I SEE U, Episode 9: Vietnamese Fishermen v. the KKK [Encore]

An intriguing look at the 1981 court case that brought justice to Vietnamese fishermen in East Texas who were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan. This is an encore of the July 17th, 2021 broadcast.



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In 1981, militant Klansmen in East Texas waged a terror campaign against recently immigrated Vietnamese fishermen who were trying to make a living near Galveston Bay. As tensions heated up, some began to label the conflict a "race war." But a legal argument brought justice to the vulnerable community of Vietnamese refugees. Join us we take you on a journey through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico featuring 87-year-old South Vietnamese army colonel, Nguyen Van Nam; his son Michael; and acclaimed author Kirk Johnson. Host Eddie Robinson also chats with the prosecuting attorney of the case, David Berg, as well as the lawyer representing the Ku Klux Klan–Sam Adamo.


Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. In this episode, Vietnamese fishermen take on the Ku Klux Klan. In 1981, armed Klansmen in East Texas waged an all out terror campaign against Vietnamese fishermen trying to make a living near Galveston Bay. Some had been calling it an impending race war. But a legal argument brought justice to a vulnerable community of Vietnamese refugees.

[00:00:27] Kirk Johnson: Arguably, you could say that of all refugee groups that could have… It’s the Vietnamese that were the best suited for it.

[00:00:34] Eddie Robinson: Stay tuned for a unique journey through the waters of the Gulf featuring 87 year old South Vietnamese Army Colonel Nguyen Van Nam, his son Michael, and author Kirk Johnson. Along with the prosecuting attorney, David Berg, and the lawyer, representing the Ku Klux Klan, Sam Adamo.

[00:00:53] Eddie Robinson: Oh yeah, I feel you, we hear you, I SEE U.

[00:01:15] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. In 1975, after the fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees… had begun migrating to the United States to flee communist rule. Many of them were drawn to the vast coastlines and the heat and humidity along the Gulf of Mexico. Those areas were sort of reminiscent of places they were familiar with in Vietnam.

[00:01:49] Eddie Robinson: Then came 1979. It was a period of time where the disco genre exploded onto the music scene. But there were other explosions taking place in coastal communities along portions of the Gulf. Namely, out in East Texas, Vietnamese fishermen were competing with native white fishermen along that coastline. Tensions escalated, especially from those local residents who were reminded of the Vietnam War.

[00:02:26] Eddie Robinson: Conflicts and divisions ramped up, and so did the presence and resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. That same year also welcomed a former colonel who fought in the Vietnamese Army, Nguyen Van Nam. He and his family. Seabrook, Texas. A small shrimping village out on Galveston Bay, some 25 miles south of Houston.

[00:02:49] Eddie Robinson: Eventually, Colonel Van Nam becomes the leader of the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association, an organization that ultimately filed a federal lawsuit in the early 80s that successfully stopped the Klan’s activities and dismantled much of the KKK’s paramilitary militia. But none of that happened overnight.

[00:03:10] Eddie Robinson: You can’t help but wonder though, how did a d A decorated colonel who fought in a South Vietnamese army for 22 years, escaped Vietnam, but ended up in a terrifying confrontation here in Texas with the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. I SEE U. Ready to hear yet another untold episode in American history, as we’re about to be joined by 87 year old Colonel Nguyen Van Nam, along with his son, Michael.

[00:03:41] Eddie Robinson: But first off, we’ve asked researcher and author… Kirk Johnson to join us as well. He’s going to help steer and navigate our journey on this fisherman boat, so to speak. Kirk is coming out with a new book next summer, tentatively called The Fisherman and the Dragon. We start off our conversation chatting with Kirk from his home in Los Angeles.

[00:04:06] Kirk Johnson: You know, this is one of those crazy stories. that once you hear about it, it makes you wonder why this isn’t common knowledge, this episode in American history. I didn’t know anything about it until, oddly enough, I saw the lyrics to a Springsteen song called Galveston Bay, which is about this story.

[00:04:44] Kirk Johnson: This clash between Vietnamese shrimpers and white shrimpers and References the Klan and I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about and as soon as I started Doing just the basic amount of research, I, it was just this extraordinary, uh, story just laying there and I figured there must be tons of books written about it already, but there hasn’t been any, you know, in depth account of what happened, but the more I I got into this story the more I realized that while it happened 40 years ago, it speaks to what’s happening today with the resurgence of white supremacy throughout the country, but also touches on all of these central veins in American life about who gets a piece of the American pie, who’s, when, when do you become an American?

[00:05:35] Kirk Johnson: Who has access and the right to the natural resources of the land? What’s happening along the Texas coast in terms of environmental and ecological destruction? So, this story has everything in it.

[00:05:51] Kirk Johnson: Colonel Nam arrived to Seabrook in the midst of a very volatile moment along the Texas Gulf Coast. And so, What happened? Fall of Saigon, we start admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam.

