Sons of Confederate Veterans in its own Civil War

Heritage is battling hate as civil war engulfs the 'non-political' Sons of Confederate Veterans

In late December, Gilbert Jones, a long-time member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), announced his candidacy for lieutenant commander of the North Carolina division of the nation's largest, wealthiest and most influential Confederate heritage group.

"The SCV has come to a decisive fork in the road," Jones wrote. "The elections of 2002 will decide the fate of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. ... I think we ought to take the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, and the skinheads and show them to the door."

As Jones understands, that may be easier said than done.

Although the 31,400-member SCV has always billed itself as a "non-political" and "non-racial" heritage organization devoted merely to preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers, SCV leaders have long been tied to segregation and white supremacy.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the SCV did make a decade-long push to rid itself of open racism and bigotry. But by 1996, after a prominent neo-secessionist resigned from the SCV's ruling executive board in protest of this new moderation, the door to extremism had been pushed open once again.

"There is a struggle underway," as one "pro-South" white supremacist group put it at the time, "for the heart and soul of the SCV."

Since then, spurred on by battles in several states over the display of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings, the white supremacist faction within SCV has grown both more powerful and more visible.

Far from being apolitical, scores of SCV members have taken increasingly public and controversial stands on an array of racially charged issues, reflecting an unprecedented level of activism within the 106-year-old organization.

In what may be the clearest sign yet of this extremist drift, an analysis by the Intelligence Report finds that a significant number of SCV officials — including at least 10 men who hold key national leadership positions — are also active or recent members of hate groups, principally two neo-Confederate groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and the League of the South.

Together, the CCC and the League boast more than 25,000 members.

For activists in these racist groups, the even larger SCV — an organization that counts at least two influential U.S. senators among its members — makes a tempting prize.

The Heritage Coalition Strategy
The grainy video frames, now almost two years old, are somewhat cryptic. At length, the speaker describes "heritage coalitions" as a new way for SCV members to cooperate with other neo-Confederate groups in fighting so-called "heritage violations" — acts like taking down the Confederate battle flag.

"Theoretically, it's a citizen's coalition, anybody can join," the speaker explains to a room full of listeners in this April 2000 videotape.

For those on the outside, such coalitions may seem like harmless anomalies. But the speaker was none other than white supremacist attorney Kirk Lyons, one-time member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance and current darling of neo-Confederate extremists (see profile, "In the Lyons Den," Summer 2000 issue, Intelligence Report).

Standing next to David Duke, Lyons was addressing a gathering of the neofascist American Friends of the British National Party that included many of America's leading far-right activists.

His point was a lawyerly one. Members of the SCV are constitutionally prohibited from working with hate groups, but only in their capacity as SCV members.

In their personal lives — or, as Lyons put it, as mere "John Q. Publics" working within the autonomous heritage coalitions — they can do as they like.

These coalitions, which function today in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, offered a loophole that was already being used by hundreds of SCV members to work with racist activists from hate groups including the League of the South, the CCC and several others.

Lyons described the ongoing battle within the SCV, saying he had spent most of his 22 years of membership "cursing the organization ... for [its] spinelessness and cowardice."

He mocked the "granny" faction that "hide[s] in their shirts at the mention of the R-word [racism]." He talked about how a group of "unreconstructed Southerners" or "white trash," including himself, had helped to move the SCV increasingly toward a white "nationalist perspective."

And he alluded to a January 2000 pro-Confederate flag rally in Columbia, S.C., where SCV officials worked openly with CCC and League members.

"The civil rights movement I am trying to form seeks a revolution," Lyons told his extremist colleagues that day. "We seek a return to a godly society with no Northernisms attached to it — a majority European-derived society."

Four months after the video was shot, Kirk Lyons, a man who was married by a neo-Nazi "reverend" on the grounds of the nation's most infamous hate group compound, was elected to the SCV's executive council.

The civil war was under way.

A Checkered Past
The United Sons of Confederate Veterans was founded in Richmond, Va., in 1896 with the requirement that members be men descended from Confederate soldiers.

The name was changed when it was realized that the acronym, SCV, could be confused with that of the United States Colored Volunteers, a unit that fought for the North during the Civil War.

Early editions of the SCV's Confederate Veteran newsletter defended the Ku Klux Klan, argued that the United States was created "for white people," and complained that "when a Negro has learned to read he ceases to work." But the SCV had few members, and had so declined by 1932 that the newsletter ceased publication.

In 1953, the SCV came under the control of William McCain, later the president of Southern Mississippi State University (the institution has since been renamed the University of Southern Mississippi). At the time, the SCV had 30 "camps," or local chapters, 1,000 members and $1,053 in the bank.

By the time he died in 1993, McCain had restarted the Confederate Veteran, pushed SCV membership to more than 18,000, created a sizeable endowment, and purchased a national headquarters in Columbia, Tenn. Within the SCV, McCain was a legend.

He was also a hardened segregationist and staunch supporter of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the notorious government agency created to spy on and undermine the civil rights movement.

In 1959, McCain worked closely with Commission officials to keep blacks out of his university — in particular Clyde Kennard, the first black person to apply. In the end, Kennard's name wound up in the Commission's files, labeled "Race Agitator."

In a 1960 speech in Chicago sponsored by the Commission, McCain explained Mississippi life to the folks in Illinois, saying those blacks who sought to desegregate Southern schools were "imports" from the North.

"We insist that educationally and socially, we maintain a segregated society. ... In all fairness, I admit that we are not encouraging Negro voting," he said. "The Negroes prefer that control of the government remain in the white man's hands."