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Holding Klan Leaders Accountable

The Klan leader didn't know his followers attacked a young man while on a recruiting mission. So how can he be held responsible?

Ron Edwards, the leader of the Imperial Klans of America, thought he had an ironclad defense in his recent trial. True, some of his members might have attacked a 16-year-old youth while they were recruiting for the Klan at a county fair in Brandenburg, Ky. But how could a jury find Edwards liable for the attack? He repeatedly told his members (or so he claimed) that they should obey the law. What's more, the undisputed evidence showed that Edwards didn't know his followers were recruiting at the fair on the particular night in question. How could he then be held responsible for their violent actions?

Actually, it's quite simple, and an example will illustrate why. Imagine a trucking company. The owner of the company knowingly hires drivers with very poor driving records. But the owner is very careful about one thing: He tells his drivers to obey all the traffic laws. If a company driver with a known history of reckless driving runs a red light and injures someone in a horrific accident, is the owner shielded from liability by virtue of the fact that he told his drivers to follow the rules of the road?

The answer is obvious — of course not. One who selects someone who is poorly suited for a particular job is liable for the foreseeable harm that person causes. The truck company owner can't unleash reckless drivers on the road and avoid responsibility for the damage they cause by insisting that he told his drivers to be careful. The law requires more than that. It requires the owner to exercise reasonable care in selecting drivers in the first place.

Like the owner of the hypothetical trucking company, Edwards, the Klan leader, operated a business enterprise. His product was a peculiar one — hate. To fill his coffers, he required his followers to recruit new dues-paying members. Like the truck company owner, Edwards selected men to do his bidding who were clearly poorly suited for the job. Indeed, many of Edwards' recruiters had long records of serious criminal violence. One of them had been convicted of menacing, another of wanton endangerment.

Rather than try to curb the dangerous tendencies of his followers, Edwards poured fuel on their fire by preaching hatred, demonizing minorities, and glorifying violence. Members were urged to send Mexicans "back in boxes" and to show "no mercy" to "s----." Having been thoroughly indoctrinated in hate and violence, Edwards' recruiters were told to bring in "more fresh members, more fresh blood, more money." Edwards treated the money that came in as his own.

When Edwards' recruiters spied young Jordan Gruver at the county fair and mistook him for (in their words) an "illegal s---," their hatred and violent tendencies erupted. They beat Gruver to the ground, kicked him with steel-toed boots, and left him with permanent injuries. Edwards claimed he was surprised his henchmen attacked Jordan. But it was no surprise that the jury did not believe him. It was obvious that the men Edwards selected to recruit for his organization were dangerous, given their criminal records. One of his lieutenants involved in the attack actually had "violence" tattooed on his knuckles and "murder" on his chest. The jury rightfully concluded that Edwards should not have unleashed such men on the public.

The jury also was completely justified in giving little weight to Edwards' claim that he didn't know that his followers were recruiting at the fair the night Gruver was attacked. The evidence at trial demonstrated that Edwards expected his followers to be recruiting on a regular basis. It was their most important job as Klan members. The fact that he didn't know they were recruiting that particular night was of no consequence.

In the end, Edwards was shown to be like so many other hate group leaders — men who talk tough, gather dangerous, impressionable young men around them, use those young men for their own purposes, and then claim that they're not responsible for anything that their misguided followers do. The Kentucky jury saw through the charade. In essence, it ruled that if Edwards wanted to get the benefit of the money his recruiters brought in for him, he would have to pay the price for the foreseeable damage they caused. It was a matter of simple justice and a lesson to the Ron Edwardses of the world.