American Knights Klan Group Builds Thuggish Reputation
They are, to all appearances, an organization of thugs. Bad neighbors. Street fighters. They include rip-off artists and would-be wife-killers. Alleged abusers of infants. Drug informants.
One former state leader served two years for the gang rape of a college student. Another leader publicly threatened a massacre if the group were attacked. One alleged member was charged last year with shooting up a black man's occupied home.
They are the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
At a time when some Klan organizations are making great efforts to portray themselves as mere white pride civic groups, the American Knights don't bother. They stand on courthouse steps bellowing racial epithets and attacking everything from Jews to gay men and lesbians to foreigners to abortion providers.
In their literature, they have described blacks as "primitive, ugly, foul-smelling, jungle savages [who] have polluted America with their ape-like odor and disgusting habits." Prone to carrying guns, these are Klansmen who speak in obscenity-laced tirades that leave nothing to the imagination.
"We use the hate language," Jeff Berry, imperial wizard of the American Knights, told the Intelligence Report. "Sometimes you have to, to get a point across."
The American Knights also are the fastest-growing, most aggressive Klan group in America today. From a single unit formed in Butler, Ind., in 1995, they have exploded into at least 27 state chapters today. And their recruiting efforts are continuing apace.
The American Knights' growth is remarkable, given that the Klan has been declining in numbers over the last 20 years and is currently split into more than 50 named Klan organizations.
Although Berry and other Klan leaders claim tens of thousands of followers, there are probably fewer than 6,000 active Klansmen nationwide. But there are likely many times that number of passive Klan supporters.
Jerry Springer, Halloween and the Klan
How has Berry — a vulgar man who's racked up a remarkable array of arrests for theft, assaults and a variety of petty crimes — been so successful?
Largely, it seems, by being himself.
While Berry's foul-mouthed speeches and trademark tough-boy style certainly turn off most who hear him, they also earn him in some constituencies an image as a fighting Klansman unafraid to tell it like it is.
Even as newspaper editorialists decry the violence his insulting rally speeches provoke in counterdemonstrators, that same violence guarantees publicity that continues to draw in those susceptible to Berry's message.
This is a man who understands the media.
Before agreeing to appear in 1996 on television's trash-talking "Jerry Springer Show," he demanded that the American Knights' telephone number appear on the screen — and Springer agreed. The result, claims Berry's former deputy, was some 6,200 calls seeking membership applications.
And while Springer's producers insisted that Berry's number be displayed alongside that of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center, many of those calling the Center seemed confused. They, too, were looking to join up.
There has been other cleverness as well. A favorite tactic in states from Pennsylvania to California has been to grab stacks of free newspapers, repackage them with Klan literature inserted, and toss them onto unsuspecting people's lawns and stoops.
Members have concentrated recruiting efforts around high schools with racial divisions. Last fall, leaders in Georgia tried to get around anti-masking laws used to prevent hooded Klansmen in public by planning a rally for Halloween — a day when masks are ubiquitous.
Local officials have repeatedly tried to keep the American Knights from appearing in their towns — usually fruitlessly, as the First Amendment unequivocally protects their rights to engage in hateful speech. Sometimes, these efforts have backfired dramatically.
An Illinois Town Caves In
Last March, Berry's group filed a lawsuit against the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill., after officials moved to deny a parade permit. Led by Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, the officials got the suit dismissed — and the rally canceled — after coming up with a $10,000 anonymous donation to be used to mail out Klan literature to all town residents.
What the town sought to avoid was a hefty bill for security at the rally. What it got was a national reputation for having caved in shamelessly to Klan extortion.
The American Knights did get the $10,000, according to Worth H. Weller, who co-authored a new anti-Klan book, Under the Hood, with Berry's former Indiana leader, Brad Thompson (DeWitt Books). But Berry never bothered to send the literature out, according to Thompson. Berry apparently got the money, he says, and national publicity to boot.
No potential tactic is ignored by these Klansmen.
Even as Berry and other leaders attack blacks and others in language most newspapers refuse to print, they will occasionally portray themselves as a high-minded civil rights group for whites.
In Yukon, Penn., then-state leader and convicted gang rapist Ed Foster made headlines by promising to fight a planned "toxic waste dump" — a campaign decried by other dump opponents whose own efforts were being hijacked.
Kay Ryan, who took over as Pennsylvania grand dragon after Foster quit in a fit of pique to form his own Klan group, boasted last fall of helping a 76-year-old white woman clean up her house in response to a citation.
"We feel that the elderly is the most precious natural resource that we have," a sanctimonious Ryan said last year. "We're asking our people to take one hour a week and spend it with an elderly person."
Berry can sound that note, too. "We're a civil rights group for white people," he told the Report. "I admire Martin Luther King. He fought and died for his people's rights, and that's probably what I'm going to do — die for my people's rights."