The United Klans of America, one of the largest and most secretive white supremacist groups, could be driven to financial ruin by a $7 million jury award to the family of a black man lynched by Klansmen, experts say. ``This is a devastating blow to the Klan and demonstrates to all hate groups that they will be held responsible for the consequences of their preachings and acts of violence,'' said Mark Alfonso, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, which tracks Ku Klux Klan activities.
An all-white federal jury in Mobile, Ala., has ordered the United Klans, the largest of several rival Klan organizations, and six members to pay the damages for the 1981 slaying of 19-year-old Michael Donald.
Two Klansmen were convicted in 1983 of beating and strangling Mr. Donald to death, slitting his throat, and then hanging him from a tree in a rural field.
The jury's verdict targeted the two convicted killers, four leaders of the group's Mobile branch, and the shadowy parent organization.
The United Klans faces the possible seizure of its $125,000 headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as partial payment of the award, lawyers said.
``Except for that, the United Klans doesn't have more than a few pennies to its name,'' says Stuart Lewengrub, southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. ``They could be financially ruined.''
He says most of the United Klans' members are poor, uneducated whites from rural Alabama and Georgia who can barely afford to pay the group's monthly fee of $10.
The United Klans' troubles have been compounded by the prolonged illness of its leader, Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton, who has been unable to devote himself full time to the group.
Analysts said the judgment may lead to a mass exodus from the ranks of the United Klans while discouraging potential members from joining the troubled organization.
But Mr. Alfonso warned that a ``white racist backlash'' against the judgment could ultimately benefit Klan splinter groups that preach a more radical philosophy than United Klans.
The court judgment comes at a time of increased public attention to the Klan, which was founded in the South after the Civil War and which launched a campaign of terror against former slaves.