The Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), a North Carolina legal group, calls itself the leading advocate for 'Confederate Americans.' Its exaggerations and dismal record suggests otherwise.
It was a horror story by any account. Ryan Oleichi, just 13, was beaten near his Houston high school by two minority students enraged at the Confederate battle flag on the cover of a library book he was carrying. The April 2001 beating was so severe that doctors believe it contributed to the development of a dangerous pineal brain cyst that Ryan still suffers with. Then, just nine months later, Ryan's mother was found murdered in her own car, which was being driven by two black women.
Few cases were as publicized among neo-Confederates, who saw Ryan as another victim of bias against Southern whites. The Sons of Confederate Veterans heritage organization came out in support of the boy, as did the League of the South hate group.
But no one seemed to back him more than the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), a Black Mountain, N.C., nonprofit group. In mailings, E-mails and remarks to reporters, the principals of SLRC — "the preeminent advocate for the civil and constitutional rights of Confederate Southern Americans" — told its version of the story, almost invariably finishing with an urgent plea for donations.
Although Ryan's beating occurred off campus, SLRC Chief Trial Counsel Kirk Lyons pledged to sue the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District for allowing the incident to happen. He suggested the SLRC needed funds for the trial, an expert witness, and to treat Ryan's mother's depression shortly after the assault. He asked for money for a college fund for Ryan after his mother's death. Time and again, he told backers he was squaring off with Texas' richest school district.
But Ryan's family says that despite the SLRC's fund-raising, Ryan never benefited from the SLRC's attention. Betty Rice, Ryan's maternal grandmother and his legal guardian since the death of Ryan's mother, Melinda Hill, said she contacted Lyons shortly after the funeral of her daughter, hoping to pursue the case and win some money for Ryan's medical bills.
"He told me Melinda was his client, not me," Rice told the Intelligence Report. Then he asked for some $5,000 down.
The SLRC and Lyons never filed a case. But that did not prevent them from repeatedly trying to raise funds from Ryan's suffering. And they seemed to fudge some details of the case to make it more appealing to their constituency. On Jan. 9, 2002 the day that Hill was murdered, the SLRC told its backers that Hill's car was being driven by "two black females" when it was found with Hill's body in the back.
The SLRC would never mention that it was later established that the car had been given to the two women, who knew nothing of the body, by Hill's white boyfriend, who quickly confessed to the murder.
On Feb. 1, 2002, around the time Betty Rice says she was turned away by Lyons, the SLRC told backers that Rice "has decided to move forward with Ryan's case." Three months later, the SLRC was still raising money off the case. "Please remember Ryan," it pleaded last April 26, "in your prayers and donations."
In an E-mail reply sent 34 days after the Intelligence Report submitted a series of queries about its cases, the SLRC said it had not "dropped" Oleichi as a client at all. Betty Rice has not spoken to the SLRC for more than a year.
The Lost Cause
Since its incorporation in 1996 by Kirk Lyons (see biography, "In the Lyons Den," Summer 2000 edition, Intelligence Report) and two other men, the Southern Legal Resource Center has operated out of a nondescript duplex on a quiet street in Black Mountain, a historically liberal town near Asheville.
The SLRC replaced an earlier Lyons creation in Texas known as CAUSE, short for Canada, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Europe — the parts of the world where Lyons judged white majorities' rights under threat because of rising minority populations.
The SLRC was started specifically to battle so-called "heritage violations" against what Lyons calls "Confederate Southern Americans" — principally attacks on the Confederate battle flag and similar symbols. And it insists that it is turning the tide.
"Our opponents demonize the SLRC for one reason," Lyons wrote in the same "update" that carried the pitch for "prayers and donations" for Ryan Oleichi. "We are the most effective and hard-hitting fighters on the Southern Heritage front."
Maybe so. But the SLRC hardly has a stellar track record.
In the last year, Lyons has been excoriated by a federal judge who accused him publicly of shoddy work. He has been unceremoniously removed from a favorite lawsuit that targeted officials of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's administration for taking down Confederate plaques in Austin. He has filed large numbers of complaints in a variety of forums that have gone nowhere.
In mailings and E-mails containing fervent fundraising pitches, Lyons has frequently spoken of cases he intended to file, but never did. He has implied that he represented clients whose families later said he did almost nothing for them.
And he has filed suit after suit alleging that "Confederate Southern Americans" are a protected ethnic group under civil rights laws — a theory most legal experts consider absurd.
