The Rise & Fall Of Robert Shelton: The Man Who United The Klan – Patch.com

DEDICATION: This story is dedicated to the memory of Bill Buchanan — a newspaperman, unmatched storyteller, avid supporter and friend. Bill fought hard against the Klan in his younger years and would go on to fight just as hard to preserve the history of the place he loved and called home in Tuscaloosa. In turn, Tuscaloosa will never forget you, Bill.

TUSCALOOSA, AL — The fourth floor of the historic Alston Building in downtown Tuscaloosa is empty for the most part, save for some frayed cables, a rusty filing cabinet and an old stainless steel gas grill. Tuscaloosa’s first skyscraper, the seven-story building is a destination on the local civil rights history trail and has a bustling women’s clothing boutique on its street-level floor.


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“SWAG” — the boutique’s name — is printed in big white letters on the store’s black awning.

Suite 401 is the only one on the fourth floor that consists specifically of three rooms, one being a large corner office with windows that look out onto Greensboro Avenue and the Bama Theater.

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There are no placards describing any significance. No historical markers. Nor should there be.

But the quiet can be deceiving when one realizes that, for a brief time, the now-vacant office space was once occupied by Robert Marvin Shelton, the imperial wizard of the United Klans of America (UKA) — to date, the single-largest faction of the Ku Klux Klan hate group.

A color photograph of Robert Shelton at his desk in the UKA headquarters (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Shelton was instrumental in growing the ranks of the UKA by record numbers in multiple states during those early years, giving way to a decade that saw the highest orders come down from Tuscaloosa for the clandestine hate group. With the inevitable passage of time, Shelton’s infamous legacy has been largely forgotten or justifiably overlooked in the city’s history. That is, until recently, when the Alston Building was made an official destination on the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History Trail.

Here’s where it’s important to bring up some personal history.

As I looked out onto the street from Shelton’s old office, I was reminded of so many stories about the Klan and Robert Shelton from when I was growing up in Northport. The white hoods and burning crosses scared me to death, despite not seeing either in person until well into adulthood after I became a working journalist. It was an illogical fear, especially for a middle-class white kid, and one that I compare today to childish worries about the Bermuda Triangle or quicksand. I always assumed all of these things would be bigger problems than they turned out to be.

Indeed, by the 1990s, the KKK had mostly collapsed onto itself, serving only as a nationwide laughingstock once all of its silly boys-club secrets and nomenclature became matters of public record.

One story in particular, told to me by my Grandmother, described a UKA march in the 1960s in downtown Tuscaloosa. It was a social event for many, even those who simply came out to poke fun at the men in their robes. In fact, one of my relatives was dressed in full regalia and marching with his fellow Klansmen.

He was easy to spot in his robe, my Grandmother said, because his loping, bow-legged gait.

And while I have zero recollection of it, I even went to church with Robert Shelton’s wife, Betty, at Chapel Hill Baptist Church just off of Highway 43.

In her day, this kind-faced woman just so happened to manage the wives of all UKA members, according to since-declassified reports from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department.

Betty also kept me in nursery school. That, by itself, is one hell of a thing to reckon with.

Her more infamous husband was a topic discussed mostly after he died and not something ever made a big enough deal to get my attention as a kid. He wasn’t a regular church attendee and had largely become a withered afterthought in a community he once had by the throat.

No one was scared of him anymore. There were no more crowds gathered to hear him holler racial slurs standing on a flatbed truck under the cover of darkness in some Southern hay field.

But, after three decades of hearing the same secondhand tales and urban legends, I set out on this ambitious project to peel back the layers and tell the definitive story of who Robert Shelton was.

What I found was the story of a vain, greedy megalomaniac who often contradicted himself openly and whose fanaticism for white supremacy would leave a deep scar on the whole of American society that has yet to fully heal.


‘A New Crusade’ — Tuscaloosa, 1969

The Tuscaloosa News covered Shelton’s release from federal prison in 1969 and the welcome-home banquet held in his honor (Google News archive)

A thin man with a receding hairline gripped the podium tight in a smokey conference hall at the Ramada Inn on Skyland Boulevard. A space usually reserved for meetings of the civic clubs on the mashed potato circuit, the hotel now played host to hundreds of excitable Klansmen.

Described by some in the press as “craggy-faced” and “emotionless,” Robert Shelton’s mood that day was different as he stood before the crowd in a stiff new suit. His 5-foot, 10-inch frame was a little heavier after his nine-month prison sentence and he told his followers he was ready for a “new crusade.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had both been dead for nearly two years. Just 121 days before, Neil Armstrong had become the first human to step foot on another heavenly body.

“Come Together” by The Beatles was the No. 1 song on the radio and “Krakatoa, East of Java” was the top movie at the box office.

Humanity was on the cusp of a new and exciting digital age, while, at the same time, the Ku Klux Klan was planning its biggest comeback since the 1920s.

It was the day after Thanksgiving 1969 and Shelton had just been been released from the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana in Bowie County, Texas, where he served a truncated prison sentence for contempt of Congress. After declining to turn over records to the feds, Shelton, by all accounts, toughed out his sentence and made good on his widely-publicized promise to run the United Klans of America from prison. He was reportedly released early on good behavior.

