Essay: The White Nationalist Movement

By Daniel Levitas

Unlike neo-Nazi groups, whose struggle to gain acceptance always has been hampered by their close association with the Holocaust and the swastika, the white nationalist movement has the distinct advantage of presenting itself as the rightful heir to the seemingly more respectable notion that America’s greatness derives from its racial character as an all-white nation. White nationalist groups gain additional traction by proclaiming that multiculturalism, immigration and racial diversity fundamentally threaten America’s future. While it may be comforting to some to dismiss the ideas espoused by white nationalist groups as mere racist ranting, the movement cannot be easily confined to the fringes of American politics.

Although the question of slavery was settled in the minds of most Americans with the Civil War, the ideology of white supremacy and the accompanying myth of black inferiority remained enshrined in custom and law well into the latter half of the 20th Century. The central holdings of both the Dred Scott decision in 1856 (declaring that blacks were not entitled to the full rights of citizenship) and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 (upholding “separate but equal”) were not fully and functionally overturned until the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the federal civil rights legislation that followed.

At bottom, white nationalism in the modern era owes its allegiance to America’s longstanding segregationist ideals and discriminatory practices, even as the movement was born in response to the actions taken by the federal government to finally enforce the equal rights of black Americans. Those rights had been largely neglected since the collapse of Reconstruction in 1878, but beginning with President Harry Truman’s 1948 declaration ending segregation of the armed forces, a sizable constituency of whites began to see the federal government as the enemy. Integration of the armed forces was followed by the Brown decision in 1954, and the use of Army troops to enforce integration at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., three years later. By the early 1960s it became clear that more than just Southern apartheid was under attack. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act sealed the fate of Southern segregationists and Northern bigots alike. Viewed through the eyes of both, these developments, along with the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty,” signaled that the legal and financial resources of the federal government would now be redistributed to “less deserving social groups,” namely black Americans.

“The Negroes in the United States are increasing at a rate at least twice as great as the rest of the population,” warned pundit Martin Larson, an editorial board member of the archconservative American Mercury magazine, which stoked the fires of the right-wing tax protest movement with racial fears throughout the 1960s and 1970s. “The federal government has become the enemy of the useful members of our society,” Larson wrote in 1979. “It has degenerated into a vast system of extortion and bribery; and were it not for the fact that it transfers untold billions of hard-earned money taken by force from the producers and given to many millions of non-producers and parasites, very few of the present members of Congress would or could be reelected.”

It is from these postwar developments, as well as America’s longstanding tradition of racial codes, social customs, and politicized prejudices, that today’s white nationalists draw their inspiration and legitimacy. Of course, few white nationalists are content to limit themselves to political discourse and parliamentary change; as with so many of their hate-group contemporaries, the violent impulse is never far from the surface. Still, in an effort to reach a broader audience and curry favor with elected officials and opinion makers, white nationalists often apply an academic and journalistic gloss to their rhetoric, even though their beliefs are often no less extreme than those expressed by openly Nazi groups.

It is no wonder then, that white nationalist groups such as the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) have, over the past 20 years, aggressively sought to align themselves with elected officials who share their understanding that the key to mobilizing Southern whites in the post-civil rights era is to raise the specter of black empowerment or black people, period. The CCC was formed in 1985 in Atlanta to succeed the openly segregationist Citizens’ Councils of America (CCA, also known informally as the White Citizens Councils) that had flourished in the 1960s by rallying Southern elites to the barricades of massive resistance to desegregation. Typical was Sen. James O. Eastland (R-MS), who, speaking before 2,000 Citizens’ Council members and 40 state legislators in Jackson, Miss., in 1955, proclaimed that the Supreme Court’s integrationist ruling in Brown v. Board of Education had been “dictated by political pressure groups bent upon the destruction of the American system of government and the mongrelization of the white race.”

Thirty years later, in 1985, the Citizens’ Council movement was brought back to life in Atlanta, when staunch segregationists like one-time Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and former Louisiana Congressman John Rarick were called together by Gordon Baum, a St. Louis lawyer and the CCA’s former Midwest field director. Soon the new Council of Conservative Citizens was linking arms with dozens of elected officials across the South who appeared as guest speakers or for photo opportunities at local chapters in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee. Addressing 400 CCC supporters in Greenwood, Miss., in 1992, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi said, “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let’s take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries.” Two years later, the CCC was actively raising thousands of dollars for the criminal defense of Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted in 1994 for assassinating NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers 31 years earlier in Jackson, Miss.

