Leaner and meaner under a new leader, the Sons of Confederate Veterans heads into more and more radical territory.
The Rev. Eric Dean, an American Southerner living in Europe, had been hearing the rumors for months. Finally, he decided to pay a visit to a former high-ranking leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the Southern heritage group of which Dean had long been a proud member. Was it true, Dean asked last November, that the SCV was being taken over by racial extremists? Were the decent colleagues Dean remembered really being swamped by white supremacists?
Within days of his visit to Tennessee to see Anthony Hodges, the former No. 2 leader in the SCV who had earlier been purged by his enemies, Dean had reached a conclusion. Hodges, he E-mailed comrades in the SCV, had told him the group was moving "towards a more politically active, secessionist and racist agenda." "Racial groups," Hodges added, controlled "key leadership positions." As a result, there was an ongoing "exodus" of lifelong SCV members, including U.S. senators.
And so Eric Dean quit the SCV. Members of the unit he served as chaplain did, too. And with that, the SCV's entire European division ceased to exist.
For Rev. Dean, the clincher was a sermon from the SCV's chaplain in chief that attacked "racial interbreeding" as ungodly and described slavery as biblically sanctioned. But that was only the latest development in a long and ugly story. For almost four years now, the SCV has been embroiled in an increasingly nasty civil war, as racial extremists battle moderates for control of what is certainly the largest Southern heritage organization in America. In the last year and a half, under the leadership of a new national chief whose politics have become clearer as his term of office unfolded, the ascendancy of the radicals has become undeniable.
Since Denne Sweeney took over as SCV commander in chief in August 2004, the group's executive council has been stripped of moderate former commanders. A purge of some 300 members, accused of disloyalty for criticizing racism in the SCV, was completed. An ancient alliance with the Military Order of Stars & Bars, a sister organization for descendants of Confederate officers, was scuttled, and a bitter war with another old ally, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, erupted. Sweeney suspended an entire state division of the SCV and replaced its leaders. He diverted money originally intended for the upkeep of a cemetery and building a museum to a brand-new political arm. He promoted followers with documented racist histories to key national leadership positions. Through it all, Sweeney presided over an exodus of fully 25% of the SCV's membership, which fell from 36,000 to 27,000.
"The slackers and the grannies have been purged from our ranks," Kirk Lyons, a radical who first floated the idea of taking over the SCV in a 2000 meeting of neo-Nazis and former Klansmen, exulted in December. Now, Lyons added, the SCV needs to become "a modern, 21st century Christian war machine capable of uniting the Confederate community and leading it to ultimate victory."
The Die is Cast
The first evidence of an attempt to take over the SCV came in early 2002, when it emerged that Lyons -- a white supremacist attorney married on the grounds of the Aryan Nations by its neo-Nazi leader, Richard Butler -- was running for a regional leadership position within the SCV. Though Lyons was narrowly defeated after the Southern Poverty Law Center drew attention to his candidacy, an unknown man named Ron Wilson managed to win election as the SCV's commander in chief. It wasn't long before it became obvious that Wilson was a close Lyons ally.
In the next two years, Wilson, who once endorsed and sold a virulently anti-Semitic book from his home business, joined the battle in earnest. He initiated a purge of those who had criticized racism within the SCV or were in any way tied to a rump group called Save the SCV that sought to eject racists. He strengthened ties to Lyons -- whose stated goal is to turn the South into "a majority European-derived country" -- and to Lyons' Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), a nonprofit that battles so-called "heritage violations" against white Southerners. And he allowed racists and anti-Semites to land key positions of power within the SCV.
But it wasn't immediately clear where Denne Sweeney would come down in 2004, after two years of bitter internal strife inside the SCV. Many hoped that his election would bring calm and an end to the angry politics of Lyons and his friends.
By last April, it was obvious those hopes were without foundation. At a special convention held in Concord, N.C., Sweeney led a move that stripped former commanders in chief of the organization -- many of whom had spoken out against racism -- of their ex officio voting power on the General Executive Council. At the same time, Sweeney expanded his own powers to help him control the SCV.