It was around that close of the decade that Shelton began making his desires known for the 1970s to be a time of focusing less on African-Americans and more on battling the looming specter of communism and the Jews, who he viewed as the true enemy of Anglo-Saxon and Aryan virtues.

“Peace and tranquility are just words being used to lull our youth,” he said from the podium that day in the Tuscaloosa Ramada Inn. “But when peace comes, complete and final peace, you will be experiencing death.”

His words that day were sharp and prophetic in more ways than one. But above all else, the welcome-home banquet for Shelton, unbeknownst to him, would be a kind of last hoorah — a death knell, if you will — as influence of the once-powerful hate group slowly deteriorated and began to slip through Shelton’s boney fingers.

It was a decline, however, that bookended a decade of ascension for Shelton and the United Klans of America, as an unparalleled wave of racial violence spread terror throughout the country.


Early Years

Robert Shelton (seated in the car) is guarded by paramilitary bodyguards before a UKA rally in the early 1960s (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Born June 12, 1929 in Alberta City, “Bobby” Shelton was the son of a Tuscaloosa grocery store owner named Hoyt and would go on to graduate from Holt High School in 1945. From there, according to one Justice Department memo, he attended the University of Alabama for “three quarters of 1947,” before enlisting in the United States Air Force and serving in the Korean Conflict.

Historians like David J. Chalmers argue that it was during his formative years of military service that Shelton first became acutely aware of racial divisions when exposed to more socially-progressive viewpoints of those outside of his staunchly-segregated home state.

Still, little is known about his earliest years prior to his return home from the Air Force in the summer of 1951 after being honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant. Shelton married his sweetheart and fellow Holt High graduate, Betty McDaniel, the following year and the couple eventually settled in Northport in a single-story home on Lake Sherwood Circle, situated on the banks of a picturesque private lake.

It’s unclear just when his interest in the Ku Klux Klan prompted him to join the group, but the late 1950s saw his connections to the racist underworld of Alabama pay off in a big way, propelling him to the highest levels of leadership within the white supremacist movement.

Shelton first began working at BF Goodrich in the early 1950s as a tire builder, before working his way up to the position of sales manager. His rise to this lofty title just so happened to coincide with the 1958 Alabama gubernatorial race between 37-year-old segregationist John Patterson and a political unknown from Clio, Alabama named George Wallace. The race, which ultimately led a defeated and disillusioned Wallace to adopt his infamous platform of racism, was won by Patterson — in large part due to the financial and in-kind contributions of hardcore white supremacists like Shelton.

Indeed, less than a year into his only term, it was widely documented when Patterson awarded Shelton and BF Goodrich a $1.6 million state contract for tires for all state vehicles in early 1959. This deal no doubt elevated Shelton’s station in the workplace and at home, but would ultimately lead to his undoing with BF Goodrich.

As the idealistic suburban boom of the 1950s was seared away by mounting racial tensions across the Deep South on the eve of the turbulent 1960s, Shelton’s openly-racist rhetoric began to sour relationships with his employer. Shelton was valuable for his connections in state government, but the negative publicity appears to have become too much for the openly-conservative company to bear.

Shelton was unceremoniously fired in the autumn of 1959, with the tire manufacturer citing a simple “reduction in sales force” — a notion several historians cast aside as a public relations stunt to spare the tire-maker from any segregationist blowback.

In a fashion that would become a kind of trademark for Shelton, he blamed his termination on a conspiracy in which the company was being compelled by “a few negroes and Jews” to have him fired.

If there was ever a high-water mark to preclude a descent into paranoid madness, this moment is it.


‘The Defenders’

Joe Mallisham was a Tuscaloosa civil rights activist and business owner who was a tireless defender of those in his community (Obituary photo)

No story about a villain is complete without its heroes.

Tuscaloosa attorney Stan Murphy was a kid during those years of marches and burning crosses being placed in his yard. His parents — University of Alabama law professor Jay Murphy and attorney and UA political science professor Alberta Murphy — were instrumental in the fight for racial equality in Tuscaloosa and across the southeast.

As a way for cheap laughs during his college years in the 1960s, Stan would take friends from out of town to the 401 Suite of the Alston Building for kicks and giggles. In 1965, columnist Drew Pearson described the three-room downtown office, remarking on the purple Imperial Wizard robe and hood in a plastic garment bag hanging near a Confederate flag and a picture of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

For Murphy, though, it was always good for a laugh to show his friends copies of “The Fiery Cross” — Robert Shelton’s ham-fisted broadsheet for the United Klans of America that had a cult following among the organization’s membership and was distributed from the Alston Building office.

A copy of “Fiery Cross,” which served as the newspaper for United Klans of America (Alabama State Archives)

“It would just leave people from the civilized parts of the world with their mouths agape,” Murphy said with a nostalgic laugh.

At his family’s beautiful historic home on Hillcrest Drive, the couple regularly hosted figures integral to the Civil Rights movement, such as presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and Democratic Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein, who was gunned down outside of his New York law office on a March afternoon in 1980.

