Kirk D. Lyons controversy in the Sons of Confederate Veterans
Reprinted by permission. This article originally appeared in Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC) on February 5, 2003.
by Tracy Rose
Intent on his task, a blond-headed child with pink, chubby cheeks plants a miniature Confederate battle flag on a gravesite in a little church cemetery.
The placid image dominates the cover of a booklet on Confederate issues published by the N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Within the SCV's ranks, however, a battle is now raging over whether the group should stick to maintaining gravestones, erecting monuments and studying Civil War history or fight for the right to display Confederate symbols everywhere from schools to statehouses.
The bitter conflict has divided the organization's more than 31,000 members, all of them descendants of Confederate soldiers. Some disaffected members even formed a splinter group Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans last fall to defeat what they call the "radical agenda" of the current national leadership.
And smack dab in the center of the controversy stands Kirk D. Lyons, a Black Mountain lawyer who gained prominence years ago for defending members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. That background attracted national media coverage of the heritage group's internal strife.
Warring philosophies aside, there's also been speculation that the SCV's considerable assets and the estimated $600,000 in annual membership dues may be helping fuel the struggle.
Salvos will doubtless continue to fly this summer, when hundreds of SCV members descend on Asheville for the national group's annual reunion/convention, hosted this year by the city's SCV "camp," or chapter.
To outsiders, it might seem like a tempest in a teapot. But at least one interested bystander believes the outcome of the struggle will have larger implications for the region and beyond.
"I think who wins will be a straw in the wind about how the white South is interpreting its past and setting its agenda for the future," observes UNC Professor Harry Watson, the director of the Chapel Hill-based Center for the Study of the American South.
Things heated up a little more than a year ago, after Lyons announced his candidacy for a key post in the Sons of Confederate Veterans commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. (The SCV's organizational structure is patterned after the Confederate military.)
Lyons serves as chief trial counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit law firm that he describes as the "ACLU for Confederate heritage" for its advocacy on Confederate-flag issues. Lyons, a longtime SCV member, likewise emphasized "heritage defense" in his campaign for the SCV seat.
"We need to be the pre-eminent defender of Southern heritage," Lyons told Xpress. "That is our charge under the charge of Stephen Dill Lee [see "Vindication of the Cause" box]. And I wanted everyone in my administration to live that charge every day. Read that charge when you get up in the morning, go to bed remembering that charge. That charge is what we're about, and that's what we're pushing."
Others, however, want the group to keep a more historical focus. Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans co-organizer Walter C. Hilderman III, commander of the SCV's Sgt. Aaron L. DeArmond Camp No. 1981, in Matthews, N.C., insists that the Sons of Confederate Veterans is the only organization with the resources and credibility to defend the "true story" of the Confederate soldier within the context of his time.
"What we're objecting to is turning the mission of the SCV away from the guardianship of Confederate heritage toward 21st-century activism," explains Hilderman. "That makes Confederate heritage a political pawn and gains us 21st-century political enemies."
But this is more than just a policy dispute; Lyons' background became a key issue in the campaign, which garnered national media attention.
Before Lyons began pushing Confederate-flag issues in court, he'd already made a name as a defender of the radical right. And though Lyons insists he is not a white supremacist, white separatist or anti-Semite, he has racked up a long list of professional and personal connections with clearly racist overtones including getting married in the Aryan Nations church, his friendship with former Texas KKK leader Louis Beam, and his legal representation of Klan members and extremist Tom Metzger, director of White Aryan Resistance. Lyons' connections were documented in a 2000 Intelligence Report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit organization that monitors and sues extremist groups.
"Today, [Lyons] angrily protests whenever he is portrayed as a racist," the Intelligence Report notes. "But the evidence is against him."
Greensboro restaurant manager Gilbert Jones, the commander of the SCV's Col. John Sloan Camp No. 1290, calls the Southern Poverty Law Center a "pretty credible" source. Jones became a vocal Lyons critic after becoming concerned about where the SCV was headed. The outspoken Jones recalls making a speech at the 2001 SCV convention in Lafayette, La., that drove home the following point: "I thought it was time to take the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Aryan Nation boys and show their butts to the door."
A little more than a year ago, The New York Times reported on Lyons' background in connection with his race against Raleigh resident Charles Hawks for the national SCV post. Speaking about Lyons, Hawks told the Times, "I'm afraid that if he's elected we will be considered racist because we elected him."
Lyons, meanwhile, countered that those on the other side were "bed-wetters" who were "afraid of their shadows." "Anybody in Southern heritage is going to have to face that they're going to be called a racist," he proclaimed.
Lyons lost the election to Hawks by 17 votes. (According to the Associated Press, the vote at the national convention in Memphis was 325-308.)
"I'm proud of the people that supported me, and I think we made our point," asserts Lyons.