[00:06:15] Kirk Johnson: You know, in hindsight, the story has been changed a little bit, but it’s not as though there was this… Huge groundswell of open arms amongst the American public. There was, it was only about 30 percent of the country that supported this evacuation. Even though these were people that we knew very well that had worked alongside us and have been fighting for the country, they make it to the U. S. And a lot of them ended up resettling along the Gulf Coast. It’s second to Southern California in terms of the size of the Vietnamese community.

[00:06:52] Kirk Johnson: One group that moved to Seabrook was Nguyen Van Nam and his family. He fought in a civil war as a decorated colonel as he escaped to the U. S. from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. His son Michael initially thought Seabrook was the perfect place to start their new life.

[00:07:11] Michael Van Nam: At the time when my dad moved to, uh, Seabrook, everything is quiet and nice. And people get along very well because very small town, when you drive a truck or drive a car, you wave at each other, you know, even the white or Vietnamese at that time, everything getting good.

[00:07:32] Kirk Johnson: And the year before Colonel Nam shows up in Seabrook, down in Sea Drift, there was a conflict that happened where they had opened up a crab picking plant in Seadrift and they couldn’t get any white people to do the work because it’s hard work. It’s especially hard work and the pay is very cheap. And the only way they could run this plant was to bring Vietnamese in to pick the crabs.

[00:07:59] Kirk Johnson: And the Vietnamese did it. They did everything we asked of them. They did it right. And soon, once they started setting up in Seadrift, they started buying boats to get into crabbing, frankly, angering the whites that had traditionally had the bays to themselves. A year before Nam made it to Seabrook, there was a fatal killing, but a white guy named Billy Joe Applin, who had locked horns with a young Vietnamese man and was essentially threatening to kill him.

[00:08:28] Kirk Johnson: He was beating him up there. They had had confrontations out on the bays. And ultimately, this young man named Sal Van Nguyen got a gun and ended up killing Billy Joe and was acquitted by an all white jury on the grounds of lawful self defense.

[00:09:25] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson, taking you on a journey through the warm, humid waters of the Gulf, a little known part of history from the late 70s, where tensions are rising between Vietnamese and local fishermen out in East Texas.

[00:10:02] Eddie Robinson: These fishermen from Vietnam Often worked very long hours and were able to receive help from family members, simply a product of their culture, as researcher Kirk Johnson explains.

[00:10:15] Kirk Johnson: There were a lot of unwritten unspoken sort of norms that were not codified in any rulebook anywhere. There were just things that if you had been fishing or crabbing in the bays for a long time, you knew not to lay your traps next to someone else’s or whatever.

[00:10:33] Kirk Johnson: And the Vietnamese did not know that. It’s, you know, imagine if we had been dropped into Vietnam, we would be doing things that were not culturally normal there, like right and left, you know. But it wasn’t just that, it was that their own families worked with them as deckhands on the boat, which allowed them to save money or keep money in the family.

[00:10:52] Kirk Johnson: They would eat fish in the bay that white people called junk fish and they threw back. And so the Vietnamese saved money. They didn’t hang out in the bars all day. Not to paint like a gross caricature of the white shrimper or anything, but they, you know, they were living eight to ten to a trailer and through that kind of thriftiness, they were able to buy new boats and fix up their old boats.

[00:11:14] Kirk Johnson: And they were essentially becoming a real economic competition for the whites who had traditionally held sway over this bay. Forty years later, the white shrimpers that I spoke to still complain that the Vietnamese were breaking all these rules, yet everyone I know would go out and they, they, they would, you know, cast their nets after sunset.

[00:11:36] Kirk Johnson: They did night fishing. The crabbers would steal from each other. I mean, there, this is a, a kind of Darwinian landscape here, you know, and so they were accusing the Vietnamese of breaking rules that they routinely broke themselves. And so I just don’t want people to think that this all began because the Vietnamese were just not paying attention to the rules.

[00:11:56] Kirk Johnson: They were, they were just very good at fishing and they were disrupting the way things were normally done there.

[00:12:05] Michael Van Nam: There’s a little conflict each other on the white people and the Vietnamese because the Vietnamese start violate the law. Uh, you supposed to, uh, drop the net after the sunrise and pick up the net before the sun down.

[00:12:25] Michael Van Nam: So my dad kept telling them they drop the net before and they still out there. After the dawn, white people start complaining. The Vietnamese do overtime. They go, they go out to the Gulf before the dawn and they drop the net before. But not only Vietnamese doing that, everybody doing that. But the only Vietnamese get the complaint.

[00:12:55] Michael Van Nam: But the white, yeah, without a complaint, nothing happened. No, you know, no reaction or nothing. But The pressure to Vietnamese community is more at the time. So, at the time when my dad become a, uh, president of the association, and then the conflict start for my dad to, uh, to guide them what right to do and what not right to avoid.

