The Racist Next Door

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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.

"In many ways Florida presents the ideal culture for these groups," says Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Center's Klanwatch. "Much is due to immigration, government regulation, and a history as part of the Deep South for resenting Northerners."

He cites multiple reasons for the Sunshine State's white backlash. One long-standing gripe is the strict regulation of land use. Florida -- with its history of land scams, protected wetlands, and suburban sprawl edging into rural regions -- has often served up a raw deal for poor whites, instead favoring the wealthier transplants from the north or immigrants from the south. And with wealthy Jewish retirees having flooded into previously undeveloped pockets from Miami to Jacksonville, the state has become fertile ground for anti-Semitism, Potok says. "Then there's the organizers like Black, who come in and tell people it's a conspiracy to do them in. That twists it into patriotic Americans versus satanic cabals."

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David Schwab Abel