Sons of Confederate Veterans Succumbs to Extremists After Long Battle
Moderate members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans defeated the candidacy of an infamous white supremacist lawyer in August. But extremists managed to take over most of the 106-year-old "heritage" organization anyway.
For Gilbert Jones, it should have been a joyous time. Over the better part of a year, the Greensboro, N.C., restaurant owner had fought an uphill crusade to rid his beloved Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) of political extremists bent on taking over the Southern heritage organization.
And just hours before, the man who Jones and his allies had focused their energies on — an infamous lawyer who was seeking a top SCV post — had gone down to electoral defeat in a 17-vote squeaker.
The celebrating would not last long. Like many of the Southern generals he admires, Jones had managed to win a battle. But he was about to lose the war.
Taking the stage in Memphis' historic Peabody Hotel last August to compete in the SCV's annual oratory contest, Jones got a taste of things to come.
Almost immediately, the man who was the most visible critic of defeated white supremacist lawyer Kirk Lyons came under attack from about half the members in the audience. Objects rained down on his head. A din of shouted epithets drowned out any possibility of speaking. And leaders stood silent as the storm raged.
"When I got up there, they started booing and shouting and throwing trash and paper — whatever they had — towards the stage," Jones says. "There were several [SCV] division commanders, army commanders and members of the executive council there, and nobody took a stand against it. About half of these guys in the room got up and marched out, screaming and shouting on their way."
Jones' detractors weren't quitting the SCV. The very next day, in fact, they joined hundreds of other members to elect the next commander in chief — Ron G. Wilson of Easley, S.C., an intimate Lyons ally.
With the attention of the outside world focused on the Lyons contest, Wilson slipped quietly into office by a mere 47 votes. Although it wasn't immediately clear to most of those attending the 106-year-old group's biannual convention in Memphis, the extremist faction had won.
This battle within the 31,000-member SCV is part of a larger cultural war that is spreading across the South. In museums, schools, city council chambers, national parks and any number of other venues, a trench war is being fought out over the nature of the American South and its history (see Lost Cause Redux).
This struggle, pitting the accepted history of the region against a revisionist version that omits the evils of slavery and segregation, could shape the future of race relations for decades to come.
That the extremists had taken over the SCV became clear in the months that followed Wilson's victory. Wilson appointed half a dozen hate group members to key posts on the SCV's national staff.
A gag order was imposed on internal critics in a bid to silence dissenters like Gilbert Jones. Efforts to purge some of those who opposed Wilson's faction got under way. Violently racist jokes and commentary circulated on a popular E-mail list run by a key Wilson ally. Ties between the SCV and Lyon's radical law group, the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), were cemented.
Sensing a sea change, moderates either hunkered down, joined a new, dissenting organization to try to fight the extremists, or simply quit.
William "Chip" Pate, a North Carolina moderate, put it like this when he left in September: "The organization is now being led at the national level by angry, misguided bigots and what has charitably been called 'the lunatic fringe.'"
Laying the Foundation
The takeover of the SCV did not come out of the blue. Lyons had laid out a strategy for radicalizing the organization two years earlier in a speech to the neofascist American Friends of the British National Party (see U.S. Boots Brit) in Arlington, Va.
Speaking from the same podium as former Klan leader David Duke, Lyons told the audience of racist activists that the needed to get rid of its "grannies" and "bed-wetters" and get serious about the political struggle.
"The civil rights movement I am trying to form seeks a revolution," Lyons told his colleagues on that April 2000 day. "We seek nothing more than a return to a godly, stable, tradition-based society with no 'Northernisms' attached, a hierarchical society, a majority European-derived country."
Four months later in August, 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 his first national SCV office.
Lyons already had helped steer the SCV into working alliances with white supremacist groups like the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens in an effort to defend the Confederate battle flag. Among other things, officials had participated in a major rally held in Columbia, S.C., in January 2000, to oppose removing the flag from atop the South Carolina statehouse.
It was during the planning for that rally, attended by some 6,000 people, that Lyons apparently began a close relationship with Ron Wilson, the future SCV chief. Both men, along with several others, were key organizers of the demonstration, and both helped to develop a videotape of the day's events that was produced and sold under the aegis of the South Carolina SCV, where Wilson was deputy commander.
That same year, tax records reveal, Wilson joined the board of the SLRC, the North Carolina "pro-South" nonprofit where Lyons is "chief trial counsel." This was the first of many ties that would soon knot together Wilson, Lyons and the SLRC.
