Think the Civil War's over? You might not if you attended the Sons of Confederate Veterans national convention at Memphis' Peabody Hotel during the first weekend in August. No bullets flew, but according to conference participants, a steady volley of rancor--and in one instance, hurled trash--certainly did.
"When it's all said and done, this is basically a history club, and this is a lot of shit to put up with for a history club," says Gilbert Jones, target of the aforementioned trash. A restaurant owner from Greensboro, he's been among the SCV's most outspoken opponents of racism in the ranks, which is why he's in hot water with other members of the group. Jones, along with the several hundred other SCV delegates, came home from Memphis certain that there's no truce looming in the group's battle over history and hate.
As the country's pre-eminent Confederate heritage defenders, the SCV is no stranger to controversy. Most of the time, the 31,000-member organization finds itself unified against outside critics, who charge that its bid to keep the battle flag of the Confederacy flying in public places, and similar historical ventures, amount to thinly cloaked nostalgia for the antebellum, slavery-ridden South.
But during the last decade, a civil war has broken out within the SCV, because some members say their main mission is simply to honor their ancestors. At issue are questions about just how far the organization should go to promote Confederate causes with lawsuits and lobbying, and whether it can afford to ignore the compromising connections of some of its key members.
The tensions came to a head at the Memphis convention, where the SCV held elections that thrust the organization into the national spotlight. In the most closely watched race, a candidate with deep ties to the racist right narrowly lost to a member who had denounced such ties. At the same time, other newly elected leaders, including the incoming commander-in-chief, launched a campaign to muzzle internal critics who say that bigotry threatens the SCV's good name.
Several members from North Carolina are on the front lines of the debate over the principles and purpose of the SCV. And while there are thousands of players in the ongoing struggle, for the past year, one high-profile member has held center stage: Kirk Lyons of Black Mountain.
A lawyer by trade, Lyons has become a singular figure in American fringe politics. Today he directs the Southern Legal Resource Center, which he founded in 1997 in order to "stop the ethnic cleansing of Dixie," as his literature puts it. The firm specializes in modern-day Confederate legal struggles such as preserving memorial plaques on state buildings and the rights of workers and students to wear clothing bearing the battle flag.
For most of the 1980s and '90s, Lyons made common cause with several white supremacist and neo-fascist groups--while at the same time fighting (and occasionally winning) some of their quixotic legal battles. His clients, associates and even extended family members have included leaders of the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Alliance. Along the way, he's praised racial separatism and Adolf Hitler. (For more on Lyons' background and its impact on the SCV, see "Uncivil War," a Jan. 16, 2002, Independent article, online at www.indyweek.com.)
Lyons may have some friends in what many would consider to be low places, but that didn't stop him from catapulting into the upper reaches of the SCV. In 2000, he was elected to a two-year term on the group's national executive council.
This year, he made a bid for the commandership of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), one of the SCV's three regional groupings. Because of Lyons' hard-right history, his campaign garnered an unprecedented amount of media coverage. The week before the Memphis convention, CBS Evening News broadcast a videotape that showed Lyons sharing a stage with David Duke two years ago and offering up his prescription for modern segregation.
"We seek nothing more than a return to a godly, stable, tradition-based society, with no Northern 'isms' attached," he said. "A hierarchical society, a majority European-derived country that will make peace and fair accord with all of its non-European derived neighbors."
It's comments like these that have caused some SCV members to argue that Lyons is a liability to the group. In the same CBS report, Jones, who has served as commander of the Greensboro-based SCV chapter for four years, said that it is "time to take the neo-Nazis, and the white supremacists, and the Aryan Nations boys and show their butts to the door."
Jones' comments riled many of his Confederate compatriots, as he learned in Memphis a week later when he entered the convention's oratory contest. Before an audience of roughly 400 SCV members, Jones says, "I started, and I had no sooner stood up there than they started booing, and people started throwing peanuts and paper, and about half the room got up and left." Then things got surreal, as those who left assembled in a neighboring room and started singing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome."
"I said, you know, guys, I labored under the impression that we were all free to express ourselves," Jones remembers. Then he left the stage.
Despite being shouted down and sneered at, Lyons' opponents did come back from Memphis with a significant victory. Two candidates challenged Lyons, but only one of them, Charles Hawks, a retired state treasury worker from Raleigh, broached the issue of Lyons' ties to hate groups. "Just as Kirk is judged for the company he keeps, so will the SCV be judged by the men we elect," Hawks told The Independent earlier this year. "When this becomes the face of the organization, then we're all branded as racists."
Still, Lyons was endorsed by several current and former SCV leaders, and even many of his critics assumed he'd win the ANV commandership. But after four grueling hours of speechifying and balloting, Hawks squeaked by the Black Mountain firebrand in a run-off vote, garnering 325 votes to Lyons' 308.