[00:13:22] Michael Van Nam: So, conflict start raise up because they’re afraid my dad become a confront with them. So, that’s why how…

[00:13:31] Kirk Johnson: Um, so in the wake of all of that. The whites along the Texas Gulf Coast started forming these groups dedicated to getting the Vietnamese off the coast and getting them out of fishing and shrimping because the Vietnamese were doing so well. The Justice Department had been seeing these troubles brewing along the coast and so they sent these mediators up and down to try to broker sort of gentlemen’s agreements between the white, camp and the Vietnamese camp to basically say, okay, we all agree.

[00:14:09] Kirk Johnson: Well, these are the sort of norms that we’ll agree to. And they also tried to pledge to, to not increase the number of shrimpers working in Galveston Bay and elsewhere, but that’s an artificial cap. Anyone who wanted to, who could afford the permit could go out and start shrimping.

[00:14:29] Eddie Robinson: Colonel Nguyen Van Nam, who was president of the Vietnamese Fishermen Association, met with state and local officials in order to broker a deal.

[00:14:39] Nguyen Van Nam: The governor of Texas sent a man coming here to ask me why we had a problem. I said, we do not cause a problem. The problem is the other side.

[00:14:50] Eddie Robinson: And so Colonel, you felt that it was the American shrimpers that had been causing the problems, not the Vietnamese fishermen, correct?

[00:14:57] Nguyen Van Nam: Most of the people are fishermen. I went to work and to pay taxes, and man who stay alive sit online to uh, get welfare, them pay to work, they pay taxes.

[00:15:11] Eddie Robinson: So Colonel, you and the fishermen you represented, you all just basically wanted to work and pay taxes and be left alone. I mean, what was the government offering the Vietnamese fishermen, in terms of a solution?

[00:15:24] Nguyen Van Nam: The government asked me, you need mo $2 million buy all the boat to throw ’em out.

[00:15:33] Eddie Robinson: So they were offering you all $2 million for you all to just pack up and leave.

[00:15:38] Nguyen Van Nam: I say we buy the boat, they make another boat.

[00:15:44] Kirk Johnson: And so what happened was that the Vietnamese kept getting better and better at a time. Where the Bay shrimpers along Texas were having historically bad couple seasons. ’79 and ’80, I mean, there’s the gas queue, so the price of fuel to run your boat was skyrocketing. You had the largest oil leak in the world was in the southern part of the Gulf in Mexican waters.

[00:16:14] Kirk Johnson: In 1979, the Galveston Bay had that huge tanker collision that, and so all the bays were getting frankly messed up by all of this oil and dumping and all of this and the petrochemical industry, which was dumping plastics and ethylene and others into the bay and killing off a lot of the shrimp. Concrete poured all over the estuaries and all of these things that was leading to declining catches.

[00:16:39] Kirk Johnson: And the white fishermen along the coast looked at all of this and then they saw these newcomers. This, frankly, small number of, you know, maybe a hundred boats, uh, Vietnamese boats along the coast. And they said, oh, that’s our problem. If we just get rid of them, then everything will be great again.

[00:17:02] Kirk Johnson: And quite frankly, the Vietnamese just wanted it more. They were willing to work harder. They were willing to go out in the weather that white people don’t go out in anymore. They were willing to sell for a little bit less.

[00:17:22] Kirk Johnson: You know, they were, they were innovative. Before you used to bring all of your shrimp in and you would just, however many, you know, couple hundred pounds, few hundred pounds or something, and then you would just take the average at the fish house of small, medium, large jumbo or whatever. But the Vietnamese realized that if one of the boats towed the others after the, you know, when they’d, uh, done their, dragged the bays, they could sort themselves the, the different sizes of the shrimp so that they could actually get a more precise accounting and get more money out of their catch.

[00:17:54] Kirk Johnson: And so that’s, that’s nothing, they’re not doing anything illegal there, they’re just being smart about this. And, and I think because of that, they suffered the consequence of this, that they, you know, they didn’t have anyone looking out for them. And they went right into this sort of meat grinder of, of the Klan that realized like, oh, hey, let’s whip this thing up and get a bunch of press out of it.

[00:18:19] Kirk Johnson: And fortunately, the Vietnamese ended up saying, tough, we’re, we have every right to be here. And so, I mean, I applaud that.

[00:18:27] Nguyen Van Nam: Before the KKK coming into the problem here, we have some discussion with the American fishermen. American fishermen, they fish up there. And they compete with the Vietnamese, they cannot do like Vietnamese.

[00:18:47] Nguyen Van Nam: Vietnamese do better, because most of the Vietnamese fishermen, they were the fisher in Vietnam. Very difficult, they know, and they facilitate to catch the shrimp in Vietnam, not better than here. So when they come here, they like to fish, and they compete with the American fishermen. They’re jealous, and they’re asking for KKK to come in to get the Vietnamese fishermen out from the water.

