LACK MOUNTAIN, N.C., Dec. 5 For most of its 105-year history, the Sons of Confederate Veterans has worked quietly to honor its members' ancestors by cleaning cemeteries, marking graves and supporting genealogical research. If there were schisms, they were likely to be over the authenticity of the brass buttons on a Civil War re-enactor's uniform.
These days, however, the 31,400- member organization is facing its own Antietam, a divisive political battle that may define its mission and image for years. In broad terms, that battle concerns how aggressively the group will participate in the South's now-ubiquitous fights over the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Lost Cause. More narrowly, it comes down to what the Sons of Confederate Veterans will do about one man, Kirk D. Lyons.
Mr. Lyons, a 45-year-old lawyer and father of five, is the great-great- grandson of an Alabama infantryman who fought at Gettysburg. He has been a member of the Sons for 24 years and is an avid battle re-enactor who stocks his closets with antique uniforms and lines his office walls with muskets.
He also has a long, well-documented history of professional and social associations with leaders of some of the country's most notorious hate groups, including the Aryan Nations, the White Patriot Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In 1990, he married the daughter of an Aryan Nations leader in a ceremony at the group's Idaho compound that was conducted by Richard Butler, its neo-Nazi leader.
He founded and directs a law firm here in the mountains just east of Asheville that is devoted, in his words, to ending "the ethnic cleansing of Dixie." His unique and as yet unsuccessful legal theory, used to challenge efforts by schools and employers to ban Confederate images on T-shirts and lunch boxes, contends that "Confederate Americans" deserve constitutional protection as a distinct "national origin."
This fall Mr. Lyons announced his candidacy to become commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, a six- state grouping that is the largest of three making up the Sons of Confederate Veterans. His candidacy has tapped into the frustrations of many in the organization who believe that it should lead the defense of Confederate heritage and that lawsuits should be fired like Minie balls when symbols are threatened.
But others in the group, which has passed resolutions condemning the appropriation of Confederate imagery by white supremacists, say they are alarmed. They fear that Mr. Lyons's growing prominence will create a perception that the organization is racist and has much in common with the extreme groups that sometimes share its cause.
Charles T. Hawks, the commander of the Sons' North Carolina division, was so concerned that he decided to run against Mr. Lyons in the election, to be held next summer. In a Nov. 15 letter to leaders of the group, Mr. Hawks wrote that Mr. Lyons's "alleged ties, whether real or perceived, to certain infamous organizations could be devastating to the S.C.V."
"I'm afraid," Mr. Hawks said in an interview, "that if he's elected we will be considered racist because we elected him."
Mr. Lyons maintains that Mr. Hawks and his kind are "bed-wetters" not up to the task of defending Southern heritage against the coalition of politicians, civil rights groups, business leaders and newspaper columnists who have waged the flag fights of the last decade. "They're afraid of their shadows," Mr. Lyons said. "They're terrified of being called a racist. Anybody in Southern heritage is going to have to face that they're going to be called a racist."
Eloquent and engaging, Mr. Lyons maintains that he is not a racist, an anti-Semite or a white separatist. Nor, he said, is he a white supremacist: indeed, whites "are probably some of the stupidest people I know, because they will not look out for their own self-interest."
He defines himself as "an unreconstructed Southerner from Texas and a Christian." That means, he said, "that my family didn't surrender in 1865 and I haven't surrendered."
Mr. Lyons said that if he had defended Klansmen and neo-Nazis, it was because they, like all Americans, deserve representation. If he has spoken to extremist groups, he said, it is because they have shown interest in his work.
That said, he admits preferring that the country "be run with Christian, European traditions." He also admits disapproval of his brother's marriage to a Filipino.
Some of Mr. Lyons's opponents said they suspected that his real goal was to use increased influence in the Sons to win financial backing for his law firm. As it is, the vast majority of the firm's $200,000 budget is generated by his regular solicitations of the organization's chapters and members. But his work, he said, is hardly making him rich, and he takes a salary of only $36,000.
Mr. Lyons, who now holds a lesser leadership post in the Army of Northern Virginia, seems to hold considerable support within the Sons. Roger W. McCredie, the group's chief of heritage defense, backs him because "he has succeeded in making other people see that instead of always reacting, we have got to seize the initiative." Patrick J. Griffin 3rd, the immediate past commander in chief, said he admired Mr. Lyons because "it takes a true person of character to stand up and defend unpopular individuals."
Using black Southerners as a model, Mr. Lyons said, he will continue to assert "that Confederate Southern Americans are no longer going to take the back seat of the bus."
"A lot of people have asked Southerners, `Why do you keep fighting the war?' " he said. "Because a lot of people haven't stopped attacking us, that's why. We're tired of being second-class citizens and the stereotype for our good friends in Hollywood and the media. And we're tired of being the whipping boy for the race problems in this country."