Sons of Confederate Veterans Heads in More Radical Direction

Leaner and meaner under a new leader, the Sons of Confederate Veterans heads into more and more radical territory.

The Rev. Eric Dean, an American Southerner living in Europe, had been hearing the rumors for months. Finally, he decided to pay a visit to a former high-ranking leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the Southern heritage group of which Dean had long been a proud member. Was it true, Dean asked last November, that the SCV was being taken over by racial extremists? Were the decent colleagues Dean remembered really being swamped by white supremacists?

Within days of his visit to Tennessee to see Anthony Hodges, the former No. 2 leader in the SCV who had earlier been purged by his enemies, Dean had reached a conclusion. Hodges, he E-mailed comrades in the SCV, had told him the group was moving "towards a more politically active, secessionist and racist agenda." "Racial groups," Hodges added, controlled "key leadership positions." As a result, there was an ongoing "exodus" of lifelong SCV members, including U.S. senators.

And so Eric Dean quit the SCV. Members of the unit he served as chaplain did, too. And with that, the SCV's entire European division ceased to exist.

For Rev. Dean, the clincher was a sermon from the SCV's chaplain in chief that attacked "racial interbreeding" as ungodly and described slavery as biblically sanctioned. But that was only the latest development in a long and ugly story. For almost four years now, the SCV has been embroiled in an increasingly nasty civil war, as racial extremists battle moderates for control of what is certainly the largest Southern heritage organization in America. In the last year and a half, under the leadership of a new national chief whose politics have become clearer as his term of office unfolded, the ascendancy of the radicals has become undeniable.

Since Denne Sweeney took over as SCV commander in chief in August 2004, the group's executive council has been stripped of moderate former commanders. A purge of some 300 members, accused of disloyalty for criticizing racism in the SCV, was completed. An ancient alliance with the Military Order of Stars & Bars, a sister organization for descendants of Confederate officers, was scuttled, and a bitter war with another old ally, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, erupted. Sweeney suspended an entire state division of the SCV and replaced its leaders. He diverted money originally intended for the upkeep of a cemetery and building a museum to a brand-new political arm. He promoted followers with documented racist histories to key national leadership positions. Through it all, Sweeney presided over an exodus of fully 25% of the SCV's membership, which fell from 36,000 to 27,000.

"The slackers and the grannies have been purged from our ranks," Kirk Lyons, a radical who first floated the idea of taking over the SCV in a 2000 meeting of neo-Nazis and former Klansmen, exulted in December. Now, Lyons added, the SCV needs to become "a modern, 21st century Christian war machine capable of uniting the Confederate community and leading it to ultimate victory."

The Die is Cast

The first evidence of an attempt to take over the SCV came in early 2002, when it emerged that Lyons -- a white supremacist attorney married on the grounds of the Aryan Nations by its neo-Nazi leader, Richard Butler -- was running for a regional leadership position within the SCV. Though Lyons was narrowly defeated after the Southern Poverty Law Center drew attention to his candidacy, an unknown man named Ron Wilson managed to win election as the SCV's commander in chief. It wasn't long before it became obvious that Wilson was a close Lyons ally.

In the next two years, Wilson, who once endorsed and sold a virulently anti-Semitic book from his home business, joined the battle in earnest. He initiated a purge of those who had criticized racism within the SCV or were in any way tied to a rump group called Save the SCV that sought to eject racists. He strengthened ties to Lyons -- whose stated goal is to turn the South into "a majority European-derived country" -- and to Lyons' Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), a nonprofit that battles so-called "heritage violations" against white Southerners. And he allowed racists and anti-Semites to land key positions of power within the SCV.

But it wasn't immediately clear where Denne Sweeney would come down in 2004, after two years of bitter internal strife inside the SCV. Many hoped that his election would bring calm and an end to the angry politics of Lyons and his friends.

By last April, it was obvious those hopes were without foundation. At a special convention held in Concord, N.C., Sweeney led a move that stripped former commanders in chief of the organization -- many of whom had spoken out against racism -- of their ex officio voting power on the General Executive Council. At the same time, Sweeney expanded his own powers to help him control the SCV.

Sweeney's second in command, Lt. Comdr. Hodges, had joined a lawsuit to prevent the changes to the executive council. Though the suit remained unresolved, Sweeney also used the convention, which was packed with his own supporters, to eject Hodges and replace him with a Sweeney ally. He then initiated a formal break with the Military Order of Stars & Bars (MOSB), whose former leader, Oklahoma City attorney Jeff Massey, had participated in the lawsuit that Hodges was also a part of. And he presided over the SCV's donation of $10,000 to Lyons' SLRC.

Denne Sweeney had come down foursquare for the radicals.