Sons of Confederate Veterans Succumbs to Extremists After Long Battle
Despite beating back the candidacy of a key white supremacist, America’s leading heritage group succumbs to extremists
By Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok
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.