By Terrence McCoy
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By Deirdra Funcheon
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Black sidestepped the draft during the Vietnam War by enrolling as a political science major at the University of Alabama. He joined the ROTC but was booted out for racism. The budding bigot then found his true milieu: the David Duke-led Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Black eventually rose to become the leader's right-hand man -- trolling for recruits and helping run his boss' unsuccessful campaign for governor of Louisiana. At age 26 Black sought to mirror Duke's veneer of clean-cut respectability by running for mayor of Birmingham in 1979. He got 2 percent of the vote.
Duke taught Black it's easier to attract supporters by criticizing affirmative action, illegitimate welfare births, and illegal immigration than labeling blacks as inferior or Jews as rich enemies. The goal was to avoid inflammatory remarks and present oneself as dignified -- sticking to the issues. Supremacy is presented as nationalism. And intolerance warps into a preference for one's own heritage. Black says he speaks to Duke, whose two daughters he helped raise, every few days. And the mentor has only kind words for his protege.
"Don is more than a very good friend, he is one of the leading individuals in the white-rights movement," said Duke, who knighted Black grand wizard in 1980. Duke resigned after a rival Klan faction alleged Duke offered to sell membership lists for $35,000. "He's matured over time -- like we all do with age -- into a very calm and stoic individual," Duke says of Black. "He has always been a dedicated individual that's self-sacrificing."
Black gained national notoriety in the spring of 1981 in an impetuous and bungled bid to spark a coup on the 300-square-mile Caribbean island of Dominica. Black and nine other white mercenaries drawn from the ranks of the KKK chartered a 52-foot boat called the Manana. The Klansmen plotted to motor 2000 miles from a New Orleans marina, somehow lead disgruntled black soldiers in battle against the island's 70-man police force, and oust the prime minister. The mission -- called Operation Red Dog -- was to "secure the island against communist incursion," Black said. But the coup attempt never left port. Manana's captain, a disabled Vietnam veteran, ratted them out. On the night they planned to embark, federal agents swarmed in on the gaggle of would-be warriors, confiscated eight Bushmaster machine guns, ten shotguns, five rifles, ten handguns, ten pounds of dynamite, 5426 rounds of ammunition, and a large red-and-black Nazi flag. Local newspapers dubbed the botched raid the "Bayou of Pigs."
"What we were doing was in the best interests of the United States and its security in the hemisphere, and we feel betrayed by our own government," Black said shortly before he and three others were sentenced to federal prison for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. Investigators charged the ten men -- who were initially to be paid $3000 apiece and installed as government officials overseeing the army -- with seeking to create a drug, gambling, and offshore-banking empire on the island republic of 70,000 people, most of whom are black. More than a decade later, Black now regrets his misadventure. "I wouldn't do it today, even if I had a different plan. It was extremely risky. I could have been killed."
Black returned to Birmingham in 1985, announcing, "I'm here to build the greatest white racist regime this country has ever seen." Shortly after, he quit the Klan (claiming it too violent) and made another failed run for office as the Populist Party candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. In 1987 he was arrested during civil rights demonstrations in Forsyth County, Georgia, for reckless conduct and for illegally blocking a state highway. Later that year Black moved to West Palm Beach with his wife and joined a brokerage firm. He never became a broker. The ex-Klansman was stiff-armed by the Florida brokerage industry, which blocked his application for a license because of his ties to Duke. Despite the lucrative economy, paid-for house, and a bevy of like-minded racists -- the moorings that keep him here -- South Florida is not quite right for Don Black.
"I'm not a Palm Beach type of person," he says. "It's a good place to do business. But it's a fantasy world. I'm not comfortable with most of the people here. I have nothing against them. Most who live here have the power to do something. They just don't want to jeopardize their status."
Depending on how you look at it, Florida is shaped like a gun. Its reputation for a trigger-happy populace is about as well known to the world as the late Gianni Versace was. But there's a lesser-known, more subterranean threat of violence that pervades the state from the Panhandle down to the Keys.
Florida has more militias, Klan groups, and patriot groups than any other state, according to the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center. In 1996 the Center counted 72 militias from the 1st Regiment Florida State Militia in Key Largo to the 3rd Regiment in West Palm Beach, and 33 KKK groups including Lantana's Fraternal White Knights and the America First Klan in Miami. California, which rates second, has 56 militias and 14 Klan groups. Alabama, by comparison, has 21 militias and 6 Klans.