Traditions on the line

News & Record/July 21, 2002
By Tom Steadman

Nearly a century and a half after the last shots were fired in the Civil War, a new fight has broken out among descendants of the losing side.

But instead of muskets and sabers, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are using verbal blasts, e-mail and the ballot box. At stake, say many members and outside observers, is the identity and future of the group, founded 106 years ago to honor the heritage of Confederate soldiers.

"I've always told folks that the SCV has no more racists in it than the average country club," says John Shelton Reed, a Southern cultural historian at UNC-Chapel Hill who is not a member, but frequently speaks to SCV groups.

But next week's national convention in Memphis, where members will elect new leaders, could change his mind, Reed says.

One of the three candidates to head the Army of Northern Virginia, which encompasses a six-state area, including North Carolina, is Black Mountain lawyer Kirk Lyons, known for defending far-right and white-supremacist causes.

Lyons' election, Reed says, could mean that the group is taking a harder-line political focus likely to alienate more moderate members who revel in history and culture. "Or, it could mean that the SCV was something I never thought it was," Reed says.

More troubling, some say, is what the SCV could become.

"This is an attempted takeover of the SCV by people who are fundamentally extremists and flying in the face of the Constitution," says Mark Potok of the watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama. "It's the Civil War redux, on a small scale but with high stakes."

The SCV, with 31,000 dues-paying members, is a "tempting prize for white supremacists," he says. By contrast, the Council of Conservative Citizens, described by Potok as the nation's largest hate group, has only 15,000 members. "The vast majority of groups we look at have only 10 or 15 members," Potok says. "This is power, and serious money."

Lyons has denied being a racist and says he is a member of the ACLU. As an attorney, he has represented clients belonging to the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party. He has decried race-mixing and called for curbs on immigration. On German TV, he has praised that country for "producing the greatest fuhrer of the 20th century."

In his native Texas, Lyons founded the CAUSE Foundation, dedicated to protecting the civil rights of right-wing groups and individuals. In Black Mountain, he started the Southern Legal Defense Center, which he says specializes in preserving Southern heritage. In recent years, the SLDC has fought numerous legal battles over the display of the Confederate flag.

In 1990, he married the daughter of an Aryan Nations leader at that group's compound in Idaho, with Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler performing the ceremony.

In his platform, posted on the Internet, Lyons says he wants to triple the SCV membership and to follow the example set by the National Rifle Association, which moved from being a gun-lovers club to a political power. Lyons says he plans to do more than polish gravestones and rally for the Confederate flag.

Lyons promises in his platform to "blow the whistle and send the troops into battle."

Lyons, who has held SCV membership for more than 20 years, has refused interviews in recent weeks. He accused supporters of election opponent Charles Hawks of Raleigh, past commander of the SCV's North Carolina Division, of airing the group's dirty laundry in public and dividing the membership when earlier news reports appeared about Lyons' candidacy.

SCV divisions in several states subsequently adopted resolutions forbidding members to discuss the issue with reporters. Hawks, a former state revenue officer, declined to be interviewed for this story.

A public battle between factions would make it more difficult for whoever wins -- Lyons, Hawks, or South Carolina candidate Randy Burbage -- to relate to the total membership, Lyons told the News & Record in a phone conversation from his Black Mountain office.

"It's an internal election, and it's highly inappropriate to talk about it publicly," Lyons said.

Some of Lyons' supporters among the SCV's more than 3,500 North Carolina members are taking a harder line.

"If any SCV member talks to the press about the election from N.C. they will be best advised not to be in Morganton any time soon," James Pierce, commander of the SCV's Col. Samuel McDowell Tate Camp in Morganton, wrote in an e-mail sent out to state members. Earlier, members received an e-mail featuring a racist caricature of a black woman, labeled "typical Hawks supporter" and containing language in slave dialect. Several members said the return address on the e-mail indicated Pierce was the sender. Pierce did not respond to a News & Record query about the e-mail messages.

Greensboro camp commander Gilbert Jones has become a lightning rod in the election controversy because of his outspoken opposition to Lyons. A local restaurant operator, Jones makes no bones about his political conservatism but says that racism has no place in the SCV.

"I think we ought to take the racists and the skinheads and the neo-Nazis and show them the door," Jones has said publicly to the SCV membership.

Jones ignored SCV resolutions banning talks with the media, and was recently interviewed by the CBS Evening News. That interview tentatively is scheduled to air Monday, July 29, on the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather (6:30 p.m., WFMY).

The SCV's national convention begins July 30 in Memphis, with the vote scheduled for Aug. 1. The Army of Northern Virginia is one of three "armies" in the SCV, but it is the best known and encompasses six Southern states, including North Carolina. In effect, it is Robert E. Lee's old command.

If Lyons is elected, the symbolism will be obvious, Jones says. Ultimately, Jones believes, Lyons will seek to become the commander-in-chief of the SVC.

"I don't feel that's the image we're looking for," Jones says. "Enough guys like him, and it proves our critics are right."

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, founded in Richmond in 1896 and open to all male descendants of Southern veterans who served "honorably," has long fought the racist label.

The group is not easily understood in terms of 21st century American culture. SCV members prefer to call the conflict the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, or the War for Southern Independence, rather than a civil war.

They stubbornly maintain that secession, not slavery, was the direct cause of the war, though most will acknowledge that the bitter political fight between "slave states" and "free states" sparked most Southern states to secede.

