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Sons of Confederate Veterans in its own Civil War

Neo-confederate extremists begin a takeover of the Sons of Confederate Veterans group.

In late December, Gilbert Jones, a long-time member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), announced his candidacy for lieutenant commander of the North Carolina division of the nation's largest, wealthiest and most influential Confederate heritage group.

"The SCV has come to a decisive fork in the road," Jones wrote. "The elections of 2002 will decide the fate of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. ... I think we ought to take the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, and the skinheads and show them to the door."

As Jones understands, that may be easier said than done.

Although the 31,400-member SCV has always billed itself as a "non-political" and "non-racial" heritage organization devoted merely to preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers, SCV leaders have long been tied to segregation and white supremacy.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the SCV did make a decade-long push to rid itself of open racism and bigotry. But by 1996, after a prominent neo-secessionist resigned from the SCV's ruling executive board in protest of this new moderation, the door to extremism had been pushed open once again.

"There is a struggle underway," as one "pro-South" white supremacist group put it at the time, "for the heart and soul of the SCV."

Since then, spurred on by battles in several states over the display of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings, the white supremacist faction within SCV has grown both more powerful and more visible.

Far from being apolitical, scores of SCV members have taken increasingly public and controversial stands on an array of racially charged issues, reflecting an unprecedented level of activism within the 106-year-old organization.

In what may be the clearest sign yet of this extremist drift, an analysis by the Intelligence Report finds that a significant number of SCV officials — including at least 10 men who hold key national leadership positions — are also active or recent members of hate groups, principally two neo-Confederate groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and the League of the South.

Together, the CCC and the League boast more than 25,000 members.

For activists in these racist groups, the even larger SCV — an organization that counts at least two influential U.S. senators among its members — makes a tempting prize.

The Heritage Coalition Strategy
The grainy video frames, now almost two years old, are somewhat cryptic. At length, the speaker describes "heritage coalitions" as a new way for SCV members to cooperate with other neo-Confederate groups in fighting so-called "heritage violations" — acts like taking down the Confederate battle flag.

"Theoretically, it's a citizen's coalition, anybody can join," the speaker explains to a room full of listeners in this April 2000 videotape.

For those on the outside, such coalitions may seem like harmless anomalies. But the speaker was none other than white supremacist attorney Kirk Lyons, one-time member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance and current darling of neo-Confederate extremists (see profile, "In the Lyons Den," Summer 2000 issue, Intelligence Report).

Standing next to David Duke, Lyons was addressing a gathering of the neofascist American Friends of the British National Party that included many of America's leading far-right activists.

His point was a lawyerly one. Members of the SCV are constitutionally prohibited from working with hate groups, but only in their capacity as SCV members.

In their personal lives — or, as Lyons put it, as mere "John Q. Publics" working within the autonomous heritage coalitions — they can do as they like.

These coalitions, which function today in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, offered a loophole that was already being used by hundreds of SCV members to work with racist activists from hate groups including the League of the South, the CCC and several others.

Lyons described the ongoing battle within the SCV, saying he had spent most of his 22 years of membership "cursing the organization ... for [its] spinelessness and cowardice."

He mocked the "granny" faction that "hide[s] in their shirts at the mention of the R-word [racism]." He talked about how a group of "unreconstructed Southerners" or "white trash," including himself, had helped to move the SCV increasingly toward a white "nationalist perspective."

And he alluded to a January 2000 pro-Confederate flag rally in Columbia, S.C., where SCV officials worked openly with CCC and League members.

"The civil rights movement I am trying to form seeks a revolution," Lyons told his extremist colleagues that day. "We seek a return to a godly society with no Northernisms attached to it — a majority European-derived society."

Four months after the video was shot, Kirk Lyons, a man who was married by a neo-Nazi "reverend" on the grounds of the nation's most infamous hate group compound, was elected to the SCV's executive council.

The civil war was under way.

