"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."
-- Heidi Beirich, Southern Poverty Law Center
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 pre-eminent 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.
Like the long-ago war that spawned it, the current controversy runs deep in North Carolina, which is home to key members on the front lines of a modern-day struggle. In fact, some major battles are being fought from our back yard, thanks to the involvement of Black Mountain lawyer Kirk Lyons. (For background on the SCV power struggle, see "The War Between the Sons," Feb. 5, 2003.)
And as factions within the SCV clash over the group's true purpose, its roughly $5 million endowment hangs in the balance.
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.")
And 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.
These critics, including the members of Save the SCV, a loosely knit dissident faction, fear the SCV is on its way to becoming a thinly disguised front for white supremacists.
"The ethnic cleansing of Dixie"
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.
A man seemingly dedicated to controversy, Lyons has represented a notorious KKK leader in court, attended Klan rallies, protested the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and spoken to a German neofascist group in Berlin. He's shared the stage with the likes of David Duke at ultranationalist rallies. And in 1990, Lyons married the daughter of Aryan Nations leader Charles Tate at the group's Idaho compound in a ceremony officiated by Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler. Standing beside Lyons was his best man, former Texas Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam.
Yet 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 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 national convention in late July, 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.
Another outspoken SCV member didn't fare so well at the conference, however. Former Charlotte police officer Walt Hilderman III, a leader of Save the SCV, 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 two lawyers for the group, backed up by three security guards, met Hilderman at the door to the conference center and told him he was prohibited from participating in business sessions, including the elections. And Denne Sweeney of Texas was elected to the commander's post on a platform that supported continuing the purge of Save the SCV members.
In an interview last week, Hilderman told Xpress that 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 sociopolitical 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," said Hilderman.
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.
A recent article in the publication quoted a March 2004 e-mail from Lyons in which he argued that "mere Klan membership should not be sufficient to remove a member" from the SCV. (Back in 1992, the SCV passed a resolution to "renounce the KKK and all others who promote hate.") "The fact that they gave Kirk Lyons $20,000, right after he said Klan members should be in the SCV, is not encouraging at all," notes Beirich.
But Lyons told Xpress that the article took his Klan comments out of context. "My private opinion was that Klan membership should not be a bar to membership, per se. In other words, just because a guy happens to be in the Klan, that is not automatically a reason to kick him out." Decisions on such matters, says Lyons, should be left to individual SCV camps.
Some observers may wonder why anyone outside the SCV should care if the group buddies back up to the Klan. What does it matter which direction the SCV is heading? Because, argues Beirich, "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."
[Freelance writer Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]