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
For more than two years, Kirk Lyons has been a key player in an attempt to turn the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) from its original mission of defending the memory of Southern Civil War combatants to far-right political activism. He helped organize a major pro-Confederate flag rally in South Carolina in 2000, which in turn helped to boost Lyons' credentials within the 32,000-member SCV.
Shortly afterwards, Ron G. Wilson, a South Carolina SCV activist who now heads the SCV as commander in chief, joined the SLRC board, tax records reveal. (The SLRC Web site, which lists other directors, does not include Wilson's name.) The following year, Wilson's daughter, Allison Shaum, joined the SLRC as a "case worker." In that job, she writes many of the SLRC's occasional "updates."
Last August, Lyons, who had already won election to a lower SCV post, stood for election to head one of the SCV's three geographic divisions. In the run-up to the August SCV convention, the SLRC's close links to the SCV became apparent. Fully three hours of SLRC seminars were scheduled as part of the convention.
In addition, over the years, thousands of dollars in donations and for various cases have been given by state SCV organizations to the SLRC. SCV Executive Director Ben Sewell refused to discuss the details of these transactions with the Intelligence Report.
By the time the convention got going, however, Lyons and his racist background had become a public issue, with newspapers and national television news depicting his candidacy as a battle for the soul of the organization. SCV officials quietly canceled the SLRC seminars. No explanation was ever given.
In the end, Lyons was defeated by a moderate candidate in a 17-vote squeaker. But Wilson, whose links to Lyons and his extremist agenda were unknown at the time, managed to win the SCV's highest office — commander in chief. The election of Wilson and a number of his allies effectively handed the leadership of the SCV to an extremist faction.
Wilson did not abandon his alliance with the SLRC. In recent months, he appointed Lyons to sit on the SCV's Long-Range Planning Committee, while Payne landed a seat on the Resolutions Committee. During the same period, Wilson was raising money for the SLRC by selling T-shirts depicting the Confederate battle flag from his office. And early this year, Wilson launched a purge of most of those SCV members who had publicly opposed him and Lyons.
Lyons vs. Bush
The close relationship between Lyons' SLRC and the ruling faction in the badly divided SCV might have been expected to produce dividends for the legal center. Indeed, Lyons recently wrote that 80% of the SLRC's support comes from within the SCV. But that has not guaranteed Lyons a role in key legal actions.
In June 2000, while George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency, officials of his gubernatorial administration ordered the removal of several plaques commemorating the Confederacy from the Texas Supreme Court building. The plaques included a quote from Robert E. Lee and an image of the battle flag.
The Texas division of the SCV was furious, and engaged the SLRC and Lyons to bring a suit against four Bush officials, including two who are now in the White House. Arguing that the removal violated a 1954 provision of the Texas constitution, Lyons filed the case. In the months that followed, Lyons and the SLRC would refer to the case repeatedly. It was clear that this was a favorite Lyons cause.
But to this day, Lyons hasn't told his backers a crucial fact: He has been booted off the case. Last Sept. 21, the Texas division's executive council decided to turn the case over to Dallas attorney Bill Kuhn. Texas SCV official Jerry Nelson wrote that the council also rejected keeping Lyons on as co-counsel because "such an appointment was not in the division's best interest."
Marshall Davis, public information officer for the Texas SCV, clarified that statement: "The best I can say is the division was not pleased with his progress as we were proceeding on this case. I think the division officers felt that it was not moving quickly enough for them."
Payne offered a rather different version of events in his E-mail to the Report, saying the SLRC was "happy to withdraw" when the SCV found local counsel. "The Texas Division," he said, "was satisfied with our pioneering work on the case."
There is no indication of any of this on the SLRC Web site.
A Theory That Won't Die
A consistent theme in the SLRC's cases is the idea that so-called Confederate Americans are being discriminated against as a group. A consistent tactic has been to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a bid to get this view validated. And the consistent result has been failure.
In 1998, U.S. Department of Labor employee Don Curtis Terrell was turned down by his bosses after he asked to participate in the department's Diversity Day celebration as a Confederate American. Lyons' complaint to the EEOC, alleging civil rights violations, was unsuccessful. Lyons' appeal to federal court ended in a similar dismissal. His appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also was turned down. In a last ditch effort, the SLRC last summer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Terrell case. The high court declined to do so last October.
As near as can be determined from the SLRC's Web site and E-mails to its supporters, the SLRC has been involved in at least 20 EEOC claims of workplace discrimination against Confederate Americans, virtually all of them stemming from employer bans on Confederate symbols. In each case discussed by the SLRC, the EEOC has rejected the claims, and in some, reviewing courts have agreed.
"They just don't get it," Lyons complained.
That's hardly the way experts in American civil rights law see it. They say the idea of such ethnic "groups" as "Confederate Americans" or "Confederate Southern Americans" clearly has no meaning under federal, state or regulatory law.
"I've been studying civil rights laws and their applications for 28 years, and I've litigated issues of how one defines national origin groups and racial groups," Al Kauffman of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project told the Intelligence Report. "And a group of 'Confederate Southerners' does not fit any racial or ethnic origin group I've ever seen under any federal or state law. I cannot imagine that any court or administrative agency anywhere would recognize Southern Americans as a racial or ethnic group. I don't think they'd recognize Yankee Northerners either."
But defeat has not bowed Lyons or the SLRC. "[W]e are prepared to bring this issue again and again in a variety of venues," Payne told the Intelligence Report, "until we find the one judge who will at least let us put on evidence that Confederate Southern Americans deserve the same protections as other Americans."
On May 17, 2000, the SLRC announced in a press release that it was filing similar claims on behalf of nine students suspended from the Grady County, Ga., school system for defying a ban on Confederate-flag clothing. The SLRC said it would allege discrimination based on race and national origin in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education. Similarly, it would allege religious discrimination in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice. Once those claims were adjudicated, the SLRC press release promised, a suit "will be filed in Federal court."
Lyons did indeed threaten to sue the system, Schools Superintendent Steve Wooten told the Intelligence Report. But almost two years after Lyons vowed to file suit, Wooten revealed what Lyons has not: "Nothing was ever filed against us."