Children of Extremists Denounce Parents’ Beliefs
Fighting Back Against Racist Parents
By Sonia Scherr / Photography by Hannelie Coetzee and Stefan Hester
Shortly after white supremacist James von Brunn's fatal shooting attack this spring at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., his 32-year-old son issued a statement to ABC News in which he denounced his father's ideology and described the devastating impact it had had on his family.
"My father's beliefs have been a constant source of verbal and mental abuse my family has had to suffer with for many years," he said. "His views consumed him, and in doing so, not only destroyed his life, but destroyed our family and ruined our lives as well."
Erik von Brunn's repudiation of his father's bigotry runs counter to the conventional wisdom that virulent racists will produce children like themselves. Indeed, the movement has its share of parent-child notables, including neo-Nazi leaders Tom and John Metzger, white supremacists Don and Derek Black, and Klan/skinhead organizers Ron and Steven Edwards. But the younger von Brunn is hardly alone in rejecting a parent's beliefs — and experts say that's no surprise.
"Overall, there's not a lot of evidence that, at least in the long term, kids get their prejudice from their parents," said Charles Stangor, who runs the Laboratory for the Study of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice at the University of Maryland. "I would call it more of a community effect than a parental effect. The community fosters tolerance or prejudice."
That community includes peers and other adults, such as teachers, coaches and clergy, said Frances Aboud, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who studies the development of racial prejudice in children. "There are so many other influences in a child's life [besides parents], particularly once they start kindergarten."
Children of racial extremists may have to contend with other effects of their parents' bigotry, Aboud said. "I think [they] probably become sensitive to that type of adult; other kids might not be aware that there's that kind of extreme emotional hate toward people," she said. "[Children of racial extremists] might have lived with more fear. They might have felt vulnerable themselves to that kind of hate: What if I cross my parents in some way — am I going to get that hate directed at me?"
To take a closer look at the experience of growing up in a climate of hate, the Intelligence Report spoke with three people whose fathers were deeply involved in racial extremism: the co-founder of a civil rights group who drove her father to Klan meetings when she was a teenager in Arkansas in the 1960s; a former nurse whose father was among the most powerful Klan leaders during the civil rights movement; and a teenager who had to cast aside his entire way of thinking about the world after renouncing his white nationalist father.
Their stories reveal how they developed their own views about race and sense of identity. They also show how bigotry's ill effects often extend beyond its intended targets.
As the daughter of the Arkansas Klansman said: "We are all victims of this type of hate."
Taking on the Klan
One summer night in 1965, 12-year-old Carolyn Wagner watched as Klansmen bound a young black man to a tree in her father's field, accused him of violating the "sundown" rules in nearby Booneville, Ark., that forbade blacks from staying in town after dark, and lashed him a few times with a bullwhip as he cried out in pain and fear.
It was no different from beatings at other Klan gatherings her father had attended, but what happened next remains vivid in her memory: the Klansmen decided to tie the man to the railroad tracks below the pasture. When they were done, they ambled back to the field to discuss crops and politics. Wagner, a reluctant witness to her father's Klan meetings, couldn't stand it anymore. She stole down to the tracks, used a knife she kept in her boot to slash the rope that bound the man, and told him he could follow the tracks to Fort Smith, the nearest large town.
"That was a turning point," recalled Wagner, now 56 and living in Tulsa, Okla. "I felt like I had made a difference when I was able to cut that man free. I realized I can make a choice to be a passive observer or I can become involved to diminish the harm that they're doing. And that's what I did from that night on, and that's what I'm still doing."
After years working for civil rights and children's organizations, Wagner co-founded Families United Against Hate, a nonprofit group that helps people affected by bias incidents. Her experience growing up with a father in the Klan made her determined and fearless in her fight against hate. "That image of my dad and those men, and even the smells, are still with me, and they'll always be with me. And it was very important that my children never know the world I knew when I was growing up."