From the start, the SLRC was the creation of extremists. The core staff is made up of Lyons and his long-time partner and brother-in-law, Neill Payne, along with the two men's parents-in-law.
Both Lyons and Payne were married on the compound of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations in Idaho. The pastor presiding over their 1990 double wedding was Aryan boss Richard Butler, and their spouses were both daughters of Betty and Charles Tate, who now work at the SLRC. Betty Tate had been an Aryan Nations secretary, while her husband was a Butler aide; the couple's son is in prison for terrorist crimes. Louis Beam, a violently racist former Klan leader, was Lyons' best man at the ceremony.
The SLRC's board includes Lourie Salley III, who is executive director of the board and also a prominent member of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate hate group. (Salley's hobby, according to Aiken, S.C., City Attorney Richard Pierce, is refitting small planes as "Nazi German observation planes.")
Also on the board are North Carolina attorneys Larry Ellis Norman and Carl Barrington Jr., and, supposedly, H.K. Edgerton, a black activist who has defended slavery as a Christianizing influence and also provided Lyons invaluable cover from accusations of racism. Although Lyons has described Edgerton as a board member for years, he is not listed like other members in 2000 and 2001 tax returns. Edgerton's name was added to a directors list on the SLRC Web site only this February.
Throughout its life, a steady drumbeat of fundraising appeals has issued forth from the SLRC, which since gaining nonprofit status in 1999 has slowly increased its income from $65,355 in 1999, to $105,315 in 2000 and $150,365 in 2001, the latest year for which tax records are available.
But the SLRC also has taken on an increasingly desperate tone of late. "Southern Compatriots," said one April 2002 appeal, "I cannot stress to you HOW BADLY WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!!! Everywhere we turn, it seems the walls are slowly closing in on us!"
Trouble in Texas
One of the SLRC's first "heritage violation" cases began in 1998, after the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University forced cadet Thomas Chisum Womack to remove a Confederate flag sticker from his foot locker. Womack decided to file suit even though cadet regulations explicitly forbade display of the battle flag.
With great fanfare, the SLRC told its supporters that it filed a suit contending that Womack's rights had been violated on May 15, 1998. It described the case on its Web site and in E-mails to supporters, almost invariably followed by a plea for contributions to support the work of the SLRC.
Womack, Lyons told one reporter at the time, shouldn't have to choose "between his heritage and the cadets."
Occasional mention was made of the suit in SLRC updates that followed, but then the case seemed to drop off the radar screen. Finally, in a Dec. 1, 1999, SLRC "update," backers were told that the SLRC had decided not to "re-file" the lawsuit against Texas A&M. That decision, it said, was "due to the tragic bonfire accident at Texas A&M" in which 12 people were killed during the construction of a huge log bonfire. The SLRC said in its statement that it did not want to "appear to be kicking [A&M] when they were down."
But what the SLRC had never before admitted was that it had dropped its case almost eight months before — on April 4, 1999.
Even though the SLRC withdrew the suit — because Womack had dropped out of the corps — it still continues to describe its role in heroic terms. "We pursued the case using other means," Neill Payne, the SLRC's executive director, wrote in his March 3 E-mail to the Intelligence Report. "The ban on Confederate symbols has been lifted and [Commandant] General [Ted] Hopgood [Jr.] was retired." Texas A&M officials beg to differ.
"That's not true," Major Joseph Mills, spokesman for the Corps' Office of the Commandant, told the Report. "The ban has not been lifted, and General Hopgood retired on his own volition last May" — three years after the suit was dropped.
Lyons' most public humiliation stemmed from another case in his native Texas. For decades, the Confederate flag had been used as a symbol by the Hays High School Rebels, a football team in Buda, Texas. But in 2000, after much debate, the flag was eliminated as a school symbol.
The following year, the University Interscholastic League, which regulates high school football, passed a rule against all flags and banners in high school stadiums in the district. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, that rule was amended to allow the display of the U.S. flag.
On Oct. 26, 2001, five people — including SLRC director H.K. Edgerton — were stopped at a Hays stadium entrance as they tried to bring in Confederate battle flags. Not long after, the SLRC filed a lawsuit against the Hays County school district and three of its officials in federal court.
Lyons contended that his clients had had their First Amendment rights violated. He also argued, based on SLRC's novel theory that the plaintiffs' "national origin" was "Confederate Southern American," that the Hays officials had violated the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In January 2002, school officials asked U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks to dismiss the case, arguing that the flag policy was a University Interscholastic League rule and that the league would be a more appropriate defendant. The following month, Sparks agreed, issuing a harshly worded order lambasting Lyons. He zeroed in on the selection of defendants, sloppy misprints in Lyons' filings, and the fact that Lyons had withdrawn an earlier request for an injunction against the district.