[00:19:28] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, more of our conversation with author Kirk Johnson and former Vietnamese Colonel Nguyen Van Nam and his son, Michael. We get first hand accounts from our guests, including conversations from the attorneys who were involved in a 1981 federal court case that ultimately brought justice to Vietnamese fishermen.

[00:19:51] Eddie Robinson: We chat with the prosecuting attorney and the lawyer who represented the Klan’s grand dragon, who’s now returned to Texas, a segment you do not want to miss. I’m Eddie Robinson. I see you. We’ll be back in just a moment.

[00:20:26] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. We’re shedding light on a dispute back in the late 70s between Vietnamese fishermen and American shrimpers in East Texas. Thousands of refugees from Vietnam began to resettle in portions of the South, many along the coastal communities of the Gulf Coast.

[00:20:47] Eddie Robinson: And as you’d imagine, competition and tensions ramped up. Due to limited resources out on the bay, a number of Texas crabbers, shrimpers, and oyster men in that area had reported to news media at the time that fishing operations out near Galveston Bay were already overcrowded even before Vietnamese immigrants arrived out on the Gulf.

[00:21:08] Eddie Robinson: So, seeing this new influx of refugees, working day, evening, even into the overnight hours, angered many of the locals. That anger eventually turned to violence. Nguyen Van Nam, a former colonel in the South Vietnamese Army, had been a part of that influx. He and his family moved to Seabrook, Texas in 1979.

[00:21:32] Eddie Robinson: His son, Michael, who’s 57 years old now, remembers the tumultuous climate at that time all too well. He describes for us how his father would always caution him to not only be alert and expect threats from locals, but to also avoid any conflict and remain peaceful.

[00:21:53] Michael Van Nam: From time to time, we had very threatened from the American people around in Seabrook. Everywhere we go, they look at very funny thing. So, my dad keep saying, just watch out. Don’t want to spark any conflict or any fight with anyone. Doesn’t matter old, young, or white, or even Vietnamese. Just stay cool.

[00:22:21] Eddie Robinson: Michael even describes for us how Klansmen with weapons rode around and circled the bay in a shrimp boat, and dangling from the rigging, a human effigy of a Vietnamese fisherman. Michael adds that his father, Colonel Nam, thankfully, wasn’t home at the time.

[00:22:41] Michael Van Nam: I remember one time that, uh, bring like 46 boat. Around our house, in the front yard, because we have the, uh, water on the front yard. And then, with the gun, with the, uh, dummy, Vietnamese dummy, hanging on the, uh, pole.

[00:23:00] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, an effigy.

[00:23:02] Michael Van Nam: Yeah, but at the time my dad not at home, but we, uh, have a neighbor told us that many, many come around looking for my dad.

[00:23:12] Nguyen Van Nam: Uh, rifle, come to my house to scare me. When they claim they want to fight me, but I wasn’t there, I run away. They find something wrong, they make bigger, and they, they murder more. They ask me to, uh, ask the Vietnamese fishermen out from the water. I cannot do that, because fishing is a free enterprise. Everybody can do.

[00:23:44] Eddie Robinson: Local fishermen and Ku Klux Klan stage boat rides to intimidate the Vietnamese. Researcher Kirk Johnson.

[00:23:54] Kirk Johnson: And so they tried to get the governor to ban refugees from coming into Texas, which of course is not within the governor’s purview, that’s a federal issue.

[00:24:04] Kirk Johnson: And so when that failed… That’s why they brought the Klan in. And so the Knights, the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan came in. They did start firebombing. There were boats that were firebombed in Galveston Bay and down in Seadrift. Vietnamese were having beer bottles chucked at them. There were homes that were burnt. So, the Klan comes in, and the Grand Dragon, then, in a fire and brimstone speech in Seabrook, says that that Colonel Nam and the other Vietnamese of Galveston Bay have 90 days to get off the coast and to stop shrimping or else there’s going to be blood, blood, blood. He said it was going to be a hell of a lot bloodier than, than Vietnam was.

[00:25:08] Kirk Johnson: And so, at that point, 60 percent of the Vietnamese shrimpers had put for sale signs up on their boats. And they were getting ready to flee again. This is after a, you know, a harrowing passage to get to America.

[00:25:32] Nguyen Van Nam: Make it very difficult, so that I decided to sue them.

[00:25:37] Michael Van Nam: As I know when we settled in Seabrook, and everything go very smooth, every do very good job, he make some money. But, uh, most of people, Vietnamese people in Seabrook, education very low. So, he feel like they need help on, like, interpret the law, interpret the, uh, the, the function of the fishermen, uh, in the area. So that’s why he become a president of the Vietnam Fishermen Association.