A Checkered Past
The United Sons of Confederate Veterans was founded in Richmond, Va., in 1896 with the requirement that members be men descended from Confederate soldiers.

The name was changed when it was realized that the acronym, SCV, could be confused with that of the United States Colored Volunteers, a unit that fought for the North during the Civil War.

Early editions of the SCV's Confederate Veteran newsletter defended the Ku Klux Klan, argued that the United States was created "for white people," and complained that "when a Negro has learned to read he ceases to work." But the SCV had few members, and had so declined by 1932 that the newsletter ceased publication.

In 1953, the SCV came under the control of William McCain, later the president of Southern Mississippi State University (the institution has since been renamed the University of Southern Mississippi). At the time, the SCV had 30 "camps," or local chapters, 1,000 members and $1,053 in the bank.

By the time he died in 1993, McCain had restarted the Confederate Veteran, pushed SCV membership to more than 18,000, created a sizeable endowment, and purchased a national headquarters in Columbia, Tenn. Within the SCV, McCain was a legend.

He was also a hardened segregationist and staunch supporter of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the notorious government agency created to spy on and undermine the civil rights movement.

In 1959, McCain worked closely with Commission officials to keep blacks out of his university — in particular Clyde Kennard, the first black person to apply. In the end, Kennard's name wound up in the Commission's files, labeled "Race Agitator."

In a 1960 speech in Chicago sponsored by the Commission, McCain explained Mississippi life to the folks in Illinois, saying those blacks who sought to desegregate Southern schools were "imports" from the North.

"We insist that educationally and socially, we maintain a segregated society. ... In all fairness, I admit that we are not encouraging Negro voting," he said. "The Negroes prefer that control of the government remain in the white man's hands."

Heritage or Hate?
By the late 1980s, SCV leaders, trying to stay in tune with the changing times, were seeking a more moderate stance. In 1989, the group passed its resolution, clearly aimed at the Klan, condemning use of the Confederate flag by groups or individuals espousing "political extremism or racial superiority."

At least once, in 1993, an SCV camp counter-demonstrated against the Klan. And while the SCV has never tried to bar members from joining hate groups, it did begin enforcing a constitutional provision that required members to be apolitical during SCV events. Association with hate groups was discouraged.

This was evidenced most clearly with the 1994 ouster of P. Charles Lunsford, the SCV's "chief of heritage defense."

In an extremely unusual move for the SCV, Lunsford was removed from his post after making a speech in his role as an SCV official to the CCC, defying the SCV's moderate then-commander-in-chief, Norman Dasinger, who had many concerns about the organization.

Ironically, it was Lunsford, with his ear for a catchy slogan, who had popularized the phrase "Heritage, not Hate," widely used to project a benign SCV image.

Lunsford was not pleased with his dismissal. "The SCV will no longer be fighting the fight for Southern heritage," he said, "and those of us who made the SCV famous by fighting these battles and swelling the ranks are being purged."

But he may have spoken too soon.

A Hate Group is Born
The year 1994 also saw the formation of the League of the South, a group that threatened a renewed effort for Southern secession, proposed a theocratic government based on its particular brand of Christianity, and increasingly came to embrace racist attitudes toward black people.

League founder and President Michael Hill, who has called blacks "a compliant and deadly underclass," pushed the idea of the South as "Anglo-Celtic," a culture created by and for whites.

The timing was favorable. A backlash against affirmative action and similar race-based programs was well under way in the United States. The white percentage of the nation's population was clearly declining, with the loss of an overall white majority projected for some time around 2050 — a prospect that frightened many.

At the same time, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, ethnic nationalism was exploding around the world, evidenced most horrifically in the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. Opposition to globalization was becoming widespread among racists who despised multiculturalism.

Around the Western hemisphere, nationalist movements based on ethnic purity were on the rise.