"We withstood the fire," Hawks told reporters after the ballots were counted. "We'll be stronger. We'll move on."
Lyons, for his part, vowed to keep on fighting for a more combative SCV. "There will be another race, another day, another time," he said.
And indeed, no one involved in the SCV struggle is resting on his laurels. To begin with, the so-called "Lyons faction," despite the loss of their chief candidate, fared well overall. One Lyons backer, Ron Wilson, of Easley, S.C., won the spot of SCV commander-in-chief, and several others were elected or appointed to top posts in the national leadership.
In addition, Wilson helped lead a new charge to stop SCV members from publicly criticizing each other. In a statement issued shortly before his election, Jones referenced the CBS report and said that "those who aided in this smear of the SCV should be repudiated." He pledged that, if elected commander, he would appoint an Inspector General "to determine the proper constitutional course of action" against such offenders.
During the closing business session of the convention, delegates adopted a resolution that constituted a gag order, of sorts. Its language, which critics say has no legal grounding, forbids members from talking to the media about internal disputes--including, apparently, the row over Lyons' ties to ardent racists.
Days earlier, leaders of the SCV's North Carolina Division had already taken a similar step. On July 29, the division's public information officer and parliamentarian, Boyd Cathey, issued a statement informing members that "the North Carolina Division requests that brigade and camp commanders, officers, and members of the organization refrain from providing interviews or contacting the press about internal SCV affairs."
The attempts to restrict members' public speech appear to be a backlash against those who have spoken out against Lyons, but critics inside and outside the group charge that the N.C. Division has other members who may have good reason to shun public scrutiny.
Boyd Cathey, for instance. His writings and associations have taken him, like Lyons, to the edges of the American ultra-right.
Cathey, 54, has been an archivist with the historical office of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources since 1981, according to the state personnel office. Before that, he studied and worked in Spain, Switzerland and Argentina, at schools and institutes run by Opus Dei and the Society of Pius X, two arch-conservative Catholic associations, the latter of which was censured by the Vatican for refusing to comply with modern reforms. After taking his job as a state archivist, Cathey cultivated ties to two far right publications, Southern Partisan and the Journal of Historical Review.
Southern Partisan, a magazine based in Columbia, S.C., serves as a sort of house organ for the neo-Confederate movement. The magazine, which rants against homosexuality, feminism and minority groups while painting a rosy picture of slavery, has been described by the New Republic as a "gumbo of racist apologias." Cathey first wrote for the publication in 1984, and its masthead lists him as a contributor, editor or senior advisor in all but a few of the issues published between that year and 1999.
Cathey's articles have been some of the milder fare to be found in Southern Partisan, but his writings have shared the pages with unabashedly racist sentiments. In the summer 1984 issue, for example, Cathey wrote a lengthy profile of a Confederate veteran who resisted calls for industrialization in the post-war South. The issue closed with a column by Reid Buckley that said "Negroes, Asians, and Orientals (is Japan the exception?); Hispanics, Latins, and Eastern Europeans; have no temperament for democracy, never had, and probably never will. ... It may be impolite and unpolitic to bring the subject up, but can our democratic system endure unless we close the frontiers to people who are not culturally and racially predisposed to honor its assumptions?"
In 1989, Cathey joined the editorial advisory committee of another controversial publication, the Journal of Historical Review. It is published by the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Institute for Historical Review, the world's leading holocaust revisionist organization, which was founded by the late Willis Carto, a notoriously anti-Semitic publisher.
The institute has made headlines with its claims that Germany did not kill millions of Jews. At the institute's most recent conference, in July, one of Cathey's fellow advisory committee members, French researcher Robert Faurisson, opened his talk by speaking of "the lie of the alleged Holocaust and the alleged gas chambers."
Cathey remains on the advisory committee, according to Mark Weber, the institute's director and the journal's editor. Cathey, reached on the telephone at his home in a Raleigh suburb, declined to comment about either the recent SCV elections or his involvement with Southern Partisan and the Journal of Historical Review.
Jeffrey Crow, director of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, declined to discuss Cathey's activities outside the office. "If I got into a situation where I comment on employees' political beliefs, it would go on forever," he said.
Mark Potok, editor of Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which tracks right-wing extremist groups, has something to say about the matter. "I think the fact that Boyd Cathey is now doing the talking for the North Carolina Division speaks volumes," he says of Cathey's role in the SCV.
"The fact that Cathey could be working in the historical field, it's an absolutely amazing thing," Potok adds. "The Holocaust in World War II is one of the best-known and best- documented facts in all human history. Here you have a guy who is involved in documenting North Carolina history, who, I guess, accepts one of the greatest historical falsifications known to man."