Wilson declined to be interviewed by the Intelligence Report.
The Race is On
After his August election, Lyons leaped into action. Over the next two years, he politicked within the SCV incessantly, building up a strong reputation as an effective activist. Lyons also may have cemented his bond with Wilson when the hired Wilson's daughter, Allison Schaum, as a legal assistant in November 2001.
During the same period, more and more officials were referring cases of "heritage violations" — attacks on the flag and so on — to Lyons' SLRC, which sees its mission as a battle to stop the "ethnic cleansing" of Confederate culture.
Toward the end of 2001, Lyons announced his candidacy for the even higher SCV post of commander of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), the largest of the SCV's three geographic divisions. (Lyons' earlier post had been as a "councilman" representing the ANV on the executive council). That job is a traditional stepping-stone to the highest position in the organization, SCV commander in chief.
In the months leading up to the Memphis convention last August, Lyons and his extremist allies were busy. Stories on the Lyons candidacy by The New York Times and The Associated Press had appeared early in the year, quoting Gilbert Jones and others critical of Lyons, and Lyons was not happy.
Revealing widespread support for Lyons at the state level, gag orders that prohibited talking about internal matters to the press were rammed through in eight states: Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
In addition, men in the extremist wing of the SCV won important victories in state conventions leading up to Memphis. In Alabama, David Allen, a member of the white supremacist League of the South, was elected commander; Charles Yow, who works with Lyons' SLRC, became state judge advocate.
In Louisiana, Chuck Rand, a prominent League member, became the new commander. In Virginia, Michael Masters, a leader of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, won two state SCV posts. In South Carolina, Christopher Sullivan, editor of far-right Southern Partisan magazine, got a lesser leadership post. Similar results were seen elsewhere.
Men like Allen and Rand were not the only League members who were also members of the SCV. Although their number is not known, Roger McCredie, SCV's chief of heritage defense until this fall, said in an E-mail that "I am a member of the League of the South, as are several thousand members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, including other members of the General Executive Council."
"We are not some minority anomaly," Lyons told The (North Carolina) Independent in January 2002. "The reform faction has been moving to essentially managerial control of the organization for several years now."
The Stealth Candidate
In the days before Memphis, several more stories about the civil war within the SCV appeared in Southern newspapers and elsewhere. Each of them set off a minor uproar within the SCV, but none more so than a CBS Evening News piece that featured Gilbert Jones and a videotape clip of Lyons speaking at the same event as former Klan boss David Duke.
Supporters of Lyons vilified Jones and Charles Hawks, the main candidate running against Lyons, alleging they had participated in a smear of the SCV.
At around the same time, Jim Pierce, a local camp leader from Morgantown, N.C., admitted that he'd circulated by E-mail a particularly vile cartoon depicting a grinning black woman with huge lips. "Ise wants Charles Hawks foa de massa ob de ANV," the caption read. "He sho am good foa me."
As the media and others zeroed in on the Lyons-Hawks contest and Lyons' lengthy extremist history, very little attention was paid to Ron Wilson — even though Wilson had written op-ed pieces warning of communist plots and praising Joseph McCarthy for the Council of Conservative Citizens' tabloid newspaper in the early 1990s.
"He was a bit of a stealth candidate," says ex- member Chip Pate.
Still, on his campaign Web site, Wilson did give a sense of where he was coming from. He told potential supporters that he opposed "the homosexual agenda, abortion and other Godless causes." Under him, he vowed, the SCV would "teach the truth and culture of Confederate heritage," attack the "anti-Confederate climate," and redirect a "drifting, wobbly American society."
He asked supporters to help him "put some muscle" into the SCV's political efforts. "May the spirit of resistance that lived in [our ancestors'] long-still hearts always live in ours!" he concluded.
As the campaign heated up, Wilson went further, promising to punish those who had had the temerity to criticize haters in the SCV. Referencing the CBS report, Wilson said "those who aided in this smear of the SCV should be repudiated."
After Lyons lost his campaign, Chuck Walker, who runs the SCV's official Dispatch E-list, sent out a message to the list.
Hawks, the man who had beaten Lyons for the ANV post, was a "traitor," Walker declared. From his perspective, Walker added, "for the next two years there is no commander of the ANV."
In the end, the day after Gilbert Jones was shouted off the stage in Memphis, Wilson won the election for SCV commander in chief. With the attention paid the Lyons campaign overshadowing his contest, Wilson managed to beat Arkansas SCV official Troy Massey in a narrow 843-796 victory for the organization's top spot — a 47-vote margin.