Apart from some post-election rehashing, that might have been the end of it (at least until the next SCV elections in 2004). But a series of events last fall quickly turned up the heat again.
In November, SCV Commander-in-Chief Ron Wilson stripped Hawks of his post for leaking information about a September executive session called to consider disciplinary action against Gilbert Jones, according to the Greensboro News & Record. Hawks, who denies the charge, told the newspaper he's being "purged" from the organization because he doesn't embrace the far-right politics of some of its leadership; he's appealing the suspension.
Meanwhile, around the time that Hawks was suspended, Jones and other dissatisfied members announced the formation of Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans, described by Jones as "a group of guys that say the SCV needs to remain a historical and heritage organization. Our place is not in right-wing fringe politics: We can't honor our ancestors if we get caught up in 21st-century politics."
Hilderman maintains that the group is simply trying to return the SCV to its constitutional purpose.
"If someone wants to attack the government and advocate secession, they can join the League of the South," he proclaims in a news release. "If they find some sort of warped virtue in racism, then go to the Ku Klux Klan. But this organization has rejected racism in its past, and it's time to do it again once and for all." In fact, notes the press release, Wilson has appointed members of hate groups to the SCV's national governing board.
Wilson, however, told the News & Record that the SCV has no political litmus test, adding: "They're implying that the SCV has been taken over by a bunch of racists or whatever, which is not true. This is all a silly thing about people trying to get their way. If they don't get their way, they go about labeling someone with odorous terms."
Wilson's link to Lyons has also been duly noted though not, apparently, at the time of the election. The Easley, S.C., resident had served as co-director of the Southern Legal Resource Center before resigning to run for the SCV's top post, notes Lyons. (Wilson's SLRC seat is now filled by H.K. Edgerton, the former head of the Asheville NAACP chapter who is best known, in recent years, for his walkabouts wearing Confederate gray, carrying a Confederate flag and toting a "Heritage Not Hate" sign.)
The battle has now entered cyberspace as well. Not long after Save the SCV launched its Web site (www.savethescv.org), another one cropped up to counter it We Support Our SCV Leadership (www.scvleadership.org). On the latter site, a petition of "indictment" of Hawks, Jones and others claims the men violated the SCV policy on media relations, among other accusations, and calls Save the SCV a "rump group."
A posting by SCV Chief of Staff Ron Casteel further fanned the flames, declaring that Wilson has overwhelming support to rid the organization of this "gaggle of liberal loons now working to infect the SCV with the poison gas of Political Correctness." No one in the SCV can stand aside, he wrote, because, "In this ongoing fight to preserve our Confederate Heritage, this is, as they used to say here in Missouri during the Late Unpleasantness, 'war to the knife and knife to the hilt.'"
Kirk Lyons cuts a striking figure. On a day in late January, the solidly built 6-foot-3 attorney (plus another inch or so when he's wearing his wide-brimmed period hat) sports a red shirt, red tie and dark pants.
Symbols abound. He wears an SCV pin, and in honor of South Carolina (where his law firm is chartered), he sports tiny palmettos and crescent moons on his tie.
His Black Mountain office (in a converted apartment next door to the chiropractic office of his brother-in-law, Neill Payne) has a cluttery feel. One room is lined with books, assorted period guns, a half-dozen swords, and a Will Rogers calendar that belonged to his grandfather.
A metal office cabinet is plastered with bumper stickers people have sent him, which he insists "in no way" reflect the office's political opinions. "Dump Beasley! Keep the Flag!" declares one. Another one, displaying both a swastika and a hammer and sickle, announces, "Politicians Love Gun Control." Yet another Lyons takes pains to find it is a National Organization for Women sticker proclaiming "Flush Rush."
Although his pedigree as an SCV member is not at issue, the 46-year-old Lyons notes that he joined the Children of the Confederacy (a branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy) in Texas when he was 17. An avid re-enactor, he became a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as soon as he was old enough to join. He's now adjutant of the SCV's Isaac Newton Giffen Camp No. 758 in Black Mountain (Payne serves as commander).
"I could probably put my finger on 20 men that served in the Confederate Army that are kinfolk to me," Lyons says quietly.
As chief legal counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, Lyons combines his personal and professional interests, filing lawsuits to allow everyone from engineers to schoolkids to display Confederate flags at work and school. His current strategy involves seeking legal recognition of "Confederate Southern Americans" as a people under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"And so I consider myself an advocate, judicial and otherwise, for Confederate Southern Americans," Lyons explains. "That is what I do. And I have gone so far as to try to build a legal framework for Confederate Southern Americans in the judicial system. And it's so far been unsuccessful, but we will push it until the very end."
Lyons complains that critics often accuse him of using "code words" that betray unstated racist/white-supremacist beliefs. But he insists that a "Confederate Southern American" doesn't have to be white. Anyone with an ancestor who was a citizen or subject of the Confederate States of America including children, women and slaves would be covered, he explains.