[00:26:18] Kirk Johnson: And so I’m not sure that Colonel Nam fully knew what was going on when he got there, but as soon as he got there, he kind of… became the de facto leader to try to represent the South Vietnamese that were being, frankly, harassed up and down the coast by white shrimpers and crabbers. And it was, it was thanks to Colonel Nam and others that they ultimately organized and decided, Hey, we have every right to be here too. And so the lawsuit that Nam was just referring to was a petition for a federal injunction to basically order the Klan to stay away from Vietnamese shrimpers and to not march and to not threaten them and to basically recognize their rights to fish these bays as well.

[00:27:11] Eddie Robinson: As leader of the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association, Colonel Nguyen Van Nam filed a lawsuit alleging that the Klan and other American fishermen We’re violating their rights. We’re fortunate to track down and have with us on I SEE U, the plaintiff’s attorney, David Berg, joining us from New York, he represented the Vietnamese fishermen who were terrorized by armed members of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. David, thanks for being with us.

[00:27:39] David Berg: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here.

[00:27:41] Eddie Robinson: And Sam Adamo joining us from Houston. He represented the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the group’s Grand Dragon, Louis Beam, and members of the American Fishermen’s Coalition. Sam, thanks so much for being here.

[00:27:53] Sam Adamo: Good afternoon, Eddie. Pleasure to be here.

[00:27:55] Eddie Robinson: It was 40 years ago towards the end of April, the beginning of May in 1981, where this case actually was starting to light up. Take us back to the early eighties. What led you to want to start working on this case to begin with?

[00:28:10] Sam Adamo: So you’re asking Eddie, uh, how did a second generation Catholic Italian American liberal Democrat, uh, end up representing the Klan?

[00:28:21] Sam Adamo: Um, I can tell you not because I believed in the dogma of prejudice and violence that they promoted, uh, and not because the constitution guarantees legal representation for everyone, uh, even people who espouse unpopular views, and not even because they could afford to pay me. My reason was very shallow and superficial.

[00:28:44] Sam Adamo: You see, I was addicted to boating and after my wife, the most important person in my life was my boat mechanic. So when he walked in my door with that lawsuit in his hand and said, I need your help, uh, I took the case.

[00:29:01] David Berg: Well, in my case, this is David. I had been a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan for years. I had, uh, I had represented some individuals with political beliefs that they opposed.

[00:29:14] David Berg: I found a letter they wrote. me back in the early seventies, ending with we’re watching you, you know, one hopes they weren’t watching through my window, but they came to my house. So I got involved because I was very good friends with Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And he’s the one who initiated the case and was brought in by the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association.

[00:29:40] David Berg: So when he showed up at my house on a motorcycle and one of his many beautiful wives, Uh, I, uh, I immediately said that we would be more than happy to join the lawsuit, and we did.

[00:29:54] Sam Adamo: You know, our biggest problem, Eddie, in this lawsuit was finding a courtroom big enough for David Morris Dees ego to fit into.

[00:30:04] Eddie Robinson: I can imagine.

[00:30:08] David Berg: I have fought a fierce battle against my ego all my life and I lost. Let me pose a question to Sam if I could. Sam, first of all, I absolutely agree that you’re shallow and, and a man of at least, uh, average intellect or a little less, and I, I want to, I do want to ask you, Sam, since you represented the Klan, have you ever regretted representing them?

[00:30:33] Sam Adamo: Well, I’ll answer that question, David. When you tell me how that case ended up in Judge McDonald’s court, the only Black district judge in probably all of Texas. I know you did something there and you’ve maybe now after 40 years is the time for you to resolve that great question.

[00:30:52] David Berg: Yeah. Well, let me tell you, I will resolve that question when you tell me how. You let your clients file a motion referring to the quote Negress judge and then I’ll tell you that.

[00:31:03] Eddie Robinson: I read that. I read that.

[00:31:03] Sam Adamo: Well I haven’t read that motion in 40 years, so I can’t respond to it. I don’t recall ever making that statement unless it was quoting Mr. Lewis being one of our clients who would not.

[00:31:14] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, that was a quote from Lewis beam the judge who had been assigned to the case was a female African American. Her name, the Honorable Judge Gabrielle Kirk MacDonald. And so after learning that the judge was black, Louis Beam asked her to disqualify herself for bias.

[00:31:30] Sam Adamo: That was probably second highlight of the trial was when Louis Beam and the judge got into it with each other. I thought the most A significant part of the trial, or at least surprising, was during depositions, my clients showed up in their Klan robes and their hats and their white robes and their outfits, then sat down to begin their deposition.

[00:31:52] Sam Adamo: We weren’t expecting that, but it was an interesting case because of all of the sideshow that was going on. You know, Lewis Beam was a true believer, still is, and at some point, Mr. Beam was being questioned. It’s alleged that Mr. Beam pulled his white robe aside and revealed a pistol. And at that point, Morris Dees, who’s a brilliant, brilliant lawyer, he jumped up and he left and David left and they removed our depositions to the federal courthouse, which ended any further wearing of their regalia. Remember that David?

