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Obituaries

Robert Shelton, 73; Head of Klan Group

March 22, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Robert M. Shelton, the former head of the nation's largest and most notorious Ku Klux Klan organization, died Monday of a heart attack in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 73.

A onetime tire salesman, Shelton became imperial wizard of the United Klans of America in 1961, when it was formed in a merger with small Klan groups in several Southern states.

The Anti-Defamation League has estimated that, at its peak in the mid-1960s, the United Klans of America had 30,000 members and as many as 250,000 supporters.

United Klan members were linked to numerous racial hate crimes over the years, including the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls; and the death of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker who was driving a black youth in her car during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

The high-profile Shelton -- a small thin man who wore a gold Klan ring with a tear-shaped red blood drop on its stone -- stumped the South in a large black Cadillac and appeared at Klan rallies and meetings variously attired in a purple satin robe or a business suit.

In 1966, he was sentenced to the maximum of one year in jail and fined $1,000 for contempt of Congress after being convicted by a federal court jury of refusing to turn over subpoenaed Klan membership lists to a panel of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

He later spent nine months of his one-year sentence in a federal prison in Texas. Upon his release in January 1970, he declared: "We're going to kick the enemies of white people from one end of the country to the other."

In 1979, 13 United Klan members were convicted of or pleaded guilty to various acts of violence in Alabama, including firing into the homes of officers of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Shelton was born in Tuscaloosa in 1929. He dropped out of the University of Alabama after a year and served in the Air Force. After his discharge, he returned to Tuscaloosa, married and went to work in a B.F. Goodrich factory.

He later held an important tire sales position with the company, but was fired because of his Klan activities.

In 1987, a federal jury awarded $7 million in damages to Beulah Mae Donald, the mother of a black teenager who had been beaten to death by two United Klan members. The body of her son, Michael, was found hanging from a tree in Mobile, Ala., in 1981.

The verdict bankrupted the United Klans of America, forcing its dissolution and the retirement of its imperial wizard.

"The Klan of yesteryear is dead," Shelton said in a 1995 interview. But, he added, "I'm still a klansman. I'll die a klansman."

He is survived by his wife, Betty Lou; two children; and five grandchildren.

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