After a race hate scandal engulfed the right-wing Council of Conservative Citizens in 1998, politicians ran for cover, but didn't stay away long. Read how many elected officials retain ties with this white supremacist group.
Though it had deep roots in Southern politics and claimed 15,000 members — more than the Ku Klux Klan has boasted for decades — the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) was a mystery to most Americans until 1998. Late that year, a scandal erupted over prominent Southern politicians' ties to the brazenly racist group.
At first, even the politicians in question claimed they didn't know what this Council was all about. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who had spoken to the group five times, once telling its members they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy," claimed he had "no firsthand knowledge" of it.
Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, who touched off the brouhaha by delivering a keynote speech at the CCC's national convention in June 1998, said he had "no idea" what the organization stood for.
Those explanations wouldn't suffice for long. An Intelligence Report investigation (see Sharks in the Mainstream, Issue 93), picked up by several network newscasts and major newspapers, made it crystal clear what the CCC was: a hate group that routinely denigrated blacks as "genetically inferior," complained about "Jewish power brokers," called gay people "perverted sodomites," accused immigrants of turning America into a "slimy brown mass of glop," and named Lester Maddox, the baseball bat-wielding, arch-segregationist former governor of Georgia, "Patriot of the Century."
Denunciations flew fast and furious, with embarrassed conservatives taking the lead. "Lott and Barr gave legitimacy to this racist organization by speaking before them," wrote right-wing columnist Armstrong Williams. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter, said that anyone associated with a group like the CCC "doesn't belong in a leadership position in America."
As evidence of widespread association between Southern GOP officeholders and the CCC mounted, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson took the unusual step of asking party members to resign from the group because of its "racist views." A resolution moved through the U.S. Congress "condemning the racism and bigotry espoused by the Council of Conservative Citizens," although it ultimately failed.
Barr and Lott issued statements attempting to distance themselves from a group that was fast becoming political poison.
In January 1999, the Miami Herald reported that it wasn't just governors, senators and congressmen who'd dallied with the group. According to the CCC's own Citizens Informer newspaper, more than 20 state lawmakers — 17 of them from Mississippi — had met with chapters of the hate group in 1997 and 1998. Some politicians claimed they'd been lured to CCC gatherings by members who covered up the extremist nature of the group.
Still, after months of headlines exposing the group's views, "no one should be duped into believing that they are mainstream conservatives" any longer, said Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.
But five years later, Southern lawmakers are still meeting with the CCC — and still pleading ignorance. According to an Intelligence Report review of the Citizens Informer, no fewer than 38 federal, state and local elected officials who are still in office today have attended CCC events since 2000, most of them giving speeches to local chapters of the hate group.
Another 38 former elected officials and candidates for office have addressed CCC groups during the past four years. Of the 38 current office-holders who've attended CCC events, 26 are state lawmakers — most of them, 23, from Lott's home state of Mississippi (see See No Evil).
That roster includes such leading lights as Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, and the presiding justice of the state Supreme Court, Kay Cobb. It excludes 12 local officials.
Though the vast majority of these politicians are Republicans — 23 of the 26 current state lawmakers, to be exact — the Republican National Committee, so forthright five years ago, now declines to condemn the CCC. No member of either party has been sanctioned or reprimanded for maintaining ties to the Council.
Only half of the 26 state lawmakers responded to repeated phone calls, faxes and e-mail messages from the Intelligence Report, asking why they would openly associate with one of America's best-known racist organizations. State Rep. Jim Ellington, who addressed the Great Southern CCC this February in Jackson, Miss., was among those who did respond — with a familiar story.
"They invited me to come to a dinner to speak to their group and I don't know a thing about them," Ellington said. Asked whether he was aware that the CCC was considered a hate group, Ellington replied, "They seem like normal people to me."
But what about the raw racism on their Web site, which once compared singer Michael Jackson to an ape in side-by-side photos? "Well, I don't condone anything like that," Ellington said.
The 'Uptown Klan' Reborn
Political influence has always been a point of pride for the Council of Conservative Citizens. Founded in 1985 by Gordon Baum, a worker's compensation attorney and longtime white-power activist, the CCC rose from the ashes of the Citizens Councils of America (CCA), a coalition of white-supremacist groups formed throughout the South to defend school segregation after the Supreme Court outlawed it in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Unlike the "white trash" KKK, the CCA groups — commonly called "White Citizens Councils" — had a veneer of civic respectability, inspiring the nickname "Uptown Klan." While there were plenty of bare-knuckles racists attracted to the Councils' anti-integration slogan, "Never!" the members also included bankers, merchants, judges, newspaper editors and politicians — folks more given to wearing suits and ties than hoods and robes.