[00:32:29] David Berg: Oh, I do. I remember also coming home one night after a long day at the courthouse. When Lewis Beam had stood over me with the Old Testament and had read, I will smite mine enemies. I took him seriously that night. I came home and I was a single mother in those days and my little boys were in the house with our housekeeper.

[00:32:55] David Berg: And on the front door was a card from the Klan. It said, this was a social visit, next will be a business visit. And from that moment, I just saw red. I jumped in my car, saw the red truck. There was also a red pickup that had been seen down at one of the scenes of violence down at Seabrook. Uh, they burned a boat.

[00:33:17] David Berg: They shot it at the Vietnamese fishermen before the trial. Sweat precipitated it. And, stupidly, I got in my car and I chased them. And God knows what I would have done if I’d caught them. The next day we had a hearing on it. And as a result, among other, that’s also coincided with when Beam flashed that revolver during his deposition, and the judge had a hearing.

[00:33:44] David Berg: So there’s this huge trajectory that I think finds itself, as it often did in the 60s and 70s. It ends up in a federal courtroom, which I always thought of as sort of a way to bring all the political issues to a head. Vidor, by the way, when Sam and I tried this case, at the time had the largest Klan population in the nation.

[00:34:08] David Berg: In that whole triangle area. So you go down to the federal courthouse and you feel protected, and here are these sheet wearing lunatics, ignoring the majesty of that building, and of the law. The Klan posed a very omnipresent threat to those of us involved in the civil rights movement back in the 60’s and 70’s.

[00:34:33] David Berg: They called Morris Dees, Demon Dees. They were gonna kill him. They were gonna kill me, I have no doubt. And I’ve heard rumors, she would never confirm or deny them. Judge McDonald’s life was threatened, I don’t doubt that for a minute.

[00:34:49] David Berg: I can still see that moment when Beam was standing over me. By the way, Not the best looking guy in the world.

[00:35:02] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, more on the Ku Klux Klan’s Louis Beam and the attorneys involved in the Vietnamese Fisherman’s case. Plus, we check back in with researcher Kirk Johnson as we explore lessons learned from a conflict that happened some four decades ago. I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U will return in just a moment.

[00:35:51] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. His name is Louis beam and he played a key role in shaping extremist views of the radical right movement in the United States decades following the Vietnam War. Author Kirk Johnson, who’s currently writing a book about the Vietnamese Fisherman Saga, shared some insight into discussions he’s recently had with clan members, including Beam, who was Grand Dragon at the time of the incident.

[00:36:22] Kirk Johnson: Uh, he’s, he’s back in Texas after a kind of checkered, checkered history, but, but yeah, he’s, uh, it’s more than checkered. Louis Beam has… Has left a pretty dark mark on this country in terms of the ideology that he put forward. At the time that this was happening, he kept losing sort of his normal jobs because, you know, he was a very outspoken Grand Dragon of the Klan and his employers kept finding out that he was A Klansman, so they would fire him and he, that made him feel like a victim, but he shortly before this story started, he, he went to sort of full time Klan organizing work.

[00:37:05] Kirk Johnson: This was in like 1980, basically, his headquarters were in Pasadena, the famous Klan headquarters there that was apparently the largest. White power sign in the world or something was there. This is Pasadena, Texas, of course, not California, Pasadena. And I think he realized I mean he later described a lot of what he did as guerrilla theater But I think he realized that in order to get dues paying members he needed media attention and as soon as he started involving himself in this fight between the Vietnamese and the white fishermen he was, you know, he was on, you know, Walter Cronkite was covering this. That Klan boat patrol was on the front page of the New York Times.

[00:38:07] Kirk Johnson: Photos of Klansmen parading around Galveston Bay with a, an effigy of a Vietnamese fisherman hanging off one of the outriggers. And every time he made one of these rallies saying all of this odious stuff about sending the Vietnamese back home and all of this, he would get new members and new coverage. This was an opportunity for him, this conflict.

[00:38:56] Kirk Johnson: And he very actively fanned the flames. The interesting thing, though, with this story is that, decades later, a number of the white people who were involved in this, whose property was used to host Klan rallies, whose boats were loaned to, for the Klan boat patrol, even Louis Beam, they’ll say, oh, this wasn’t really about race, this was just about economics, this has nothing to do with race, but of course it was about race.

[00:39:25] Kirk Johnson: There have been white people moving down to Texas to shrimp those bays for decades, and they weren’t met with this hostility. The fact that these bays were themselves taken from other people by white people seemed to be lost on all of them. So, so he’s not a, someone who’s shaped by remorse at this point.

