Ben Covington Offers Insight Into His Brother Harold’s Neo-Nazi Activity
Interview conducted by Sonia Scherr and Laurie Wood
There's little doubt that Harold Covington, 55, is a dedicated neo-Nazi. He was a key player in the National Socialist White People's Party, helped pioneer cyberspace as a medium for neo-Nazi propaganda, and led the North Carolina unit of the National Socialist Party of America at the time it took part in the 1979 killings of five left-wing anti-Klan protesters in Greensboro, N.C. (He later bragged about his people "greasing communists" in Greensboro.) Two members of his group were among the 16 Klansmen and neo-Nazis arrested and charged with murder in connection with what came to be known as the "Greensboro Massacre," although none of them was ever convicted. (Although Covington never faced criminal charges, he was named as a defendant in a civil suit brought by surviving protesters and the families of the dead. In the end, jurors found two police officers, a police informer and four Klansmen liable for compensatory damages, but Covington was not among them.) Covington was also associated at one point with a man who allegedly hoped to attack a shopping mall with napalm over the Christmas holidays, although he denied any role in that plot. Over the last 35 years, Covington has interacted with almost all of the important leaders and activists of the American radical right.
Despite his long record in the movement, Covington, who is certainly one of its most gifted and vitriolic writers, has been accused by fellow neo-Nazis of serving as a government informant and of secretly being Jewish. Responding in kind, he has launched endless attacks on most of the leaders of the extreme right, to the point where he is today almost totally isolated from the organizations that make up the white supremacist movement. Now believed to be living in Olympia, Wash., the man many neo-Nazis call "Weird Harold" recently wrote three self-published novels in which he reimagines the Pacific Northwest as a "whites-only" homeland.
For most of his life, Covington, who also writes under the nom de plume of Winston Smith and any number of other aliases, has exhibited a consistent tendency to tell tall tales. From his supposed role fighting as a mercenary for white rule in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) to wild claims about his mother's death, he has repeatedly deployed gross exaggerations and outright lies to cast himself in the role of hero and to vilify his perceived enemies — some of which have been swallowed whole by many, including one scholar who admires his "incisive intelligence."
Now, a member of Covington's immediate family is speaking out to dispel these myths. In a recent interview with the Intelligence Report, Ben Covington, Harold's younger brother, offered insights into the roots of his brother's bigotry and discussed the devastating personal impact of his hate. "It killed my mother," said Ben Covington, a local union official in North Carolina who hasn't spoken to his oldest brother since 1980. "My mother spent nights crying herself to sleep. It embittered my father. You can't quantify what it's like to lose a child. It's even harder to quantify what it's like losing that child while he's still alive."
Please tell us about your brother's childhood.
Harold was the oldest of three children. My parents were products of the Depression and the Second World War. They were both college educated. Before I was born, my father got a job with Western Electric at the electronics assembly facility in Burlington, N.C., working as a personnel clerk, while my mother worked as a church secretary. Harold was born in 1953. My brother, Forrest Jr., was born in 1957, and I was born in 1959, and during these years my father was working his way up the ladder of middle-class success. My father was a noted local folk singer, so our house was constantly filled with music and musicians. It wasn't unusual for there to be eight or nine people in our house on a weekend night — my parents were gregarious and generous.
Ben Covington discusses his infamous brother, neo-Nazi leader — and blowhard extraordinaire — Harold Covington. Photo by Jenny Warburg.
What was Harold like as a child?
He was highly intelligent, for one thing. He was also egotistical about it and carried himself with an attitude of privileged superiority that was infuriating. He tended to be a loner, with few friends. He read extensively, mostly history and always way above his grade level. He was secretive. He hated doing household chores because he thought he was above them. He despised being told to do anything that he didn't want to do; he especially hated having anything to do with my brother Forrest and myself. Nevertheless, he would condescend to be a member of the family, although in his later writings he made out that our life was some sort of horror story where he was either the victim or the tragic hero.
Is there any truth to that interpretation?