Many of them, including Trent Lott's uncle, were elected to state and local offices. Some were even more powerful: governors, congressmen, U.S. senators.
During the White Citizens Councils' heyday, the groups claimed more than 1 million members. Though they weren't immune to violence — Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, was a member — the Councils generally used their political and financial pull to offset the effects of "forced integration."
One tactic was particularly effective: The Councils raised millions of dollars to fund "white academies," private schools throughout the South that gave parents the option of keeping their children segregated.
Though the CCA groups presented themselves as civic organizations akin to the Kiwanis and Civitan clubs, they left no doubt where they stood on race. "Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, communism and destruction," wrote Robert "Tut" Patterson, the legendary white supremacist who founded the CCA and still writes columns for the Citizens Informer.
"Segregation represents the freedom to choose one's associates."
Once the segregation battle was lost, the air went out of the White Citizens Councils. The councils steadily lost members throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Sensing the need for a new direction, Baum, formerly the CCA's Midwest field director, called together a group of 30 white men, including former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and future Louisiana Congressman John Rarick, for a meeting in Atlanta in 1985.
They cooked up a successor organization: the Council of Conservative Citizens.
Like the White Citizens Councils, the CCC is made up of local chapters — some of them active in civic affairs that have little to do with the national group's racist agenda. But the group's "uptown" days are largely gone; by 1985, there was precious little "respectability" left in joining an unabashedly white-supremacist organization.
And with the CCC, as with the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and '60s, rabid extremism is never far from the surface.
'Death By Multiculturalism'
Earlier this year, while President George W. Bush went to Topeka, Kan., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the CCC's Web site published a story about the historic impact of the decision. The writer was Edgar Steele, one of America's most vociferous anti-Semites.
"Just a lousy fifty years," Steele lamented. "After hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years of evolution, it took just fifty years [for America] to devolve into something on par with Senegal."
Since the 1999 scandal stripped much of the remaining varnish off the CCC's mainstream pretensions, the extremist views expressed on its Web site and in its newspaper have become increasingly direct, even crude. "What do you call ... four blacks, three hispanics, three Russian Jews, and one white guy?" the CCC home page asked last year. "The FBI's Most Wanted List!"
Another home page ran photos of accused Beltway snipers John Muhammad and John Malvo, 9/11 conspirator Zacharias Moussaoui and shoe-bomber Richard Reed. "Notice a Pattern Here?" asked a caption underneath the four photos. "Is the face of death black after all?"
After the NAACP declared its boycott of South Carolina because the state continued to fly the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol dome, the CCC distributed a mock advertisement proclaiming, "South Carolina Now Has Whiter Beaches!" The ad urged Caucasians to vacation in South Carolina and "enjoy a civil liberty that has been denied to them for many years at hotels, restaurants and beaches: the freedom to associate with just one's own people."
In 2002, the Web site featured a photo of Daniel Pearl, the "Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter" who had just been decapitated by Islamic terrorists. In the photo, Pearl was shown with his "mixed-race wife, Marianne." The headline above the couple's picture read: "Death by Multiculturalism?"
The danger "of race-mixing" has been a consistent theme since the days of the White Citizens Councils. "God is the author of racism," according to a story on the CCC's Web site in 2001. "God is the One who divided mankind into different types. ... Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God." Along with such theological arguments, Citizens Informer has published countless stories detailing "scientific" evidence for white people's inherent superiority.
Writing about Brown vs. Board of Education last spring, contributor Michael Polignano noted that many commentators were using the anniversary to talk about "how far America still falls short of racial equality."
According to Polignano, that lack of progress "should surprise no one, because racial inequality is genetic and cannot be changed by social programs. ... Blacks are on average probably less intelligent than Whites and more aggressive, impulsive and prone to psychopathologies."
Flexing Their Muscles
The CCC's increasingly bald extremism hasn't just been rhetorical. This spring, national officer Sam Dickson, an attorney, represented the Council at neo-Nazi David Duke's prison-release party in New Orleans. Along with leaders of America's neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denial movements, Dickson signed Duke's "New Orleans Protocol," pledging to work with other hate groups to achieve their collective dream of a white America.
Even though it has largely left "respectability" behind, the Council still wields a big political stick in Mississippi, where it claims some 5,000 members. The Council helped organize opposition to a 2001 referendum to change Mississippi's state flag to a less Dixie-fied design (the flag included a miniature representation of the Confederate battle flag). The referendum's thumping defeat in a racially polarized vote — 64% to 36% — was a major victory for the CCC.
