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Subject: Robert Shelton, Leader of Big Klan Faction

died March 17
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Date Posted: March 24, 2003 2:17:52 EDT

Robert M. Shelton, the longtime leader of one of the largest and most notorious factions of the Ku Klux Klan, died on Monday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 73.

The cause was a heart attack, his family said. The organization that Mr. Shelton had led since 1961, the United Klans of America, disintegrated some time ago, said Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mr. Dees won a pivotal lawsuit that bankrupted the organization. He represented Beulah Mae Donald, mother of Michael Donald, a black teenager who was beaten to death by Klansmen and hung from a tree in 1981 in Mobile, Ala. In 1987, a federal jury awarded her a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America.

Similar suits followed, and they "devastated the internal operations of Klan activity in the United States," said Deborah Lauter, Southeastern director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The verdict in the Donald case coincided with the end of Mr. Shelton's Klan activism, his son said.

Mr. Shelton, once a factory worker at B. F. Goodrich, was an adept organizer and rode a tide of Klan infighting to become the leader of its largest splinter group, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups.

After being ousted from the U.S. Klans in 1960, he quickly drew Klan chapters, called klaverns, from that organization into his own, the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

By 1961, the Alabama Knights had merged into United Klans of America, and Mr. Shelton led as imperial wizard. The Anti-Defamation League estimates that at its height in the mid-60's the United Klans of America had 30,000 members.

Its "ardent supporters" numbered far more, Mr. Dees said, perhaps 250,000 people.

Trial testimony linked United Klan members to crimes that included the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls and the death of a civil rights worker, Viola Liuzzo, on her way to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Three members were convicted in the bombing.

In 1979, 20 members of the United Klans were indicted in connection with violence in Alabama, including firing into the houses of N.A.A.C.P. officers, and 13 members were convicted or pleaded guilty.

In 1966, Mr. Shelton was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $1,000 for contempt of Congress, for refusing to turn over membership lists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Mr. Shelton shared the Klan penchant for secrecy. After he lost power, when an all-white jury awarded Mrs. Donald the keys and the title to the United Klan headquarters, he was difficult to reach, living in Northport, Ala., near Tuscaloosa and shunning the activities that had been his forte, his son, Robert, said.

In 1994, he told The Associated Press: "The Klan is my belief, my religion. But it won't work anymore. The Klan is gone. Forever."

Mr. Dees said, "I think Robert Shelton was truly an evil man." He added that he did not believe that any of the violent acts by the Klan members could have been carried out without Mr. Shelton's approval and, perhaps, his direction.

Mr. Dees said he received a call from Mr. Shelton's daughter, Cindy, six months ago. "She was ashamed of his role in violence against those in the civil rights movement," Mr. Dees said.

Yesterday, Mr. Shelton's son said his views were "totally opposite" the Klan's. Yet, he added, he believed that its "positive" charitable works had gone unreported and that his father was not directly involved in violence.

"To me," the son said, "he was always just my father, and that's all that he ever will be."

Also surviving is his wife, Betty.

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