The Long Crusade : Morris Dees Has Battled the Klan for More Than a Decade. Now His Target Is Tom Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance.
WHEN MORRIS DEES was 4, his daddy gave him his only whipping. He used a belt, and he whipped him all over the barnyard. It was for speaking with disrespect to a black man.
It made an impression, but nothing like the impression his daddy left a few years later, when Morris Dees was old enough to tote water. It was summer in Alabama, mercilessly hot. He carried the water in a bucket out to his daddy’s workers, hoeing cotton in the fields.
One of them was Perry Lee. She was black. She kept a big dip of snuff in her cheek. One day, as Morris Dees handed her the water dipper, his daddy drove up. Perry Lee tucked a finger behind her teeth, flicked out her snuff and took time to drink. Morris Dees’ daddy did two things his son never forgot.
With Perry Lee’s hoe, he kept up her row, so she would not worry about falling behind.
Then he took the same dipper and drank.
Morris Dees grew up with a golden touch. He sold cotton mulch in high school, birthday cakes in college and mail-order books after law school. Bythe time he was 32, he and a partner had sold the business for $6 million.
He lent the touch to raise money for Democratic presidential candidates--and, at the same time, Morris Dees, his daddy’s son, put the touch to work for people like Perry Lee. In 1971, he co-founded and funded by direct-mail appeals the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit group of attorneys who use the law like a sword.
The law center recently unveiled a civil-rights memorial designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But its real importance is its litigation on behalf of the underdog. The center has challenged employment discrimination, hazardous working conditions, denial of voting rights, shoddy education, tax inequities and the death penalty. Its battles against the Ku Klux Klan are legendary--so successful that Morris Dees is a man marked for assassination.
He is praised as a courageous klanbuster, but he also gets criticized--even among those who share his goals. His critics say that some racists are toothless and that he busts them to impress the center’s donors.
Now Morris Dees is coming West--to take on California’s own Tom Metzger, of Fallbrook, and his White Aryan Resistance (WAR). Dees has sued Metzger, charging him with inciting neo-Nazi skinheads who killed a black man. He wants the courts to order Metzger and his organization to pay damages to the victim’s family. His tactic is to ruin Metzger financially--as he has empires of the klan--and put him out of business.
If he succeeds, he will undo one of the most important white supremacists still operating.
Morris Seligman Dees, 52, is a soft spoken man with light blue eyes and sandy hair. He is informal, given to wearing open shirts and loafers with no socks. He is wealthy enough to retire. But he does not.
What is it like to do what he does?
Why, with the inherent danger, does he keep on doing it?
T IS SPRINGof 1981, a Wednesday night in Mobile, Ala. Out in the suburbs, members of United Klans of America, the biggest, most secretive and arguably most violent of the Ku Klux Klans, are meeting at Bennie Hays’ place. Usually they talk about klan business in Bennie’s barn, then watch TV over at his house. But by most accounts--testified to, published or simply told--their meeting this night marks the beginning of something that becomes extraordinary.
They are preoccupied by what they consider an outrage. A white policeman has been killed in Birmingham, 85 miles from Montgomery. A black has been charged with the murder. And it looks like the jury is deadlocked. Bennie Hays, 64, titan in charge of Klavern 900, commands everyone’s attention. Although he will deny it later, two klansmen swear that Bennie Hays declares to the meeting assembled: “Get this down: If a black man can kill a white man, a white man should be able to get away with killing a black man. . . .”
Klansman James (Tiger) Knowles, 17, borrows a .22-caliber pistol. Then Knowles, fellow klansman Benjamin Franklin Cox, 20, and Henry Hays, 26, who is Bennie Hays’ son and a member of the klan as well, go to Cox’s home and pick up a rope. They tell Cox’s mother they need it to tow a car.
They listen for word. On Friday night, Knowles and Cox go to Henry Hays’ house to catch the 10 o’clock news. In the car, Tiger Knowles knots a hangman’s noose. As they pull up chairs in front of Henry Hays’ TV, a newscaster announces that the jury in the black man’s case has, indeed, deadlocked. If the black man is not retried, he will go free.
Henry Hays and Tiger Knowles burst for the door. They drive straight to a black neighborhood. They see an elderly black man, but he is too far from their car. Besides, he is on a public telephone--he could appeal for help.