Although most voters knew Lyons and Wilson were friends, they did not yet appreciate the extent to which they were active collaborators.
Once in power, Ron Wilson did not take long to act. The Lyons battle had been lost, but the war for the SCV was won — and to the victor went the spoils. In a matter of months, Wilson had appointed members of white supremacist hate groups to a series of key national staff positions in the SCV. They included:
David Allen, head of the Alabama League of the South, who was named aide-de-camp to the general staff.
Charles Kelly Barrow, a League member, who became the organization's historian-in-chief.
Ronald Casteel, head of the Missouri League, who was named chief of staff.
Charles "Chuck" McMichael, a member of the FreeMississippi hate group (a League spinoff), who was appointed as genealogist-in-chief.
Leonard "Flagpole" Wilson, a national director of the Council of Conservative Citizens, who became staff parliamentarian. Wilson earned his nickname by shouting from atop a flagpole during the violent 1956 demonstrations he helped lead against the admission of the first black student at the University of Alabama.
Even more noteworthy was Wilson's choice of Boyd Cathey as a second general staff aide-de-camp. Since 1989, Cathey has been a member of the editorial advisory committee of the Journal of Historical Review — a gussied-up hate sheet published by the world's leading Holocaust denial outfit.
At the group's latest conference, The Independent reported, notorious French writer Robert Faurisson — a colleague of Cathey's on the journal's editorial advisory board — began a speech by referencing "the lie of the alleged Holocaust and the alleged gas chambers."
Wilson also packed the SCV's Media/Public Relations Committee with some of the same extremists, along with a man named Bragdon Bowling. Bowling is connected directly to Lyons through an apparently clandestine circle within the SCV — what members call the "John Wilkes Booth Camp" (SCV "camps" are its local chapters).
Although there is no such official camp, the circle named after President Lincoln's assassin includes Kirk Lyons and a number of his friends. The group came to light after photographs of its meetings appeared on a Web site after last year's SCV Virginia state convention in Roanoke.
Asked about the Booth group, Bowling initially told the Intelligence Report, "There is no Booth Camp in the SCV."
Confronted with the photographs, Bowling amended his earlier statement. "This is a group of people who are friends and had a party at our Roanoke convention," he said. "Nothing official."
Hate, Not Heritage
Ron Wilson also appointed Allen Sullivant, who had built his and Lyons' campaign Web sites, to the key position — especially in the current climate — of chief of heritage defense.
Sullivant was best known within the SCV as the founder of a Web site called the Order of White Trash, a gossipy collection of writings about the SCV that strongly sided with Wilson and Lyons in the August elections.
Although Sullivant claimed to the Intelligence Report that he no longer runs the Order of White Trash site (it is currently registered to a false name), it has long carried a downloadable graphics section full of racist caricatures of blacks.
More importantly, Sullivant has run an unofficial SCV E-mail list called Echo since 1996 — the year the then-commander in chief, a moderate named Norman Dassinger, banned discussion of secession from the official SCV Dispatch E-list.
There would be no such bans on the Echo, Sullivant vowed, describing his list as "an uncensored free-speech forum, serving Sons of Confederate Veterans members and the Electronic Confederate Community at large."
And it certainly was — and remains — uncensored. The Report has obtained a series of crudely racist jokes and comments from Echo postings made between March and October.
"Look at the mess and the chaos that they have made of it," one posting says of blacks since the civil rights movement. "Not to mention the wild upsurge of rape, murders, drugs ... dumbing down of schools since apes have no IQs ... not to mention the same apes have played Hell with Confederate symbols, flags, et cetera. Give them an inch and they take and destroy everything ... in their paths."
Another correspondent writes sarcastically of the Confederate battle flag: "A poor little darkie might see it and get shocked back into slavery which would force him to have to gather up three car loads of chimps and pull his stolen pistol to shoot an unarmed man and his wife going out to celebrate the birth of twins."
And a third tells a crude joke that ends with this punch line: "See, by the time you get done shakin' the shit out of a n-----, there's nothin' left but lips and shoes."
In other Echo postings, blacks are "nigs," "darkies" and "pickaninnies."
Asked about the postings, Sullivant hung up on a reporter.
Gags and Pledges
The Intelligence Report sent copies of racist comments from SCV Echo for comment to the entire executive council, its general staff and the media committee. None of these men replied — perhaps because of the national gag order on all SCV members that was passed in Memphis after the earlier adoption of state bans.
