North Carolina-Based Southern Legal Resource Center Has Dismal Legal Record
A North Carolina legal group calls itself the leading advocate for 'Confederate Americans.' Its dismal record suggests otherwise
By Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok
It was a horror story by any account. Ryan Oleichi, just 13, was beaten near his Houston high school by two minority students enraged at the Confederate battle flag on the cover of a library book he was carrying. The April 2001 beating was so severe that doctors believe it contributed to the development of a dangerous pineal brain cyst that Ryan still suffers with. Then, just nine months later, Ryan's mother was found murdered in her own car, which was being driven by two black women.
Few cases were as publicized among neo-Confederates, who saw Ryan as another victim of bias against Southern whites. The Sons of Confederate Veterans heritage organization came out in support of the boy, as did the League of the South hate group.
But no one seemed to back him more than the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), a Black Mountain, N.C., nonprofit group. In mailings, E-mails and remarks to reporters, the principals of SLRC — "the preeminent advocate for the civil and constitutional rights of Confederate Southern Americans" — told its version of the story, almost invariably finishing with an urgent plea for donations.
Although Ryan's beating occurred off campus, SLRC Chief Trial Counsel Kirk Lyons pledged to sue the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District for allowing the incident to happen. He suggested the SLRC needed funds for the trial, an expert witness, and to treat Ryan's mother's depression shortly after the assault. He asked for money for a college fund for Ryan after his mother's death. Time and again, he told backers he was squaring off with Texas' richest school district.
But Ryan's family says that despite the SLRC's fund-raising, Ryan never benefited from the SLRC's attention. Betty Rice, Ryan's maternal grandmother and his legal guardian since the death of Ryan's mother, Melinda Hill, said she contacted Lyons shortly after the funeral of her daughter, hoping to pursue the case and win some money for Ryan's medical bills.
"He told me Melinda was his client, not me," Rice told the Intelligence Report. Then he asked for some $5,000 down.
The SLRC and Lyons never filed a case. But that did not prevent them from repeatedly trying to raise funds from Ryan's suffering. And they seemed to fudge some details of the case to make it more appealing to their constituency. On Jan. 9, 2002 the day that Hill was murdered, the SLRC told its backers that Hill's car was being driven by "two black females" when it was found with Hill's body in the back.
The SLRC would never mention that it was later established that the car had been given to the two women, who knew nothing of the body, by Hill's white boyfriend, who quickly confessed to the murder.
On Feb. 1, 2002, around the time Betty Rice says she was turned away by Lyons, the SLRC told backers that Rice "has decided to move forward with Ryan's case." Three months later, the SLRC was still raising money off the case. "Please remember Ryan," it pleaded last April 26, "in your prayers and donations."
In an E-mail reply sent 34 days after the Intelligence Report submitted a series of queries about its cases, the SLRC said it had not "dropped" Oleichi as a client at all. Betty Rice has not spoken to the SLRC for more than a year.
The Lost Cause
Since its incorporation in 1996 by Kirk Lyons (see biography, "In the Lyons Den," Summer 2000 edition, Intelligence Report) and two other men, the Southern Legal Resource Center has operated out of a nondescript duplex on a quiet street in Black Mountain, a historically liberal town near Asheville.
The SLRC replaced an earlier Lyons creation in Texas known as CAUSE, short for Canada, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Europe — the parts of the world where Lyons judged white majorities' rights under threat because of rising minority populations.
The SLRC was started specifically to battle so-called "heritage violations" against what Lyons calls "Confederate Southern Americans" — principally attacks on the Confederate battle flag and similar symbols. And it insists that it is turning the tide.
"Our opponents demonize the SLRC for one reason," Lyons wrote in the same "update" that carried the pitch for "prayers and donations" for Ryan Oleichi. "We are the most effective and hard-hitting fighters on the Southern Heritage front."
Maybe so. But the SLRC hardly has a stellar track record.
In the last year, Lyons has been excoriated by a federal judge who accused him publicly of shoddy work. He has been unceremoniously removed from a favorite lawsuit that targeted officials of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's administration for taking down Confederate plaques in Austin. He has filed large numbers of complaints in a variety of forums that have gone nowhere.
In mailings and E-mails containing fervent fundraising pitches, Lyons has frequently spoken of cases he intended to file, but never did. He has implied that he represented clients whose families later said he did almost nothing for them.
And he has filed suit after suit alleging that "Confederate Southern Americans" are a protected ethnic group under civil rights laws — a theory most legal experts consider absurd.
From the start, the SLRC was the creation of extremists. The core staff is made up of Lyons and his long-time partner and brother-in-law, Neill Payne, along with the two men's parents-in-law.
Both Lyons and Payne were married on the compound of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations in Idaho. The pastor presiding over their 1990 double wedding was Aryan boss Richard Butler, and their spouses were both daughters of Betty and Charles Tate, who now work at the SLRC. Betty Tate had been an Aryan Nations secretary, while her husband was a Butler aide; the couple's son is in prison for terrorist crimes. Louis Beam, a violently racist former Klan leader, was Lyons' best man at the ceremony.
