Civil suits have proven devastatingly effective against Ku Klux Klan leaders and other white supremacists who had remained largely undeterred by the possibility of criminal charges. The first suit against the Klan was launched in the aftermath of a 1979 march in Decatur, Alabama, during which Klan members attacked civil rights activists. Curtis Robinson, a black man, shot a Klansman in self-defence. When Robinson was convicted of assault with intent to murder by an all-white jury, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) appealed his conviction and brought its first civil suit against the Klan. During the suit, SPLC investigators discovered evidence suggesting a resurgence of Klan activity and other violence that authorities largely ignored.
SPLC suits have brought down more than 40 individual white supremacists and nine major white supremacist organizations. One of the most significant of these cases was the Michael Donald lynching case in 1981. Michael Donald was 19-years-old when he was abducted, murdered, and hanged from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. The SPLC’s Intelligence Project investigators gathered evidence against the Klan killers, which led to murder convictions and to a civil suit that destroyed the United Klans of America.
In a 1988 case, the Southern White Knights and the Invisible Empire Knights of the KKK (two Klan groups) and 11 individuals were found liable for an attack on civil rights activists in Georgia. They were ordered to pay nearly $1 million in damages. The Invisible Empire, once the largest and most violent Klan group, was forced to dismantle and surrender all of its assets, including its name.
In the same year, a group of teenagers murdered Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man, in Portland, Oregon. The teenagers pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison. However, Intelligence Project investigators believed the Skinhead attackers were organized and influenced by Tom Metzger. Metzger was the leader of White Aryan Resistance, a neo-Nazi Skinhead group that recruited young people to found and join violent gangs. Using information and evidence gathered by the Intelligence Project, the SPLC sued Metzger and won a judgment of $12.5 million. This damages award significantly weakened the White Aryan Resistance, and provided for the education of Seraw’s son, Henok.
Ten years later, a jury ordered the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, its state leader and four other Klansmen to pay $37.8 million (later reduced by a judge to $21.5 million) for their roles in a conspiracy to burn a black church. Reporter Wendy Bricker wrote at the time that, “The Christian Knights and King don’t have millions of dollars. But the verdict will likely put the Klan out of business – or severely diminish its influence – and deter others from hate-inspired actions.” In another article, she added “This verdict may also serve as a deterrent to those unfortunate people who may have a propensity for the Klan and violence, but will stop short at the thought of losing their material wealth for their beliefs.