[00:39:45] Kirk Johnson: I think he’d, you know, he was a highly decorated Vietnam War vet, and I think, you know, this was one of his first big actions after coming back where he kind of made his national mark within the clan organization. But the, honestly, the truth was, this was just an opportunity, I think, for him to get a bunch of attention and to get a bunch of dues paying members to sort of keep the organization going and growing. Because there isn’t a whole lot of… Principle that you can stand on here.

[00:40:18] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. As we continue our dialogue about the Southern Poverty Law Center case where Vietnamese fishermen sued the Ku Klux Klan in Texas for organizing training camps and paramilitary acts of violence.

[00:40:34] Eddie Robinson: Sam, what was your defense? How did you approach your strategy in dealing with all this?

[00:40:39] Sam Adamo: Our strategy was They can’t prove the Klan did that. Now, clearly the Klan was unpopular and they said some very unpopular statements and rallies and, and a lot of loud verbiage, but there was no proof they burned it.

[00:40:54] Sam Adamo: In fact, the Klan’s theory was that the Vietnamese set this boat on fire so that they could get sympathy from the American public. I, uh, invited Morris to lunch. I said, what can we do about settling this? And so we worked out a deal and that was our strategy. And the deal was that my mechanic got dismissed out of the lawsuit, made us happy, two other people got dismissed.

[00:41:21] Sam Adamo: And then David and Morris were able to get a judgment against Lewis Beam for $10,000 that they promised they weren’t going to try to collect. And that’s how the lawsuit ended up.

[00:41:33] David Berg: Judge McDonald. I can tell you now I’ve talked to her many times, really struggled with her decision in this case. Uh, to be serious a moment, we drew her court at random.

[00:41:44] David Berg: You couldn’t, uh, Sam knows, you just file your papers and, and the judge who you get is who you get. And I know that she struggled, not so much with stopping the Klan violence against these Vietnamese fishermen. She saw through it right away. But she really struggled and worried about shutting down their paramilitary training in East Texas.

[00:42:08] David Berg: She immediately shut down the harassment of the Vietnamese fishermen, because they had been subjected to violence. It took a year and a month after our hearing for the judge to decide what to do about the paramilitary training. It’s a very scholarly opinion, well grounded in the law. And basically it said, you can’t have a private paramilitary or any kind of militia in Texas against Texas Constitution.

[00:42:34] David Berg: That’s number one. Number two, she had to tie that paramilitary training to the threats and violence against the fishermen. And we had developed plenty of evidence of their threats. We wanted to shut these bastards down. They had bragged about what specifically they could do to the Vietnamese fishermen.

[00:42:56] David Berg: It was very specific. It was a very great threat. We demonstrated the… Real threat that the paramilitary training group, the Texas Emergency Reserve, posed specifically to the Vietnamese fishermen. She tied all that together and then examined the law as it existed. She had to make sure that the record, that as she recounted it, would be sustained on appeal.

[00:43:23] David Berg: And I think if Gabrielle McDonald were sitting here right now, she’d say… I didn’t rule as I did because I was Black and it would be an insult to think that I know this judge and she’s a woman of enormous good conscience, which is how she ended up the chief judge of the world court later in her career.

[00:43:51] David Berg: This suit has had huge ramifications. We ran the Klan out of Texas. which as a Texan made me very happy and made a lot of people in the Vietnamese community happy and a little known repercussion of all this or at least one result. I went out. To the dock where all this had occurred, to where the Klan had had its rally and burned a boat.

[00:44:14] David Berg: No one denied that they had burned a boat in their rally. They showed up with machine guns, a couple of them, including me. But, I went out there, and it was one of the happiest days of my life. The Vietnamese owned all the stores along the dock. Free and clear, Colonel Nam, their leader, told me. So there were huge ramifications of this lawsuit.

[00:44:34] David Berg: It wasn’t done for any reason other than to shut down the Klan and its hideous acts of violence.

[00:44:43] Kirk Johnson: The other incredible part to this story was that I think the Colonel understood that if they did not stand their ground and, and face down the Klan here, And if they did flee fishing, that the Klan would have been emboldened to chase them into any industry that they felt the Vietnamese were making inroads in, or any refugee community, and so the reason why this case is so important and why this episode in American history is so important is I think that it, it arguably had kind of a ripple effect for a long time because this was a, this was a blow to the Klan.

[00:45:24] Kirk Johnson: The Texas Klan at that time was, uh, Growing quickly. It had a frankly terrifying militia called the Texas Emergency Reserve, which had these training camps all throughout Texas, where they were teaching boy scouts how to decapitate people. And they were doing border watches and all of this, and that all got broken apart as a result of this lawsuit, Lewis beam, the, you know, within, I think days of the ruling coming down, fled to go live in the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho for several years.

