05/10/2005

Uncivil War: The Sons of Confederate Veterans is back in the hands of extremists

May 10, 2005 -- Right-wing radicals in the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) have at least temporarily won their three-year battle for control of the nation's largest Southern heritage group, culminating months of complex legal and parliamentary maneuvers. As a result, thousands of SCV members appear to be leaving the organization.

"I have no desire to be associated with neo-Nazis and white trash," Henry Seale, a local "camp" leader from Texas, wrote to colleagues in the SCV. "With great sadness, I concede that this is what the SCV has become."

The SCV has been convulsed by an internal civil war since the run-up to 2002 elections, when Ron Wilson, a radical closely aligned with racist SCV elements, was chosen as the group's commander in chief (see A War Within). During his two years in office, Wilson appointed racists to key leadership posts, and some 300 members, most from North Carolina, were suspended for publicly criticizing racism within the group (see Neo-Confederates).

The struggle for the SCV is important. The SCV has some 30,000 members, about $5 million in reserves and a number of very prominent members. It has real political pull in some places, a fact that makes it a tempting prize for racists.

Last summer, Wilson was succeeded as national leader by Denne Sweeney (see SCV Standoff), a man who has continued Wilson's policies and pursued the permanent expulsion of the 300 men suspended by Wilson. As a result, the internal battle between moderates and extremists has continued apace, with a dizzying series of jabs and parries.

In December, Sweeney called a special meeting of the SCV's governing board, the General Executive Council (GEC), allegedly without informing several of its moderate members. Sweeney was able to ram through measures favoring radicals — like removing the right of most former commanders in chief to vote on the GEC — even though moderates had won most posts in last summer's SCV elections.

But the moderates, led partly by Oklahoma City attorney Jeff Massey, filed a lawsuit against Sweeney in Maury County Chancery Court in Tennessee, near the group's antebellum Elm Springs headquarters. In an affidavit, former Commander in Chief William Earl Faggert claimed that Sweeney had violated the SCV constitution at his special GEC meeting and in pursuing expulsion of the 300 men, many of them associated with an antiracist rump group, Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Faggert also said that Sweeney and two of his closest allies, Wilson and white supremacist attorney Kirk Lyons, were taking the SCV in a "fatal" direction. Sweeney's ultimate goal, Faggert testified, was "one-man rule of the SCV."

Thrust and Parry
The chancery court listened. In mid-February, Chancellor Robert Jones granted a temporary restraining order to the plaintiffs that temporarily removed from the GEC Sweeney and several key allies – Adjutant in Chief James Dark, Chaplain in Chief Ron Rumburg, and Editor in Chief Frank Powell. Jones ordered Sweeney replaced as top commander by Lt. Commander Anthony Hodges, a moderate. Other radical GEC members were also replaced by moderates, including Jeff Massey.

But it didn't end there. In a day-long status hearing in March, Sweeney's lawyers argued that the moderates, too, had held an illegal meeting a month earlier – they had convened a telephonic GEC meeting to suspend Sweeney that his lawyers said was just as unconstitutional. The chancellor reinstated Sweeney and his allies, but admonished Sweeney to stop "exceed[ing] his powers," warning him he did not have the power to suspend GEC members, temporarily or permanently.

Sweeney promised to comply. "I never had suspensions on the brain," he told a reporter. "The judge says we can't suspend people, and I won't suspend people."

But he managed to pull off the same thing anyway.

Once Sweeney and his allies were back in power, they began soliciting signatures requesting a special convention to amend the SCV constitution. Sweeney claimed authority for this maneuver in Mississippi, not Tennessee, law – a law that allows private groups like the SCV to call constitutional conventions when 5% of the group's membership signs a petition. (Although the SCV files its annual reports and is chartered in Tennessee, it is also chartered in Mississippi.) Before long, the radicals had gathered enough signatures to call the constitutional convention.

Just 40% of the SCV membership was represented through their camp commanders at the convention, which was held on April 23 in Concord, N.C. It soon became clear that that segment was almost entirely composed of supporters of Sweeney, who had strongly urged allies to attend. The 1,701 delegates, representing 379 camps, passed two key changes. The first, passed 96%-4%, removed all past SCV commanders, save the three most recent, from the GEC. The second, passed 93%-7%, removed from a non-voting GEC position the commander of the Military Order of the Stars & Bars (MOSB), a sister organization of the SCV for descendants of Confederate officers. The MOSB had recently been headed up by Massey, lawyer for the moderates, and was a source of moderate opposition to Sweeney.

The Purge, Renewed
That wasn't all. Now that moderate voting power on the GEC had been undermined — technically, Sweeney hadn't suspended GEC members but instead had eliminated their ex officio positions in the SCV constitution — Sweeney led a move that same day to eject Hodges as SCV lieutenant commander. Sweeney replaced Hodges with an ally, Chris Sullivan, editor of neo-Confederate Southern Partisan.

Also stripped of their elected posts were key moderates including Thomas Tarry Beasley, commander of the Army of Tennessee (one of the SCV's three geographic divisions), Beasley deputy John French, and Beau Cantrell, commander of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. Beasley and Cantrell lost their posts on the GEC as a result, leaving only staunch Sweeneyites on the governing board.

New elections to these posts are to be held at the SCV national convention this July in Nashville. Already, several hate group members have said they will run.

Sweeney's purged GEC also voted to negotiate a formal break with the MOSB. It removed Louisiana leader Ed Cailleteau and Beau Cantrell, whose GEC membership had just been stripped, as co-chairs of the July convention. At the same time, the GEC donated $10,000 in SCV funds to Lyons' law firm, the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC). The SLRC is tied tightly to the SCV radicals – a tie illustrated by the fact that Ron Wilson's daughter, Allison Schaum, has worked for SLRC for years. And Lyons has known Sweeney since the 1990s, when he helped him fight the removal of Confederate plaques from the Texas Supreme Court.

Tempers flared frequently during the day. Toward the end, ex-GEC member Beau Cantrell made a profane hand gesture after being taunted by Jim Pierce, a key SCV radical who has circulated racist caricatures of blacks and has taken lately to signing his E-mails "Uncle Remus." Another SCV member asked a deputy sheriff to arrest Cantrell, and he was taken in. He was later released without charges.

The events of April 23 left moderates throughout the SCV furious, and key leaders denounced what they saw as Sweeney's devious tactics. "In the Missouri division," state commander John Christensen wrote in an E-mail addressed to Sweeney, "we believe we can disagree on an issue without being vile. ... We believe that with free speech and assembly, discussion affords protection against the spread of noxious doctrine. ... The personal vendettas, purges, recriminations and rancor sown by your administration are not good for any organization and may become the seeds of destruction for our beloved Sons of Confederate Veterans."

The battle within the SCV has already cost the organization – which recently had some 36,000 members – "several thousand members," according to Faggert's affidavit. Many have started new groups, including several "Robert E. Lee societies" in North Carolina, that are meant to be non-racist history clubs. In April, a new group called the United Sons of Confederate Veterans also was chartered by Robert Murphree in Mississippi. In the weeks that followed, it appeared that John French — one of those stripped of their elected SCV posts – was taking a leadership role.

French had a warning for those who remain behind, saying in a farewell message that they "will awaken one morning to [find] nothing left of the SCV. All assets will be gone and the once proud organization left to rot." French signed his E-mail, "Mississippi Commander, United Sons of Confederate Veterans."