The hip couple were among the movers and shakers of progressive society in Tuscaloosa, which came with a cost that took the form of harassment by Shelton’s goons. Threatening phone calls and burning crosses in the yard were commonplace, with Stan joking that his family probably held some kind of record for white people who had crosses burned in front of their house.

Undeterred and displaying his sense of humor, his father once set out a galvanized bucket of sand with a note informing the terrorist organization to put the cross in the sand, because they were tearing the yard up.

“The Klan, like all other terrorist organizations, is made up of a bunch of cowards,” Murphy remarked. “Intellectually and morally deficient, and just not blessed in the courage department.”

But it was during the four-year term of John Patterson that the threats began to ramp up and take aim at Alberta and Stan. A crack shot with a pistol, Jay was good for weathering the criticism he normally received from area yokels. But a line was crossed when his wife and child were made the focus of ominous late-night phone calls.

Stan was unaware of this at the time, he told Patch, and only learned of it years later from Floyd Mann, who is best known for defending Freedom Riders when he served as director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety from 1959 and 1963.

The two men connected while both working for former University of Alabama president F. David Mathews in Washington D.C., after he was appointed Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare by President Gerald Ford.

According to the attorney, who had just graduated from law school at UA, the former head of public safety in Alabama casually asked if he had ever heard about the time his father ‘threatened to kill Bobby Shelton.’

Keep in mind, Stan stressed that Jay Murphy was a model pacifist — a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and MLK, who lit candles each year in memory of those killed when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II.

“He went down to the tire place, went in to introduce himself, because he had never met [Shelton],” Murphy said of his father. “And he told him what had been happening, with the threats to his son and wife, and said ‘I want to tell you personally, if anything happens to either them, I’m going to hold you personally responsible and I’m going to come down here and blow your god-damned head off. Then he turned around and left.”

What brought out a hearty laugh in Stan, though, was when he recalled being told that the information was gathered from state informants, who then relayed the internal Klan conversations to investigators. The threat by Jay Murphy was apparently read into the record during at least one meeting, with the Klavern coming to the conclusion that, if indeed anything did happen to Alberta or Stan Murphy, Jay Murphy would most certainly seek to kill Robert Shelton as retribution.

In a mode similar to the meticulous record-keeping that further damned the Nazi regime in Germany when its remaining leaders were finally put on trial, the extensive minutes of Klan meetings and the testimony of myriad informants paints a picture more akin to a drunken fraternity than a group hell-bent on domination and systematic oppression.

The threats were very real, though. So much so for the Black community in Tuscaloosa that it prompted a visible rebuttal.

Enter: The Defenders.

Organized in part by legendary Tuscaloosa activist, businessman and Korean War vet Joe Mallisham, the group was formed as a response to the lack of police protection extended to the Black community by area law enforcement.

Like Shelton, in a way, Mallisham’s military service would also be eye-opening and inform his reaction to the ills of the world around him. And it was after the events of June 9, 1964 — later known as “Bloody Tuesday” in Tuscaloosa — that the Gulf Oil service station owner had stomached all he could take.

As historian Simon Wendt writes, in the days and weeks after the attack on First African Baptist Church that saw more than 30 people injured by clubs, water hoses and tear gas, the events had seriously undermined faith in nonviolent protest.

Tensions were at a fever pitch on that hot summer day as dozens of armed Black men took to the streets seeking vengeance for the violence against the women and children of their community. The violent night following the Bloody Tuesday attack would leave two more Black men wounded, as anger boiled over in the community.

Mallisham knew something had to be done.

“They were tired of the Tuscaloosa Police Department, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers allowing it to go on like it was and letting the Klan get away with it,” Stan Murphy said. “So, they formed, essentially, an undercover secret service group of armed war veterans here to physically guard civil rights activists and workers and put a cordon around them to do what local law enforcement would not do — protect them.”

After initial discussions sparked interest in Mallisham’s idea, historians tell of a larger second meeting, where a diverse group of men officially voted to organize the defense unit. Mallisham was asked to lead it and accepted the responsibility.

The next night, the newly-formed Defenders began to guard the home of Rev. T. Y. Rogers with rifles and shotguns.

Alberta Murphy was the first woman from Alabama to run for Congress and was a beloved instructor and civil rights activist (University of Alabama)

Murphy’s family also benefitted from the protection, especially when his mother — who was the first woman from Alabama to run for Congress — would regularly travel to the city’s West End to attend civil rights meetings as a consultant for the Justice Department.

“She would drive over there and they were terribly worried something would happen to her,” he said. “So, when she would leave Hillcrest, an escort would form around her and drive her there and back.”


Shelton Ascends To Power

Robert Shelton, left, signs programs during a UKA rally in Mississippi in the 1960s (Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

The turn of the decade to begin the 1960s marked a dark time for Shelton. Fired from his cushy job at BF Goodrich in November 1959, the spring of 1960 saw him removed as the leader of one of the biggest Klaverns in Alabama for a second time, at the request of Georgia Klan leader Eldon Lee Edwards — the most powerful klansman in the nation at that time and a bitter rival of Shelton’s.

