|The Decline of the
United Klans of America
Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, avoided publicity and retained the old concept of
the Klan as a clandestine order. During the 1960s and 1970s the UKA remained the largest Klan faction. In the spring of 1979, however, 20 members of the
UKA were indicted by a Birmingham Federal grand jury in connection with
violent racial episodes in Talladega County, Alabama. Three of Shelton's
members pleaded guilty and 10 others were found guilty and sentenced to
terms in Federal prison. The days of UKA dominance in the hate movement were numbered.
The beginning of the end for the UKA
followed a $7 million damage award in 1987 in an Alabama civil suit
against the organization. Included as defendants in that case were six
past and then current UKA members involved in the 1981 lynching of a
Black teenager, Michael Donald, whose body was left hanging on a tree. As
a result of that verdict, the teenager's family, whose legal
representation was provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC),
took possession of the United Klans' 7,200 square foot national
headquarters on 6.5 acres in Tuscaloosa. The property had an estimated
market value of $ 225,000 at the time.
Knowles, a member of the UKA's Klavern 900 in Mobile and one of the two
men convicted for the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, testified at his 1984
trial that he and Henry Hays, who was executed for the act, had killed
Donald "in order to show Klan strength in Alabama." At the civil
trial, Knowles testified that he was "carrying out the orders"
of UKA "Titan" (regional leader) Bennie Jack Hays, Henry Hays's
father and a long time Shelton lieutenant. Bennie Jack Hays died in
August 1993 before his second criminal trial could take place. His first,
in 1988, ended in a mistrial
At a Klavern meeting at the Hays home two
days before the murder of Donald, Henry Hays, who served as the chapter's
"Exalted Cyclops" (presiding officer), said that "a nigger
ought to be hanged by the neck until dead to put them in their
place." The Anti-Defamation League provided the SPLC's Morris
Dees, counsel to Michael Donald's mother (who has since died) and the
NAACP, a grisly cartoon from The Fiery Cross which proved to be a key
piece of evidence in the $7 million judgement ultimately rendered
against the UKA. The illustration showed a Black man about to be lynched,
with the caption "White people should give Blacks what they
Today, Shelton, 71, is a survivor of triple bypass surgery. Talking to a reporter in 1994 he
provided the Klan's potential epitaph: "The Klan will never return.
Not with the robes and the rallies and the cross lightings and parades,
everything that made the Klan the Klan, the mysticism, what we called
Klankraft. I'm still a Klansman, always will be. The Klan is my belief, my
religion. But it won't work anymore. The Klan is gone. Forever."
Indeed, today's Ku Klux Klan is the weakest and the most fragmented it has been since World War II. Clearly the Klan has fallen on hard times. Nonetheless, it remains a dangerous force in American life. Vigilance remains the appropriate watchword for all who oppose the Ku Klux Klan and its hateful message.