It's been 139 years since the Civil War ended. But judging by the latest infighting within the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which came to a head at the group's recent national convention in Dalton, Ga., a truce in the long-running cultural war about the meaning of Southern pride may still be generations away. The nation's preeminent Confederate memorial group, the SCV has always led an uneasy existence. But lately, these descendants of rebel soldiers are finding that paying tribute to the "Lost Cause" has become, in some ways, more divisive than ever as they grapple with troubling questions of heritage and hate. And as factions within the SCV clash over the group's true purpose, its roughly $5 million endowment hangs in the balance.
Like the long-ago war that spawned it, the current controversy runs deep in North Carolina, which is home to key combatants in this modern-day struggle. (See "Uncivil War," the Independent, Jan. 16, 2002, www.indyweek.com/durham/2002-01-16/cover.html.)
The latest high-profile Tar Heel to enter the fray is Raleigh lawyer Sam Currin, a former U.S. attorney and Superior Court judge who chaired the N.C. Republican Party from 1996-1999. Currin, who once worked for Sen. Jesse Helms, remains a ranking member of the state's GOP establishment. (Last month, Currin's law partner, Thom Goolsby of Wilmington, narrowly lost in his primary bid to become the Republican candidate for N.C. attorney general.)
At the SCV convention in late July, Currin was one of two SCV lawyers assigned the touchy task of barring the SCV's harshest internal critic, Walt Hilderman III, from the proceedings. Hilderman is the leader of Save the SCV, a dissident faction that fears the SCV is on its way to becoming a thinly disguised front for white supremacists.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans claims more than 30,000 members--most of whom, it seems, choose to stay above the bitter fray that has enveloped SCV leaders during the past few years. Thousands of the rank and file remain dedicated to the group's traditional pursuits: staging battle re-enactments and antebellum balls, clearing Confederate graves, and boning up on rebel history. But the backers of outgoing SCV Commander in Chief Ron Wilson favor a militant approach to such "heritage defense" issues as flying the Confederate battle flag over state capitols. Elected in 2002, Wilson quickly shook up the organization, appointing like-minded hard-liners to key SCV leadership posts and instituting gag orders against critics. (On his Web site, the Easley, S.C., resident also asserted his opposition to "the homosexual agenda, abortion, and other Godless causes.")
Along the way, Wilson's critics charge, his faction built ties to neo-Confederates in the League of the South and other hard-right groups that speak nostalgically of the days of slavery and still hold out hope for an independent Southern nation.
Among Wilson's closest allies is Black Mountain lightning rod Kirk Lyons, the neo-Confederates' legal eagle. Two years ago, Lyons, who now specializes in "Southern heritage defense" cases, narrowly lost an election for a top SCV leadership post after months of news reports had detailed his history of associations with some of the country's most virulent racists, including leaders of the KKK, National Alliance and Aryan Nation.
Despite these associations, Lyons steadfastly denies that he's a racist. "I'm a Christian, un-reconstructed Southerner from Texas," he says. "That's all I've ever claimed to be." But he admits to separatist sentiments and does not apologize for making common cause with notorious fringe figures. "I'll be the first to admit it, I'm a right-wing name-dropper," Lyons said in a 2002 interview. "I have known all of them, talked to all of them, have probably given advice to all of them. That doesn't make me one of them."
In 1996, Lyons founded the Southern Legal Resource Center. Its chief aim, he says, is to "stop the ethnic cleansing of Dixie," principally by suing schools, companies and other institutions that bar the display of the Confederate flag. In his crusade, Lyons has adopted the rhetoric of the civil-rights movement, arguing (without a trace of irony) that "Confederate Southern Americans" are now an oppressed minority group. Most judges don't buy it, but even when Lyons loses a case, he continues to cash in on the Confederate cause. At the SCV's Dalton convention, the group voted to give $20,000 to the SLRC to support Lyons' lawsuits.
The SCV-SLRC working relationship appears to be strengthening on several fronts. At the convention, the delegates also approved a resolution, introduced by Lyons' Black Mountain-based SCV "camp" (or chapter), to "proclaim SCV members as Confederate Southern Americans and the Confederate Flag as a Christian and ancestral symbol." And on Aug. 1, Lyons says, the SLRC hired a new executive director: former SCV Chief of Heritage Defense Roger McCredie.
Meanwhile, another outspoken SCV member didn't fare so well at the conference. Former Charlotte police officer Walt Hilderman, the Save the SCV leader, is one of about 350 SCV members from North Carolina who were suspended from the SCV last year for allying themselves with the anti-racist dissidents.
Nonetheless, Hilderman decided to run for commander in chief, and he hoped to make his case to conference delegates that extremists are sullying the SCV's reputation. But he didn't even make it to the nominating floor. According to Hilderman, two lawyers for the group--Sam Currin and outgoing SCV "Judge Advocate-in-Chief" Roy Burl McCoy--met Hilderman at the door of the conference center and told him he was prohibited from participating in business sessions, including the elections. The attorneys were backed up by three security guards, Hilderman says, and McCoy and Currin instructed him that, should he try to enter the SCV elections, police officers were on standby to arrest him for trespassing.
For the time being, Hilderman retreated. Meanwhile, Denne Sweeney of Texas was elected to the commander's post on a platform that supported continuing the purge of Save the SCV members. One of Sweeney's first acts was to appoint the SCV's new Judge Advocate-in-Chief: Sam Currin.
Currin could not be reached for comment before press time. A 1997 profile in The News & Observer noted that: "Currin says he loves three institutions: the Republican Party, his church and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In the waiting room of his downtown Raleigh law office are issues of the magazines Southern Partisan and Confederate Veteran. The walls are decorated with paintings of Gen. Robert E. Lee and other famous Confederates." Asked to name a "major gripe" of his, Currin answered: "How right-wing extremists have taken the Confederate flag as their symbol." Interestingly, Currin has had a close and confrontational encounter with such extremists; in 1986, during his tenure as a U.S. attorney, Currin successfully prosecuted members of the White Patriot Party, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group in North Carolina.
For his part, Hilderman says he'll continue to challenge the SCV leadership during an upcoming administrative hearing regarding his expulsion from the group. "We've got to stop this foolishness of modern socio-political activity and begin teaching the Confederate soldier's part of American history and why he did what he did in his time, rather than allowing all these other radical groups to wrap themselves in the flag of the Confederate soldier and say they stand for the same things he did."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog group that focuses on the racist right, says the events in Dalton are a further sign that the SCV is at risk of being taken over by radicals. "The removal of Hilderman by force, when all he's asking for is for hate groups to be thrown out of the SCV, is quite disturbing," says Heidi Beirich, who writes for the center's quarterly Intelligence Report.
Despite all this internal turmoil, some observers may wonder: Why should anyone outside the SCV care about the direction the group may be heading? Because, Beirich argues, "If haters like Lyons and Wilson and others are able to wrest control over the organization definitively, they'll have a $5 million piggy bank with which to push their propaganda. That to me is the biggest threat."