Later that year, however, fortunes would finally turn in Shelton’s favor, with Edwards dying from a heart attack in Atlanta on Aug. 1.

It’s important to note that historians view Edwards as the progenitor for the concept of Klaverns merging across state lines, despite his reluctance to do so at Shelton’s urging. And when a power vacuum was created by his death, Shelton quickly shored up the support to fill the void, going on to forever change the course of history in his home state and across the country.

Then, on a hot July night in 1961, in a field in Indian Springs, Georgia, the largest faction of the Klan from the Peach State would officially join forces with the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, forming The United Klans of America (UKA).

Like Napoleon Bonaparte’s triumphant return to Paris from exile in Elba, Shelton was reinvigorated and, for once, wielded substantial power by commanding the ranks of the largest individual Klan organization in the country.

When he arrived at the unification meeting, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, Shelton was surrounded by eight armed guards, each dressed in white shirts, red ties, khaki paratrooper pants, black boots, marine helmets and bayonets fixed to the left sides of the belts. By the time he left, had been elected Imperial Wizard of the UKA — the highest attainable position and one he would occupy for more than 20 years.

With the Georgia and Alabama Klaverns united in the dawn of the 1960s, the hate group’s headquarters would officially be moved from Atlanta to downtown Tuscaloosa, setting up shop on the fourth floor of the Alston Building.

By all accounts, 1962 was a fairly quiet year for Shelton as he worked to consolidate his power within the growing radical movement. He was arrested at one point in Tuscaloosa for violation of the Uniform Firearms Act, but later saw the charge dropped. During this time, Shelton also stumped for Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett — a vitriolic populist and abhorrent segregationist.

Then came the brutally-violent and divisive year of 1963. That June, Alabama Gov. George Wallace would make his infamous “Stand In The Schoolhouse Door” at Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus to block the integration of the school. The event no doubt was a cause for excitement and a source of rage for Klansmen across the southeast, especially the ones meeting at the new UKA Klavern Hall on Lester Taylor Road in Northport.

Newspaper accounts of the day tell of Shelton being warned by Alabama Highway Patrol head and Wallace acolyte Albert J. Lingo that any klansmen would be arrested on sight if seen in Tuscaloosa during the integration of the University of Alabama. This was to be Wallace’s day of infamy and public defiance, with all other distractions unwelcome, including those posed by redneck rabble rousers in bed sheets.

Despite the looming threat of arrest, one news report said about 50 men were traveling in cars with weapons when they were stopped just outside of Tuscaloosa by state troopers and subsequently jailed.

Shelton reportedly posted bail for 35 of the men. Their guns, knives, clubs and other weapons were ultimately returned by a sympathetic judge.

“Take your weapons and use them well,” a judge supposedly told the men upon their release.

Despite the prospect of violence and his increasingly extreme rhetoric, Shelton stayed out of the way on that summer day in Tuscaloosa, when Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach faced down the angry little man in the schoolhouse door. One account said Shelton was cordial with reporters from out of town, helping them get into position for the best possible camera shots and even offering them free sandwiches.

The Alabama National Guard would come and go from Tuscaloosa in that summer of 1963, but the event only served to validate internal fears within the Tuscaloosa klavern and bolster momentum for the hate group.

After the public defeat in his hometown, Shelton turned his focus to growing the UKA in other states, from Delaware to Michigan, Texas to the Florida Panhandle and beyond. His travel expenses were astronomical, with his trips made possible through the use of private jets and numerous Cadillacs equipped with high-tech radio technology — all paid for by the dues-paying members of UKA.

Shelton’s jet-setting, though, nearly cost him his life on Aug. 20, 1963. That faithful day saw the Imperial Wizard board a small single-engine Cessna filled with UKA leaflets bound for South Carolina. The first leg of the trip was to pick up Robert E. Scoggin, the grand dragon of the South Carolina chapter of the UKA.

Along with man identified as Fredrick G. Smith, the group then planned to fly to Washington D.C. to oppose a Civil Rights march.

While few details are known, the flight would not make its destination as the small plane went down in a wooded area near Walhalla, South Carolina. The pilot, a 350-pound man named Alvin D. Sisk, was killed in the crash, while Shelton suffered a broken arm and Smith walked away with only cuts and bruises. Shelton went on to sue Tuscaloosa-based Dixie Air for the crash and was awarded a settlement of $4,200.

Less than a month later, as Shelton’s arm healed, a quiet Sunday morning in Birmingham would give way to chaos after more than a dozen sticks of dynamite went off in the stairwell of the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four innocent little girls and injuring nearly two-dozen churchgoers.

The FBI ultimately concluded that the bomb was planted by four card-carrying members of the United Klans of America: Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry. Sadly, it would be more than a decade later before any convictions were handed down relating to the murders of those children.

The bombing would, however, do two things to bring about the downfall of the Ku Klux Klan. First, it ignited a groundswell of public outcry that ultimately resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And, not to be overlooked, the event served as the impetus for one of the most famous FBI undercover operations in the history of the agency.

Early 1964 was a time of frustration for Shelton, who opened the short-lived Heritage Insurance Co. in Tuscaloosa. The small business employed a number of UKA members and Shelton’s wife, Betty, who kept tabs on the wives of all UKA members.