"It would appear," the judge wrote, "the plaintiffs have filed a complaint requesting a temporary injunction when they did not want one, obtained publicity because of the allegations, sued the wrong parties and in all probability have no cause of action against any party." Sparks ordered the SLRC to pay defendants' legal fees, which according to an SLRC newsletter totaled $9,173.
In his E-mail, Payne insisted that the SLRC's legal theories in the case "were sound" and that the Center was "by no means through with the flag issue at Hays County." But speaking to a reporter at the time, Lyons sounded far more pessimistic.
"I'm shocked," Lyons said. "I don't know what's in the court's mind."
An Unholy Alliance
For more than two years, Kirk Lyons has been a key player in an attempt to turn the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) from its original mission of defending the memory of Southern Civil War combatants to far-right political activism. He helped organize a major pro-Confederate flag rally in South Carolina in 2000, which in turn helped to boost Lyons' credentials within the 32,000-member SCV.
Shortly afterwards, Ron G. Wilson, a South Carolina SCV activist who now heads the SCV as commander in chief, joined the SLRC board, tax records reveal. (The SLRC Web site, which lists other directors, does not include Wilson's name.) The following year, Wilson's daughter, Allison Shaum, joined the SLRC as a "case worker." In that job, she writes many of the SLRC's occasional "updates."
Last August, Lyons, who had already won election to a lower SCV post, stood for election to head one of the SCV's three geographic divisions. In the run-up to the August SCV convention, the SLRC's close links to the SCV became apparent. Fully three hours of SLRC seminars were scheduled as part of the convention.
In addition, over the years, thousands of dollars in donations and for various cases have been given by state SCV organizations to the SLRC. SCV Executive Director Ben Sewell refused to discuss the details of these transactions with the Intelligence Report.
By the time the convention got going, however, Lyons and his racist background had become a public issue, with newspapers and national television news depicting his candidacy as a battle for the soul of the organization. SCV officials quietly canceled the SLRC seminars. No explanation was ever given.
In the end, Lyons was defeated by a moderate candidate in a 17-vote squeaker. But Wilson, whose links to Lyons and his extremist agenda were unknown at the time, managed to win the SCV's highest office — commander in chief. The election of Wilson and a number of his allies effectively handed the leadership of the SCV to an extremist faction.
Wilson did not abandon his alliance with the SLRC. In recent months, he appointed Lyons to sit on the SCV's Long-Range Planning Committee, while Payne landed a seat on the Resolutions Committee. During the same period, Wilson was raising money for the SLRC by selling T-shirts depicting the Confederate battle flag from his office. And early this year, Wilson launched a purge of most of those SCV members who had publicly opposed him and Lyons.
Lyons vs. Bush
The close relationship between Lyons' SLRC and the ruling faction in the badly divided SCV might have been expected to produce dividends for the legal center. Indeed, Lyons recently wrote that 80% of the SLRC's support comes from within the SCV. But that has not guaranteed Lyons a role in key legal actions.
In June 2000, while George W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency, officials of his gubernatorial administration ordered the removal of several plaques commemorating the Confederacy from the Texas Supreme Court building. The plaques included a quote from Robert E. Lee and an image of the battle flag.
The Texas division of the SCV was furious, and engaged the SLRC and Lyons to bring a suit against four Bush officials, including two who are now in the White House. Arguing that the removal violated a 1954 provision of the Texas constitution, Lyons filed the case. In the months that followed, Lyons and the SLRC would refer to the case repeatedly. It was clear that this was a favorite Lyons cause.
But to this day, Lyons hasn't told his backers a crucial fact: He has been booted off the case. Last Sept. 21, the Texas division's executive council decided to turn the case over to Dallas attorney Bill Kuhn. Texas SCV official Jerry Nelson wrote that the council also rejected keeping Lyons on as co-counsel because "such an appointment was not in the division's best interest."
Marshall Davis, public information officer for the Texas SCV, clarified that statement: "The best I can say is the division was not pleased with his progress as we were proceeding on this case. I think the division officers felt that it was not moving quickly enough for them."
Payne offered a rather different version of events in his E-mail to the Report, saying the SLRC was "happy to withdraw" when the SCV found local counsel. "The Texas Division," he said, "was satisfied with our pioneering work on the case."