Not far away, Michael Donald, 19, the youngest son of Beulah Mae Donald, 61, is walking home from his sister’s house. A masonry student at Carver State Technical College, Michael Donald works part time in the mail room at the Mobile Press Register. He is quiet, broad-shouldered and well-mannered. He likes music, plays basketball on a community team, dates two or three girls.
As he detours to a corner gas station to buy cigarettes, Henry Hays and Tiger Knowles pull up.
They motion him over.
Knowles asks the way to a nightclub, and Michael Donald starts to direct him.
“Come closer,” Knowles says.
Michael Donald leans over. Knowles pulls out the pistol.
“Be quiet,” Knowles says.
They order him into the car and drive across Mobile Bay and into the woods.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Michael Donald pleads. “I’ll do anything you want. Beat me; just don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”
The car stops. They order him out. Knowles holds the pistol. Michael Donald grabs him. All three scuffle for the gun. It goes off.
The bullet whines into the air.
Henry Hays pulls a knife. Michael jerks free. He runs. They chase him. He grabs a fallen tree limb. They knock it away. Hays has the noose. They wrestle it over Michael’s head. Michael pulls on the rope, running in circles. Knowles holds the other end and beats him, again and again, with the tree limb.
Henry Hays pushes his boot into Michael’s face and pulls the rope tight.
They drag him through the dirt to the car. They lift him into the trunk. Knowles asks Hays if he thinks Michael is dead.
“I don’t know,” Hays replies. “But I’m gonna make sure.”
He cuts Michael’s throat--three times.
They drive back to Henry Hays’ house and throw one end of the rope over the limb of a camphor tree across the street. Then they lift Michael by the neck--high enough to swing.
From the porch, the rest of the klansmen can see.
As Knowles steps back up to join them, he feels a friendly pinch.
“Good job, Tiger.”
In the dead of night, two of the klansmen drive downtown to the Mobile County courthouse. Out front, they set flame to a cross. And in the cool of the early morning, the city finds Beulah Mae Donald’s son, hanging from the camphor tree, bruised, broken, dead.
Despite the rope and the burning cross, the Mobile County district attorney declares that race--much less the Ku Klux Klan--does not seem to be a factor in Michael Donald’s death.
But the black community calls it a lynching.
Beulah Mae Donald’s attorney, state Sen. Michael Figures, says it is clear to him that, at the very least, white extremists of some kind are involved.
Whites accuse Figures, who is black, of stirring up racism.
The police investigate, but they do not question the klan. Instead, they look into a theory that Michael Donald might have been involved with a white woman at the Press Register and gotten killed in a love triangle. Then they investigate a theory that he might have gotten killed in a drug deal. They arrest three men they describe as junkies. But when the case goes to a county grand jury, it tumbles apart.
Thousands of blacks march in protest.
All Beulah Mae Donald wants, she says, is “to know who really killed my child.”
Michael Figures’ brother, Thomas, an assistant U.S. attorney in Mobile, asks for a second investigation--this time by a federal grand jury.
And this time, Tiger Knowles cracks.
He plea-bargains. In return for his testimony, Knowles gets life--and Henry Hays gets death.
There the matter of Michael Donald might remain--but for the district attorney, who continues to maintain the klan’s innocence. “I’m not sure this was a klan case,” the district attorney says. Rather, he declares, this was a case in which members of the Ku Klux Klan just happen to have been involved.
Morris Dees simply does not believe it, and he cannot ignore it.
From what he can plainly see, Tiger Knowles and Henry Hays did not act in a vacuum. Dees calls Michael Figures and suggests that Beulah Mae Donald and the NAACP file a civil suit against the United Klans of America, headed by Robert Shelton, its imperial wizard. Dees proposes to prove that the killers carried out a policy of violence for which the klan is responsible--just as a corporation is liable for the actions of its employees when they carry out its policies.
Although individual klansmen--Tiger Knowles and Henry Hays--were prosecuted, nobody has ever tried suing United Klans as a whole for damages. The idea, Dees says, would be to win a financial judgment large enough to bankrupt it.
Beulah Mae Donald approves.
On her behalf, Morris Dees sues United Klans of America in U.S. District Court in Mobile for $10 million.
The klan sees trouble.
Even before jury selection, it consents to a broad injunction against harassing blacks. Then, as the trial gets under way, Morris Dees calls Tiger Knowles to testify.