But, following the brutal events of Bloody Tuesday in Tuscaloosa that June, the venture folded in July and was viewed by some as a nothing more than an temporary front for a money-laundering operation or some other criminal enterprise connected to UKA activity. Another event, however, precipitated Shelton’s latest failed business venture, which could have also caused him to close up shop.

It was a Thursday night — July 9, 1964. Hollywood film actor Jack Palance, his wife and their three children booked a room at the Hotel Stafford in Tuscaloosa for a visit with family in Northport and decided to take in a movie at the old Druid Theater. Unbeknownst to Palance at the time, though, were the rumors spreading through the community of his supposed intentions.

According to one article published in the Tuscaloosa News, it was thought by many that Palance was in Tuscaloosa to join activists in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A separate account by the FBI claimed that some locals thought the heavily-tanned Palance was a Black man in the company of a white woman.

Nevertheless, the Palance family arrived at the theater at about 9 p.m. for a screening of “The World of Henry Orient” — a comedy starring Peter Sellers and Angela Lansbury. Within 30 minutes, a mob of between 600-1,000 people gathered outside and began to hurl rocks, bottles and other items at the theater and the police guarding it.

Palance and his family were immediately rushed to the manager’s office and the crowd outside began to grow. The family was eventually escorted out by police and Palance went on to deny rumors of his involvement in the local civil rights movement. They were simply there to see a movie, he would later say.

The front page of the Tuscaloosa News the day after the mob rioted at the Druid Theater (Google News Archive)

In the ensuing bedlam, a local rental car used by the Palance family was splashed with red paint and had its tires slashed. A calling card was also left — a piece of paper with the words “the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Is Watching You,” scrawled in red ink.

The event would deal yet another blow to Tuscaloosa’s beleaguered image and would embolden FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to boost intelligence gathering operations against the UKA, as evidenced in numerous department memos that have since been declassified.


A Wave of Brutality

Viola Liuzzo was a civil rights worker from Detroit who was murdered by UKA members as she drove from Selma to Montgomery (Wayne State University)

Viola Liuzzo, a white Civil Rights activist from Detroit and mother of five, drove her Oldsmobile down Alabama State Route 80, shuttling activists from Montgomery to Selma. She was joined the night of March 25 by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African-American and activist, who rode in the car’s passenger seat.

At some point in the night, the 39-year-old Liuzzo stopped her car at a red light, before a vehicle carrying four UKA members pulled up alongside her. Incensed at the sight of a white woman in the company of a Black man, the klansmen pursued the Oldsmobile, shooting Liuzzo twice in the head. This forced the car off the road and into a ditch.

Liuzzo was dead and Morton lay motionless, but otherwise unharmed, when the klansmen checked the vehicle and left. Morton was rescued a short time later by other volunteers and found covered in Liuzzo’s blood.

In the aftermath, four arrests were announced by President Lyndon Johnson and, at one point, a $1,000 reward was put up by Gov. George Wallace for information leading to arrests in the case.

Robert Shelton, however, played the part of a victim, claiming accusations of Klan involvement were nothing more than the federal government scapegoating the UKA its problems.

“It would appear to me that, according to Johnson, everyone in Alabama is a Ku Klux Klansman,” he said in a story published by the Associated Press. “I don’t have knowledge of any participation in any acts of violence by members of our organization.”

This would become a common response line for Shelton in the violent years to come, as his power swelled to its most influential peak.


A Sign Of Things To Come

Robert Shelton swears in before a hearing of the House Committee On Un-American Activities (Photo by Francis Miller)

It was a busy year in 1965 for Robert Shelton, who claimed responsibility for expanding the UKA’s presence in nine states. While he was reportedly “peddling air conditioners” and selling insurance to his fellow klansmen, estimates included in FBI memos posited that active membership and sympathetic support for the UKA at this time ranged from 26,000 to 33,000 people throughout the South and other parts of the country.

The rapid growth in membership, though, was not lost on the federal authorities in Washington, D.C. As a result, leaks began to spring at all levels of the organization.

As columnist Drew Pearson argued in 1965, the men responsible for the killing of Viola Liuzzo displayed shoot-and-run tactics used by killer squads made of up the most extreme UKA members. These practices were made known by FBI informants who insisted the murder was anything but an act of drunken redneck impulse.

While the UKA went into damage-control mode for its public image in the wake of so much high-profile violence, Shelton also lost a key ally with the death of Klan attorney (Grand Klonsel) Matt Murphy Jr. — a large, gravel-faced man missing the pinkie and ring fingers on his right hand.

UKA attorney Matt Murphy Jr. flashes a V for Victory as he leaves court. The image was then used for the cover of Life Magazine (Photo courtesy of Life Magazine)

In August 1965, Murphy was feverishly working to defend UKA member Collie Wilkins, who a federal informant identified as the triggerman in the murder of Viola Liuzzo. But around 4 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 20, his convertible slammed into the back of a tanker truck around on Highway 11 near Cottondale, killing him instantly.