It was a world where Wagner's father, Edward Greenwood, and his acquaintances gathered at least once a month at each other's farms for Klan meetings, often bringing their children and grandkids. Because her father, then in his late 50s, couldn't see well enough to drive at night, Wagner ferried him to meetings in a 1951 Chevy pickup. (Back then in rural Arkansas, it wasn't unusual for children as young as 12 to drive on country roads.) The men — including lawyers, judges, cops and pastors — would begin their gatherings with a prayer and eschew alcohol. "They felt like they were doing God's work," Wagner said.
Sometimes, the gatherings would feature a beating like the one Wagner witnessed at her family's farm. The victims were usually young men who'd been picked up on a pretext, such as paying too much attention to a white woman. "We would hear terms like 'coon' hunting," she said. "My father would say, 'I'm going 'coon' hunting.'"
But more often, the men would talk big, complaining about Presidents John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson or even threatening to blow up the Supreme Court building. They'd eat bologna sandwiches that Wagner had prepared. Campfire smoke would mingle with the sweet-sour odor of Brylcreem, sweat and Old Spice. It was the one place where her father seemed happy. "I don't remember seeing him smile or laugh unless he was with those goons," she said.
Six feet tall, skinny, and with an olive complexion and horn-rimmed glasses, Edward Greenwood had worked as a sheriff's deputy before World War II and received disability checks for an injury related to his Army service. He believed that women have their place and that children — he had five, including Wagner, the second youngest — are to be seen and not heard. He was abusive toward his family, once burning Wagner with a heated metal bar. She has no memory of liking him or looking up to him. "I never felt in any way that he was correct or behaving in a socially acceptable or a Christian manner."
But her father probably would not have found a home in the Klan if his comrades had known about his heritage. "We knew there was this dirty secret in the family," Wagner said.
In fact, her father's great-great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Greenwood, was part Cherokee and part black, a former slave who'd settled in Arkansas when it was still part of France's Louisiana Territory, according to family lore. Her father had cousins who identified as black, though he would have nothing to do with them. Wagner believes part of his racism stemmed from shame about his origins.
Wagner's mother didn't share her husband's views about race, but she felt powerless to oppose him. Divorce was taboo in her family; resources for victims of domestic abuse were nearly nonexistent. "Mother never asked what he did [at Klan meetings]," Wagner said. "It was like she couldn't bear to know."
Wagner did receive support from her maternal grandparents, who passionately disliked her father. After Wagner secretly untied the black man from the railroad tracks, her maternal grandfather taught her how to use a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun. She cut away the springs in the seat of the pickup to create a compartment where she hid the weapon, loaded and wrapped in a blanket. Though she never used it, she says she would have done so to defend herself or to help a potential Klan victim.
It wasn't the last time she would defy all that her father represented. In April 1968, Wagner drove him to Memphis to take part in a Klan protest during the sanitation workers strike made famous by the appearance of Martin Luther King Jr. She was there when the civil rights leader was assassinated. In a Memphis newspaper, she read that the Department of Justice was planning a crackdown on the perpetrators of civil-rights era violence. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy two months later, Wagner, then 15, wrote a letter to the FBI accompanied by a list of names and addresses she'd copied from her father's Klan directory. She wanted to get them all arrested. "I included my dad on that list," she said.
Wagner, who used her maternal grandparents' home as the return address, never heard back from the FBI.
She left home the day she finished high school and at 19 eloped with Bill Wagner, now her husband of 37 years. Her father died in 1980 when she was pregnant with her younger child, William. "I am so grateful that my children will have no memory of him or his politics," she said.
But her own memories of her father came back strongly on William's 14th birthday, the day he told his parents that he was gay. That day she and her husband's biggest concern was for their son's safety. "I had a very clear understanding of who the hatemongers were," she said. They decided to move from their farm in tiny Booneville, a conservative town where homosexuality was widely condemned, to the more liberal university town of Fayetteville, some 120 miles away.
