Kirk Lyons Steps Up As Leader of Neo-Confederate Movement
Kirk Lyons, a white supremacist lawyer for high profile clients, is becoming the attorney of choice for the neo-Confederate movement.
Across the South, a 43-year-old lawyer with a fondness for dressing up in black top hats and Scottish kilts is popping up as a key player in the burgeoning neo-Confederate movement. From Texas to Alabama to South Carolina, Kirk D. Lyons, "chief trial counsel" of the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), has presented himself as the legal savior of the beleaguered South.
No matter that he has attended and spoken at a slew of white supremacist events around the nation. No matter that he has walked at the head of a Klan parade, lionized Adolf Hitler as "probably the most misunderstood man in German history," and reportedly proposed carving America up into racial mini-states.
Even the fact that Lyons was married on the compound of Aryan Nations by the leader of that notorious neo-Nazi group hasn't had much of an effect.
The neo-Confederate movement has embraced him.
To Patrick J. Griffin, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), Lyons' white supremacist activities are "just ... part of his personal life." To Michael Andrew Grissom, a key charter member of the League of the South (LOS), national adviser to the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and deputy chairman of the Oklahoma Heritage Commission, Lyons' politics also are no cause for concern: "What would worry me more is if he defended some communist, socialist terrorist."
And to Mrs. William Wells, president of the relatively apolitical United Daughters of the Confederacy, sharing the podium with Lyons and other racists at neo-Confederate rallies is "a situation you cannot control."
As SLRC Associate Director Neill Payne reports, "[W]e have received support from every major pro-Southern group."
Even as he insists that he and the SLRC have no racial agenda, Lyons' public statements and political activities betray his true sympathies. Since helping start up the SLRC, Lyons has been a featured speaker at meetings of the white supremacist CCC and the American Nationalist Union.
Last April, he spoke at a meeting of the American Friends of the British National Party (AFBNP), a racist group that supports the neofascist British National Party and whose previous meetings have featured former Klansmen Don Black and David Duke, among others. Lyons gave a "fine speech," the AFBNP's Web site boasts, that focused on "how we as racial Nationalists should be making alliances when and wherever we can."
A Night Ride Sets the Course
The son of an Air Force officer who he says befriended people of all races, Lyons spent much of his youth in Texas. From early in his life, he had a conservative bent. Lyons remembers wearing short hair and a "Nixon for President" button while classmates were clad in hip-hugging bell bottoms and listening to rock 'n' roll music. Forced busing angered him.
Lyons seemed headed for a fairly ordinary career. He says he put himself through the University of Texas and then went on to law school at the University of Houston. By his own account, he took five years to graduate and made mediocre grades. After passing the bar exam on his second try, Lyons took a job as a personal injury lawyer at a small Houston firm.
But one night in 1985, two men dressed in trench coats and fedoras showed up at his apartment and asked Lyons to take a ride. One of the men was Louis Beam, a former Klan leader who was "ambassador-at-large" for the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, and a man Lyons had run into earlier, while in law school.
At the time they first met, in the early 1980s, Beam had been leading violent protests against Vietnamese shrimpers on the Gulf Coast and running secret Klan paramilitary camps elsewhere in Texas.
As they drove, Beam told Lyons that he feared he was about to be indicted in an impending federal case against white supremacist leaders. Beam asked Lyons, the lawyer would say later, for help in getting bail should he be arrested.
Beam was finally arrested in 1987, along with 13 other notorious white supremacist leaders, on federal charges of sedition brought under a rarely used law dating to the 19th century. The government accused Beam and his co-defendants of conspiring to overthrow the federal government by force in order to set up an all-white nation in the Pacific Northwest. Beam was also accused of planning to bomb federal buildings, sabotage railroads and poison water supplies.
Defending 'Prisoners of Conscience'
It was then that Kirk Lyons made a life-changing decision. Quitting his personal injury practice, he went to Fort Smith, Ark., to defend Beam in what would become widely known as the "Fort Smith Sedition Trial." Ultimately, the government's case proved to be a weak one, and in 1988 Beam and all his co-defendants were acquitted.
Suddenly, Lyons was a celebrity on the radical right.
Lyons spoke that fall to the Aryan Nations World Congress, hosted by Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, one of the men acquitted in Arkansas. There, he touted his vision of a non-profit foundation that would defend the kind of men that Lyons saw as "patriots" and "dissidents." The Patriot's Defense Foundation (PDF) would not take shape until late 1989, but Lyons started work immediately.