Flanked by federal marshals, Knowles walks into court, past Beulah Mae Donald at the plaintiff’s table.
Already a turncoat for testifying against Henry Hays, today he will add to the vengeance the klan feels against him. He walks past former fellow klansmen, seated at the defense table. Next to them is Shelton, their imperial wizard. Not a defendant, he is there as the chief officer of United Klans.
Morris Dees questions Knowles softly. Knowles tells how it was that Michael Donald died.
“We got the gun,” Tiger recalls, “and then later . . . I tied the hangman’s noose in Henry’s car.”
Throat cut, face bruised, clothing in disarray, wounds on the hands. Was that his work?
Dees holds up a drawing from a klan newspaper edited and published by Shelton. It shows a black man with a noose around his neck.
Had Tiger seen the drawing before he killed Michael?
Had it influenced him?
“Yes, it did.”
Tiger steps down to show how Michael Donald was strangled.
Beulah Mae Donald sobs softly.
John Mays, the klan attorney, asks Tiger if he had heard Shelton order violence.
No, Tiger replies, but “he instructed us to follow our leaders.”
Tiger recalls how Bennie Hays had suggested that if a black man could get away with killing a white man, then a white man ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.
“Mr. Hays is who I took orders from. . . . He took his orders from Mr. Shelton. . . .
“All I know is I was carrying out orders.”
Mays concedes that Michael’s murder is a “horrible atrocity"--but he tries to portray the klan as a political organization. Shelton tells the jury that white supremacy is a political goal--nothing more. He says that nothing in the klan bylaws approves of violence. He says that he does not advocate violence.
Shelton adds triumphantly: “I’m not ashamed to be a white person.”
In America, Mays says, “we don’t punish the organization. We punish the individuals.”
But Dees counters with a tutorial in klan history. With testimony from some former klansmen and depositions from others, he shows how Shelton personally directed the infamous Mother’s Day attack in 1961 on Freedom Riders at the Trailways bus station in Birmingham; how a United klansman was convicted of bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four black girls as they prepared to participate in the 11 o’clock service; how four klansmen killed Viola Liuzzo, a white civil-rights worker, in 1965 after hearing Shelton say, “If necessary, you know, just do what you have got to do,” and how in 1978, just 2 1/2 years before Michael Donald was killed, Shelton told a group of klansmen, “Sometimes you just got to get out there and stop them,” after which the klansmen fired shots into the homes of blacks, including the state president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ku Klux Klan policy is hardly politics, Dees declares. Make no mistake, he says, it is violence.
Finally, Dees calls klansman William O’Connor to the stand. On TV news tape the day that Michael died, Bennie Hays had been pictured walking up to the camphor tree to look at his body. O’Connor tells the jury that Hays had said it was “a pretty sight.”
Hays, acting as his own lawyer, calls O’Connor a liar. He says he had no knowledge of any plans to kill Michael Donald--and that anybody who says anything to the contrary is lying.
“I have never in my life heard anybody talk about a hanging,” he tells the jury. He says lynching talk was a “no-no” during klan meetings. And, Bennie Hays says, Henry, his convicted son, still maintains that he is innocent.
As both sides wind up their cases, Tiger Knowles summons Morris Dees to his jail cell. Although he has been testifying for the plaintiffs, Tiger is a defendant--and he wants to offer a closing statement of his own.
“Say what you feel,” Dees counsels.
When court resumes, Tiger Knowles, one of the killers of Michael Donald, stands in front of the jury box.
He won’t take long, he says. He knows people have tried to discredit his testimony, but everything he has spoken is true. “I’ve lost my family, and I’ve got people after me,” he says. “I was acting as a klansman. I hope people learn from my mistakes, learn what it cost me.”
He turns to the jurors. “Return a verdict against me,” he says, beginning to shake, “and everything else.”
Then he turns to Beulah Mae Donald. He pauses.
He is in prison for life--but he is alive. Her son is dead. Trembling, then sobbing, Tiger Knowles apologizes. Jurors are crying. Judge Alex T. Howard Jr. wipes his eyes. Tiger tells Beulah Mae Donald that he has nothing to pay her, but if it takes the rest of his life to make amends, he will--for any comfort it may bring. As for her son, he says, “God knows, if I could trade places with him, I would.”
