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Cracking Down on Cross Burnings

In several states, the justice system is cracking down on cross burnings.

Since the first cross was burned atop Stone Mountain, Ga., in 1915, the technique has become the best-known of the Klan's many tactics of intimidation. Today, a cross is burned nearly every week, most typically at the homes of interracial or black families.

But now, some victims and officials are striking back.

This spring, a federal jury in Chicago awarded $720,000 to a black couple with two children whose white neighbor burned a 6-foot cross in the yard of their suburban home. The June 1996 incident came less than a year after Andre Bailey and Sharon Henderson moved into their predominantly white neighborhood.

The couple alleged that neighbor Thomas Budlove Jr. regularly shouted racial slurs at them. Somebody also slashed their tires, broke their windows, and shot and wounded the family dog.

In June, an all-white Virginia jury convicted Barry Black, the imperial wizard of the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, under a law banning cross-burning to intimidate others. The Klansman's ACLU attorney — who was, ironically, an African-American — unsuccessfully argued that the August 1998 cross-burning, on private land leased by Black, was constitutionally protected free speech. Black faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced.

In Utah, Michael Brad Magley pleaded innocent to four felony counts brought in connection with the burning of a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple in Salt Lake City. If convicted, he could face up to 40 years in federal prison — an indication, said U.S. Attorney Paul Warner, of a commitment to prosecute such acts.

These responses, one civil and two criminal, underscore the greater seriousness with which cross burnings, once treated as minor crimes or even mere annoyances, are being taken by both the authorities and victims. Nationally, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project counted more than 200 cross burnings in the last five years: 49 in 1998, 29 in 1997, 51 in 1996, 33 in 1995 and 48 in 1994.

"The burning of a cross has a long and infamous history in this country and is more than a prank," Warner told The Deseret News in Utah after Magley was arrested. "It connotes hatred and an attempt to drive someone out of the neighborhood."