In October 1988, he took up the defense of James Wickstrom, the former "director of counterinsurgency" for the rabidly anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus and a man who spoke of hanging his enemies from "ALL the telephone poles." In the end, Wickstrom would be convicted of federal counterfeiting and weapons charges in connection with a plot to distribute counterfeit bills at Aryan Nations.
It was a busy period. In 1989, Lyons was the featured speaker at a "Rocky Mountain Family Bible Retreat" hosted in Colorado by Pete Peters, a leading ideologue of the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity religion.
He marched at the head of a Tennessee parade of 400 Klansmen, neo-Nazi Skinheads and other hard-liners. On the legal front, Lyons assisted in the successful 1989 defense of Douglas Sheets, a former White Patriot Party member accused of murdering three men in a North Carolina gay bookstore.
He helped defend Stephen Nelson, one of three Aryan Nations members convicted in 1990 of plotting to bomb a gay discotheque in Seattle. He "advised" Tom Metzger, the head of White Aryan Resistance, who was facing a civil lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in connection with the murder of an Ethiopian man by three Skinheads in Portland, Ore. (Metzger was later hit with a multimillion-dollar judgment.)
And he researched a case on behalf of imprisoned members of The Order, a group that in the 1980s robbed more than $4 million from armored cars and murdered a Jewish talk show host in Denver.
"I consider them prisoners of conscience," Lyons said of the imprisoned Order members in a 1990 interview with The Dallas Morning News. "I consider them the same kind of heroes that blacks consider Nelson Mandela."
Married to the Movement
Around the same time, Lyons was identified as a member of the National Alliance, the neo-Nazi group headed by William Pierce, who wrote the race war novel used by Timothy McVeigh as a blueprint for the Oklahoma City bombing.
In a late 1989 issue of the members-only National Alliance Bulletin, Pierce wrote that "Houston member Kirk Lyons, an attorney ... has organized the Patriot's Defense Foundation as a start toward doing for our people what the Jews have done for enemies... ." Pierce then suggested that members send PDF donations.
Romance, too, was in the air.
In September 1990, a kilt-clad Lyons, only recently divorced, married the daughter of Charles Tate, at that time the second-in-command at Aryan Nations. The service was held in the Aryan Nations church, and, as Lyons requested, it was a Scottish affair complete with bagpipes and an exchange of the tartans of the Lyons and Tate clans.
His new wife, Brenna Tate, had grown up on the Aryan Nations compound with her parents. Brenna's brother, David Tate, was an imprisoned member of The Order who was serving a life sentence in Missouri for the murder of a state trooper. Presiding over Lyons' wedding ceremony was none other than hatemeister Richard Butler.
And Lyons' best man? An old friend, Louis Beam.
In an unusual twist, the new couple were not alone. Married alongside them in a double ceremony were Neill Payne — who, along with Dave Holloway, was on the PDF board of directors with Lyons — and Brenna Tate's sister. Henceforth, Payne and Lyons would not be mere colleagues. They were family.
Fighting for the 'CAUSE'
Lyons' political attitude seemed only to harden. In early 1990, when Nazi flags were hung on a Jewish-owned store in Houston on Hitler's birthday, Lyons told a reporter the incident seemed "a pretty harmless prank." In an interview a year later with The Klansman, he reassured white supremacists that he was not working for "ZOG" — short for "Zionist Occupation Government."
"Democracy is a farce and a failure," he told a German neo-Nazi publication in 1992.
"It would be good if the Klan followed the advice of former Klansman Robert Miles: 'Become invisible. Hang the robes and hoods in the cupboard and become an underground organization. This would make the Klan stronger than ever before."
According to the Black Mountain (N.C.) News, Lyons invited neo-Nazi Skinheads to his home to commemorate Kristallnacht, a 1938 attack on German and Austrian Jews.
"He's like a Klan lawyer," is the way Texas Klan leader William Latham put it in a 1990 interview. "He understands our beliefs. He shares them."
In a 1992 speech to a gathering of the Populist Party, which had run David Duke for president four years earlier, Lyons summed up his views: "This is a global struggle that European people will not perish from the face of the earth, [and] if we are going to succeed in a worldwide movement, for that of white rights and a white future ... we must encourage professionalism."
In 1991, the PDF's name was changed to CAUSE, which stands for Canada, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Europe — the places where Lyons judged the rights of the white majority to be under attack.
Not long after the name change, the entire operation was relocated to Black Mountain, N.C. Lyons would later tell a reporter that the move — in which he was accompanied by Payne and Holloway — was prompted by financial problems and urban crime.