Lott’s connection with the group made headlines in late 1998, by which time the CCC had about 15,000 members in 22 states. The senator’s subsequent political downfall, however, was sparked not by his association with the CCC, but rather by the racist implications of remarks he made elsewhere.

Addressing a 100th-birthday tribute to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in December 2002, Lott made the mistake of speaking his mind. While recalling Thurmond’s 1948 presidential bid on the States’ Rights Democratic Party (also known as the Dixiecrat Party) ticket, which embraced “segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race,” Lott proudly declared that had the rest of the country “followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” The remarks prompted denunciation and controversy, but Baum, now head of the CCC, saw things differently. “God bless Trent Lott,” he told The Washington Post. Despite Baum’s blessings, within weeks other CCC activists were denouncing Lott — not for his ill-advised remarks, but because he had apologized for them. Less than 10 days after the story broke, and with his political career at stake, Lott gave a contrite interview on Black Entertainment Television, where he apologized and claimed to support affirmative action and civil rights. “He repudiates segregation because it is immoral,” Lott’s spokesman declared.

Most political observers simply disbelieved the senator, but some of Lott’s white nationalist supporters were outraged. “When did Trent Lott become an integrationist?” demanded Richard Barrett, a lawyer and the founder of the white supremacist Nationalist Movement based in Learned, Miss. CCC activists urged Lott to remain defiant. “Never grovel before your adversaries,” they advised. “Whatever direction Lott takes, he better keep in mind that Beltway liberals and black harpies did not elect him to office. The conservative white vote in Mississippi sent Lott to Washington, and that same vote can retire him,” the CCC threatened. Faced with public opinion polls showing that as many as 44% of Republicans thought he should leave his influential post as Senate Majority Leader, Lott resigned the position. Five years later, CCC activists remained bitter. Commenting on Lott’s November 2007 announcement that he would retire in 2008 after 19 years in the U.S. Senate, the CCC website posted this political epitaph: “Trent Lott ought not be remembered for a statement that he made which was totally correct. What he should be remembered for was his prostration in the aftermath of those comments and as just another politician who got to Washington and forgot where he came from.”

The newspaper and website of the CCC convey the white nationalist worldview. With a circulation of 20,000 at its peak, the CCC’s chief publication, the Citizens Informer, like the group’s website, harps endlessly on the relationship between racial purity and national greatness. “The whites were the creators of civilization, the yellows its sustainers and copyists, the blacks its destroyers,” wrote one Informer essayist in 1998. Immigration and intermarriage will lead inevitably to “a slimy brown mass of glop,” opined another regular website contributor; and after Sept. 11, 2001, the CCC website blamed the attacks on Abraham Lincoln, on the logic that ending slavery led to multiculturalism, which led to the infiltration of Arab terrorists across the nation’s borders. America must turn from “her sins [and] her religion of equality and unity,” the writer declared.

None of this rhetoric seemed to faze Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who didn’t hesitate to be photographed alongside CCC leaders at one of the group’s annual fundraising events while campaigning for the governorship in 2003. Barbour’s opponent, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, had led the fight to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag, and Barbour knew just how important symbolic issues of race were to white voters who had been steadily abandoning the Democratic Party across the South. (By 2004, only 14% of whites in Mississippi cast Democratic ballots.) Barbour also was well aware of the potential for political fallout by associating himself with the CCC, but when the photo came to light he simply issued routine denunciations of bigotry and then refused to demand that the picture be removed. “Once you start down the slippery slope of saying, ‘That person can’t be for me,’ then where do you stop?” he asked rhetorically. “Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan?”