The Council also flexed some muscle in last year's gubernatorial election, which pitted incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove — who led the fight to change the Mississippi state flag — against Republican Haley Barbour. During the campaign, the CCC Web site ran a photograph of Barbour posing with Council luminaries at the Black Hawk Barbecue, a CCC fundraising event for "private academy" school buses.
When the photo caused a stir, Barbour was quick to call the CCC's segregationist views "indefensible." But he refused to ask that his picture be taken down from the Web site. It was a matter of principle, Barbour explained. "Once you start down the slippery slope of saying, 'That person can't be for me,' then where do you stop?" he asked. "Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan?"
State NAACP President Eugene Bryant wasn't buying that argument. "If you cannot say what's right and do what's right and tell people when they're wrong," Bryant told The Associated Press, "then we really don't need a governor like that."
Mississippi voters disagreed. In November, Barbour easily defeated Musgrove. Ironically enough, before he became governor, Barbour had been best known as a former Republican National Committee chairman — preceding Jim Nicholson, the man who called the CCC "racist" and asked party members to cut their ties with the group.
See No Evil
During the 1998-1999 controversy, as Southern politicians were making haste to distance themselves from the CCC, Gordon Baum shot back a warning. The Council ceo told The Washington Post that by shunning the group, the Republican Party was "doing a pretty good job of running off" white, working-class voters in Dixie.
"The Wallace-Reagan Democrats are the ones who made the Republicans have enough votes to win," Baum said. "Sometimes it's remarkable how dumb [party leaders] are. They let the liberal media run their campaigns. They apparently don't even know why these people vote Republican."
Five years later, it is rare to find an office-holder, even in the Council's Mississippi stronghold, who will admit to being a CCC member. But those "Wallace-Reagan Democrats" are not being ignored — not by the 23 Mississippi lawmakers who've attended CCC events in the past four years.
Some of these officials said that despite its national notoriety and deep roots in Mississippi, they weren't fully aware who they were talking to when they addressed the CCC.
"I know very little about the group," Kay Cobb, presiding justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, told the Intelligence Report. During her 2000 campaign, Cobb said she "accepted every offer to speak" — a policy that led her to two separate CCC events that year.
At the first one, Cobb introduced speaker Virginia Abernethy, a retired Vanderbilt University psychiatry and anthropology professor and self-described white "separatist" who serves on the hate group's editorial advisory board (see White Supremacy); also attending that day were Baum and Tom Dover, national CCC president. Cobb said she spoke "at the invitation of an elderly couple, friends of the family."
She said she has "never been" a member of the CCC, "which I perceive to be a very small, loosely knit group of ultra-conservative, mostly older, white, rural citizens."
Asked about his speech to the Great Southern CCC in Jackson this February, state Rep. Bill Denny first told the Intelligence Report, "I have no idea who in the world that might be. I can't imagine taking an invitation like that." But during the interview, Denny's recall improved. He remembered that another legislator had "called and asked if I would come over to speak to some groups in his district."
Though he was asked to "speak on the Voting Rights Act," Denny said he was under the impression that the CCC was "a business group." Instead, he says, it turned out to be "kind of a rough-looking group, I'm telling you."
Denny paused thoughtfully, then added, "I gotta be careful what I say."
Some of Denny's colleagues said they knew a little more about the CCC — but not enough to stop them from meeting the members. "I think that it is an organization that preserves some of the symbols of something, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans," said state Rep. Gary Chism, who has spoken at three CCC gatherings since 2001.
State Rep. Danny Reed said he had "seen some of their literature from the national organization" and could understand why the CCC had been designated a hate group. But Reed still saw no problem with addressing the Webster County CCC twice during his latest campaign, in April and September of 2003.
"I'm not a member," he said, "and I haven't been to any meetings except when I was speaking." Plus, he said, "I'm not familiar with any activities that the local organization has been involved in that would be considered a hate crime or anything like that."
When state Rep. John Moore was asked about his two speeches to CCC chapters, he replied with a question: "Is the NAACP on you-all's hit list?" Told that it was not, Moore joked, "Well, they need to be." In a more serious vein, Moore said that he would "not brand" the CCC "as a KKK-style organization," and added that he felt "very comfortable" meeting with Council members.
"They had folks there in suits and ties, and folks who just left the garage," Moore said. "It was very diverse occupationally."