There is no indication of any of this on the SLRC Web site.
A Theory That Won't Die
A consistent theme in the SLRC's cases is the idea that so-called Confederate Americans are being discriminated against as a group. A consistent tactic has been to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a bid to get this view validated. And the consistent result has been failure.
In 1998, U.S. Department of Labor employee Don Curtis Terrell was turned down by his bosses after he asked to participate in the department's Diversity Day celebration as a Confederate American. Lyons' complaint to the EEOC, alleging civil rights violations, was unsuccessful. Lyons' appeal to federal court ended in a similar dismissal. His appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also was turned down. In a last ditch effort, the SLRC last summer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Terrell case. The high court declined to do so last October.
As near as can be determined from the SLRC's Web site and E-mails to its supporters, the SLRC has been involved in at least 20 EEOC claims of workplace discrimination against Confederate Americans, virtually all of them stemming from employer bans on Confederate symbols. In each case discussed by the SLRC, the EEOC has rejected the claims, and in some, reviewing courts have agreed.
"They just don't get it," Lyons complained.
That's hardly the way experts in American civil rights law see it. They say the idea of such ethnic "groups" as "Confederate Americans" or "Confederate Southern Americans" clearly has no meaning under federal, state or regulatory law.
"I've been studying civil rights laws and their applications for 28 years, and I've litigated issues of how one defines national origin groups and racial groups," Al Kauffman of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project told the Intelligence Report. "And a group of 'Confederate Southerners' does not fit any racial or ethnic origin group I've ever seen under any federal or state law. I cannot imagine that any court or administrative agency anywhere would recognize Southern Americans as a racial or ethnic group. I don't think they'd recognize Yankee Northerners either."
But defeat has not bowed Lyons or the SLRC. "[W]e are prepared to bring this issue again and again in a variety of venues," Payne told the Intelligence Report, "until we find the one judge who will at least let us put on evidence that Confederate Southern Americans deserve the same protections as other Americans."
On May 17, 2000, the SLRC announced in a press release that it was filing similar claims on behalf of nine students suspended from the Grady County, Ga., school system for defying a ban on Confederate-flag clothing. The SLRC said it would allege discrimination based on race and national origin in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education. Similarly, it would allege religious discrimination in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice. Once those claims were adjudicated, the SLRC press release promised, a suit "will be filed in Federal court."
Lyons did indeed threaten to sue the system, Schools Superintendent Steve Wooten told the Intelligence Report. But almost two years after Lyons vowed to file suit, Wooten revealed what Lyons has not: "Nothing was ever filed against us."
This January, the SLRC Web site detailed two disputes under a headline that read "Cases Pending," implying that the SLRC represented the parties involved. In both cases, the plaintiff's families say Lyons actually did very little for them.
In early 1997, Concord High School freshman Katie Knight came to school in Concord, N.C., with a patch on her book bag that depicted a checkered racing flag crossed with a Confederate battle flag. Officials asked Katie to remove the patch, arguing, as many schools have, that the flag could cause school disruptions.
The following fall, with Lyons and Payne at her side, Katie and her mother appealed the banning of the symbol to the school board. "Their appeals," the SLRC wrote, "compounded by Kirk Lyons' clear exposition of the law, were persuasive enough to induce paving stones to change their positions. Unfortunately, the solons of Cabarras County were unmoved." The press release that included this description also headlined a promise: "Katie Knight Appeal Denied; Lawsuit to Follow."
No lawsuit was ever filed. "We basically stuck to our guns," Cabarras County School Board Attorney Mark Enriques told the Intelligence Report. "He talked about filing a lawsuit, but nothing was ever filed. In the end, they basically went away."
In early 1998, after two hearings before the school board with Lyons at her side, Katie moved to Indiana to live with her father, John, and her stepmother, Martha Knight. The case ended there, but that didn't prevent the SLRC from listing it in its "Cases Pending" section for five more years. The SLRC's description of the case gave no hint that the SLRC was no longer representing Katie Knight.
The SLRC page described its second "pending" case as that of Michael Blackburn, then a first sergeant at the Special Forces Special Warfare School at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Blackburn, the description said, "alleges defamation" against a superior officer who is said to have launched a criminal investigation against Blackburn and two other officers because they had SCV materials and had accessed a League of the South Web site. It reports that Blackburn and the others were exonerated.