Harold makes out a great deal that there was some dark, seamy underside. There wasn't. We all got adequate medical care, our needs were seen to, we had Christmases and birthday parties, and we had relatives who visited regularly. We went on family vacations. My father enrolled Harold in fencing classes at the local Y. He was in school plays, he got music lessons, pets, whatever. He was an acolyte at the Episcopal Church. We never lacked for anything. It is true that both my father and mother believed in discipline. When we acted up, if it was my mother, she took a switch to us, and if it was my father he used his belt. These weren't beatings. This was corporal punishment that was well in line with the parenting techniques of the day.
So how did Harold develop his bigotry?
Harold is constantly saying that he learned his racism from my father. Like many things Harold says — and this is part and parcel of his mental illness — there is a grain of truth to what he says. Both of my parents were the peer generation to desegregation. I can't believe that either of them was truly racist in the sense that they hated all black people, and they certainly were not the wellspring of bigotry toward Jews that Harold drank from. Nevertheless, it is accurate to say that they were both raised as southern whites, and the racial upheaval that began with Brown v. Board of Education and continued through the sixties victimized them in the sense that they were the people who were least equipped to digest and accept the speed at which things changed. While it affected their attitudes, to their credit, they didn't opt out of the public school system, and I think it speaks volumes that they chose to move their family to an intellectual center like Chapel Hill, knowing full well that the university's liberal philosophies crossed over into the community. They weren't ignorant of the significance of the changes in black/white relations, but then neither did they embrace them with open arms.
But it's not like they were members of the Klan or the American Nazi Party.
No, absolutely not. There was never any of that. My parents were both deeply conservative Republicans in an age when Republicans didn't really have any political power in the South. My father was a long-time supporter of Jesse Helms [the late segregationist senator from North Carolina], much to my everlasting shame. When Jesse Helms was on television my father hung on every word of it. Although my mother wasn't quite that enthusiastic, she had a deep sense of tradition that clashed with the realities of the civil rights era. She adjusted. My father bitched a lot. I don't think they were truly racist. I think instead that it was the fact that their generation bore the emotional and psychological blunt force trauma of the times.
Getting back to Harold, when did he first become racist?
It began when my father and mother decided to buy a piece of property outside Chapel Hill and move us in the summer of 1968. That year I was in the fourth grade, Forrest was in the sixth, and Harold was beginning his first year of high school. The school year of 1968-69 was when the Chapel Hill schools resolved the issue of desegregation by one of the more novel approaches. The school system closed the two main black schools, Lincoln High and Junior High, and opened a new junior high school and a single high school for the whole system. The new junior high was on the opposite side of town from the existing, previously all-white one, and they divided the town straight down the middle such that racial balance was achieved by geography. They consolidated the two high schools, and that was how the trouble began.
I think it's safe to say that Chapel Hill's attempt to desegregate the school through fait accompli didn't work out as well as they had planned. The black kids didn't get along with the white kids at first, and trivial matters escalated into protests, fights, and the occasional firebombing. It was an unpleasant milieu to be thrust into, and Harold behaved badly. Couple this with the fact that he had been uprooted from his school in Burlington, that he had been forced to live communally in a small house with two rambunctious brothers that he felt infinitely superior to, and the inevitable teenage tension between father and son, and Harold was put into a position where he was stressed beyond the normal limits of adolescence.
What kind of problems did he face at school?
Harold tells a story about when he had his great racial epiphany. He talks about the day he was in school and two or three black kids cornered him in the bathroom between classes. According to him, the black kids were up to thuggery and he, bravely, of course, grabbed a Pepsi bottle, smashed it, and fought his way out, bloodying his foes and covering himself in glory. He learned from this, of course, that he could stand up righteously and defend himself as a free white man.
The true story is significantly different. Harold was indeed confronted by three black kids in the bathroom during class change, but rather than bravely breaking a bottle and fighting his way through, he cowered in a corner and urinated in his pants. He waited until class change was done and went to the office covered in tears and urine. The office called my mother, she took a change of clothes, picked him up at school, then came to get me and Forrest Jr. from the elementary school. My father came home, and when he heard what had happened, he was naturally furious. He called the principal at home to give him a piece of his mind. A half hour later, after the principal did most of the talking, Daddy hung up the phone. It turned out that Harold had started it by mouthing off to the three kids in the school courtyard. The principal was adamant about it: If Harold hadn't been running his mouth, he wouldn't have gotten in trouble, period.