Still, they couldn't protect their son from hate. Harassment at school culminated in a brutal assault in 1996. William, then 16, left school with friends to get lunch at a nearby convenience store when six teenagers shouted anti-gay slurs. They knocked him off his feet, then kicked him as he lay bleeding on the ground. "I thought about how easily that could have been my father's group," Wagner recalled. "And I wasn't there."
Two of the attackers were convicted of assault. After the Wagners filed a complaint on behalf of their son under Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law, Fayetteville became the first public school district in the nation to enter into an agreement with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that required it to protect all students, including gays and lesbians, from harassment. The Wagners continue to advocate for young people who are targeted because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
Looking back on her childhood, Wagner remembers reading novels by Pearl S. Buck and biographies about women such as Harriet Tubman and Florence Nightingale. She wanted to learn about people who had survived difficult circumstances to help others, because she was determined to do the same.
"I found ways to survive," she said. "I found ways to more than survive — to endure, to become stronger and to make our little corner of the world in the South a little better."
Her Father's Daughter
Cindy Foster will never forget the face in the window.
She woke up in the middle of the night, sat up in bed, and saw a man — she believes it was a white man — peering through her bedroom window. It was the early 1960s in a small Alabama city, and her family had just received a bomb threat from the Black Panthers because of her father's notoriety as a Klan leader.
Foster, then about 6, tried to scream for help but her voice failed. Then the face disappeared. She later found out it was probably an FBI agent checking on her family's safety.
The midnight memory is just one example of how her late father's Klan activities cast an uneasy shadow over her childhood. The family received other threats; she recalls long stretches of wariness punctuated by moments of fear. That legacy continued to haunt her as an adult. She suffered from nightmares, was constantly vigilant, and didn't easily trust others. She saw a therapist for several years and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety condition that can develop after frightening events. And she struggled to assert her own identity in the hometown where nearly everyone knew who her father was and assumed she shared his views about race.
"I just wanted to be me — not my father's daughter," said Foster, who now lives in northern Florida. (The Intelligence Report agreed not to identify her father, who died in 2003, to protect Foster's privacy.)
In fact, Foster held beliefs very different from her father's — a phenomenon she attributes partly to her faith. As a child of about 4 attending Sunday school in her family's Methodist Church, she sang that Christ's love is colorblind: "Jesus loves the little children/all the children of the world/black and yellow, red and white/They're all precious in his sight."
"I realized at a very young age that you either had to believe what the church taught or what my father stood for," she said. "And what I saw my father doing was wrong."
He didn't try to change her thinking. "He never pushed his opinion on us. He let us make up our mind. He didn't like it, but he believed it was our right to believe as we believed."
Because their father was so often away at Klan rallies, Foster and her two younger siblings were raised mostly by their mother and paternal grandfather. Sometimes, the children would join their father at a Klan event. When Foster was five, her mother reluctantly took them to a large rally in her hometown. As Foster played jacks with her younger sister, Klansmen burned three crosses, including one that had toppled over before it was set on fire, injuring a Klansman. Mostly Foster remembers hundreds of men in white robes. "I was terrified," she said. "They looked like ghosts."
Occasionally, her father enlisted Foster and her siblings to help with mailings of his Klan newsletter. Though their mother didn't like her children taking part in Klan activities, she lived in an era when women were expected to obey their husbands. "She stood by him. I never could understand why she didn't divorce him and get us out of that situation. [But] she came from a very religiously strict family. Once you married, you stayed married."
Her father's motivations were more of a puzzle. He'd served as a pilot in the Air Force and had taken law classes at the University of Alabama. "My dad was a very intelligent man, and he could have gone so far in politics or anything he'd chosen to do. And I never got a chance to ask him why — why did he hate blacks so much? That's something I'll carry to my grave.