State Rep. Tommy Woods, the rare legislator who will still 'fess up to being a CCC member, strongly disputed the hate-group label. "That's not true, lady," he told the Intelligence Report. "It's very conservative, Christian people that believe in Jesus as their savior. I've never known any one of them to do anything that would cause anyone any suffering. They've helped people. We've had blacks come to our meetings and had no problems."
Shannon Warnock tells a different story. While she was serving as Haley Barbour's campaign liaison to conservative groups, Warnock accepted an invitation to speak on his behalf to the Greater Jackson and Southern Magnolia CCC. Warnock says that Barbour, perhaps sniffing trouble after his own encounter with Council members at the Black Hawk Barbecue, warned her it was "not a good idea" to go.
But Warnock went anyhow — and, after being bombarded with intemperate questions and intolerant attitudes, came away convinced that "hate group is probably an appropriate term" for the CCC. "It was the low point of my campaign experience," said Warnock.
Curvature of the Spine
Despite the widening gulf between the CCC and mainstream conservatives, the group has held on to some of its political clout outside Mississippi as well. The Council claimed a role in the defeat of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia in 2002, after Barnes championed a new state flag that de-emphasized Confederate imagery.
CCC officials helped organize several protests aimed (unsuccessfully) at keeping the Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol. They also say they've orchestrated the defeat of two straight South Carolina governors who disagreed with them on the flag issue — Republican David Beasley, who lost in 1998, and Democrat Jim Hodges, defeated in 2002.
During the CCC scandal of 1998-1999, the group had no more ardent defender than South Carolina state Rep. Charles Sharpe, who was proud to say he was a member. "They think like I do," Sharpe told The Miami Herald. Especially on the issue of racial intermarriage.
"Cows and horses don't mix," Sharpe told the Herald. "I don't want any of my people doing it."
Sharpe is now South Carolina's commissioner of agriculture. He was arrested on July 29 and charged with taking at least $20,000 in bribes to protect an illegal cockfighting ring. If he still belongs to the CCC, he has decided to keep quiet about it; Sharpe declined to answer questions for this story.
Another political heavyweight in South Carolina, longtime Democratic state treasurer Grady Patterson, was photographed in his office last year with state CCC chairwoman Frances Bell and her husband, George Bell. Citizens Informer said that the Bells "played a significant role in Patterson's re-election," but Patterson disputes that claim.
Insisting he had never heard of the Council and never authorized any use of the photograph, Patterson expressed his distaste for "organizations like this," saying he fought in World War II "for the American ideal that all men are created equal."
Unlike in 1999, the Republican National Committee has declined to comment about its elected officials' continuing association with the CCC. But Jim Herring, state Republican chairman for Mississippi, was eager to put some distance between the party and the hate group.
Without mentioning the CCC by name, Herring said that the Mississippi GOP would "denounce any group that holds racist views. Any kind of segregationist views. Period. These issues were settled long ago, and we want to look forward, not move backward."
Mississippi's most powerful Republican undoubtedly wishes he had taken that attitude to heart. Three years after he weathered the CCC controversy, Sen. Trent Lott ignited another one when he expressed a view of American political history that could have been lifted straight from the pages of Citizens Informer.
"I want to say this about my state," Lott told an audience gathered for a 100th birthday bash for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president on the segregationist "Dixiecrat" ticket in 1948. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
Gordon Baum's reaction was swift and celebratory: "Thank God for Trent Lott." But after Lott issued an apology to "anyone who was offended by my statement," the CCC stopped cheering. The Indiana CCC's Web site said Lott's backpedaling showed him to be "little more than a political prostitute."
The second time around, Lott's dalliance with white-supremacist politics cost him the Senate majority leader post that he was about to regain — largely because his comments about Thurmond brought down a hailstorm of criticism from his fellow conservatives, including former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, the National Review's David Frum and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, who simply exclaimed, "Oh God," when he heard about Lott's remarks.
No conservative leader expressed stronger outrage than Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, a powerful right-wing lobbying group. Connor told CBS that he and others on the right were furious because Lott's "thoughtless remarks ... simply reinforce the suspicion that conservatives are closet racists and secret segregationists."
The man who would later replace Connor as head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, spoke to the Louisiana Council of Conservative Citizens on May 19, 2001. At the time, Perkins was a Republican state legislator.
Perkins, who still heads the Family Research Council and is regularly quoted in media from The New York Times to National Public Radio, has declined to answer questions about his ties to the CCC.
Nia Hightower contributed to this report.