Sweeney's second in command, Lt. Comdr. Hodges, had joined a lawsuit to prevent the changes to the executive council. Though the suit remained unresolved, Sweeney also used the convention, which was packed with his own supporters, to eject Hodges and replace him with a Sweeney ally. He then initiated a formal break with the Military Order of Stars & Bars (MOSB), whose former leader, Oklahoma City attorney Jeff Massey, had participated in the lawsuit that Hodges was also a part of. And he presided over the SCV's donation of $10,000 to Lyons' SLRC.
Denne Sweeney had come down foursquare for the radicals.
Since his 2004 election, Sweeney has moved to consolidate power by appointing to key leadership positions men who have belonged to hate groups or have histories of racism. Last year, for instance, he selected Jim Pierce of North Carolina to develop a "new and expansive" genealogy program for the SCV.
Pierce is a well-known radical in the SCV civil war. In 2002, he circulated a grossly racist cartoon -- a huge-lipped caricature of a black woman endorsing an anti-racist candidate for high SCV office to be her "massa" ("He sho am good foa me"). The following year, after a rare black SCV camp commander criticized a North Carolina SCV officer who is a Holocaust denier, Pierce angrily challenged the critic to provide documents proving "he is truly eligible to join the SCV."
As chief of staff, Sweeney selected Ronald Casteel, who has been a member of the neo-secessionist League of the South (LOS), a racist hate group that opposes interracial marriage and whose leaders have defended both segregation and slavery (Casteel's license plate holder reads "SCV-LOS"). Sweeney's appointed historian in chief is Charles Kelley Barrow, who also has been a member of the LOS.
As chaplain in chief, Sweeney named H. Rondel Rumberg, who has been a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). The CCC, descended from the infamous White Citizens Councils, has called blacks "a retrograde species of humanity" and lamented that non-white immigration is turning the U.S. population into a "slimy brown mass of glop." (It was Rumberg's description of miscegenation as "not the way of God" that helped drive the Rev. Dean out of the SCV.)
Indeed, membership in such groups has become almost commonplace in the new SCV -- so much so that this January, Gene Andrews, commander of an SCV camp in Brentwood, Tenn., casually boasted in a newsletter that he belonged both to the CCC and the LOS. He went on to describe as "first class men among men" a group including Jared Taylor, who edits American Renaissance, a racist periodical devoted to the idea that whites are smarter and less "pathological" than blacks.
None of this bothers Denne Sweeney. He told the Intelligence Report he would be concerned only if SCV members also belonged to a group that "espouses violence and overthrow and killing of black people" and added that he saw the CCC and LOS as mere "borderline" groups. That's a view not shared by the Republican National Committee or the Conservative Political Action Committee, both of which have described the CCC as a racist group that their members should avoid.
In the last year, Sweeney has moved the SCV ever closer to Lyon's SLRC, which specializes in defending symbols such as the Confederate battle flag and has filed numerous lawsuits to defend the rights of "Confederate Americans." Thanks to Sweeney, the two organizations now share many of the same officers.
Two Sweeney aides -- Bragdon Bowling, the SCV's national press officer, and R. Burl McCoy, who was appointed to five SCV committees by the commander in chief -- have joined the SLRC's board of directors. The near-merging of the two groups has gone in the other direction, too. Sweeney appointed SLRC co-founder Neill Payne -- a man who was married in a double wedding with Lyons at the Aryan Nations compound -- to the SCV's Amendments and Resolutions Committee. He also appointed Roger McCredie, who is the SLRC's executive director and has been a member of the LOS, to the SCV's Media/Public Relations Committee.
Sweeney even selected Ron Wilson, the Lyons ally and former SLRC board member he replaced as SCV commander in chief, for a post as the SCV's director of field operations, a new political outreach arm. This ambitious new program is to be paid for with funds from the Davis Coiner Rosen Fund, a $1 million bequest left to the SCV in 2003. Before his death, Rosen wrote that he hoped to see the bulk of the money used to renovate a Confederate cemetery near his home in Mt. Jackson, Va. He also hoped the SCV would consider building a museum at the site and buying his daughter's house, once home to Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
That's not what's happened. Sweeney actually used $67,500 of the fund to buy out the Military Order of the Stars & Bars as part of the group's separation agreement with the SCV. And he plans to use much more on the outreach program. Sweeney aide Jim Dark said recently that the fund was unrestricted and could be used as Sweeney liked.
