James Wickstrom Faces Attacks, Continues to Preach Christian Identity Doctrine
By Susy Buchanan
Posed before a backdrop of a Tennessee forest, Jim Wickstrom spews his life history into a camera. It's late June, and Wickstrom has just been a victim of another attack, one of the many he claims to have suffered at the hands of his enemies over the years.
The latest assault on the "preacher" came this June 21 when someone burned down a furniture store in Hampton Township, Mich., where Wickstrom has been preaching "Racial Covenant Christian Identity" for the past three years.
Many of the audio- and videotapes he peddles over the Internet, representing his life's work, were burned or damaged in the fire. Wickstrom quickly put out a call over the Internet to sympathizers, stumping for financial aid in order to continue his ministry.
And so it is not surprising that just days after the blaze, the prolific pastor already is taking steps to replenish his media inventory. After all, the man has a business to run, and preaching violence against Jews is his bread and butter.
At 62, Wickstrom is bloated and shifty-eyed. The oversized aviator glasses he wears magnify his jowl and the general downward slope of his features. For this video, Wickstrom has encased his sausage-like physique in a red polo shirt, eschewing the formal sports coat and tie he favors at racist rallies.
The film is a relatively calm accounting of his life and views as he outlines his career as a racist with arms folded over his bright red belly. Under these sedate circumstances, Wickstrom looks more like the Snap-On Tools salesman he was in the early '70s, in the time before his anger found an outlet — and an accelerant — in the theology of Christian Identity.
But "Wickstrom Unplugged" doesn't last for long.
Almost on cue, a voice off camera asks Wickstrom what he thinks should be done with the Jews, a topic that invariably brings out the Hulk in him.
Wickstrom's hands begin to gesticulate, his face reddens, and he launches into a tirade that demonstrates what has made him one of Christian Identity's most popular and volatile speakers.
"I'd like to see these Jews all be brought to the VA [Veterans Administration hospital] and wooden chairs be put down on the lawn. Tie the Jews in. Bring these veterans down who have been mutilated, physically mutilated, their lives ruined without the opportunity of a family or children, and give them baseball bats and let them beat these Jews to death! Every one of them!" he bellows.
"Take these chairs and Jews after they're beaten to death, throw 'em in the wood chipper! And from the wood chipper let the remains go into a big incinerary truck, which is right behind the wood chipper, and give them the holocaust they rightly deserve!"
"Even the women and children?" he's asked by his interviewer.
"Take 'em all," he snarls. "Take 'em all and let none remain!"
Wickstrom's an aging, old-school Christian Identity racist whose career has seen better days. For a time in the early '80s, Wickstrom was one of the hottest haters in the country, preaching Yahweh's word across the Great Plains and the upper Midwest and stirring up an army.
America's farmers, in the grip of a devastating crisis, were a vulnerable audience. The government had urged them to expand their operations, then slapped them with a spike in interest rates. Banks called in loans. People lost farms, and Wickstrom's hard-core combination of antigovernment teachings and Bible-based racism drew substantial crowds. The fervently anti-Semitic, antigovernment Posse Comitatus grew in strength.
Wickstrom told them their economic hardship was part of a plan to destroy God's chosen people — the "White, Western Race" — and pointed to the Bible.
He told them debts and taxes were illegitimate and pointed to the Constitution. His conviction and passion were often mesmerizing.
But his message would start to decay.
Most of the legal advice he gave farmers created more problems than it solved. The "township" of Tigerton Dells that he and other Posse members dreamed up was seized by the very government its residents were plotting to overthrow.
Wickstrom and other Posse leaders would be arrested and incarcerated. The Posse began to fade, making way for the militia movement that would follow. The momentum it once had in its heyday, when Posse sympathizers numbered close to 50,000, came and went.
Despite his diminished presence in the movement today, Wickstrom's influence over the past 30 years has been considerable. And by the look of things, "Wick," as he is known, is not done yet.
Wickstrom is attempting to emerge from 15 relatively dormant years by very publicly aligning himself with one of two factions of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations vying for control of Richard Butler's leaderless followers.
