TEXAS is wielding a new weapon against the Ku Klux Klan: fair-housing laws.
Texas officials have won restraining orders and injunctions against two Klan groups and hope to win potentially bankrupting damage awards from them. Meanwhile, one Klan group is seeking state permission to collect litter along the highway fronting a housing project officials are struggling to keep integrated.
The fight began last year over a then all-white public housing project in the all-white town of Vidor, long-regarded a Klan stronghold. The Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) chose to integrate the project as a first step in dealing with 120 other segregated sites run by 70 housing authorities in 36 East Texas counties.
Vidor was integrated for a time but returned to all-white status last fall after threats by alleged members of two Klan groups scared away black residents. Then HUD stepped in to assume control. More blacks moved into the complex in January; off-duty policemen and HUD employees now provide tight security.
Although there have been no new acts of intimidation, ``there is still an imminent threat to residents of the project,'' says William Hale, executive director of the Texas Commission on Human Rights (TCHR), which enforces the state fair-housing law.
Last month, the commission got a temporary injunction against the KKK's White Camelia Knights and Texas Knights. It requires them to stay 22 feet from the Vidor site.
Both Klan groups are also under investigation by TCHR for intimidation acts through violence or threat of violence in Vidor ``by persons purporting to be members,'' Mr. Hale says.
If he can connect the groups to intimidation acts aimed at preventing desegregation of the project, Hale will initiate charges under the state fair-housing law. If found guilty, Klan groups face fines up to $50,000 each and unlimited damages.
Hale says his probe is the first effort in the nation to use fair-housing laws against the Klan. The legal footwork has not been easy. Hale says he doesn't need to connect individuals to acts of intimidation; the burden falls on the Klan to show individuals were not members, and that no members were involved in intimidation.
In practice, however, Hale has tried to get Klan membership lists as evidence. ``If I had the list of members of the Knights of the KKK operating in Vidor between Sept. 1, 1992 and Dec. 15, 1992, then I would be able to verify whether or not the persons purporting to be members of that Klan organization were in fact members,'' he adds.
Charles Lee, of the White Camelia Knights of the KKK, was jailed last July for not answering a court's questions. He was freed saying he keeps no records and can't identify members.
But Hale says membership records exist. They have been given to the Travis County district attorney for a possible perjury charge. Lee's lawyer, Rife Kimler, says Hale refers to handwritten notes seized by federal agents two years ago at a Klan member's home. The notes are public record, Mr. Kimler says, but ``all of a sudden they find these records'' after Lee has testified none exist. ``I think they're trying to set Lee up.''
Lee says his group ``most likely'' will stage more protests in Vidor, but is waiting to see the outcome of the TCHR probe. He says his group protested the Vidor desegregation because of reverse discrimination: No blacks applied to live in Vidor, yet poor whites were kept on waiting lists because apartments were kept available for blacks. ``If anybody in this whole mess is an outsider, it's the federal government.''
As for violence or threats thereof, Lee denies his members were involved. ``Anyone with any sense knows you can't go around terrorizing people. It's illegal.'' Instead, his group staged a protest rally at a park and tried to organize a petition to recall Vidor's pro-integration mayor.
``People were afraid to sign it because we organized it,'' Lee says. They were right to fear it would get into the hands of authorities, he adds, because the petition was a document the court later requested. Lee says his group only obtained a few signatures before it quit trying and threw the petition away.
Says Kimler: ``No doubt, there were threats. Whether or not it's Lee's group is another question.
``It's dragging on far too long,'' he says of Hale's probe. ``If they have a case, they should bring it.'' He adds that, while Hale is pursuing the case as a civil matter, the alleged activities are also criminal. But law-enforcement officials haven't bothered to get involved, Kimler says.
Michael Lowe, grand dragon of the Texas Knights of the KKK, was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $13,000 for disregarding Hale's subpoena. He is free on bond while appealing his case on grounds that the subpoena violates First Amendment rights. The Texas Supreme Court hasn't decided to hear his appeal.
Ironically, Mr. Lowe is represented by Anthony Griffin, a black civil rights lawyer. He took the pro bono case at the American Civil Liberties Union's request. But it angered the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which dismissed Mr. Griffin as its general counsel in Texas in September.
Griffin says he still believes he did the right thing to take Lowe's case. In another irony, it was the 1958 case NAACP v. Alabama that established the First Amendment right of a group to keep membership lists secret.
The Texas court trying Lowe didn't agree, but neither did the Alabama court, Griffin notes. ``In most First Amendment cases, you have to get out of the state courts,'' he says. He hopes for a favorable ruling from the state Supreme Court but can move on to federal courts if necessary.
Griffin also is defending Lowe in federal court against the state attorney general, who wants to deny an application by Lowe to participate in a highway litter-cleanup program. Critics fear the Klan is trying to gain access to a highway that sits near a housing project so the group can intimidate its black residents.