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A Look Back: SPLC Case Brought Justice to Vietnamese Fishermen Terrorized by Klan

In 1981, a terror campaign was waged against Vietnamese fishermen in Galveston Bay. Armed Klansmen patrolled the waters off Texas. Threats were made. Crosses were burned. Boats were destroyed.

A white fisherman, weary of growing competition from Vietnamese immigrants, had invited the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to Seabrook, Texas. With a new shrimping season on the horizon, the Vietnamese shrimpers and the Klan appeared to be on a collision course.

But 30 years ago today, a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit put a stop to the terror campaign when a judge issued a preliminary injunction that stopped the Klan’s activities and led to a further order that shut down its paramilitary training bases. It was a significant victory for the SPLC – but more so for immigrants pursing the American dream.

“The hard-working Vietnamese fishermen came here looking for a better life after the Vietnam War, an opportunity to pursue the American dream like generations of immigrants who came before them,” said SPLC Founder Morris Dees. “And they were terrorized by white supremacists who objected to their presence.”

In the years following the lawsuit, this immigrant community grew and flourished. Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans have pursued careers as business owners, doctors and athletes, and have become a vibrant part of the fabric of Texas. But their journey, as is often the case for recent immigrants, wasn’t easy. They encountered violence, intimidation and xenophobia. The SPLC’s lawsuit was a pivotal moment that demonstrated to these immigrants that the United States respects the rule of law and protects the rights of minorities and those who have no political power.

Seeking a new life
After the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War in 1975, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese fled to the United States to escape persecution. They were drawn to Texas towns along the Gulf of Mexico, such as Seabrook, which were reminiscent of Vietnam, a country with a large coastline. 

The Vietnamese began fishing commercially, and the number of boats in the bay grew. The locals were unhappy about the competition. The Vietnamese were also unfamiliar with the laws and customs governing the bay, resulting in innocent mistakes. Tensions rose.

In nearby Seadrift, an American fisherman was shot and killed. Two Vietnamese fishermen were charged with murder but found innocent. Several Vietnamese boats were burned. The American and Vietnamese fishermen tried to resolve the problems in the bay, but two more Vietnamese boats were burned. Eventually, an American fisherman invited the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to intervene. 

A campaign of terror
At a rally, Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam delivered a fierce speech about the problems in the bay.

“It’s going to be a hell of a lot more violent than it was in Korea or Vietnam,” he said.

Beam offered to train American fishermen at the Klan’s paramilitary camps. “When you come out of there, you’ll be ready for the Vietnamese.”

He concluded the speech by burning a boat with “USS Vietcong” painted on its hull.

In the weeks that followed, crosses were burned. A boat was destroyed. An American family that allowed a Vietnamese fisherman to dock at their wharf received threats and Klan business cards.

On March 15, 1981, a group of American fishermen and 15 Klan members – some clad in robes, others in black Klan T-shirts or Army fatigues – boarded a boat. They carried shotguns and semiautomatic weapons. With a human effigy hanging from the ship’s rigging and a cannon aboard, they cruised the waters. 

The boat pulled up to the home of Nguyen Van Nam, president of the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association. Nguyen’s sister-in-law, who was babysitting his daughter, fled the house with the child. The boat continued its maneuvers, terrifying onlookers.

After Dees read about the incident in The New York Times, he and SPLC staffers traveled to Texas to stop the Klan.

The Klan’s leader, Beam, was combative and volatile. Once, he brought what appeared to be an ivory-handled revolver to a deposition with Dees. He also made bizarre proclamations that Dees was “demon possessed.”

“If those demons get loose, we might need five or six U.S. marshals,” he said in a 1981 New York Times article.

David Berg, a local attorney assisting Dees, had his own brushes with the Klan during the case. He came home one evening to find a Klan calling card with the words, “We’re Watching You” scrawled across it.

“I saw a red pickup truck peal out and I jumped into my car and chased it for blocks,” Berg said. “I have no idea what I would have done had I caught it. Morris later told me that was the truck spotted during the burning of the Vietnamese fishing boats.”

A history lesson
Frightened by the threats and the Klan patrol, the fishermen wanted to drop the case, hoping the Klan would stop. Dees met with the leaders of the Vietnamese community and described how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the black community kept fighting for their rights in the face of Klan terrorism. Dees told them that dropping the case wouldn’t stop the Klan. They would be emboldened and target other Vietnamese-owned businesses.

The fishermen agreed to continue. 

The federal court issued an injunction that stopped the terror campaign on July 15, 1981. The case also spurred a ruling that ended the Klan’s paramilitary training activities.

“It was an extraordinary moment for the Vietnamese in which their new country intervened to protect them,” said Philip Zelikow, also local counsel on the case.

A place at the table
During the SPLC’s 40th anniversary celebration this past April in Montgomery, Ala., Dees recalled attending the blessing of the Vietnamese fishermen’s boats decades ago – a turning point for an immigrant community that would prosper in the ensuing years.

“As I looked to my right and my left, I could see the sun glistening off the badges of the United States marshals that were sent there by the court to protect these new Americans,” he said. “Also, as I looked around me, I could see the pride in the faces of these family members as they found a place at America’s table.”