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.
by Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok
Sisters No More
The radicalization of the SCV picked up speed last fall, thanks to several actions by Sweeney. In October, at an executive council meeting in Hot Springs, Ark., Sweeney led an effort to suspend and investigate four former Oklahoma SCV leaders who had crossed him. At the same meeting, six Jacksonville, Fla., members also were suspended after they voted to take their camp out of the SCV.
A short time later, Sweeney sent out letters threatening legal action against the many other camps considering withdrawal from the SCV in the aftermath of the Jacksonville vote. Sweeney called those seeking to leave to establish non-racist heritage groups "forlorn pirates" acting on "malicious and self-serving desires." He insisted all assets belonged to the SCV national office, not to its camps, and warned that any secession efforts would be fought using "every means at our disposal."
By December, Sweeney had suspended the entire Oklahoma division, saying he could "no longer stand idly by and watch the Division officers destroy" the state organization that probably held more Sweeney opponents than any other. In January, he appointed a whole new slate of leaders to head up the Oklahoma division.
None of this sat well with moderates in other heritage organizations. In November, matters came to a head when Sweeney traveled to San Diego to address the annual convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Although officials of neither group would detail what occurred there, the UDC's Georgia Head wrote that Sweeney started talking about the SCV's "dirty laundry," at which point UDC President General Esther Cope cut him off: "Thank you, Mr. Sweeney, that will do." Sweeney, Head reported, "huffed all the way down the side of the room with everyone's eyes on him." In an E-mail to a group of SCV radicals, Head added: "Your CiC got up during our most prestigious night and made an embarrassment of himself, and put the rest of us in an awkward position, to put it nicely."
Lyons fired back with an E-mail of his own. "Mrs. Cope," he wrote, "was siding with the grannies in a stunt to humiliate our Commander in Chief in front of the UDC." He and other radicals demanded fruitlessly that Cope apologize.
In January, H.K. Edgerton, a black Lyons ally who has said slavery was a good thing for Africans, killed off any residual good will when he sent out an E-mail listing the UDC among those most responsible for "Southern Cultural Genocide." The E-mail provoked furious rejoinders from UDC members and others. Relations between the SCV and UDC, close for a century, were very nearly destroyed.
Moderates Under Siege
By early this year, even some of those who had supported Sweeney were having second thoughts. A case in point is Charles Walthall, commander of the Kansas division of the SCV and a man who had long sought a middle path.
In early February, deep into a report on divisional news, Walthall mentioned that he had just been thrown off an E-list of hard-liners called SCV Vindicators. "I was expelled," he reported, "for taking exception to the racist, pro-Nazi, pro-assassination, and political extremist rhetoric being bantered about by members of the list. So I consider my removal from the list of low-lifes as an honor. I did what I could to defend the good name of the SCV and will register my concerns with the SCV Webmaster." A few days later, Walthall expanded in a message to the Southern Herald, a semi-official SCV E-list. A military man, Walthall was bothered by the reluctance of many to say the Pledge of Allegiance at camp meetings. (In the March edition of the newsletter for the Army of the Mississippi, one of the SCV's three regional divisions, Editor Gary Ayres compared flying the U.S. flag at a Confederate grave to flying a swastika flag over Americans killed by the Nazis.) Walthall didn't agree with recent moves to make a hero of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, and he didn't like bad-mouthing Martin Luther King Jr. as a "womanizer" either.
"The SCV has got to change to survive," Walthall wrote. "It has got to move away from the racial, secessionist, anti-American agenda being preached."
The reaction to Walthall's criticisms was quite amazing.
One SCV member wrote to warn him he was making a terrible mistake. "You continue to tighten the noose that's already around your neck," the man wrote. "You are screwing with the wrong men." Another, describing himself as "hardcore to the right," warned Walthall that what he'd written "will come back to haunt you, this I promise." James McManus, the North Carolina regional SCV commander who runs the Southern Herald, called Walthall's remarks "twisted, repugnant, disgraceful and distasteful," and angrily accused him of "trashing honorable men." He also asked the national office to open an investigation into what was occurring in Kansas.
McManus is well known as an electronic racist. In late 2004, on another SCV-related E-list, he posted an "Apology to the Black Race" that is also popular on Klan and neo-Nazi Web sites. Shrilly racist, the document "apologizes" for bringing blacks civilization, "for thinking we could educate you," for replacing voodoo with Christianity, for providing welfare, and so on. Among other things, it accuses blacks of "having sexual intercourse with monkeys," thereby producing AIDS. McManus' posting provoked a furious exchange about racism and its threat to the SCV.
This January, Denne Sweeney joined McManus' latest E-list, the Southern Herald. Sweeney's membership, McManus bubbled, was a "high honor."
Charting the Future
Despite all the talk about turning the SCV into an aggressive defender of all things Confederate, Sweeney and his friends have shown a dramatic lack of interest in repairing Confederate President Jefferson Davis' hurricane-ravaged Biloxi estate, Beauvoir. That's because Beauvoir, which is administered by an independent board, shares some of its leadership with a brand new group -- the United Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc., an anti-racist SCV breakaway formed last year. Sweeney also blames some of the new Beauvoir caretakers for a lawsuit brought against the national office that seeks to strip away a $3.5 million fund for post-doctoral medical research grants for the descendants of Confederate veterans. Beauvoir director Robert Murphree, who alleges that the fund has been mismanaged and that no grants have been awarded in years, is asking the court to give his new group stewardship of the fund.
Murphree poses a particular threat to the SCV because the medical fund makes up the bulk of its $5 million reserve. But his is only one of several explicitly anti-racist heritage groups that have arisen recently to challenge the SCV.
These include the Sons of the Confederacy in Triune, Tenn.; the Descendants of Confederate Veterans in Seabrook, Texas; and groups with names nearly identical to Murphree's in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia. A national congress is planned for March in Alabama to consider forming a national group.
The SCV, meanwhile, continues to head ever rightward.
In February, Sweeney, aided substantially by Lyons, produced what was by any measure an extraordinary document -- a proposed new constitution for the SCV to replace the one first adopted in 1896. With the original prologue stripped away, the new constitution would remove all mentions of a reunited United States and also all references to the Pledge of Allegiance, which many SCV radicals despise as an oath to the godless, anti-Southern North. It removes impediments to SCV members taking on political causes and ends the original constitution's strongly apolitical flavor. And it vastly expands the power of the commander in chief, both retroactively authorizing the moves Sweeney made to change the executive council's makeup and giving him the power to unilaterally suspend SCV divisions, camps and individuals. It would also allow Sweeney to run for reelection, which is now against SCV rules. The redrafted constitution will be voted on at the SCV's national convention next August.
This all fits well with the aspirations of radicals including Lyons, who wrote recently that the SCV needs to "engage the enemy and win the war." And that will almost certainly mean continued purges and vicious political infighting. As Kevin Spargur, the editor of the Florida SCV's newsletter, said recently of the enemies of the new SCV: "If we are to win this war, we must give them the bayonet."