The SLRC's board includes Lourie Salley III, who is executive director of the board and also a prominent member of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate hate group. (Salley's hobby, according to Aiken, S.C., City Attorney Richard Pierce, is refitting small planes as "Nazi German observation planes.")
Also on the board are North Carolina attorneys Larry Ellis Norman and Carl Barrington Jr., and, supposedly, H.K. Edgerton, a black activist who has defended slavery as a Christianizing influence and also provided Lyons invaluable cover from accusations of racism. Although Lyons has described Edgerton as a board member for years, he is not listed like other members in 2000 and 2001 tax returns. Edgerton's name was added to a directors list on the SLRC Web site only this February.
Throughout its life, a steady drumbeat of fundraising appeals has issued forth from the SLRC, which since gaining nonprofit status in 1999 has slowly increased its income from $65,355 in 1999, to $105,315 in 2000 and $150,365 in 2001, the latest year for which tax records are available.
But the SLRC also has taken on an increasingly desperate tone of late. "Southern Compatriots," said one April 2002 appeal, "I cannot stress to you HOW BADLY WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!!! Everywhere we turn, it seems the walls are slowly closing in on us!"
Trouble in Texas
One of the SLRC's first "heritage violation" cases began in 1998, after the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University forced cadet Thomas Chisum Womack to remove a Confederate flag sticker from his foot locker. Womack decided to file suit even though cadet regulations explicitly forbade display of the battle flag.
With great fanfare, the SLRC told its supporters that it filed a suit contending that Womack's rights had been violated on May 15, 1998. It described the case on its Web site and in E-mails to supporters, almost invariably followed by a plea for contributions to support the work of the SLRC.
Womack, Lyons told one reporter at the time, shouldn't have to choose "between his heritage and the cadets."
Occasional mention was made of the suit in SLRC updates that followed, but then the case seemed to drop off the radar screen. Finally, in a Dec. 1, 1999, SLRC "update," backers were told that the SLRC had decided not to "re-file" the lawsuit against Texas A&M. That decision, it said, was "due to the tragic bonfire accident at Texas A&M" in which 12 people were killed during the construction of a huge log bonfire. The SLRC said in its statement that it did not want to "appear to be kicking [A&M] when they were down."
But what the SLRC had never before admitted was that it had dropped its case almost eight months before — on April 4, 1999.
Even though the SLRC withdrew the suit — because Womack had dropped out of the corps — it still continues to describe its role in heroic terms. "We pursued the case using other means," Neill Payne, the SLRC's executive director, wrote in his March 3 E-mail to the Intelligence Report. "The ban on Confederate symbols has been lifted and [Commandant] General [Ted] Hopgood [Jr.] was retired." Texas A&M officials beg to differ.
"That's not true," Major Joseph Mills, spokesman for the Corps' Office of the Commandant, told the Report. "The ban has not been lifted, and General Hopgood retired on his own volition last May" — three years after the suit was dropped.
Lyons' most public humiliation stemmed from another case in his native Texas. For decades, the Confederate flag had been used as a symbol by the Hays High School Rebels, a football team in Buda, Texas. But in 2000, after much debate, the flag was eliminated as a school symbol.
The following year, the University Interscholastic League, which regulates high school football, passed a rule against all flags and banners in high school stadiums in the district. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, that rule was amended to allow the display of the U.S. flag.
On Oct. 26, 2001, five people — including SLRC director H.K. Edgerton — were stopped at a Hays stadium entrance as they tried to bring in Confederate battle flags. Not long after, the SLRC filed a lawsuit against the Hays County school district and three of its officials in federal court.
Lyons contended that his clients had had their First Amendment rights violated. He also argued, based on SLRC's novel theory that the plaintiffs' "national origin" was "Confederate Southern American," that the Hays officials had violated the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In January 2002, school officials asked U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks to dismiss the case, arguing that the flag policy was a University Interscholastic League rule and that the league would be a more appropriate defendant. The following month, Sparks agreed, issuing a harshly worded order lambasting Lyons. He zeroed in on the selection of defendants, sloppy misprints in Lyons' filings, and the fact that Lyons had withdrawn an earlier request for an injunction against the district.
"It would appear," the judge wrote, "the plaintiffs have filed a complaint requesting a temporary injunction when they did not want one, obtained publicity because of the allegations, sued the wrong parties and in all probability have no cause of action against any party." Sparks ordered the SLRC to pay defendants' legal fees, which according to an SLRC newsletter totaled $9,173.
In his E-mail, Payne insisted that the SLRC's legal theories in the case "were sound" and that the Center was "by no means through with the flag issue at Hays County." But speaking to a reporter at the time, Lyons sounded far more pessimistic.
"I'm shocked," Lyons said. "I don't know what's in the court's mind."