Softly, from her chair, Beulah Mae Donald forgives him.
The members of the jury deliberate for four hours. In the end, they award her $7 million.
The klan cannot pay. It has nowhere near that kind of money. So, in addition to a quarter of the wages some of the klansmen will earn for the rest of their lives, and in addition to Titan Bennie Hays’ house and farm, Beulah Mae Donald accepts every penny of the several thousand dollars that the United Klans of America has to its name--and the deed and keys to its national headquarters.
She shuts it down.
BEFORE, DURING and after victory, retribution from the klan and other white racists is a worry for Dees and his staff--sometimes a big one.
One night in the summer of 1983, a man stops his pickup on South McDonough Street, not far from an entrance to the Montgomery city sewer system. Two younger men step out of the truck. Silently they drop down into the sewer, out of sight.
The older man drives off.
He is Joe Garner, 37, a convenience store operator. The younger men are Tommy Downs and Charles (Dink) Bailey, both 20, who rent a room from Garner behind one of his stores, out in the country near Snowdoun. Besides being their landlord, Garner has become an influence on their lives.
For their mission of the moment, Garner has given Downs and Bailey a flashlight, a pair of brown gloves, some silver duct tape, a garden sprayer and a container of gasoline. They carry these items, in an old canvas bag, down into the sewer. One block north, on Hull Street, they climb out of the sewer and slip along Hull to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They dash into some bushes in back.
Earlier the same evening, Morris Dees has returned to the law center from northern Alabama, where he gave federal investigators evidence against members of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. This particular arm of the klan had attacked the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other blacks during a civil-rights march in Decatur; and Dees’ evidence--including the identities of many of the assailants--eventually will lead to the conviction of several klansmen, including a former grand wizard.
After the criminal trial, Dees will sue the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, winning an $11,500 settlement for the marchers and a ban against further harassment. And--more galling still--he will win a court decree ordering seven klan members to sit down with civil-rights leaders, who will teach them race relations.
Hours before Tommy Downs and Dink Bailey arrive at the law center, Dees and his investigators have locked the front door and gone home.
Tommy Downs eases out of the bushes. By his signed account to investigators, he sticks some of the duct tape to a back window, then taps along the tape with a tire tool. The glass cracks silently under the tape, and he lifts it out.
He runs back to the bushes and listens for a burglar alarm. There is none. Someone has forgotten to set it.
Downs fills the sprayer with gasoline. Then he slips through the broken window. With Dink Bailey standing guard outside, Downs sprays the carpet with gasoline. He sprays around the desks and around the filing cabinets, then opens a few drawers and sprays inside. He lights the gasoline--and crawls back outside.
Downs and Bailey run along Hull Street and climb back down into the sewer. They wait.
A smoke detector alerts the fire department. From an opening in the sewer, Downs and Bailey watch as fire trucks and police arrive. Then they duck down and make their escape.
At the law center, the gasoline vaporizes quickly, and the fire follows the vapor straight up. It scorches the carpeting and the file cabinets and causes $140,000 worth of damage to the walls, frame and ceiling. But virtually all of Dees’ evidence against the klan--in the file drawers--survives.
When Dees arrives, the fire is still burning. On the wall, the law center clock is melted to a halt: 3:48 a.m.
Morris Dees has a hunch.
About a month before, he remembers, he had summoned Joe Garner to the law center for a deposition in the Decatur case. Garner had denied being a klan member--but Joe Garner sounded like someone who might carry a grudge, even against being questioned.
Dees checks into Garner’s background--and into the past of his two renters. He discovers that when Tommy Downs moved from a previous address, he left behind a certificate that declared him to be a member of the klan. And the klan certificate is signed by none other than Joe Garner.
Within weeks, a law center investigator finds a photo showing Tommy Downs marching at a klan rally--and Joe Garner marching in front of him. Both are wearing klan robes. On the arm of Garner’s robe, just above the wrist, are the stripes of an exalted cyclops.
Dees brings the certificate and the photo to the Montgomery County district attorney.
The district attorney summons Tommy Downs before a grand jury and points out that lying could mean jail for perjury. Downs begins to cry. He confesses that he torched the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was Joe Garner, he says, who wanted it done--to destroy all of Dees’ evidence against the Ku Klux Klan. And Tommy Downs reveals that Joe Garner has more in mind.