"I think it's a shame he didn't use his talents in other ways, because he could sway people so easily — a perfect salesman."
Foster became a nurse, married and raised two children. For several years she volunteered as a Girl Scout leader, often working with black children from poor families. "I wanted to go out and do something for humanity and show that I believed differently than he did," she said.
Yet she felt guilty when she once took the girls to her home, because she knew it bothered her father, who lived next door. It was part of what she describes as a love-hate relationship with the man whose racism haunted her childhood.
"I hated what he did," she said, "but I loved him as a father."
Sixteen-year-old Stephan Mills rejected his father's racism despite years of indoctrination. Psychologists say that is more common than many people think. Stephan's mother says that thanks to her ex-husband, Stephan "had to relearn [how] to be a civilized human."
The Price of Hate
When Stephan Mills was 10 or 11, his father sat him and his older sister down after supper one night and told them that if they ever became emotionally involved with someone of color, he would kill them.
"I just nodded in agreement," said Stephan, now 16.
The incident seemed normal to a boy who for years had been steeped in his father's bigotry. Arthur Kemp, a South African white supremacist who has ties to British and American hate groups, indoctrinated his children with racist and anti-Semitic beliefs from the time they were very young. Stephan mostly adopted those views as his own. Several years ago, however, he rejected all that his father stood for. The experience would radically change his life and lead to his ongoing estrangement from his father, who's now divorced from his mother and believed to be living in England.
"Stephan's resentment toward his father is based partly on the fact that, in his sister's words, he had to relearn to be a civilized human," said his mother, Karen Mills. (Karen and Stephan Mills live near Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Intelligence Report interviewed them by phone and E-mail).
There was a lot to relearn. Arthur Kemp "was a very involved and doting father" when his children were small, Karen Mills said. He read to them often, carefully choosing books he felt would reinforce his ideology. Among them were the original "Noddy" series, English children's books that featured Golliwogs, dark-skinned caricatures that were later removed from the text because they were deemed racist. In one of Kemp's favorite Noddy books, the Golliwogs steal Noddy's car. Kemp enjoyed telling his children that the Golliwogs' theft of the car amounted to typical behavior for blacks.
But it wasn't only in books that Kemp found justification for his racism; post-apartheid South Africa offered plenty for him to complain about. "He tried to imprint on the children how bad Africa and everything here was," Karen Mills wrote. After striking workers toppled trashcans, for instance, "Arthur took the children into the main streets of the town and made them walk among the rubbish."
He also forbade socializing with non-white children. If they arrived at a friend's party to find that a black child had also been invited, Kemp made his children go home. When Stephan was six, his father reluctantly took him and his sister to swimming lessons at a public pool where one of the children turned out to be black. "He told us to get out and that we were leaving," said Stephan, who now uses his mother's maiden name. "I was still pretty young so I didn't really understand what was going on."
Kemp's attitude didn't change even when his children's health was at stake. When the family was living in Britain, he plucked his 6-year-old daughter, Joanne, from the dentist's chair rather than allow her to be treated by an Indian dentist, Karen Mills said. As a result, she suffered for three days with a tooth abscess.
When his children grew older, he allowed them to listen only to "white resistance" bands. Rap, especially, was prohibited. Although baseball caps, sneakers, baggy pants and big T-shirts were in fashion, he considered these items "ghetto nigger" clothing and wouldn't let his children wear them.
He also relished showing them articles and statistics that purported to prove that blacks were inferior. He contended that blacks could never be race car drivers because they have poor depth perception, that they cannot swim because their bones are too dense, that they are not as intelligent because their brains are smaller.
"The children were actively encouraged to be vocal about their views and to challenge their peers," Karen Mills wrote. "In Stephan's case in particular, this resulted in him being ostracized and made an outcast as he followed his father's lead."
Stephan said he had few friends until his first year of high school. At times, he suffered from depression because his father's brainwashing had so alienated him from his peers, his mother said.