While the shrill warnings issued by white nationalists about the destructive effects of “race mixing” might seem so hysterical as to render the groups irrelevant, messages of racial purity still resonate with a significant number of white Americans. For example, although the percentage of whites expressing negative views toward interracial marriage dropped from 67% in 1990 to 38% in 2000, fully 12% of whites still believe that interracial marriage should be banned by law. And when asked in 2000 whether African Americans have worse jobs, income and housing than whites because blacks have “less in-born ability to learn,” 12% of whites agreed. Based on this data and related findings, it is reasonable to conclude that white nationalist groups have the potential to appeal to sizable numbers of Americans well beyond any presumed fringe constituency.

In a 2000 referendum in which Alabama voters finally overturned the state’s constitutional ban on interracial marriage, for example, polling data indicated that half or slightly more of all white voters had voted in favor of keeping the ban. Adopted in 1901, Section 102 of the state constitution provided that “[t]he legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro.” Although the U.S. Supreme Court had famously ruled in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, that laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional, Alabama remained the last state in the nation to keep its unenforceable ban on the books. The 2000 referendum may have been entirely symbolic, but the results provide insight into the attitudes of white voters. Before the referendum, only 25% of Alabama whites said they supported laws banning interracial marriage; in the privacy of the voting booth, the number doubled.

Such attitudes are not limited to the South. In 2002, approximately 29% of Oregonians voted against the removal of obsolete racist language from their state’s constitution. Among the offending sections was one 1857 provision which read: “No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of this adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State or hold any real estate.” The Oregon secretary of state clearly explained that the language targeted for removal was obsolete and without “any force or effect,” yet nearly one third of voters couldn’t bring themselves to remove these provisions from the state constitution.

If the Council of Conservative Citizens best illustrates the organizational efforts of white nationalists to penetrate the mainstream, then nationally syndicated columnist Samuel Francis perhaps best exemplifies the pseudo-intellectual approach of white nationalism. The editor of the CCC’s Citizens Informer from 1999 until his death in 2005, Francis also was the author of the CCC’s “Statement of Principles,” which proudly proclaims opposition to “all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

Before affiliating with the CCC, Francis had a long and productive career in Washington as a policy analyst, legislative aide and syndicated columnist. After receiving his doctorate in modern history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1979, Francis did a stint with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, before becoming a legislative aide to Republican Sen. John East of North Carolina. Francis then served as the deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Times newspaper from 1987 to 1991, and as a staff columnist until 1995, when he was fired for remarks he reportedly made the previous year at a conference sponsored by American Renaissance magazine. (Published monthly, the magazine proudly promotes itself as “America’s premiere publication of racial-realist thought.”) Speaking at the conference in 1994, Francis reportedly called on whites to “reassert our identity and our solidarity, and we must do so in explicitly racial terms through the articulation of a racial consciousness as whites. … The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.” Francis’ remarks should have surprised no one. That same year, in a column commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision, he described the 1954 ruling as “the most dangerous and destructive Supreme Court decision in American history.”

Francis and his viewpoints about white nationalism had been shaped most significantly by the work of sociologist Donald Warren and his investigation in the 1970s of a phenomenon Warren termed “Middle American Radicalism.” Writing in 1976, Warren described Middle American Radicals (MARs) as “distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected,” and summarized their perspective like this: “The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle-income people have to pay the bill.” For his part, Francis described MARs as “essentially middle-income, white, often ethnic voters who see themselves as an exploited and dispossessed group, excluded from meaningful political participation, threatened by the tax and trade policies of the government, victimized by its tolerance of crime, immigration and social deviance, and ignored or ridiculed by the major cultural institutions of the media and education.”

And in what might be said to be a succinct summary of the dynamics underlying white nationalism, Francis further explained, “What we are seeing in this alienation of Middle Americans from mainstream conservatism and the Republican Party is, in my view, essentially the emergence of a new paradigm in American politics ... a paradigm that is essentially nationalist rather than right or left as we have historically known these labels. Immigration, trade, sovereignty, and cultural issues all revolve around national identity, and the new shape of politics in the future will see the emergence of a new nationalism ... that will demand these issues be addressed.”

Although considerable progress continues to be made in the area of race relations and civil rights, there are still enough Americans willing to embrace the polarizing and prejudiced ideas of white nationalists to guarantee the movement an intellectual, political and financial base in the years to come.

Daniel Levitas is the author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2002) and an expert on the activities of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.