He wants to blow up downtown Montgomery.
Civil-rights leaders are planning a march. Downs says Garner wants to plant dynamite in the sewers beneath the streets--and touch it off as the civil-rights leaders pass overhead. The district attorney investigates--and finds 123 7-ounce sticks of dynamite and 8 pounds of plastic explosive. That, says a bomb expert with the Alabama Department of Public Safety, is enough to destroy an entire city block.
In addition, Downs says, Garner wants to set explosives on Morris Dees’ car and blow it up one day when Dees drives to work.
The authorities arrest Joe Garner.
He, Downs and Bailey plead guilty to a variety of state and federal charges. Joe Garner is sent to federal prison for 15 years. Downs and Bailey get lesser sentences.
OFTEN, RETRIBUTION is aimed solely at Morris Dees.
In one of his early fights, he wins a court order ending harassment of Vietnamese fishermen along the Texas Gulf Coast. The order is against a group of Texas fishermen--and a band of klansmen headed by Louis Beam, the Texas grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Worse for the Knights, Dees wins a second court order that disbands Beam’s Texas Emergency Reserve--a group of paramilitary klansmen organized into what amounts to a private army. During the legal proceedings, Beam calls Morris Dees an Antichrist Jew and holds out a Bible and cross to exorcise his demons.
And Louis Beam never forgets his humiliating defeat.
He leaves Texas and goes to Hayden Lake, Ida., where Richard Butler heads the Aryan Nations, an umbrella group of hard-core white racists. From Hayden Lake, Louis Beam writes to Dees and challenges him to a “dual (sic) to the death--you against me. . . .
“If you are the base, despicable, low-down, vile poltroon I think you are--you will of course decline, in which case my original supposition will have been proven correct, and your lack of character verified. . .,” Beam writes. “Your mother--think of her, why I can just see her now, her heart just bursting with pride as you, for the first time in your life, exhibit the qualities of a man and march off to the field of honor. (Every mother has a right to be proud of her son once). . . .”
When he gets no reply, Beam goes to Montgomery. He meets with Joe Garner, who has just come under investigation for the law center fire. An FBI report, recounting an agent’s interview with Garner, says that Beam tells Garner he thinks Dees is “scum.”
According to the report, Garner introduces Beam to one of Dees’ cousins--who does not like Morris Dees and shows Beam where Dees lives. The report says Beam videotapes Dees’ property, including details of his home. Then Beam talks his way into the lobby of the Southern Poverty Law Center. An investigator throws him out.
At about the same time, another white supremacist who frequents the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho takes up what is now becoming a growing cause: killing Morris Dees.
He is Robert Mathews, who organized the Order, which seeks to wrest large portions of the United States away from its “Zionist Occupied Government” and to establish a nation for whites only. The Order has in mind banning all other races, whom it calls “God’s mistakes"--and it wants to kill all Jews, whom it considers the seed of Satan.
Mathews formulates six steps to accomplish this. Step Five is the assassination of “racial enemies"--and Dees is at the top of Mathews’ hit list.
After a stop in Denver, where he and his men kill Alan Berg, a radio talk-show host who likes to bait racists, Mathews heads south. A resident of Birmingham who belongs to the Aryan Nations says Mathews asks him to gather all the information he can on Dees--but he refuses because he does not want to become involved.
Finally, Mathews tries to send a confederate, who is actually an FBI informant, south to finish Dees off.
The informant says that Mathews orders him “to kidnap (Dees), torture him, get information out of him, kill him, then bury him in the ground and put lye on it.”
Within days, the FBI surrounds Mathews’ hide-out on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound in Washington state. The FBI wants Mathews for a variety of crimes that include the slaying of Alan Berg and the $3.8 million robbery of a Brinks truck to finance the Order’s incipient white racist revolution.
On Whidbey Island, Mathews and the FBI shoot it out. Night falls. It is a standoff. FBI agents fire flares. The flares ignite Mathews’ house, and he is burned to death.
One of the last of his men to be captured is Bruce Pierce, fingered by others as the Alan Berg triggerman.
FBI agents arrest him in Rossville, Ga. In his van, the agents find cash, weapons and several news articles, including one about Morris Dees.
The next day, agents stop Pierce’s wife. She is in Dees’ state--Alabama. In her trailer, the FBI finds nine weapons and several books:
- ‘Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.”
