Mississippi Senator Trent Lott and Georgia Congressman Bob Barr Have Connections to White Supremacist Group Council of Conservative Citizens
When a race hate scandal engulfed a right-wing group in 1998, politicians ran for cover. They didn't stay away long
By Heidi Beirich and Bob Moser
Though it had deep roots in Southern politics and claimed 15,000 members — more than the Ku Klux Klan has boasted for decades — the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) was a mystery to most Americans until 1998. Late that year, a scandal erupted over prominent Southern politicians' ties to the brazenly racist group.
At first, even the politicians in question claimed they didn't know what this Council was all about. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who had spoken to the group five times, once telling its members they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy," claimed he had "no firsthand knowledge" of it.
Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, who touched off the brouhaha by delivering a keynote speech at the CCC's national convention in June 1998, said he had "no idea" what the organization stood for.
Those explanations wouldn't suffice for long. An Intelligence Report investigation (see Sharks in the Mainstream, Issue 93), picked up by several network newscasts and major newspapers, made it crystal clear what the CCC was: a hate group that routinely denigrated blacks as "genetically inferior," complained about "Jewish power brokers," called gay people "perverted sodomites," accused immigrants of turning America into a "slimy brown mass of glop," and named Lester Maddox, the baseball bat-wielding, arch-segregationist former governor of Georgia, "Patriot of the Century."
Denunciations flew fast and furious, with embarrassed conservatives taking the lead. "Lott and Barr gave legitimacy to this racist organization by speaking before them," wrote right-wing columnist Armstrong Williams. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter, said that anyone associated with a group like the CCC "doesn't belong in a leadership position in America."
As evidence of widespread association between Southern GOP officeholders and the CCC mounted, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson took the unusual step of asking party members to resign from the group because of its "racist views." A resolution moved through the U.S. Congress "condemning the racism and bigotry espoused by the Council of Conservative Citizens," although it ultimately failed.
Barr and Lott issued statements attempting to distance themselves from a group that was fast becoming political poison.
In January 1999, the Miami Herald reported that it wasn't just governors, senators and congressmen who'd dallied with the group. According to the CCC's own Citizens Informer newspaper, more than 20 state lawmakers — 17 of them from Mississippi — had met with chapters of the hate group in 1997 and 1998. Some politicians claimed they'd been lured to CCC gatherings by members who covered up the extremist nature of the group.
Still, after months of headlines exposing the group's views, "no one should be duped into believing that they are mainstream conservatives" any longer, said Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.
But five years later, Southern lawmakers are still meeting with the CCC — and still pleading ignorance. According to an Intelligence Report review of the Citizens Informer, no fewer than 38 federal, state and local elected officials who are still in office today have attended CCC events since 2000, most of them giving speeches to local chapters of the hate group.
Another 38 former elected officials and candidates for office have addressed CCC groups during the past four years. Of the 38 current office-holders who've attended CCC events, 26 are state lawmakers — most of them, 23, from Lott's home state of Mississippi (see See No Evil).
That roster includes such leading lights as Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, and the presiding justice of the state Supreme Court, Kay Cobb. It excludes 12 local officials.
Though the vast majority of these politicians are Republicans — 23 of the 26 current state lawmakers, to be exact — the Republican National Committee, so forthright five years ago, now declines to condemn the CCC. No member of either party has been sanctioned or reprimanded for maintaining ties to the Council.
Only half of the 26 state lawmakers responded to repeated phone calls, faxes and e-mail messages from the Intelligence Report, asking why they would openly associate with one of America's best-known racist organizations. State Rep. Jim Ellington, who addressed the Great Southern CCC this February in Jackson, Miss., was among those who did respond — with a familiar story.
"They invited me to come to a dinner to speak to their group and I don't know a thing about them," Ellington said. Asked whether he was aware that the CCC was considered a hate group, Ellington replied, "They seem like normal people to me."
But what about the raw racism on their Web site, which once compared singer Michael Jackson to an ape in side-by-side photos? "Well, I don't condone anything like that," Ellington said.
The 'Uptown Klan' Reborn
Political influence has always been a point of pride for the Council of Conservative Citizens. Founded in 1985 by Gordon Baum, a worker's compensation attorney and longtime white-power activist, the CCC rose from the ashes of the Citizens Councils of America (CCA), a coalition of white-supremacist groups formed throughout the South to defend school segregation after the Supreme Court outlawed it in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Unlike the "white trash" KKK, the CCA groups — commonly called "White Citizens Councils" — had a veneer of civic respectability, inspiring the nickname "Uptown Klan." While there were plenty of bare-knuckles racists attracted to the Councils' anti-integration slogan, "Never!" the members also included bankers, merchants, judges, newspaper editors and politicians — folks more given to wearing suits and ties than hoods and robes.
Many of them, including Trent Lott's uncle, were elected to state and local offices. Some were even more powerful: governors, congressmen, U.S. senators.
During the White Citizens Councils' heyday, the groups claimed more than 1 million members. Though they weren't immune to violence — Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, was a member — the Councils generally used their political and financial pull to offset the effects of "forced integration."
One tactic was particularly effective: The Councils raised millions of dollars to fund "white academies," private schools throughout the South that gave parents the option of keeping their children segregated.
Though the CCA groups presented themselves as civic organizations akin to the Kiwanis and Civitan clubs, they left no doubt where they stood on race. "Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, communism and destruction," wrote Robert "Tut" Patterson, the legendary white supremacist who founded the CCA and still writes columns for the Citizens Informer.
"Segregation represents the freedom to choose one's associates."
Once the segregation battle was lost, the air went out of the White Citizens Councils. The councils steadily lost members throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Sensing the need for a new direction, Baum, formerly the CCA's Midwest field director, called together a group of 30 white men, including former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and future Louisiana Congressman John Rarick, for a meeting in Atlanta in 1985.
They cooked up a successor organization: the Council of Conservative Citizens.
Like the White Citizens Councils, the CCC is made up of local chapters — some of them active in civic affairs that have little to do with the national group's racist agenda. But the group's "uptown" days are largely gone; by 1985, there was precious little "respectability" left in joining an unabashedly white-supremacist organization.
And with the CCC, as with the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and '60s, rabid extremism is never far from the surface.