Despite Murphy’s own radical rhetoric and outlandish courtroom theatrics, he represented a kind of compass for Shelton. Murphy was known for boisterous, fiery speeches incorporating racial slurs and antisemitic conspiracy theories — with an oratory style that was the polar opposite of Shelton’s approach. He was loud and erratic from the podium so Shelton didn’t have to be. By comparison, and numerous accounts, a soft-spoken Shelton would often be the most cogent voice at rallies and speaking engagements.

The Tuscaloosa News front page covering the death of Matt Murphy, Jr. (Google News archives)

But Murphy was gone, sending the UKA on a trajectory that would eventually see Shelton behind bars and a new leader supplanting him for nationwide prominence in the 1970s.

Historian Wyn Craig Wade, in his book “The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America,” also described an odd interview request granted by Shelton to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine that seemed to highlight an organization in serious crisis during this time.

Shelton detested secularism, drinking and pornography, but numerous accounts portray a man who never ran away from a microphone. The interview took aim at racial violence in particular, including the murder of Liuzzo, along with the 1964 murder of Lemuel Penn in Georgia and the killing of Reverend James Reeb in Selma earlier that March. Regardless of where the final orders originated, it is accepted as fact that each of the three aforementioned victims died at the hands of confirmed members of the United Klans of America.

“I’m not saying they were and I’m not saying they’re not,” Shelton insisted to Playboy of the murders and the accused suspects. “It would be a violation of my sacred Klan oath to identify members of the Klan. But speaking of violating oaths, we are finding cases of where the Federal Bureau of Investigation is purging witnesses with attempts to bribe.”

The Playboy reporter then responded: “Don’t you mean, suborning witnesses?”

Like Dogberry in William Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” Shelton was a man known for his malapropisms — often mispronouncing confiscate as “confisicate” and “sway-do” for pseudo. As if he didn’t appreciate being talked down to by a reporter from the big city, Shelton’s mood became visibly more intense as the interview moved forward, with the Imperial Wizard barking about the FBI’s harassment of the UKA.

Later on in the interview, though — like so many Shakespearean tragedies — Shelton makes the mistake of tempting fate by calling for an investigation of the FBI by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). A relic from the Red Scare days of McCarthyism, the HUAC had its origins persecuting supposed communists in film and the press.

Shelton appeared at one point supportive of the actions by the HUAC, despite still awaiting his sentence for failing to answer their questions.This makes sense given his fuming hatred of communists. But, with history as our guide, it would be less than five years before those words would come back to haunt him.

Earlier that year, Shelton was formally cited by Congress after invoking the Fifth Amendment in response to 156 House Committee questions, as officials demanded answers regarding UKA finances and records. Shelton watched from the gallery of the House chamber as a vote of 351-28 was handed down to formally charge the Imperial Wizard with Contempt of Congress.

Even while awaiting his trial that would result in a federal prison sentence, he stayed busy.

During the period of waiting, the UKA national headquarters was moved out of the Alston building in April 1966 and relocated to a renovated garage in the Shelton family home on Lake Sherwood Circle in Northport, according to numerous FBI memos. The home, which still stands today, looks out over a private lake just off of Highway 43. It was during this time that Justice Department documents reveal the FBI being made aware of Shelton installing a WATS telephone line in his home.

First introduced in 1961 and short for Wide Area Telephone Service, WATS lines provided telephone customers with a long-distance, flat-rate calling plan. This would have given Shelton the ability to easily contact UKA members across the country from the privacy of his new home office. As his influence grew, along with the myriad controversies swirling around him, rapid communication was essential for Shelton, who also had state-of-the-art radio and scanner technology installed in his numerous Cadillacs.

But, despite moving his office to his family’s home, federal investigators learned from informants that he rarely spent time in Northport from 1966 to 1968. By luxury automobile or private jet, Shelton logged thousands of miles of travel during this period, speaking on the back of any flatbed truck wherever two or more interested people were gathered.

Orlando. Cincinnati. Star City, Arkansas. Jasper, Alabama and countless points in-between.

A meticulous record of his travels was kept by the FBI, at a time when Shelton publicly lampooned FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s loosening grip on power, while also lamenting harassment at the hands of an emboldened U.S. Justice Department that had doubled its efforts in the fight against extremist groups across the country.

It would be finances, however, that ultimately raised eyebrows.

During the absurdly-named National Klonvocation at the Hotel Stafford in the fall of 1967, it was reported to UKA members that the overall income of the group during the last year had been $110,000 — just short of a million dollars today when adjusted for inflation. It was during this annual gathering of the goons that Shelton proposed recruiting younger members to the ranks, primarily those ages 12-18.

Growing increasingly paranoid by the day, Shelton also denounced “The Dating Game” gameshow during this meeting, for its inclusion of racially-mixed couples, along with presenting a proposal to use sodium pentothal as a method of lie detection for members instead of polygraph machines. While his radical ideas were no doubt embraced by a large portion of his followers, much of it seemed nothing more than noise.

Apart from his travels during the late 1960s, Shelton still found time to run for Tuscaloosa City Police Commissioner, finishing fifth in a crowded race, in addition to transitioning his newspaper — “The Fiery Cross” — into a glossy monthly magazine that sold for $3 an issue.