- “Assassination: Theory and Practice.”
- Volumes 1-5 of “How to Kill.”
N AUGUST, 1989,the FBI opens an investigation into information from Georgia that some klansmen are yet again plotting to kill Morris Dees.
The information comes as Dees takes legal steps to collect a judgment he won for 75 civil-rights marchers attacked by the klan in Forsyth County, Ga., two years ago.
The judgment totaled $1 million. It was a crushing blow to both the Invisible Empire and the Southern White Knights.
“We think,” Dees says, “it got them riled up.”
MORE PEOPLEare likely to get riled up as Morris Dees moves against Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance.
Metzger, 51, is a one-time member of the John Birch Society who became the California grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. As a klansman, he ran for Congress in 1980 from California’s 43rd District. It reaches across northern and eastern San Diego County, Imperial County and part of Riverside County.
In the 1980 primary election, Metzger attracted 33,071 votes--enough to win the district’s Democratic congressional nomination.
Although he ultimately got swamped, his primary election success gave him what he called “great exposure.” In 1982, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate--then founded the White Aryan Resistance.
Today Tom Metzger, a TV repairman, runs the White Aryan Resistance from Fallbrook, in San Diego County. He is the host of “Race and Reason,” a TV interview program available to subscribers on more than 50 cable systems in at least a dozen states. The White Aryan Resistance publishes a newspaper. Metzger is linked by computer to white supremacists across the nation.
Like members of the Order, Metzger has held to racist tenets over the years, including the belief that non-whites are “God’s mistakes” and that Jews are the progeny of Satan.
Metzger has a 21-year-old son, John, who heads his youth recruitment. John Metzger runs an organization known as the White Student Union, the Aryan Youth Movement, the WAR Youth or the WAR Skins.
As the latter name implies, the Metzgers are hospitable to skinheads, young thugs who shave their skulls and favor military-style clothing. Skinheads strut about in heavy boots with steel toes, known as Doc Martens--and they sometimes carry clubs. Often the clubs are baseball bats. Tom Metzger supplies the skinheads with his White Aryan Resistance newspaper. Its comics feature the killing of blacks and Jews.
In a lawsuit filed in October, Dees and lawyers for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith accuse Tom and John Metzger of sending agents to Portland, Ore., to organize and guide a particular group of skinheads called the East Side White Pride. “The agents reported regularly to . . . (the Metzgers) concerning their organizing efforts,” the suit says. “The agents also urged . . . (the skinheads) to call . . . Tom Metzger’s telephone hot line to receive aid, encouragement and direction.”
One night a year ago, the suit says, Metzger’s agents and the East Side White Pride held an organizational meeting of particular interest. “At that meeting,” according to the suit, “the agents. . ., in accordance with the (Metzgers’) directions. . ., encouraged members of the East Side White Pride to commit violent acts against blacks.”
And on that same night, in southeast Portland, two friends drop off Mulugeta Seraw, 28, a black Ethiopian immigrant, in front of his apartment.
It is 1:30 a.m. Seraw works for Avis Rent-A-Car at the Portland airport. He sends money home to his parents, a son and five brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, where he hopes to return after attending Portland State University. Mulugeta Seraw goes to work at 7 a.m. Bedtime is long past.
He does not make it to his door.
Three skinheads attack him. One has a baseball bat.
Mulugeta Seraw’s two friends, also black, jump from their car. They are beaten back.
“Kick them!” scream two teen-age girls, watching nearby. “Kill them!”
Three minutes later, Seraw is lying in the street, bleeding, broken.
Neighbors call the police. Mulugeta Seraw is taken to a hospital. Doctors pronounce him dead.
Working with descriptions provided by witnesses, police track down Kenneth Mieske, 23, a performer of “hate metal” rock music who uses the name Ken Death; Kyle Brewster, 19, and Steven Strasser, 20. All are members of the East Side White Pride.
Mieske pleads guilty to murder and Brewster and Strasser to manslaughter. Mieske gets a life sentence, which carries mandatory imprisonment of 20 years. Brewster gets a 20-year sentence, with a minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment. Strasser plea-bargains for a sentence of 9 to 20 years.