CAUSE didn't mince words. In a 1993 ad in White Aryan Resistance's racist newsletter, CAUSE described itself as "America's only pro-White law firm." A 1995 CAUSE solicitation for donations in Soldier of Fortune magazine read, "Help stop [U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet] Reno and her Gun Grabbing Goons."
Charles and Betty Tate soon left the Aryan Nations' Idaho compound to join their daughter in North Carolina, where Betty Tate took a position as a clerical assistant with CAUSE. And another addition was made to the organization: Sam Dickson, a right-wing Georgia lawyer who had represented Duke and a number of Klansmen over the years, was added as a board director for CAUSE.
During this period, Lyons represented Fred Leuchter, an engineer who claimed the Nazis could not have gassed Jews to death in their concentration camps. (Leuchter was charged with practicing engineering without a license.)
He spoke in Atlanta along with other well-known white supremacists on a U.S. tour by John Tyndall, then head of the neofascist British National Party. He attended a meeting of the Institute for Historical Review, a notorious Holocaust denial outfit.
In 1992, CAUSE attempted to inject itself into the case of Randy Weaver, an Idaho white supremacist against whom a bench warrant was issued after he failed to appear in court to face weapons charges.
In August, after lawmen surrounded Weaver's Ruby Ridge cabin, Lyons says CAUSE prepared to ask a judge to force federal agents to back off. But by the time CAUSE was ready to act, "we heard Randy had surrendered," Lyons told the racist Stormfront magazine in an interview.
The Disappointments Begin
Kirk Lyons had missed the boat. What was to become one of the key events of the decade on the radical right had slipped away without him. Although Lyons says he briefly represented Weaver after the standoff ended, Weaver soon turned to another lawyer — and eventually won a $3.1 million settlement from the federal government after suing over the FBI's shooting of his wife and son.
It was the first of several disappointments.
Lyons spoke at a key October 1992 gathering in Estes Park, Colo., hosted by Christian Identity minister Pete Peters, where the contours of the modern militia movement were laid out. At one point, Lyons referred to "we, as Christian Israelites," suggesting he was a believer in the racist Identity theology.
At another, he proposed filing a class action lawsuit "on behalf of all Identity believers against this government to stop the persecution." But while Beam's speech at the gathering became legendary, Lyons' more mundane talk was quickly forgotten.
At around the same time, Lyons and several associates created a group called ENOUGH! to demonstrate against the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In an interview with a Holocaust denial periodical, Lyons railed against "this monstrosity and taxpayer-funded obscenity."
Early the next year, the standoff between Branch Davidians and federal agents in Waco, Texas, began — another key event in the history of the radical right during the 1990s. Lyons and Holloway showed up in Waco a few days later.
Lyons played a small part in the saga that followed. He approached Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin — a famous defense attorney who had earlier represented a friend of Lyons' in a murder case — and got him to represent Davidian cult leader David Koresh. Lyons filed what he modestly described as "a historic, never before filed, [request for a] temporary restraining order," asking a judge to order federal agents back.
It was dismissed. He held a sparsely attended press conference asking for independent negotiators and saying that without such help, federal standoffs typically end "in injury and death, mostly by fire." CAUSE would later try to make much of this apparent prescience — the Waco standoff did, after all, end in a fire that left some 80 Davidians dead. But this, too, was soon forgotten.
"We knew what these dangerous, cultist maniacs in the government were going to do," Lyons would claim petulantly in a 1994 interview.
Bit Parts in Waco and Oklahoma
After the fire, CAUSE filed a lawsuit against the government on behalf of three Davidian survivors and the 76 Jamaican relatives of 23 dead Davidians. But this suit was ultimately consolidated into a larger case led by attorney Mike Caddell. On July 14 of this year, a jury rejected all of the Davidian claims.
Lyons also would become involved in the probe of the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead in 1995 — but only as the lawyer of a man who was apparently a bit player, Andi Strassmeir. A German national, Strassmeir had been befriended by Lyons and Holloway in 1988, when he first came to the United States.
When he failed to obtain legal residency, Lyons sent him to Elohim City, an Oklahoma Identity compound through which some of the most infamous figures on the radical right have passed. The idea, a CAUSE periodical called The Balance said, was that Strassmeir might "meet eligible young ladies," marry, and so avoid what was otherwise seen as the inevitable denial of his residency request.
It later became known that Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh had called Elohim City 12 days before his attack, reportedly asking for Strassmeir. Strassmeir would later say that he thought he had met McVeigh in 1993, trading a knife for some of McVeigh's old military fatigues and giving McVeigh a business card.
That, apparently, was the limit of Strassmeir's involvement in Oklahoma. A man who may have been McVeigh also called CAUSE's office before the bombing, telling Holloway that those responsible for Waco needed to be "sent a message."