Congress, however, would eventually get its pound of flesh after a judge sentenced Shelton to a year in federal prison and a $1,000 fine for Contempt of Congress. Shelton made a promise just before he was processed in to the federal prison in Texarkana, Texas, declaring that he would still head up the UKA from behind bars.

Shelton would only serve nine months and was released on good behavior. On Jan. 2, 1970, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover expressed his concern that Shelton’s release from prison would pave the way more racial violence. However, the veneer of the UKA was beginning to crack, with FBI estimates claiming that roughly 6% of UKA members were FBI informants at the time of Shelton’s release, in addition to an unrelated percentage of informants for state police.


The Slow Burn

Robert Shelton (left) speaks with his attorney (Google News archive)

Following his welcome home banquet at the Tuscaloosa Ramada Inn, Shelton was hopeful that the 1970s would be a time of further growth and improved public relations for the UKA. He would go on to spend much of that first year campaigning against forced integration in Mississippi public schools.

A busy slate of activities, however, would not be enough for Shelton to prove to the world that he was back in power. In December of that year, journalist Tom Tiede penned a piece on Shelton entitled “The World Has Turned, Shelton Is Left Behind.”

The article paints the 40-year-old Shelton as a broken man more interested in chewing the fat at coffeeshops in downtown Tuscaloosa than fomenting racial violence — although his beliefs never wavered, even up until his dying day.

“He hunches himself over the java, which somebody else usually pays for,” Tiede observed. “And tries to engage in secretive conversations with other grim-looking coffee shop habitués.”

Shelton sat dejected, chain-smoking his preferred brand of Pall Mall cigarettes in the downtown coffee shops during the early 1970s. The crowds at sporadic rallies were growing increasingly smaller and speaking engagements less lucrative.

The movement wasn’t quite over, though.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away in Louisiana, a young man from Tulsa, Oklahoma was stirring up trouble in places like New Orleans, where, in 1972, he was arrested for inciting a riot.

That 22-year-old miscreant was David Ernest Duke — a skinny, rat-faced man who would become the last major figurehead of the Ku Klux Klan to become a household name. Duke, while a rob-wearing Klansman behind closed doors, was central in a push for the KKK to recast its image by ditching their longtime costumes for expensive suits and racial slurs for fancy, five-dollar college words.

The KKK has had four distinct periods of evolution from its founding by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest sometime between 1865 and 1871.

Its formation during Reconstruction was followed by a resurgence of interest in the 1920s, thanks to the release of the blockbuster film “The Birth of a Nation.”

Then came the unification of a majority of American klaverns by Shelton in the 1960s, which stands as the Klan’s third major incarnation.

But it would be David Duke who took the helm and held on tight until the present day, setting the course for the Klan to truly become the leading butt of jokes within the menagerie of laughable eccentricities in American pop culture.

Duke’s platform was well-received at first, though, and he made short work of securing total control over the Louisiana Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, Shelton was looking for any way possible to stop the UKA’s membership from hemorrhaging out and falling in with Duke.

Shelton efforts at maintaining the UKA included numerous television appearances where he was treated as a kind of side-show act — a living fossil from the days of yore. In one instance, he appeared on a talk show in Paris, France in March of 1975 that took aim at the Klan’s past activity. Shelton was reportedly a good sport about it, but it was clear to FBI investigators that his passion and energy had been sapped by external forces.

A year before Duke would be elected as the youngest Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, Shelton said of his much-younger rival in his “Fiery Cross” publication: “he comes on like a reasonable person, serious, sincere and conservatively dressed. No flaming wild-eyed nut would go over half so well.”

The description of Duke served as both an acknowledgment of his popularity and a nostalgic affirmation of the old ways that had elevated Shelton to power. He was also candid about his distaste for Duke’s courtship of the media and the revelation that the Louisiana arm of the KKK made polygraph tests mandatory for its members. This, despite Shelton’s own past support for lie-detector tests and truth serums.

In response, Duke had little to say of Shelton, but claimed in a tabloid that the infamous Alabama klansman had been “changed” by a homosexual experience he had while incarcerated. He wrote off Shelton as being past his prime and began to look toward his future and political ambitions.

It was always about a political career for Duke, who would eventually win a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

This schism within the Klan, though, would go on to define the rest of the 1970s, as one man rose to fame while the other tumbled headlong into obscurity.

The spring of 1979 would signal the true beginning of the end for UKA, when 20 of its members were indicted by a federal grand jury in Birmingham in connection with violence in Talladega County. This resulted in three of the men pleading guilty, while 10 others were found guilty at trial and sentenced to federal prison.

A difficult decade and year were made even worse for Shelton that June, as he and Betty buried their 21-year-old daughter, Nancy.

The “Good Ol’ Days” were over and the unravelling had begun.


Breaking The Klan’s Back

The site of the former headquarters of the United Klans of America in Northport is now an RV park and private residence. (Photo by Ryan Phillips, Patch.com)

Michael Donald, 19, was walking home through a mostly-Black neighborhood in Mobile the night of March 21, 1981, after buying his sister a pack of cigarette. A car then pulled up, with a white man asking the teenager for directions.