My father didn't take the belt to my older brother. Instead, he lectured Harold in no uncertain terms, telling him that when he was in the right, he [our father] would go to bat for him without second thoughts, but when Harold failed to act responsibly, he had to live with the consequences. Then he told Harold something I'll never forget, because my father never really talked to us about fighting in school, other than to tell us we had a right to defend ourselves. He told Harold that if he was going to get into a fight, then do so, but if he was going to just shoot his mouth off and then act like a coward, then he got what he deserved.
I can't say this one event was what turned him. My guess is that there were many others that set him down the course that led him to what he is today, but this particular event stuck in Harold's mind such that he re-wrote it later on in life to make himself a hero rather than a humiliated boy. He no doubt thought he had been betrayed by our father, and that stuck in his craw.
Despite his intelligence, Harold never went to college. Why is that?
He had a big fight with my parents around 1971, when they were trying to get him to go to the state school, UNC–Chapel Hill. He wanted to be a journalist; UNC had a fabulous school of journalism. But Harold just got it into his head that he wanted to go to the University of South Africa in Cape Town.
Where did that come from?
I have no idea. My father tried to make Harold a deal. He said he'd send him to any university in the United States that he wanted to attend, but he was not going to pay for him to go to the University of South Africa. My grandfather even one-upped that deal and offered to send Harold to any university in the world, except the University of South Africa. So Harold was given a wide range of options. But Harold declined all those offers and instead came home one day with military enlistment papers and joined the Army. Harold went to boot camp at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. He made noises about wanting to be a Ranger, but for whatever reason he couldn't pass the entrance requirements. He was assigned to the 14th Infantry Division and wound up going to Fort Polk, La. And I don't know what he was running into in Fort Polk, but he started to develop white supremacist contacts and influences from the military. They shipped his infantry division to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, preparatory to them being rotated overseas to Vietnam.
But he didn't end up going to Vietnam.
No. While at Schofield Barracks, he apparently started passing around pamphlets — Nazi propaganda, all that kind of crap. They put Harold on restrictive duty, and they ordered him to see the base psychiatrist to be evaluated as to whether or not he was medically fit to be in the military. Ultimately, he was in fact diagnosed as having paranoid personality disorder.
My parents were really upset about the whole white supremacist thing. What the Army psychiatrist told my parents — and what my parents repeated to us off and on over the years — was that it could have been anything. He could have been a Jesus freak, he could have been a Hare Krishna, he could have been anything — anything that the mental illness could latch onto. And it happened that he latched onto the neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideology. He was determined to be medically unfit, and he was discharged from the Army in 1972.
Part of Harold Covington's story is that he was a Rhodesian mercenary in the early 1970s.
I suppose he wanted to move someplace where everything was white and bright, so after a yearlong stint at the Nazi Party headquarters, he wound up going to Rhodesia, and he joined the Rhodesian Army. In different blogs and writings, he was always bragging, "Oh, I was a mercenary in Rhodesia and I went out and did all this fighting." But to the best of my knowledge, according to the letters he wrote to my parents, he was a file clerk. He certainly never fired a shot in anger. He started agitating over there, and the [white-led] Ian Smith government said, "We have problems enough without this nutcase," and they bounced him.
Harold lived in Europe for most of the 1980s. What do you know about his activities during that period?
From 1982 until he came back to the United States in 1988, he was almost entirely subsidized by my parents. I have letters where he wrote in the margin, "The current running total of what I owe you is…" He managed to convince my parents to fund a scheme wherein he was going to open a bookstore in Dublin. He opened the bookstore and it went under because he had no business sense and he couldn't apply himself to it. And I think more than anything else, he couldn't keep his mouth shut. He married an Irish woman named Louise. After his inability to get Irish citizenship and to find any degree of gainful employment, Harold took his wife, her two kids, and the two kids that he had had with her, and he moved to the Isle of Man.
