during Macedonia's church services. After the complaints, police ordered the Klan to turn its loudspeakers down.

Other evidence showed King authorized attacks on black churches:

· Marion Frieson, a man who attended a Klan rally near Macedonia, said he overheard a conversation involving King and Ed Garvin, the Clarendon County Klan leader serving under King. "I heard Ed Garvin say, 'Hell, let's burn a church. Ther's one right down the road,'" Frieson told the jury.

In response, Frieson added, "Horace King said, 'There'll be protection for you fellows if you need it.'"

· Gary Christopher Cox and Timothy Adron Welch, the two Klansmen convicted of actually setting the fires at Macedonia and another black church, said they spoke with King and other Klan officials about burning churches at a Klan rally a few weeks before the Macedonia attack.

Cox testified that he was ready to burn a church that night, but was told to wait because "it wouldn't look good at all." Both Welch and Cox testified that King promised them assistance should they be caught. The next month, both men burned Mount Zion A.M.E. and Macedonia Baptist on succeeding nights.

· After arrests in the two fires, local Klan official Arthur Haley said King told him, "Deny that you know them boys, and tear their [membership] cards up." Another witness said King called a special meeting to give similar instructions to other Klansmen.

· Thomas Smith, a former reporter for The (Columbia, S.C.) Star Reporter, said he infiltrated the Christian Knights after the fire. Smith testified that King told him that a "race war" was coming by the year 2000 and then spoke specifically of black churches, saying, "The only good nigger church is a burned nigger church."

· In a related matter, Clayton "Eddie" Spires, facing charges in the 1996 drive-by shooting of a black nightclub in Pelion, S.C. said King ordered that attack. He said that King told him he had influence and could protect him from prosecution.

Things did not go smoothly for the defense. At one point, a defense witness, Dean Williams, identified himself as a State Law Enforcement Department employee and said that King was peaceful and cooperative with police. But on cross-examination, Williams admitted that he was merely a paid informant, and was a former member of the Klan group responsible for killing four girls in a 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing.

Rufus Drury, King's bodyguard, slipped at another point in the trial when he started to describe a "nigger neighborhood" and then caught himself, amending his statement to "black neighborhood." Dees asked him about using the racial slur.

"It's in the Bible," Drury said.

"What version of the Bible is that?" Dees asked.

"King James," Drury replied.

The South Carolina verdict was the fifth major case of its kind brought by Center attorneys. In 1990, White Aryan Resistance and its members were ordered to pay $12.5 million to the family of Mulugeta Seraw. In 1988, a jury assessed nearly $1 million against a Klan group who attacked a group of interracial marchers in Forsyth County, Ga.

In 1987, the family of Michael Donald won a $7 million judgment from the Klan group that lynched him in Mobile, Ala. And in 1990, a case brought against a Klan group that attacked peaceful marchers in Decatur, Ala., was resolved when Klansmen agreed to pay damages, perform community service and attend a race relations course taught by their victims. Nine Klansmen were later convicted of criminal charges.