In their lawsuit, filed on behalf of Mulugeta Seraw’s uncle, Engedaw Berhanu, who is the executor of his estate, Dees and the Anti-Defamation League charge the Metzgers, their White Aryan Resistance and skinheads Mieske and Brewster with wrongful death and conspiracy to violate Seraw’s civil rights.
“The actions of the Oregon defendants in attacking Seraw were undertaken pursuant to the custom and practice of the defendant WAR of pursuing its racist goals through violent means,” the suit says. Moreover, it says, the actions were undertaken “with the encouragement and substantial assistance of the California defendants.”
Without specifying an amount, Dees and the Anti-Defamation League ask for punitive and compensatory damages to punish the Metzgers and to deter “further outrageous conduct of this kind.”
Legally, this lawsuit is similar to the lawsuit in which Beulah Mae Donald won the last pennies in the coffers of the United Klans of America and the keys to its headquarters. And this is just what Morris Dees and the ADL have in mind.
But unlike the United Klans of America, Tom Metzger says, he will win. “They lost more because of the UKA’s incompetence than anything else,” Metzger says. “And because the UKA failed to appeal.
“There is absolutely no basis for this suit,” Metzger says. “I don’t have agents. We are not into telling anybody to go down out on the streets and get anybody and beat on them. Anybody who says that my son or I have said that is lying.”
About his chief adversary, Metzger says: “Morris Dees is a clever fellow, and he’s had some success. So we don’t take this lightly.
“But I am not exactly a pushover, either.”
FOR HIS EFFORTS, Morris Dees gets awards--from civil-rights groups, Common Cause, bar associations and the like. But he also gets criticism--from writers in magazines such as the Progressive and the Other Side, a liberal publication that prints a giver’s guide to charitable foundations.
The criticism focuses on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s $27-million endowment and its $3-million annual budget. The center has a stylish new building. Wags call it the Poverty Palace. When Dees and the center attack racists, these critics say, they attack a foe who is no longer an important threat--but they do it anyway to impress donors and make the center’s endowment grow.
Dees makes no apology for resources: It takes money, he says, to win lawsuits--and to provide the security that the center and its four lawyers need.
And certainly, Dees says, the klan is not the threat it once was. His own experts at the law center say that klan membership is down to one of its lowest levels in history. Credit goes to good times economically: In bad times, poor whites tend to take out their frustrations on blacks. Credit also goes, the experts say, to police work--as well as to anti-klan groups.
So why does Morris Dees keep on doing what he does?
He is a multimillionaire. He does not need his law center salary of $79,600--more than what many of the 35 members of his staff earn, but less than the six-figure salary his top staff attorney makes.
Why does he keep putting himself in harm’s way?
He leans back, crosses a sockless loafer over one knee and pauses.
First, the threat of racist terror may have eased some, but it has not ended. “If you don’t think skinheads are any threat, then go ask the Seraws if their son is alive.”
Second, he has always liked a good fight. “I’ve had my ass whipped, and I’ve whipped a few. . . . We absolutely take no prisoners. When we get into a legal fight, we go all the way. . . . Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve always liked a good challenge.”
Third, although he was raised a Baptist, he feels a kinship with Jews. “My middle name is Seligman, and my family may have some Jewish connections. . . . You know, years ago, nobody took the threat to the Jews seriously. I am not saying that Louis Beam and his crowd will duplicate what happened in Nazi Germany. I would think that this country is quite different. But I do see it as just a personal responsibility to do what I can to stop just a little bit of this happening right here. . . . And with the legal training I’ve got and what we’ve put together here, we’re in a unique position to do it. . . .”
Like Morris Dees’ daddy, when he took Perry Lee’s hoe. . . .
A Klan Glossary
Klanwatch, an organization that monitors the activities of the four major and 30 minor Ku Klux Klan groups in America, provides the following definitions of commonly used klan terms.
Invisible Empire --The universal jurisdiction of the klan.
Realm --A subdivision of the Invisible Empire (usually a state).
Province --A subdivision of a Realm (usually a county or region).
Klavern --The local klan den.
Imperial Wizard --Chief officer of the Invisible Empire.
Grand Dragon --Chief officer of a Realm.
Titan --Chief officer of a Province.
Exalted Cyclops --Chief officer of a Klavern.
Klonklave --A secret klan meeting.
Klavalkade --A parade or public procession. Times researchers Nina Green and Doug Conner contributed to this story.