There is an "aw, shucks" hesitancy in his voice that is absent in his writing -- this mild-mannered Southerner whose organization took on the Ku Klux Klan for 10 years and left it gasping, physically, morally and financially.

"I'd say it was worth it," says Bill Stanton, former head of the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

It was worth the threats, the stony looks, the torching of the law center's office, the Kevlar body armor and pistol he sometimes wore as he traveled across Alabama interviewing witnesses to Klan violence -- on the rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s after a period of quiescence.

One of the nation's most aggressive civil rights organizations, the Southern Poverty Law Center helped bring down an assortment of dragons, wizards and exalted cyclopses of the Klan, along with their bankbooks and property, in an unprecedented barrage of civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions in the 1980s.

The stories of its successes dribbled out in the media, one at a time. Now Stanton has pulled them together in his first book, "Klanwatch, Bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Justice" (Grove Weidenfeld).

In Washington recently on a promotional tour, Stanton spoke with an indirection and halting amiability that contrast with the crisp narrative of the book.

Asked if he grew up in a segregationist family in his native Arkansas, the 38-year-old Stanton hesitates, then says: "I think all of us have some racism. I mean, it's in our society. ... I came out of a middle-class white family. ... My parents were Republicans. They were {for} Goldwater in '64. But they were decent people."

So how did he, a Democrat and card-carrying boat rocker, come out of that safe, comfortable cocoon?

He can't really explain it. He was, he says, not especially political in his undergraduate days in the early 1970s when he attended Hendrix College, a small school in the Arkansas backwaters. He voted for Richard Nixon in 1972. He viewed the Ku Klux Klan, like so many other people, as an essentially dead "historical phenomenon," he says. There was no single event or experience that spurred him to anti-Klan work.

"Some people have a sort of epiphany," he says, "and I guess I had just a sort of gradual awakening."

The move to the Southern Poverty Law Center came slowly after he obtained a master's degree in history from Emory University in Atlanta. Still unsettled, he was "manufacturing burial caskets and waiting on tables, not at the same time, I might add," when a paralegal job at the law center in Montgomery opened up in 1978. Stanton didn't jump at it. He sidled up to it.

Once hired, however, he stayed for almost 10 years, working first as an investigator, then as director of the Klanwatch Project. He quit in 1987, he says, to write the book.

It was in those 10 years that the law center turned its full force on the Klan. Through a series of innovative lawsuits, amateur detective work and gutsy confrontations with night-riding good ol' boys, Stanton and others at the center left one major Klan faction in bankruptcy, eliminated much of the membership of another and dug up evidence for state and federal prosecutors to convict more than 25 Klansmen on charges from civil rights violations to murder.

One case involved the lynch-style hanging of 19-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Ala., in March 1981. Two and a half years later, local police arrested two men -- both members of the powerful United Klans of America (UKA) faction -- and obtained convictions against them. Ordinarily, the case would have ended there. But Morris S. Dees Jr., the Southern Poverty Law Center's chief attorney, decided to sue the UKA in federal court for corporate responsibility in the slaying.

Through exhaustive documentary research and depositions of often unwilling witnesses, Dees and others built a case that they said showed a corporate link between the local Klan unit, to which the two murder suspects belonged, and the UKA national headquarters. They also produced evidence that violence against blacks was corporate policy in the UKA.

An all-white jury returned a $7 million judgment against the organization, payable to the mother of Michael Donald. The UKA turned over the deed to its headquarters building and was left essentially insolvent.

There were other suits aimed at the hierarchy of Klan organizations and their pocketbooks.

For the first time, Stanton says, "We were able to hold accountable the leaders who egged on these young hot-headed kids. ... That's the way the Klan has operated for a long time. ... As far as I know, until these suits, it wasn't really possible to go after the organization and leadership of the Klan ... and bring them into the legal process."

The work was not without its risks. The law center's office in Montgomery was badly damaged by fire in 1983, setting back much of Stanton's research. A year later, Dees learned from the FBI and private sources that he was the target of an assassination plot. The entire staff went into a defensive crouch. The office was wired for security. Shotguns were placed in key rooms. Stanton moved out of his house, doubling up with a friend. Armed escorts accompanied Dees, Stanton and others on road trips.

"It was pretty strange to be given a .38-caliber pistol and be told to go out to the firing range and get proficient at it," says Stanton. "I shot like 96 out of 100 ... and it, pardon the expression, just blew away the {instructors}. They were shooting like 60 to 70. There was a macabre sense of comedy about the whole thing."

Stanton says he and others sometimes resorted to minor subterfuges, chatting up potential witnesses to Klan violence without identifying themselves.

"I can live with the slight misrepresentations that I made in a couple of instances," he says. "I was interested in finding evidence the FBI had failed to uncover. ... The criminal justice system wasn't working like it should, and it was up to us to obtain the information. ... I have a real clear conscience about that."

In his book as well as in conversation, he also acknowledges a fundamental irony in the law center's relationship with the Klan: The center interpreted the First Amendment as narrowly and conservatively as it could in pursuing private membership lists of the Klan, and the Klan resisted with the moral outrage of a leftist organization being persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.

This role reversal was highlighted in a lawsuit brought by the center on behalf of a group of blacks who had been set upon by a band of hooded Klansmen in Decatur, Ala., in 1979. The law center wanted the membership list of the Klan group to help in identifying suspects. Lawyers for the Klan contended the names could be obtained without such an intrusion into the private administrative functions of the Klan.

For the court, it became a balancing test. "Did the plaintiffs' need for the names outweigh the defendants' rights to privacy and free association?" wrote Stanton. A federal judge ultimately ordered the Klan to produce the names. The Klan continued to resist, but the issue became moot when the Klan settled without trial in 1989, with more than 60 Klansmen paying up to $2,000 each in damages and agreeing to stay out of white supremacist organizations for five to 10 years.

Stanton favors hate crime legislation, but questions the constitutionality of a Minnesota hate crime law that the Supreme Court recently agreed to review. That law forbids cross burnings and other displays of symbols designed to arouse "anger, alarm or resentment" based on race, color, creed or gender. Martin Luther King Jr., he says, paraphrasing the view of some civil rights attorneys, could have been prosecuted under such a law for advocating desegregation 25 years ago in Alabama, where prosecutors could have perceived him as deliberately arousing "anger and resentment."

Now living in an undisclosed town in New England with his wife, Cath, Stanton is cautious about personal details. Some Klansmen have long memories, he says.

"I certainly didn't mind the risk while I was doing this work" -- and before he was married -- "but I want to be able to work now without having to worry too much about being possibly targeted. ... I want to work on some other issues, and my commitment to racial justice isn't lessened. ... I think it's one of the top two or three problems this country has."

While he believes the Klan has been greatly weakened by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are other violence-prone groups at large in the country -- skinheads, assorted neo-Nazi organizations -- and there is no call to relax.

"The Klan is the tip of the iceberg of American racism," he says. "... It's not where the discussion should end by any means."