It is true that the three men were exonerated. But Connie Blackburn, Michael's wife, says that although her husband did seek help from the SLRC and a number of other law firms, none of the credit goes to SLRC. "These guys did all the work themselves," Connie Blackburn said of the three accused. "I don't recall Kirk doing anything." Michael Blackburn is now an ROTC instructor in Missouri.
Days after the Intelligence Report sent Lyons and the SLRC a list of questions about these cases and others, the entire "Cases Pending" section of the SLRC Web site was removed, and the contents of a "Current Cases" section were changed.
The Castorina Case
Amidst all its failures, the SLRC has one case to point to that could become a significant victory for backers of Confederate symbols in the schoolhouse. But even this case is not the total victory that the SLRC and Lyons have portrayed it as.
On Sept. 17, 1997, Timothy Castorina and Tiffany Dargavell arrived at Madison High School in Richmond, Ky., wearing matching T-shirts that depicted country music star Hank Williams Jr. on the front and two Confederate battle flags on the back. Citing a school policy against clothing with an "illegal, immoral or racist implication," the principal gave them a choice of going home to change or turning the shirts inside out for the rest of the day.
They refused and were suspended for three days. When they returned, they were again wearing the shirts and were again suspended. Ultimately, the pair withdrew and were home schooled by their parents, who supported their decision. The SLRC took the students' case.
A federal district court dismissed the case in 1998, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated it in March 2001. Briefly, it found that the students were expressing beliefs that were protected by the First Amendment and sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the school policy could still be defended. It said a trial was needed to determine if the school had a history of racial conflict that justified the banning of racially divisive symbols and whether or not enforcement of the ban was "viewpoint-neutral," meaning it applied equally to other potentially divisive symbols (for a full legal analysis of the Castorina case, see Symbols in School).
The lower court ordered both sides into settlement negotiations and, last September, an agreement was reached. The school board agreed to amend its dress code so as to consider a "student's purpose" when deciding if clothing is allowed. It also banned "racially or sexually offensive" words and images. But the pact says nothing about the Confederate battle flag, and officials declined to elaborate.
Lyons declared himself thrilled. Earlier, he had written that any settlement "will enshrine the 6th Circuit ruling as law," which was true, but which neglected the fact that important issues remained to be litigated at trial. The appeals court ruling clearly did not overturn bans on the Confederate battle flag. Instead, it laid out the factors that must be taken into consideration before imposing such a ban.
But the SLRC and the SCV both are attempting to use the Castorina case as a cudgel to try to force other school districts to abandon attempts to ban Confederate symbols. Last December, the SLRC said that it was sending Castorina "packets" to school districts in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. According to the SLRC, several districts have renegotiated their policies as a result.
Of Ostriches and Flags
The Lawrence County, Ala., schools are not among those that have voluntarily changed their policies. Lyons sued that district after officials suspended 16 students in October 2001 for defying a Confederate battle flag ban.
But this case has a twist: Lyons is representing seven Cherokee students, and he is arguing that the flag ban violates their rights as "Confederate Cherokees." Trial was set for this summer, but has been postponed because a school official was called up for active duty.
Board attorney Mark S. Boardman says he is unconcerned. He says he beat Lyons in a similar case when he was attorney for the school district in St. Clair County, which like the rest of Alabama is not governed by the 6th Circuit.
"I got a summary judgment," Boardman told the Intelligence Report. "The only new claim here is the Confederate flag is a symbol for Cherokee Indians. ... I don't anticipate it is going to hold any more water than the original claim."
Indeed, a year before the SLRC was incorporated, Lyons and the SLRC suffered quite a drubbing at the hands of Boardman and U.S. District Judge Robert Propst. Propst rejected Lyons' argument that the students' First Amendment rights had been violated, and dismissed the case. And the judge ruled that the Confederate flag can, in fact, cause school disruptions.
"Only an ostrich could conclude otherwise," Propst wrote. "The court concludes that school administrators do not have to wait for an outbreak of such disruptions to forbid such adornments" as the Confederate battle flag on a T-shirt.
Lyons vowed to appeal the 1995 decision. But he never did.
Their many defeats and disappointments notwithstanding, Lyons, Payne and the Southern Legal Resource Center seem determined to soldier on. "Victory in our National Origin claims is the surest path to winning full civil rights for Confederate Southern Americans," Payne wrote in one of SLRC's many appeals.
"All Americans who value their liberty in a free society have a stake in this fight. To obtain victory, however, we must be committed to the onerous expense of several lawsuits over a period of years. We cannot do it alone. Your pledge today to the work of the SLRC will help us continue this historic bid for our people's freedom."