Perhaps the only notable success Lyons had in this period came in June 1996, when he was allowed by the FBI to mediate in the standoff between federal agents and the white supremacist Montana Freemen. Lyons eventually helped convince the Freemen to end their 81-day standoff without bloodshed.
But there were no public accolades for Lyons, no photo opportunities, no press conferences to extol his role — a fact that angered the publicity-hungry principals of CAUSE.
By early 1997, CAUSE was attacking others on the radical right because of stories about the Oklahoma City bombing in the antigovernment "Patriot" press. Elohim City leader Robert Millar, who fueled the speculation that Strassmeir was involved in the attack, was "soft in the head."
Willis Carto, whose anti-Semitic newspaper The Spotlight played up Strassmeir's supposed role, was "mentally unhinged." The paper itself, CAUSE proclaimed, had "sunk beneath the bottomless standards of the worst tabloids." Right-wing journalist J.D. Cash, along with McVeigh attorney Stephen Jones, were "opportunists."
Overall, the "'patriot' pseudo press" came in for a severe verbal drubbing.
Coming to the Confederacy
CAUSE was in trouble. It was alienating old friends, donations to support the Davidian lawsuit were dropping off, and the Patriot press continued to pursue the Strassmeir story. Lyons was also bedeviled by mainstream press accounts that brought up his extremism. That's when he began whistling "Dixie" in earnest.
In 1996, Lyons, Payne and a third man incorporated SLRC. The address and phone number was the same as CAUSE's, and the staff was also basically the same — with the later addition of H.K. Edgerton (see Confederates in Black), a black man, as board chairman.
Its Web site describes SLRC as "a non-profit legal foundation waging a counter-offensive to preserve Southern Heritage." It calls for a halt to the "Ethnic Cleansing of Dixie." But the focus, above all, is on the Confederate flag.
"The Southern Legal Resource Center is a nonprofit foundation that specializes in First Amendment issues for Southern heritage," Lyons told a reporter at the time. "The flag is a civil rights issue."
CAUSE continued as an empty shell, finally shutting down in 1998. Lyons, now styled as SLRC's "chief trial counsel," focused his energies instead on the neo-Confederate cause. It was not a new one for Lyons. For more than 20 years, he had been a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans (see The Neo-Confederates).
He wears a button proclaiming his membership in the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, a group open only to the descendants of Confederate officers. He has long been an enthusiastic Confederate battle reenactor — in fact, CAUSE says it was through mutual reenacting acquaintances that Lyons first met Strassmeir.
Around March 1998, according to an e-mail from Payne, Lyons joined the League of the South.
In the last few years, Lyons has defended the rights of students to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag; of teachers to display the flag in classrooms; of military personnel to join neo-Confederate organizations.
He began to speak at pro-flag rallies around the country, including rallies in Columbia, S.C., this past January and in Montgomery, Ala., in March. In his many battles, he has described defending the Confederate flag as a "civil rights" issue.
And in the process, Lyons has become the darling of the neo-Confederate world. Neo-Confederate Web sites now commonly urge their followers to donate to the SLRC. In Columbia and Montgomery, Lyons shared the podium with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Council of Conservative Citizens, the League of the South, the Heritage Preservation Association and others.
At the same time, apparently seeking to bolster the SLRC's image as a civil rights group, Lyons has taken on black clients in cases of alleged "malicious prosecution" and a housing dispute, and he has appeared on numerous occasions with Edgerton. Today, he protests angrily whenever he is portrayed as a racist.
Hate, and Heritage, Too
But the evidence is against him. Even as he sat with Edgerton eating lunch and discussing politics, Lyons said that the two men's children would never marry. Racial intermarriage, he told a reporter, is "like taking rainbow ice cream and putting it in a blender. What you get is this gray mush not fit to eat."
It is certainly convenient for today's neo-Confederate organizations to believe that Kirk Lyons is no racist, merely a stalwart fighter for Southerners who have suffered at the hands of the politically correct. And it is equally convenient for Lyons to describe himself as a champion of the little man who is mistreated and despised by those in power.
But the reality is substantially different.
And that speaks to the nature of the neo-Confederate movement. To date, Lyons has never been kicked out of a neo-Confederate group to which he belonged. Aside from minor spats in Georgia and Oklahoma, his role has prompted scarcely a whisper from those who say they fight for "heritage, not hate."
In fact, when all is said and done, it is not Lyons who is bringing neo-Confederates into his political camp. Rather, the increasingly radical neo-Confederates are coming to him.