"I wasn't really someone that people wanted to hang around with," Stephan said. "They regarded me as weird because I was constantly talking about Hitler."
Karen Mills said she initially went along with her husband's views to please him, but the marriage grew troubled as he devoted himself increasingly to far-right politics. She refused to read his opus on white superiority, March of the Titans: A History of the White Race, and criticized him in front of their children.
With his marriage collapsing, Arthur Kemp became violent, especially toward Stephan, Karen Mills said. Once, when Stephan was about eight, he hit his son's face until his nose bled and blood spattered on the bedroom wall, she said. He stopped only when the maid's screams brought Karen rushing into the room and she pulled Kemp off Stephan. Later, Kemp allegedly beat Stephan while his mother was at work. The backs of Stephan's legs were so swollen that he could not bend them to get into his bath. "If you ever hit my child again," she told Kemp, "I'll kill you."
Still, she did not report the incidents to the police. "You try to block it out because maybe it's more than you can deal with," said Mills, a lawyer who now works for the South African government. "You hope that it'll resolve itself and turn a blind eye."
Kemp dismissed the allegations from his former wife in an E-mail to the Intelligence Report. "It is all a pack of lies from a mentally ill person," he wrote. "I am disappointed that you would stoop to exploiting a person with severe psychological problems in this way." Karen Mills responded that Kemp has always claimed she's mentally ill simply because she disagrees with him.
Mills still feels guilty for allowing her children to suffer what she now sees as both physical and emotional abuse. "Why couldn't I do something?" she asked. "I just never stood up to him."
Kemp's persistence in forcing his beliefs on his children — along with his disengagement from their lives as he immersed himself in white nationalism — led them to question their father and the values he espoused, Karen Mills said. In a September 2008 post on the anti-racist site Lancaster Unity, Stephan called his father a "racist ass" and said he should be deported to South Africa. He wrote: "I remember almost every night when we would ask for a bedtime story (when most NORMAL fathers would read their children a normal book) he would instead tell us stories about how the white race was all supreme and then read us chapters from his horrible book "March of the White Titans" [sic]. Well dad if you ever read this or even hear about it I just wanted to let you know that I HATE YOU!! You have no idea what i went through at school because of you, you twisted my mind and made my entire childhood a horrible misery."
As his wife and children lost respect for him, Kemp withdrew further from the family. Karen Mills believes that's because they no longer fit his image of the model right-wing family that would help him achieve his political goals. "His political beliefs are the absolute be-all and end-all of his life," she said. "I think the reason why he's cut the children off is they don't conform to his political beliefs and aspirations."
Instead, "he began to seek out people who admired him and particularly his book," she recalled. "The admiration, and in particular the view of him as this great right-wing academic, became his main driving force."
He left the family in November 2006. "Picture this situation," Stephan wrote in November 2008 on Lancaster Unity. "I am fast asleep on thursday morning and when i wake i find that he is gone and then i receive a phone call from him telling me he is on a flight to London… THIS ASSHOLE DIDNT EVEN HAVE THE MANNERS TO SAY GOODBYE TO MY FACE!! I have not seen my father in now [a]bout two and [a] bit years."
Karen Mills said Kemp has had almost no contact with his children since the divorce. "I don't think there's any way that Arthur could fix the broken relationship with Stephan," she said. Nonetheless, "Stephan has gone through something of a catharsis." In addition to his posts on Lancaster Unity, he chose to discuss his father when he was assigned to give a school speech on someone who had influenced him — only he said his father's influence had been entirely negative. Now, his social life is improving, and he has resolved to be as unlike his father as possible. "I am stuck with some of his traits and characteristics — Mom used to joke with me that I have the Kemp laziness gene — but definitely not his political views," he said.
Yet there's no bringing back the years he lost to his father's hate. "You," he wrote to him in the September 2008 Lancaster Unity post, "will never understand what you have done to me."