SCV members were in the League from the start, with a handful among its founders, and it wasn't long before League members were pressuring the SCV to help popularize their ideas. But SCV leaders initially resisted.

In 1995, Perry Outlaw, commander-in-chief of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars (an SCV affiliate for the descendants of Confederate officers), wrote a scathing article in Confederate Veteran magazine denouncing members who had taken up Hill's secessionist views.

Dasinger — who told the Intelligence Report that secession proposals were "about as stupid as stupid gets" — echoed Outlaw's remarks in the SCV newsletter the following year. And later in 1996, the SCV banned all discussion of secession from its new E-mail list.

These limited moves hardly reflected a full-scale purge of racists in the SCV. One example of the many who remained was Leonard Wilson, who today is an officer of one of the SCV's three regional divisions.

In 1956, according to several books on the subject, Wilson was a key figure in violent demonstrations over the admission of Autherine Lucy as the first black student at the University of Alabama. Leading chants of "Keep 'Bama white!" and shouting racist jokes, he led riotous students through two terrifying nights of racial unrest.

Wilson was prominent in the White Citizens Councils and, in 1985, became a founder of the CCC. In an official yearbook, the SCV mentions almost none of this, simply describing Wilson as "a political activist since junior high school."

Neither Wilson nor anyone else has ever been ejected from the SCV for supporting segregation, according to its current commander-in-chief. But Ken Burns, who made the critically acclaimed 1990 public television series "The Civil War," was kicked out after he suggested that Robert E. Lee was responsible for more American deaths than the Japanese in World War II.

The Backlash Begins
The banning of secession topics from the SCV's e-mail list provoked a backlash, with Walter "Donnie" Kennedy, a member of the SCV executive council, resigning his council post in protest.

Kennedy had co-authored the key neo-Confederate text The South Was Right!, which argues that slaves basically were happy with their condition. "If [secession] was 'Right' in 1861," Kennedy wrote in his angry resignation letter, "Why is it 'Wrong' today?"

It was after Kennedy's resignation in 1996 that George Kalas, webmaster of the League's Internet site, wrote that a struggle had begun for "the heart and soul of the SCV."

Describing himself as an "unreconstructed Confederate," Kalas blasted "Eat, Meet and Retreat (EM&R) Confederates" who accepted that the Civil War was fought over slavery. But Kalas did not take Kennedy's tack.

"I strongly urge you not to resign," Kalas wrote to SCV members. Instead, he said they should join other "unreconstructed" camps in "actively resisting the EM&R crowd's effort to impose a 'politically correct' regime upon the SCV."

There were other important developments in 1996. In North Carolina, Kirk Lyons and friends formed the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), which described itself as a "nonprofit legal foundation waging a counter-offensive to preserve Southern Heritage" and prevent the "Ethnic Cleansing of Dixie."

In the years to follow, with Lyons in the lead, the SLRC would increasingly take up cases involving the defense of the Confederate battle flag. More and more of these kinds of cases would be referred to SLRC by officers of the SCV.

Late that year, the SCV began to shift back to the right with the election of Peter Orlebeke as commander-in-chief. After his win, Orlebeke described some of his views to The Dallas Morning News:

I really don't think we had that much problem with racial relationships until Reconstruction. Slave life ... wasn't great conditions. Don't get me wrong. But there have been times that I wish someone had said to me, "I'll give you a job for the rest of your life."

SCV Relaxes the Rules
By 1998, the neo-Confederate movement was gaining momentum. In four years, the League of the South had mushroomed to 4,000 members, and it was claiming credit for ousting South Carolina Gov. David Beasley that November. Beasley, a Republican, had supported removing the Confederate battle flag from atop the State House.

Battles over the flag were heating up in a number of other states, and SCV members were chomping at the bit to join the fray.

Reversing previous rules, the SCV that year revised its affiliation policy in such a way that more cooperation with other groups was allowable. The new policy said members should not "endorse the activities or goals of organizations with explicit or implicit racial motives during meetings or events of the Sons of Confederate Veterans" (emphasis added).