That doesn't sit well with Virginia Rosen. "My dad's probably up in heaven having a heart attack right now," she told the Intelligence Report angrily.
"Who decided to spend the money that way?"
Rosen isn't the only one bothered by Sweeney's actions. The ties between Sweeney and the SLRC have pained moderates throughout the Southern heritage community. "We have the SCV with a CiC [commander in chief] controlled by the SLRC," wrote Georgia Head, the leader of the Shreveport, La., chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group for women long allied with the SCV.
"Sound like a heritage organization you want your sons to be in?"
For his part, Sweeney, who told the Report that he speaks to Lyons about every two weeks, sounded unconcerned. But even after speaking to the Report at some length about the SCV, he declined to answer an E-mailed follow-up question: Did he agree with Lyons' March 2004 statement, made on an SCV discussion list, that "mere Klan membership should not be sufficient to remove a member"?
"It is inappropriate," Sweeney wrote, "that I respond any further."
Sisters No More
The radicalization of the SCV picked up speed last fall, thanks to several actions by Sweeney. In October, at an executive council meeting in Hot Springs, Ark., Sweeney led an effort to suspend and investigate four former Oklahoma SCV leaders who had crossed him. At the same meeting, six Jacksonville, Fla., members also were suspended after they voted to take their camp out of the SCV.
A short time later, Sweeney sent out letters threatening legal action against the many other camps considering withdrawal from the SCV in the aftermath of the Jacksonville vote. Sweeney called those seeking to leave to establish non-racist heritage groups "forlorn pirates" acting on "malicious and self-serving desires." He insisted all assets belonged to the SCV national office, not to its camps, and warned that any secession efforts would be fought using "every means at our disposal."
By December, Sweeney had suspended the entire Oklahoma division, saying he could "no longer stand idly by and watch the Division officers destroy" the state organization that probably held more Sweeney opponents than any other. In January, he appointed a whole new slate of leaders to head up the Oklahoma division.
None of this sat well with moderates in other heritage organizations. In November, matters came to a head when Sweeney traveled to San Diego to address the annual convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Although officials of neither group would detail what occurred there, the UDC's Georgia Head wrote that Sweeney started talking about the SCV's "dirty laundry," at which point UDC President General Esther Cope cut him off: "Thank you, Mr. Sweeney, that will do." Sweeney, Head reported, "huffed all the way down the side of the room with everyone's eyes on him." In an E-mail to a group of SCV radicals, Head added: "Your CiC got up during our most prestigious night and made an embarrassment of himself, and put the rest of us in an awkward position, to put it nicely."
Lyons fired back with an E-mail of his own. "Mrs. Cope," he wrote, "was siding with the grannies in a stunt to humiliate our Commander in Chief in front of the UDC." He and other radicals demanded fruitlessly that Cope apologize.
In January, H.K. Edgerton, a black Lyons ally who has said slavery was a good thing for Africans, killed off any residual good will when he sent out an E-mail listing the UDC among those most responsible for "Southern Cultural Genocide." The E-mail provoked furious rejoinders from UDC members and others. Relations between the SCV and UDC, close for a century, were very nearly destroyed.
Moderates Under Siege
By early this year, even some of those who had supported Sweeney were having second thoughts. A case in point is Charles Walthall, commander of the Kansas division of the SCV and a man who had long sought a middle path.
In early February, deep into a report on divisional news, Walthall mentioned that he had just been thrown off an E-list of hard-liners called SCV Vindicators. "I was expelled," he reported, "for taking exception to the racist, pro-Nazi, pro-assassination, and political extremist rhetoric being bantered about by members of the list. So I consider my removal from the list of low-lifes as an honor. I did what I could to defend the good name of the SCV and will register my concerns with the SCV Webmaster." A few days later, Walthall expanded in a message to the Southern Herald, a semi-official SCV E-list. A military man, Walthall was bothered by the reluctance of many to say the Pledge of Allegiance at camp meetings. (In the March edition of the newsletter for the Army of the Mississippi, one of the SCV's three regional divisions, Editor Gary Ayres compared flying the U.S. flag at a Confederate grave to flying a swastika flag over Americans killed by the Nazis.) Walthall didn't agree with recent moves to make a hero of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, and he didn't like bad-mouthing Martin Luther King Jr. as a "womanizer" either.