The Southern Legal Resource Center also has a strong financial link to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The lion's share of the SLRC's roughly $175,000 budget (from which Lyons is paid $36,000 annually) is provided by donations from SCV members, he reports.
"The SLRC couldn't exist without the support of individual SCV members," asserts Lyons. "More than three-quarters of our support comes from individual SCV members."
Before Lyons and two other attorneys formed the Southern Legal Resource Center in 1995 as a clearinghouse for cases involving Confederate symbols, there was the CAUSE Foundation.
In May 1992, not long after Lyons moved to Black Mountain, an article in Green Line (an Asheville-based monthly that was the predecessor of Mountain Xpress) said he served as executive director of CAUSE (an acronym for Canada, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Europe). Formerly the Houston-based Patriot's Defense Foundation, CAUSE raised money to defend "dissidents on the right," Lyons said then.
The article also noted that both Lyons and CAUSE had been the subject of much debate after the Black Mountain News published a series of stories detailing his ties to white-supremacist leaders Tom Metzger and Richard Butler.
Lyons speaks in a sonorous Texas accent that seems equal parts preacher, trial lawyer and a Southern avatar of Rush Limbaugh. Apparently no stranger to inquiries about his background, Lyons answers the question before it's even asked, declaring, "I defy stereotyping."
And though the Southern Poverty Law Center brands Lyons a white supremacist (one of the "top 10 white supremacists," stresses Lyons), he insists that he's not.
"I have never claimed that I'm a white supremacist," Lyons emphasizes. "I have never claimed that I'm a white separatist. I never claim to be anything but this: I'm a Christian and I am an unreconstructed Southerner from Texas. That's the only thing I have ever claimed to be. Ever.
"That means that I did not surrender. Appomattox was halftime; war's not over, because the issues underlying that war are still here today. My Confederate ancestors fought to prevent the nightmare government that we have now that does not respect civil rights, that does not respect personal liberties and is becoming more and more a centralist dictatorship."
For each activity that might be explained by white-supremacist leanings, Lyons has another answer.
Though it's true he was married in the Aryan Nations church, he says it's because his wife's parents went to church there, and the bride's parents traditionally pay for the wedding.
"Yeah, married in the Aryan Nations church. Oh, man, there's the proof," Lyons says scornfully. "No, I fell in love with a very, very beautiful young lady, and we have five kids. I probably have one of the happiest marriages you'll ever hear about."
When asked what he thinks of the views of the Aryan Nations church, he says: "I think that they're absolutely protected by the First Amendment." And though he was at one time certified as an expert on right-wing groups in both a federal and a state court, Lyons insists that he doesn't even know what the Aryan Nations church is saying these days. (A quick look at the group's "World Headquarters" Web site, however, turns up the blatantly anti-Semitic message that "the Jew is like a destroying virus.")
Lyons admits that he grew to know and like former Texas KKK leader Louis Beam even before becoming part of Beam's successful defense team in the 1988 Fort Smith sedition trial. (Beam's co-defendants included Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler.) Yet Lyons declares, "You know, I don't have to agree with someone 100 percent to like them or respect them or to work with them."
"Being a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and having to defend the Confederate soldier's good name which is sullied in just about every time, you know, Hollywood or TV decides to take up the issue of the War Between the States it's not a big jump to figure out that they're probably doing the same thing to these guys in the Klan who just happen to be a little further along the right of the spectrum than I am," says Lyons. "So it really was not hard to give [Beam] a forum to present what had happened to him and be sympathetic to what had happened to him and try to help him."
Lyons also acknowledges that he helped raise money for a legal appeal for Metzger, the head of the White Aryan Resistance. In 1990, the Southern Poverty Law Center won a multimillion-dollar judgment against Metzger in connection with the murder of an Ethiopian man by three skinheads in Portland, Ore. More specifically, says Lyons, CAUSE was raising money to pay Metzger's attorney (his Jewish attorney, Lyons emphasizes) to appeal the case. When the fund raising didn't work out, Lyons says he filed the petition himself, though the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it.
"As vicious and as offensive as Metzger's writings are, he did not violate any crime, and he did not do anything that wasn't protected by the First Amendment," Lyons declares. "And that judgment against him was an obscenity, in my opinion. But because Metzger's the guy everybody is supposed to hate, nobody stuck up for him. Nobody. That's why idiotic idealists like me have to do that, OK?"
Lyons says he represented active Klan members and others in trouble because, "I was one of the few attorneys who would give them the time of day."
Lyons also observes that the KKK has never been able to control its "wilder spirits."
