The League of the South, formed in 1994, has grown more radical over the years. But lack of success has sparked a new effort to present a kinder, gentler face.
As recently as June, Michael Hill, leader of the neo-Confederate League of the South (LOS), thought racist activist Matthew Heimbach was a real swell guy.
Dazzled by Heimbach’s scuffle with “violent socialists and communists” at a Washington D.C. May Day rally, Hill presented the just-graduated founder of the White Student Union at Maryland’s Towson University with the LOS’ Forrest “First With the Most” Award for aggressive promotion of Southern independence.
“That’s the kind of bravery and courage and fortitude and duty that I like to reward,” Hill said at the LOS’ annual conference in Wetumpka, Ala. A couple of days later, a new LOS promotional video was shown featuring four LOS members, including Heimbach. “We’re the hard core of the hard core,” one boasts.
A mere four months after that, Heimbach was LOS history.
Heimbach, who already had a long history of consorting with white supremacists, had made a mistake: He had come out openly as a neo-Nazi, allowing himself to be photographed at a September Aryan Terror Brigade event sieg-heiling the camera, and announcing that he intended to give a speech at a November rally of the National Socialist Movement, America’s largest neo-Nazi organization.
Heimbach “has apparently decided to cast his lot with Nazis and others who do not represent the traditional South, the Southern Nationalist movement, and The League of the South,” Hill wrote in October. He then disinvited Heimbach from an LOS rally and described him, for the first time, as a
“former” LOS member.
It was a moment that said a lot about the contemporary LOS.
Hill and his LOS are not neo-Nazi — but they have been happy over the years to consort with such people. Just this August and September, Hill granted interviews to the American Nationalist Network, a plainly neo-Nazi radio show. Around the same time, a new chairman took over the LOS’ South Carolina chapter — Michael Cushman, a former member of the National Alliance, once the leading neo-Nazi organization in America. And the LOS’ longtime Florida leader is Michael Tubbs, a self-described member of the “white Aryan race” who spent four years in prison after prosecutors alleged that he and his brother had robbed a huge cache of guns and explosives from the military to arm their group, Knights of the New Order. Tubbs, they said, had drawn up lists of targets owned by Jews and black people.
But this was different. Heimbach had gone very public.
The LOS has been struggling for years. At around the turn of the millennium, six years after Hill began the organization while still working as an Alabama college professor, the neo-Confederate movement was peaking and Hill claimed to have some 20,000 members. But the movement has gone downhill since then, with Hill’s efforts to build a political machine and start a neo-secessionist movement in the South singularly unsuccessful. As evidence emerged of Hill’s personal racism and the goals of his LOS — principally, to create a country ruled by “Anglo-Celts,” or white people — the intellectuals who peopled his group drifted away. So did many others who initially thought they had simply joined a Southern pride group.
The LOS had moved steadily rightward from the start, going from complaints about the treatment of white Southerners to explicitly advocating secession. It soon began to condemn racial intermarriage, defend segregation and slavery, and openly advocate a white-run theocracy with different rights assigned to different classes of people. Then, after Barack Obama was elected, it grew more militant still.
In 2011, for the first time, Hill urged his members to buy AK-47s, hollow-point “cop-killer” bullets and, most dramatically, “tools to derail trains.” The LOS offered training on how to draw down on an opponent. Hill said that the idea that violence solves nothing is a myth, adding that it “does settle many things.” Just this July, he complained that there was no place for real Southerners in the GOP.
But none of this seemed to help Hill rebuild his movement. Apparently, this summer, his sagging fortunes finally prompted Hill to make some changes.
At an August demonstration in Uvalda, Ga., the new LOS was on display. The rally was not aimed at creating a new country, but instead merely protested the “demographic displacement” of native Southerners by immigrants, an issue with wide appeal on the right. Supporters were instructed in advance not to wear T-shirts, jeans, or belt buckles or hats with messages, flags or pictures — instead, they were asked to wear button-down dress shirts and belts. They were not allowed to bring signs — those would be provided by the LOS, and only with authorized messages. Most remarkably, supporters were told to leave the Confederate battle flag, long the symbol of the movement, at home. In its place, LOS organizers brought two newly devised flags, representing Georgia secession and southern nationalism.
“Wave,” Hill instructed followers, adding that only designated spokesmen would be allowed to speak to reporters, “and give a big, friendly smile!”
Although only about 50 LOS members made it to the rally, it did show some signs of success. That was most obvious in the support the group got from Uvalda Police Chief Lewis Smith, who provided donuts and coffee to the demonstrators and allowed them to use the department’s rest room facilities. Hill returned the favor, presenting the congenial chief with the LOS’ Robert E. Lee Award for Duty.
Afterward, Cushman, the principal organizer of the event, pronounced the new approach a success on his online Southern Nationalist Network. “The Uvalda model works,” he wrote. “Some people on our side doubted that our approach stressing professionalism, normality, using a new symbol and staying on message would work.” On the white nationalist American Renaissance website, sympathizer Gregory Hood wrote that LOS events were no longer “just an exercise in nostalgia.” Instead, he concluded, “There is at least the potential for growth and the possibility of victory, something that was absent even a few short years ago.”
“We wanted to show our many sympathizers that the League if full of normal, ordinary White Southerners,” wrote another LOS principal, Brad Griffin.
Cushman and Griffin — a young man from Midway, Ala., who married the daughter of the Gordon Lee Baum, the leader of the hate group Council of Conservative Citizens, this fall — seem to now make up the younger leadership core of the LOS. It appears that it was them who convinced Hill to adopt a kinder, gentler approach to building a racist movement of secessionist Southern whites.
Heimbach at one point seemed destined to join that youthful leadership core. But with the photo of him standing beneath two large swastikas, sieg-heiling with a group of neo-Nazis and Klansmen, that does not seem possible any more.
To many LOS supporters, that’s a relief.
“This is the best news I’ve had all day,” Josh Doggrell wrote on a members-only LOS Web forum right after Hill’s ejection of Heimbach.
“A necessary step, sadly,” Cushman wrote. “He might as well have posed in a Klan uniform next to a burning cross,” added Jared Shipley.
“I don’t say much to rock the boat,” said “Johnny Reb,” “but it’s a wise step.”
Griffin, who knew Heimbach well, pointed out that “[w]e simply cannot form a popular front with the ‘Aryan Terror Brigade’ and expect to connect with our target audience.” But he also said, in words that may say more about the real core of the LOS and its ideology than any others, “I still consider Matt a friend.”