In other words, if they weren't at SCV events — if they were, for example, working in "independent" heritage coalitions — then SCV members could endorse whatever views they cared to.

This subtlety was not lost on "pro-South" hate groups.

"The prospects of protecting and advancing Southern culture have just gotten a much needed boost," League President Michael Hill wrote in late 1998. The SCV's new policy, he enthused, allowed it "to cooperate with the League in non-political matters. Gauging from the actions of the latest SCV national convention in early August, the old guard there is on the way out."

The change was almost immediately apparent.

The very next issue of the SCV's Confederate Veteran magazine included a web address for the League. Later issues carried ads for a sympathetic book on the Klan entitled Authentic History of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1999, the publication featured a photo of Gordon Baum, the leader of the racist CCC, helping found an SCV camp in Missouri.

More and more SCV members and officers joined in the heritage coalitions, sharing the stage with leaders of the CCC and League.

Among many others, SCV officials participated in a huge pro-Confederate flag rally in Columbia, S.C., in 2000. Afterward, the SCV produced a video of the event that featured members of the CCC, the League — and even ex-SCV official Lunsford.

In August 2000, four months after addressing a room full of neofascists in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Kirk Lyons won election to the SCV's national executive council as an official of the "Army of Northern Virginia Department," one of SCV's three geographic divisions.

At the same time, John Weaver, a pastor whose defense of slavery as biblical had made headlines around the South, was appointed SCV "chaplain-in chief." Slaves, Weaver had written, "blessed the Lord for allowing them to be enslaved and sent to America."

Den of Lyons
Since that time, the radicalization of the SCV has continued. Last April, the organization held a joint rally with the CCC in Mississippi, where an eventually successful battle to retain a Confederate emblem as part of the state flag was being waged.

Late last year, Ron Casteel, the SCV's national chairman of public affairs, addressed the League of the South's annual convention.

"I think it would be accurate to say that the organization has been cross-pollinated by people who have membership in other groups," Outlaw, the moderate former commander of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, told the Intelligence Report.

"And they don't seem to be able to draw the line between what these other groups want and what the SCV should be doing."

Finally, late last year, Kirk Lyons announced his candidacy for an even more important post in the SCV's national leadership — commander-in-chief of the Army of Northern Virginia Department.

Lyons' opponent in the race, Charles Hawks, says he had no plans to run for the position until he realized that Lyons might run unopposed. "I'm afraid that if he's elected," Hawks told The New York Times, "we will be considered racist because we elected him."

The result matters. The SCV doesn't just have a huge membership, an annual budget of $1 million and an endowment of $5 million. It also has at least a measure of respectability that is sorely lacking in other neo-Confederate groups.

Republican Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Trent Lott of Mississippi are both long-time members. Lott was even featured in a 1991 SCV recruiting video — along with segregationist William McCain. The SCV has influence, and its future course could have a real impact on American politics.

Ed Sebesta, a long-time researcher of the neo-Confederate movement, sees the contest in the starkest terms. "There is a civil war going on within the SCV. And the Kirk Lyons candidacy is the latest manifestation of this civil war."

Edwin Deason, the SCV's current commander-in-chief, does not seem worried. He says that he intends to keep an eye on Lyons, but adds that Lyons has been "a perfect gentleman" in his two years on the executive council.

Asked about the SCV members who have joined the CCC, Deason told the Report that there is "not a lot of difference between the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Republican Party."

On the day he spoke, the national CCC's main website was decrying "negroes, queers and other retrograde species of humanity."

Former Commander-in-Chief Dasinger laments the changes in the SCV, saying that if Lyons wins in the election next August in Memphis, his own sons may have to abandon the group for which he has labored so long.

"I love the organization," Dasinger told the Report. "But when you cozy up to folks and they cozy up to you, you've got to fish or cut bait."