Did your parents continue supporting him?
In 1984, my mother died. For the next couple of years my father went back and forth with Harold. He would send him money purely out of respect for my mother's memory. He sent Harold the money he needed to buy a house in Douglas [the capital of the Isle of Man], but he kept warning Harold that the supply of money was not endless, that eventually Harold was going to have to get a real job and support himself. Harold, of course, ignored him. Harold would say, "I want to come back to the United States, I can't find a job here, blah, blah, blah." My father said, "I'm not going to foot the bill for you to come back to Raleigh to take up your life as a Nazi." Finally, he gave Harold an ultimatum. He said: "Look, you want to come back, I'll foot the bill for you and your family to come back. But here's the deal, and you have to live up to it: You have to settle someplace west of the Mississippi." Harold refused. My father said, "So be it. We're done. The money stops here." And my father made good on it.
But he came back anyway.
Harold lasted a few months after my father cut the money off, and then he was finally left with the realization that he could no longer play at getting work. He had a family to feed. Again, he cut and ran. He cleaned out the bank account and left his wife with a couple hundred pounds and ran up cash advances against two or three credit cards and abandoned his family. [Editor's note: Covington has claimed that Louise initiated their divorce.] He blamed it on my father, of course. He came back to Raleigh, and he got some sort of job. For a while, he was sending my father little letters. Besides his regular letters that were just nasty and invective, he would send him a $20 bill wrapped up in an envelope with a single word on it that said, "Think." That was all it said. Supposedly, my father was supposed to think about how he, the great demon, had ruined Harold's life. He would send my father birthday cards on his children's birthdays with these little notes: "Look at what you've deprived me of. You're a monster." The little demon in Harold's head, the mental illness, will make sure he's not responsible for anything. It's always someone else's fault.
On one of his blogs, Harold insinuates there's a terrible secret in your family.
My brother has for years contended that my father murdered my mother. And this has been so absurd and painful to us. He even wrote one of his silly little novels about it. The book ends with the hero, Harold, confronting his evil father and the father keeling over from a heart attack or some such nonsense. I can't even begin to explain how delusional this is. My mother was a two-time cancer survivor. She had an arrhythmic heart. Harold wasn't there, he wouldn't know.
What about his children?
My father died in 1999. We never even bothered to tell Harold. He was so far out of our lives as a physical entity that we just didn't care. He found out on his own. Of course, all his animosity was transferred to my brother and myself. My father had continued supporting Harold's family in Ireland. He left the two grandchildren small trust funds. He made me the trustee for them. For the first time in my life, it suddenly dawned on me that I have a family someplace else. I've been to Ireland once a year for the past eight years. And these two kids are two of the most wonderful kids that I've ever run into.
How do they feel about their father?
Before I even met them, they were smart enough to get on the Internet and check out their father on their own. They pretty much came to the conclusion that he was a fruit loop, and they never wanted anything to do with him. Harold has always believed that all along we were telling them this great lie, and the irony is that what destroyed him with his own children was his own words, posted out on the Internet for all to see.
What's your brother up to now?
His latest thing has been these Northwest trilogy novels. Those bother me because that's The Turner Diaries all over again. [Editor's note: The Turner Diaries is a racist novel, written by a neo-Nazi leader, that has been credited with inspiring violence including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.] When Harold was involved in the North Carolina Klan, it was some other poor, dumb bastard who was willing to go out there and do the dirty work. Because the bottom line here is that my brother is a coward. He has always been a coward and he will die a coward. The thing that bothers me about these Northwest trilogy books is that he is going to pick up some poor, deluded kid who is going to read these marvelous tomes about how white people can fight back, about how "we're going to kill all the niggers and the Jews and the mestizos," about how "we're going to form this great Aryan republic in the Pacific Northwest," Microsoft and Starbucks notwithstanding. And this poor dumb kid is going to go out and ruin somebody's life. And that scares me to death.