[00:45:58] Kirk Johnson: And so the, the impact for this was, this was real, you know, like it’s the thing that was extraordinary to me in the act of reporting out this book is that, you know, I, I would sit with Colonel Nam and others and I would, to me, this is a mind blowing story. Like everything you, you went through, you get here and then you’ve got.

[00:46:18] Kirk Johnson: You know, hooded Klansmen telling you that you’re not allowed to be here, but kind of amazingly in the kind of hierarchy of all of the things that the Vietnamese suffered through, you know, this almost doesn’t even rate compared to, I mean, this man lost his country. He was shot. several times over decades of war trying to, to defend the Republic of Vietnam.

[00:46:42] Kirk Johnson: And so, you know, arguably you could say that of all refugee groups that could have stared down the Klan, it’s, it’s the Vietnamese that were the best suited for it. These are tough people who weren’t going to put up with this kind of harassment. And ultimately I think they did something very admirable here.

[00:47:08] David Berg: I think we come into this world a priori, un predisposed toward hating anybody, toward looking down on anybody, but I was brought up in a milieu where Black people were other and less than. All of us. Sam, you, you. Uh, Eddie, uh, me, we all have an element of racism within us that we need to examine. I know I have and I tried to root it out and when I became a lawyer, I got very involved in the movement up to the time that our safety was threatened by the Klan.

[00:47:43] David Berg: It didn’t change me that case. It’s left me with guilt that I haven’t done more. But I have at least given my time as a lawyer to civil rights cases and my heart to the movement. Racism is an ugly, ugly business in this country. And I’ve about come to the conclusion, I don’t think this is a racist country.

[00:48:08] David Berg: I think 30 percent of it is consistently racist, and now they’ve got the microphone called the internet and their leader, Donald Trump. What strikes me is the question, how far have we actually come since the days of the Vietnamese fishermen?

[00:48:29] Kirk Johnson: You know, I think the biggest mistake that we could make in this country is to squint our eyes past what is plainly in front of us, which is just that this so, so much of what defines these episodes in our history is just a systemic racism. And I think it’s difficult to talk about this because no white person wants to think about themselves as being racist.

[00:48:54] Kirk Johnson: Um, but I’ve been animated by something that Martin Luther King said that from one of his less popular speeches, but he spoke of the three American evils, and it was racism, it was economic inequality, and it was endless militarism, and King, frankly, burned a lot of bridges because he was so outspoken against the Vietnam War and what we were doing there.

[00:49:20] Kirk Johnson: He understood the kind of moral cost of this conflict and what it was doing to our country. And so this story of what happened between the Klan and the Vietnamese shrimpers to me is almost like a. perfect encapsulation of, of those three evils that these white shrimpers were not wealthy people. They weren’t, their catches were declining almost every year.

[00:49:42] Kirk Johnson: They weren’t, you know, rolling in it. They kept having the, you know, bays shut down from hurricanes or from, you know, industrial pollution or these types of things. And it’s not to excuse how they reacted to all of this, but you have a, an economically strapped community now confronting the human fallout from a stupid war where we, you know, we did the right thing by admitting these refugees into our lands.

[00:50:12] Kirk Johnson: But what happened was they reacted to it in the worst possible way, which was just unleashing this wave of racist reaction against them. You know, several years after all of this, both of these communities realized that Their real threat was not each other, their real threat was all of this corporate dumping in the bays.

[00:50:33] Kirk Johnson: It was, you know, all these restaurants in Seabrook and all along the Gulf Coast. If you go and get shrimp from there, you’re not eating Gulf shrimp, you’re getting farm shrimp that was raised in Thailand somewhere, you know? And so there were these big structural forces at work here, and the white community basically just said, Oh, here’s a, here’s a small group of people who don’t look like us.

[00:50:58] Kirk Johnson: They must be the problem. Let’s get rid of them. And that story is not unique to Texas. It happens everywhere in this country. This story is a kind of shocking example of something that is running just below the surface of any small town in any small industry in this country. People who have something don’t want to give it up.

[00:51:25] Michael Van Nam: Honestly, he don’t want to, uh, brought up the, uh, KKK issue. But, uh, I tell him this is not about sparking anybody. It’s just about history, documentary. We need somebody to tell the story so the next generation can learn something. About not only Vietnamese, but about how American survive.

[00:52:00] Eddie Robinson: And that’s this episode of I SEE U. Thanks to our intensive care unit, Technical Director, Todd Huslander. Producer, Editor, Shannon McKirchy. Editor, Mark DiClaudio. Sound Designer, Dave McDermond. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. Thanks so much for listening.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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Eddie Robinson

Eddie Robinson

Executive Producer & Host, I SEE U

A native of Mississippi, Eddie started his radio career as a 10th grader, working as a music jock for a 100,000-Watt (Pop) FM station and a Country AM station simultaneously. While Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus had nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, Eddie had an extreme passion...

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