The national order was proposed by Leonard "Flagpole" Wilson, who, according to several accounts from those who attended, waved his cane in the air as he hotly advocated its passage, shouting, "The enemy is outside the door!" Explicitly supported by newly elected commander Ron Wilson, it passed easily.
The gag order says that it is SCV "official policy that no member under any circumstance is authorized or permitted to attack a fellow member in any public forum" and "in particular, the generally hostile news media." If any member ignores the order, he will be "subject to disciplinary action" and "officers of the Confederacy are hereby instructed to initiate such procedures."
By November, actions had been brought against Gilbert Jones and at least two other "treasonous" SCV members.
But the ban does not appear to apply to Kirk Lyons.
On Sept. 11, six weeks after the gag order was passed, Lyons' directly engaged the press by issuing an "SLRC PRESS RELEASE" entitled "SLRC AMAZED BY BREATHTAKING IGNORANCE OF NEW ANV [Army of Northern Virginia] COMMANDER." No calls for Lyons' head followed this attack on Charles Hawks, the man who beat Lyons for the ANV post by 17 votes.
While no comment was offered by executive council members about the SCV Echo E-list, one councilman did accidentally forward an E-mail message to the Report that reflected a concern for appearances.
Allen Trapp was writing to fellow councilmen to warn them to avoid letting the public know that a growing number of SCV camps were refusing to pledge allegiance to the American flag: "For years, I have said that not pledging allegiance is a PR nightmare waiting to happen."
Jim Pierce, then the commander of the SCV camp in Morgantown, N.C., and the man who sent out the racist Hawks cartoon, explained his thinking in an E-mail sent to the SCV Dispatch list.
"My great grandmother, grandmother, and mother all refused to recite the pledge out of their undying hatred for the cost to our family from the war of Lincoln, and my mother still will not say the pledge."
'Save the SCV'
An unknown number of men like Chip Pate have left the SCV because of the extremist takeover. But many others have decided to fight back. Walter Hilderman III, a former police captain who lives in Eutawville, S.C., announced this fall that a new group, Save the SCV, was forming to try to rid the group of extremists.
"We must develop a network of members and camps throughout the nation that will publicly condemn the infiltration of the SCV by racists and secessionists, and who will work toward their removal" in 2004 convention voting, Hilderman wrote in a November letter announcing the effort.
"We intend to build a movement within the SCV that will identify the extremists and vote them out of office or obtain their resignations. If they are secessionists, let them join the League of the South. If they think racism is a virtue, let them join the Ku Klux Klan."
Some camps, like the one Pate once served as public information officer in Siler City, N.C., have weighed other kinds of precautions. Pate told the Report that the camp was considering registering as an independent nonprofit recently. The idea is to prevent the camp's assets from defaulting to the national if the camp disbands.
Even some of those who initially supported Kirk Lyons have changed their view as the politics of the new regime became clearer. Tommy Allen, a Presbyterian minister who once wrote the Report to defend Lyons from charges of being a racist, recently said he had been wrong. Now, Allen hopes to create a new kind of heritage organization — one that will include both Confederate and Union descendants.
"Thought you would like to know that I have resigned from the SCV," Allen said in an E-mail to the Intelligence Report following the elections. "This Southern National stuff is the Lost Cause. Like I told a friend earlier today, if the Confederacy had leadership like the SCV has, I would have fought for the Union!"
Despite the defectors and dissension, SCV leaders appear uncowed.
Ron Wilson has been gearing up to take his message to a larger public — schools and churches in particular. As part of an "educational outreach program," the SCV plans to give away books, videos and CDs to schools, libraries, churches and civic clubs to "tell our story about the South's struggle for independence."
Wilson recently formed a new Chaplains Corps with the goal of reaching "conservative church congregations across Dixie with the message of our heritage." Already, some 50 SCV members have been recruited to act as chaplains, under the leadership of John Weaver.
Weaver, recently reappointed as "chaplain-in-chief," caused a stir several years ago with his defense of slavery. Many Africans, he wrote, "blessed the Lord for allowing them to be enslaved and sent to America."
With the in the hands of extremists, messages like this are bound to proliferate as efforts to spread the neo-Confederate gospel pick up speed. Wilson and his confederates are moving quickly, doing their best to transform America's largest heritage organization into an instrument aimed at radically transforming the politics and culture of the New South.
Whether or not they succeed now rests, at least in part, in the hands of the rank and file members of the embattled SCV.