Back in 1992, Lyons told Green Line that he had in fact participated in numerous white-supremacist activities but only, he maintained, as a learning experience, or else to protect the participants' legal rights. "I've been to cross lightings, Hitler birthday parties and Aryan meetings," he said, adding, "They were educational experiences for me."
Asked by Xpress for his own evidence that he's not a white supremacist, Lyons answers: "How do you prove the negative? I don't know that."
Then, sighing, he takes a stab at it, citing CAUSE's successful representation, back around 1995, of a black client who had a white girlfriend and who claimed he was beaten by the Hendersonville police. Lyons also mentions the firm's 76 black clients in the Waco case, in which CAUSE (as part of a team of civil attorneys) sued the federal government on behalf of people injured and killed in the fire at the Branch Davidian compound. (The CAUSE Foundation exists only on paper now, says Lyons, since its main function was to represent the Waco clients. And after a judge found no liability, Lyons says he decided to devote himself to Southern issues.)
And then he notes, "My best friend outside of my brother-in-law is probably H.K. Edgerton," who is African-American.
In a later interview, Lyons admitted to disapproving of his brother's marriage to a Filipino woman, though he said he maintains a relationship with him and his four half-Filipino nieces and nephews.
Despite his controversial background which also includes helping negotiate a peaceful end to the 81-day Montana Freeman standoff back in 1996 Lyons suggests that his résumé was acceptable to the Sons of Confederate Veterans because Confederate symbols are under attack.
"People that lead you in peacetime are not the people who lead you in war," argues Lyons.
History Professor Harry Watson thinks the SCV rift embodies two possible approaches to the Confederate past. One is the assertive, in-your-face declaration that the Confederacy was a good idea that ought to be adapted today what Watson calls the Trent Lott line.
Another view is that the dead did what they thought was right, and we'll respect them for their courage, manhood and military valor but we won't try to apply their ideas to modern politics or culture.
"The third way," says Watson, "would be to say that the Confederacy was really a mistake that slavery was wrong, and that the white South should have recognized it and abolished it. And if it took a war to do that, it's sad, but it had to happen. My personal position would be more like the third."
Together, those three approaches suggest that modern Southerners are struggling with how to interpret the past because of what it means for the future.
"It makes a difference what kind of state flag we have if we're in Mississippi or Georgia," Watson observes. "It makes a difference whether we consider the South to be only the white South or a multiracial South. It makes a difference about what you think about affirmative action. ... Those are all pretty live issues right now."
For example, when Confederate-battle-flag supporters are challenged, they often say it's about heritage, not hate, notes Watson. But the point, he continues, is that it's their heritage not everybody else's. And when it comes to public symbols (such as state flags), if their heritage rules meaning they're the people who count then they're the ones who get to set the public agenda.
"It's not just dead and gone," insists Watson. "It has something to do with the shape of politics today: who gets what."
Watson (who notes that his own ancestry would qualify him for SCV membership) also observes: "It is a sign of the success of the civil rights movement that even the racists say they're not racists. ... You can't call yourself a racist ... and get a hearing anymore."
Jesse Reese Jr., adjutant of the Walter M. Bryson Camp No. 70 in Hendersonville, may speak for many SCV members who are trying to steer clear of the controversy. When asked about it, Reese says he prefers ceremonial duties (such as honoring Confederate Memorial Day May 10 in North Carolina) to political concerns.
"The people that may think it's a racist outfit and are interested in it, we don't want 'em," Reese declares. "They're in the wrong place. ... Most people who are in it are interested in the Civil War and interested in their ancestry and genealogy and what unit their ancestor was in."
Hilderman, however, acknowledges that even the revered "charge" of Stephen Dill Lee is ambiguous enough that it could be read as racist or neosecessionist and that indeed, some extremists in the organization may well let their racism hide behind their fondness for "heritage." To counteract such problems, Hilderman argues that the SCV should take the very modern step of crafting a clear mission statement and agreeing on a set of core values to guide the group's work.
Meanwhile, in the heat of the battle, even Gilbert Jones won't hazard a guess on how it all will come out.
"That's going to depend on Joe Average in the SCV and whether they choose to become involved in the future of the organization," says Jones. "If the average member sits quietly, the radicals are going to take over completely."
Recent events seem to support that fear. Last Friday and Saturday, four brigade commanders sympathetic to Save the SCV were suspended, along with seven camp commanders and the charters of seven camps (whose members are active in the splinter group).
"They're just purging people," insists Jones. "If you don't toe the party line, they're throwing you out."
The other side, meanwhile, is looking toward the future. Lyons talks enthusiastically about Wilson's initiative to create an SCV summer camp in northern Alabama as a way to get the younger generation involved.
"That's where we're losing the war is [with] a lot of kids indoctrinated in the public schools against Southern heritage," muses Lyons. "And so that works the problem right at the root."
Members fight for control of Confederate group © 2003 Mountain Xpress, Asheville, NC