In history of radical politics, KC researcher connects dots

The Kansas City Star/May 17, 2009

Leonard Zeskind hunches over, one eye clamped to a loupe, and inspects an old black-and-white photograph taped to his office door.

The picture and what he’s looking for tell a lot about what has been on Zeskind’s mind the past few decades.

Taken in 1967, it shows the funeral of George Lincoln Rockwell, the assassinated leader of the American Nazi Party. Standing among the two dozen grievers, next to a floral display in the shape of a swastika, is a thin young man with dark hair, wearing a jacket and narrow tie.

Zeskind wants to figure out whether it’s a young David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klansman who went on to score startling electoral success in the early 1990s as a Louisiana political candidate.

"I think he’s too tall," Zeskind said, postponing a conclusion until he gathers more evidence.

To Zeskind it’s another dot to connect in the evolution of radical, right-wing American politics. In the past 30 years, most of them spent toiling quietly in Kansas City, he has become known as one of the most effective and dogged researchers on the topic, an indispensable resource on fascist and neo-nationalist movements around the globe.

This week brings the culmination of what is essentially a life’s work - or at least a project he started 15 years ago. His new book, "Blood and Politics," is being issued by a major New York publishing house, and for a few moments at least, Zeskind will step into a public spotlight he normally shuns.

The scope of Zeskind’s book can be found in his subtitle: "The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream." It’s Zeskind’s attempt to trace the fragmented lineage of the ultra-right in the U.S., to interpret it as a historical movement, rather than isolated spikes of often-violent activity, and to show how some of its cherished ideas (anti-immigration, for one) have slowly seeped into the wider realm of American political life.

Neo-Nazi publishers and Holocaust deniers. Christian Identity camps. Farm-crisis exploiters. An Arkansas sedition trial. Skinhead-metal recruitment drives. Zeskind’s long and detailed book covers and connects vast amounts of territory, much of it unfolding in the nation’s hinterlands.

"He knows more than anyone," said Judy Hellman, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau here. "Only once in your life do you meet a Lenny Zeskind. He’s a good friend and a great fighter for right."

Zeskind, 59, trim and pewter-haired, traces his political awareness to his boyhood in a Southern city he declines to name. (He keeps a low profile and guards details of his life, which has been threatened more than once over the years.)

At the time of his bar mitzvah, at 13, he was impressed by an NAACP speaker at his synagogue.

"The issue of racism has been a central concern of mine since I was a kid," Zeskind said in his scratchy tenor, a voice that seems squeezed through a tube of coarse sandpaper. "I grew up in an era of great change. Race was always of some immediate concern."

An avid reader from a middle-class family, Zeskind studied philosophy, worked in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and chose a modest, blue-collar career path.

He got to Kansas City by happenstance in 1970 and worked in a lamp factory, but he also spent hours on his own as a community organizer, trying to heal the rift between the black and white worlds.

In a recent essay - he posts one every two weeks on his Web site - he recalled a scene from that work, when he sat with two twentysomething white men who were methodically working their way through a couple of cases of beer.

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