Politically correct or not, they say that the vast majority of Southern troops were defending their homeland, not the institution of slavery, since most owned no slaves; point out that some Southern blacks fought with the Confederacy (some members claim that tens of thousands did so); emphasize that not all slaves were mistreated and some showed obvious affection for their white owners; and maintain that secession itself was probably legal under the U.S. Constitution.

Those stances, plus the SCV's adamant view that the Confederate battle flag should be flown proudly, puts the group at odds with much of mainstream America. Experts say it also leaves the SCV open to possible manipulation by far-right political groups.

"The whole Confederate mystique has been very vulnerable to exploitation by hate groups, because that mystique became tied, in the 1950s and '60s, with the defense of segregation," says Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

"People opposed to changing the South's racial system used Confederate flags at rallies," Wilson says. That indelibly linked racism to the Confederacy in the public mind, he says.

"The Sons of Confederate Veterans traditionally have denied that link," Wilson says. "They say it's just history, culture and celebration. But they're vulnerable because of what happened in the '50s and '60s."

The SCV's very reverence for the South and the Confederacy is unsettling to many people, Wilson says.

"The general American culture is very hostile to the 'Lost Cause' and the idea of defending the Confederacy," he says. "They don't get much sympathy, even the members who are interested in heritage and culture."

Meetings at most camps are conducted like those of Kiwanis, Rotary or other civic clubs.

At Jones' Greensboro camp, named for local Civil War veteran Col. John Sloan of the Guilford Grays militia unit, meetings are convened after a sit-down meal and begin with salutes and pledges to the U.S., North Carolina and Confederate flags, followed by a sing-along to "Dixie."

Most programs feature a speaker and focus on history or artifacts. Last week's program featured a historian from Appomattox National Park. Previously, a "show-and-tell" program featured artifacts -- bullets, muskets, ancestral portraits and such -- brought in by camp members. Fund-raising projects are discussed, not politics.

SCV members say the scene is similar when SCV camps meet in High Point, Asheboro, Rockingham County and in most places across the state.

"We're as American as apple pie," says Lennie Lamb, commander of the Capt. Winfield Scott Lineberry Camp in Asheboro. "We believe in our heritage. Our ancestors fought and died for what they believed in. We know the war is over, but we believe we ought to preserve their heritage."

Far-right politics are the exception rather than the rule in the SCV, Lamb says.

"Some people are a little bit hard-headed, but for the most part, 98 percent are not that way," he says.

Todd Southard, adjutant of the Lt. F.C. Frazier Camp in High Point, says he joined to preserve his Confederate heritage. "A lot of Southern history has been taken out of schools," he says. "I wanted to uphold my ancestor, but also to uphold my heritage."

Men who pay from $35 to $45 a year, depending on the individual camp, to join the SCV almost always do so because of a love of history and an interest in the Civil War, says Rick Loman, an architect who is treasurer of Greensboro's Sloan Camp.

"Politics is supposed to stay out of it; what we're interested in is the history," Loman says.

But in Charlotte, where the 270-member Maj. Egbert A. Ross Camp boasts of being the second-largest SCV camp in the country, the philosophy differs. Commander Richard Whelchel, a Charlotte business executive, says the SCV is at a fork in the road.

"One camp says, 'We'll play around with rusty muskets and things of that nature and say that's honoring our Confederate veterans.' The other says, 'Our veterans actually fought for something; why don't we go out and do an education campaign to show what that was?'"

No one pledges allegiance to the U.S. flag at Charlotte camp meetings. No U.S. flag is present, Whelchel says.

"Most of them are military veterans, so there's no difficulty with patriotism," Whelchel says. "But the 'indivisible' clause in the Pledge of Allegiance gives some problems. The issue of secession was the whole issue. The whole thing of honoring Confederate veterans depends on the secession argument. If the whole nation was indivisible, that wouldn't be honoring the Confederacy."

W.S. "Chip" Pate, a Pittsboro public relations executive who recently finished a two-year term as public information officer for the North Carolina Division of the SCV, says the group has grown in recent years to include members on the political fringe.

He mentioned Lyons' camp in Black Mountain, Pierce's Morganton camp, and Charlotte's Ross camp.

But the majority of SCV camps, and members, are decent, honorable people, Pate says.

"In my lifetime, I've probably heard from no more than 50 to 100 of these kooks," he says. "There is an emerging, fringe element that is very loud, very vocal, even if they aren't very large. There are some members who get caught up in this."

Lyons wants to perform a makeover, Pate says. "He's interested in changing the SCV into what he calls a Southern civil rights organization. He wants to go shout down the NAACP."

The question, says Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is whether the SCV will mutate into a hate group.

In the late 1980s, he says, the SCV made a determined effort to rid itself of hate groups. It passed a resolution condemning them. But in recent years, groups such as the League of the South and the Southern Party, both proponents of modern-day secession, have made inroads in the SCV, he says. Controversial fights over attempts to remove the Confederate flag from statehouses in South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi only fueled the rising neo-Confederate movement in the South, Potok says.

Potok says that many of his acquaintences in the SCV fear that Lyons and his backers have the votes to effectively take over the organization.

"Many people in the SCV are talking about leaving," he says.

Jones, the Greensboro camp commander, said that option has been discussed. Secession after all, is a subject dear to the heart of most SCV members.

"We have a good precedent," Jones says.

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