Moments later, Donald was forced into the car at gunpoint by Henry Hays and James Knowles — both high-ranking members of the UKA Klavern in Mobile. There was no criteria that went into the random selection of Donald as a victim that faithful night, apart from the color of his skin.

The two men drove the teen out of a wooded area nearly Mobile Bay, where he was savagely beaten with a tree limb. He was found hanging from a tree, his throat cut three separate times.

Accounts from the incident cite the killing of a white Birmingham police officer earlier that year by a Black man during an attempted armed robbery as the spark that led the two klansmen to murder an innocent teenager. That unrelated, high-profile case was tried in Mobile and resulted in a hung jury, which piqued the interests of an enraged local Klavern.

According to one New York Times article by Jesse Kornbluth in 1987, Hays is reported to have said of the case “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”

The violent act that followed was intended to be a statement of the UKA’s strength across the state and region, but would ultimately be the opening scene in the regrettable final chapter for the Alabama branch of the hate group.

And it’s in the grieving mother of Michael Donald where we find our final hero of this story — the tenacious Beulah Mae Donald.

Enlisting the help of an upstart attorney out of Montgomery named Morris Deas, who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, Beulah Mae filed a wrongful death civil suit against the UKA in 1984, which aimed to hold accountable the entire organization for the violent actions of its members. This came separate from the slow-moving criminal proceedings against Hays and Knowles and was designed to hit the UKA hardest in a place where it would do the most damage — UKA bank accounts.

The civil suit was indeed successful, resulting in the UKA being ordered to pay out $7 million in damages to Beulah Mae. While the ruling in the wrongful death civil suit set a legal precedent for future action against hate groups, it also effectively bankrupted the United Klans of America.

With the bang of a judge’s gavel, Robert Shelton saw his “Invisible Empire” disintegrate in a matter of seconds. At the bargaining table, UKA was left with no choice but a settlement that forced the struggling hate group to sell its headquarters on Lester Taylor Road in Northport, just off of Lary Lake Road.

The property sold for $51,875, according to legal author Paul Finkelman, with all of the proceeds going to Beulah Mae. She died the following September, but not before making good on her noble quest to secure justice for her son.


Reverberations

A present-day look at the former corner office of Robert Shelton on the fourth floor of the historic Alston Building in downtown Tuscaloosa (Ryan Phillips, Patch.com)

There’s a family-owned RV park on the former property in Northport once owned by the UKA. The rectangular, pre-fabricated metal building is reminiscent of an American Legion Hall and stands out from the expensive houses and mildewed mobile homes that dot the winding road. Positioned on top of a hill in a sharp curve in the rope, the former headquarters is easy for motorists to pass by without giving a second glance.

Out front, a lone American flag waved in the breeze in the same rhythm as the decorative winter planters hanging from hooks in the building’s porches. The building is now a private family residence, bearing little resemblance to those halcyon days of white terror for the UKA. It’s been owned by the same family for the last 24 years and the property owner told me he didn’t spend too much time in the presenting thinking about the building’s past.

After the dissolution of his once-powerful hate group, Robert Shelton officially shed his title of Imperial Wizard in 1987. Defeated in the most absolute of fashions, Shelton settled into a quiet existence in Northport with his wife, Betty.

While Betty remained a respected figure at Chapel Hill Baptist Church in her later years, her husband resigned himself to obscurity, far away from the public. Shelton’s own movement had exceeded his wildest dreams, growing into its most powerful form to date, only to devour him with a flood of controversies. One after the other, day after day, until the end.

He did grant a rare interview in 1994, where he commented that: “The Klan will never return. Not with the robes and the rallies and the cross lightings and parades, everything that made the Klan the Klan, the mysticism, what we called Klankraft. I’m still a Klansman, always will be. The Klan is my belief, my religion. But it won’t work anymore. The Klan is gone. Forever.”

Robert Marvin Shelton died an unapologetic man on March 7, 2003. It was a heart attack that ultimately claimed the life of arguably the most powerful figure ever produced by an American hate movement during the 20th Century.

As my car idled on Sherwood Lake Circle and sat starring at the Shelton’s old home, I got to thinking about the residual effects still around us that persist, in no small part, thanks to the legacy of hate crafted by Robert Shelton.

America is at a crisis point at present, where lines of division seem comparable to the social turbulence of the 1960s. The last few years have seen a sharp rise in racist and antisemitic rhetoric, in addition to a groundswell of domestic terror threats fueled by white nationalism that doesn’t try to hide like the Klaverns of the 20th century.

This is the legacy left behind by ghouls like Robert Shelton and one that our society has yet to shed.

But, I’ll say again, wherever there is a villain, you can rest assured that you are likely to find heroes.

If there was a moral to this story, it’s that for every one Robert Shelton, there is also a Joe Mallisham, an Alberta Murphy, a T.Y Rodgers or a Beulah Mae Donald, ready to step up and defend the rights of the oppressed.

That’s one of the most beautiful things about a place like Tuscaloosa. Despite its brutal history of violence, the right set of eyes can spot so much good in our community that emerged in the face of one of the most evil men in our country’s history.


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