"The SCV has got to change to survive," Walthall wrote. "It has got to move away from the racial, secessionist, anti-American agenda being preached."
The reaction to Walthall's criticisms was quite amazing.
One SCV member wrote to warn him he was making a terrible mistake. "You continue to tighten the noose that's already around your neck," the man wrote. "You are screwing with the wrong men." Another, describing himself as "hardcore to the right," warned Walthall that what he'd written "will come back to haunt you, this I promise." James McManus, the North Carolina regional SCV commander who runs the Southern Herald, called Walthall's remarks "twisted, repugnant, disgraceful and distasteful," and angrily accused him of "trashing honorable men." He also asked the national office to open an investigation into what was occurring in Kansas.
McManus is well known as an electronic racist. In late 2004, on another SCV-related E-list, he posted an "Apology to the Black Race" that is also popular on Klan and neo-Nazi Web sites. Shrilly racist, the document "apologizes" for bringing blacks civilization, "for thinking we could educate you," for replacing voodoo with Christianity, for providing welfare, and so on. Among other things, it accuses blacks of "having sexual intercourse with monkeys," thereby producing AIDS. McManus' posting provoked a furious exchange about racism and its threat to the SCV.
This January, Denne Sweeney joined McManus' latest E-list, the Southern Herald. Sweeney's membership, McManus bubbled, was a "high honor."
Charting the Future
Despite all the talk about turning the SCV into an aggressive defender of all things Confederate, Sweeney and his friends have shown a dramatic lack of interest in repairing Confederate President Jefferson Davis' hurricane-ravaged Biloxi estate, Beauvoir. That's because Beauvoir, which is administered by an independent board, shares some of its leadership with a brand new group -- the United Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc., an anti-racist SCV breakaway formed last year. Sweeney also blames some of the new Beauvoir caretakers for a lawsuit brought against the national office that seeks to strip away a $3.5 million fund for post-doctoral medical research grants for the descendants of Confederate veterans. Beauvoir director Robert Murphree, who alleges that the fund has been mismanaged and that no grants have been awarded in years, is asking the court to give his new group stewardship of the fund.
Murphree poses a particular threat to the SCV because the medical fund makes up the bulk of its $5 million reserve. But his is only one of several explicitly anti-racist heritage groups that have arisen recently to challenge the SCV.
These include the Sons of the Confederacy in Triune, Tenn.; the Descendants of Confederate Veterans in Seabrook, Texas; and groups with names nearly identical to Murphree's in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia. A national congress is planned for March in Alabama to consider forming a national group.
The SCV, meanwhile, continues to head ever rightward.
In February, Sweeney, aided substantially by Lyons, produced what was by any measure an extraordinary document -- a proposed new constitution for the SCV to replace the one first adopted in 1896. With the original prologue stripped away, the new constitution would remove all mentions of a reunited United States and also all references to the Pledge of Allegiance, which many SCV radicals despise as an oath to the godless, anti-Southern North. It removes impediments to SCV members taking on political causes and ends the original constitution's strongly apolitical flavor. And it vastly expands the power of the commander in chief, both retroactively authorizing the moves Sweeney made to change the executive council's makeup and giving him the power to unilaterally suspend SCV divisions, camps and individuals. It would also allow Sweeney to run for reelection, which is now against SCV rules. The redrafted constitution will be voted on at the SCV's national convention next August.
This all fits well with the aspirations of radicals including Lyons, who wrote recently that the SCV needs to "engage the enemy and win the war." And that will almost certainly mean continued purges and vicious political infighting. As Kevin Spargur, the editor of the Florida SCV's newsletter, said recently of the enemies of the new SCV: "If we are to win this war, we must give them the bayonet."