Since Butler's death on Sept. 8, Charles Juba's version of Aryan Nations, based in Pennsylvania and by far the weaker of the two, is clamoring for respect they hope an association with Wickstrom will bring and have named him their religious leader. Against most of the evidence, Wickstrom and Juba are now claiming that they are the anointed heirs of Butler and rightful owners of the well-known Aryan Nations name, even though Butler publicly excommunicated Juba (see Alabama Getaway) from his Idaho-based organization in January 2000 and never took him back.
"My work as World Chaplain is only beginning, and I look forward to being a part of the Aryan Nations of tomorrow," Wickstrom wrote in an Oct. 11 press release in which he claims his appointment was part of a secret plan formulated years ago by Pastor Butler himself.
In the statement, Wickstrom proclaims Juba's group the legitimate successor to Butler, and blames the confusion over which faction was the true Aryan Nations on a clever "cloak and dagger" operation designed to confuse the enemy while the organization was rebuilt.
Although it's doubtful he'll succeed in filling the shoes of one of the country's most notorious neo-Nazi leaders, Wickstrom is one of the strongest candidates and most recognizable names the Christian Identity movement has.
He may have only been drawing a few dozen disciples to his furniture-store sermons in recent years — but consider that quality can be just as important as quantity when building an army for Yahweh. Among Wickstrom's converts are men like James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. When James devoted his life (and that of his incarcerated brother) to Aryan warriorhood on Oct. 5, 2003, Wickstrom was the first to shake his hand.
Still, some experts question Wickstrom's relevance to the movement of today.
"Wickstrom has lost saliency," says Leonard Zeskind, an expert on the Identity movement and the far right. "The terrain doesn't exist for him anymore."
Some of Wickstrom's closest supporters have condemned him for a relationship he began in August 2003 with another man's wife. So while Wickstrom's name was intended to bring legitimacy to Juba's faction of the Aryan Nations (which Zeskind dismisses as the "sewer end of the movement"), it's possible that his presence will actually hurt Juba.
Other observers aren't ready to count Wickstrom out just yet.
"Jim Wickstrom has a certain stature in the racist movement — one Juba doesn't have — and especially among the more religious, the biggest ones that are really into the Christian Identity aspect," says Floyd Cochran, a former Aryan Nations spokesman who now speaks out against racism.
"With the death of Richard Butler, the Christian Identity aspect of the movement is now more focused on Wickstrom."
Kerry Noble, a former Identity adherent who has also left the movement, knew Wickstrom in the '80s agrees that Wickstrom's new position may be more than just a coda to his career. "The movement is lacking true leadership, and Wickstrom is the closest thing that most groups have."
Birth of a Salesman
Under different circumstances, Jim Wickstrom might have been making Chiquita banana stickers and Elmer's Glue labels at a Kimberly-Clark paper mill for a living instead of talking about putting people in wood chippers.
Wickstrom was born in 1942 in Munising on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Although Wickstrom describes the town as Michigan's "Naples on the lake," the slogan is far grander than the dreary circumstances of the tiny, working-class town warrant.
Times have always been tough in Munising, where the century-old paper mill on the lake's eastern shore looms large in the life of residents, and the annual average income is less than $13,000.
Wickstrom was the second of three sons. His father worked as a foreman at a sawmill. His mother was a homemaker. Wickstrom graduated from high school in 1960 and worked various jobs before joining the military in 1964. He served two years (not six, as he often claims), mostly as a warehouseman stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash., and in Okinawa, and never saw combat.
But Wickstrom did see black men surpass him in rank left and right. He was outraged at what he calls blatant "reverse discrimination," and it was the first time he remembers feeling racially aware.
Wickstrom was discharged as a private first class in 1966 and returned to an America he didn't understand. The sex, drugs and foul language of the '60s repulsed him, and he saw it as a sign America's character was weakening.
In 1970, he married the first of his four wives, Dianne, whom he met while working for Johnson Wax. In 1973, he ran a service station in Racine, Wis., without success, and then gave it up to go sell tools.
Soon after he left the service station, Wickstrom was hired by Snap-On Tools and began traveling as a salesman. The position suited him for a time, but Wickstrom was soon to discover tools weren't the only things he could sell.