Two Ku Klux Klan factions and 11 of their members and supporters were ordered Tuesday to pay a total of almost $1 million to civil rights demonstrators who were attacked during a “brotherhood march” last year in virtually all-white Forsyth County, just north of Atlanta.
Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Moye Jr. unsealed a verdict awarding $950,450 in damages to 49 people who were pelted with rocks and bottles by klan-led counterdemonstrators as they marched on Jan. 17, 1987, to honor the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That march, in which eight of the approximately 75 participants were injured, spawned a march by more than 20,000 civil rights advocates in the same county a week later--the largest such demonstration since the civil rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Withdraw From Lawsuit
The verdict was reached by a six-member jury almost three weeks ago, but it was sealed by the judge after Atlanta City Councilman Hosea Williams, who led the “brotherhood march,” and three other of the original 57 plaintiffs withdrew from the class-action suit. Four more dropped out Tuesday.
While the verdict was sealed, court officials polled the remaining plaintiffs to determine whether they wanted to continue with the case. The suit contended that the defendants conspired to deprive the demonstrators of their civil rights.
Williams, a veteran civil rights activist and King’s “field general” during the 1960s, said last week that he decided to drop out of the case because he did not want to impoverish working-class klan members. He urged others to follow his example.
“You have the choice of joining me in following the teachings of Christ and Martin Luther King Jr. by forgiving our white brothers and sisters in Forsyth County,” Williams wrote in a letter to the remaining plaintiffs. “Or the choice of participating in the taking of their homes, their cars, their paychecks, further entrenching racial hatred . . . .”
Williams’ decision to withdraw brought a bitter reaction from state Rep. Billy McKinney of Atlanta, who is among the remaining plaintiffs. In a memorandum he mailed to the plaintiffs, McKinney said that Williams “told the judge he had a talk with Martin Luther King Jr. who told him that ‘Jesus wanted him not to sue the klan.’ ”
‘Mystery to Everyone’
Williams’ actions “are a mystery to everyone,” McKinney wrote, but he added: “His religion and communication with the dead should not interfere with our constitutional rights and justice.”
The suit against the klan, which was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was the second major legal victory that the Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights organization has won against the white supremacist order in recent years.
In February, 1987, the center won a crushing decision against the klan when an all-white jury in Mobile, Ala., ordered the United Klans of America to pay $7 million in damages to the mother of a young black man hanged from a tree after his throat was slit by klansmen in 1981.
The Atlanta verdict was reached after a 10-day trial. The jury of six members included one black, who was also one of five women on the panel.
Attorneys for the defendants said that they would appeal the decision if they fail in other legal procedures to invalidate the verdict or to have the damages reduced.
‘Never Proved Conspiracy’
“This verdict is ridiculous,” said Jeffrey Sliz, a suburban Atlanta attorney who represented one of the major klan figures in the trial. “The plaintiffs never proved there was a conspiracy.”
Sliz also said that the $800,000 in punitive damages levied against the two klan organizations--the Georgia-based Southern White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Connecticut-based Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan--would prove uncollectable because, Sliz claimed, the groups have next to no assets.
The verdict also called for David Holland, Georgia grand dragon of the Southern White Knights, to pay $50,000 in punitive damages and for Edward Stephens and Daniel Carver, two other major defendants, to pay $30,000 apiece in punitive damages. Eight other defendants were ordered to pay punitive damages of from $1,000 to $2,000 apiece.
In addition, the defendants were ordered to pay compensatory damages totaling $2,450.
“I’m truly overjoyed,” said Leigh A. Torrence of Atlanta, one of the plaintiffs. “I was glad to see that hopefully we will be able to hurt the klan where it will hurt them most--in the pockets. Maybe they’ll think twice before they go out again throwing rocks at people.”