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Church Wins $37.8 Million in KKK Suit

July 25, 1998|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A little church in rural South Carolina scored a David-and-Goliath victory Friday against the Ku Klux Klan, winning $37.8 million in civil damages three years after Klan members burned it to the ground.

It took a jury of nine blacks and three whites less than an hour to award the Macedonia Baptist Church enough to rebuild itself 100 times over, deciding that the church had proved a causal link between its destruction and Klan rhetoric.

"The verdict shows that there are still some things sacred in the country, still some lines that no one can cross," said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center here and lead counsel for the church in the five-day civil trial in Manning, S.C.

Dees, whose center has won four similar civil judgments against the Klan and other hate groups nationwide, called a parade of witnesses to prove that the four klansmen who pleaded guilty in the church burning were incited to arson by the racist rantings of Klan leaders.

"I feel great," said Macedonia's pastor, Jonathan Mouzon, who testified during the trial about losing the precious church Bible to the fire, the Bible with which he'd married and eulogized members, the Bible with which his father had preached. "I'm a little tired. It's been a long week, but [the verdict] was really something special to us."

Mouzon said between 30 and 40 members of his church were on hand every day of the trial, including Friday, when the verdict was read. Many wept, while the defendants remained stone-faced.

Though church members felt uplifted, Mouzon said he was emotionally spent, after a week that stirred the ashes of painful memories.

The burning of Macedonia was one in a string of church attacks that prompted President Clinton in 1996 to visit South Carolina and pledge federal help in investigating the crimes.

Gary White, lawyer for the klansmen, framed the case as a test of free speech, arguing that the Klan's racial views were unpleasant but legal. He also argued that the arsonists were acting outside Klan guidelines because national Klan leaders don't advocate violence.

But among the witnesses called by Dees were two of the klansmen who set the fire inside Macedonia, using hymnals as kindling. Both men, who said they were testifying against the Klan to atone for what they'd done, testified that Klan leaders provided support and encouragement before and after the fire, which one of them flatly called "Klan business." After the verdict, White couldn't be reached for comment.

The jury assessed punitive damages of $15 million against Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the national Klan organization based in North Carolina; $15 million against Horace King, the 65-year-old grand dragon of the South Carolina chapter of the Klan; $7 million against the South Carolina chapter itself; $100,000 each against three of the klansmen involved; and $200,000 against the fourth.

The jury also assessed $300,000 in compensatory damages, but it was unclear which defendants would be responsible for that portion of the judgment.

All four klansmen who pleaded guilty in the Macedonia burning are serving federal prison sentences. King has repeatedly denied any involvement in the fire, however, and has never been charged.

Friday's judgment was the biggest ever for Dees, $10 million more than he asked for.

In 1988, when skinheads in Portland, Ore., killed an Ethiopian student, Dees' center sued the California-based White Aryan Resistance and won $12.5 million for the student's family.

In 1987, a mob of klansmen in Forsyth County, Ga., attacked a group of marchers honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Dees' group won $1 million in damages against two Klan groups and 11 Klan members, a judgment that forced the Klan chapter there to disband.

In 1981, a group of klansmen abducted a black teenager in Mobile, Ala., beat him, cut his throat and hanged him from a tree. Six years later, Dees and his group won a $7-million verdict against the klansmen who took part, which effectively eliminated their chapter.

In 1979, more than 100 Klan members assaulted civil rights demonstrators in Decatur, Ala. Dees and his group won a judgment in which the Klan members not only paid damages but also performed community service and attended classes on race relations taught by those they'd attacked.

Although he conceded that his church may not collect the full amount of the jury judgment, Mouzon said he and his members have a $40,000 mortgage on the church, which was rebuilt in 1996, they'd love to pay off.

When the verdict was read, Mouzon offered an olive branch to King, whom he and jurors had seen in a video exhorting Klan members to "destroy the enemy."

"I was passing through the crowd," Mouzon said, "shaking hands, and when I came to him I extended my hand. But he looked right at me and said, 'No.'

"I just smiled."

Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.

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