Associated Press: December 9, 2001, Raleigh, NC
There is an uncivil war brewing within the nation's largest Confederate heritage group.
In one camp are those who discreetly honor their rebel ancestors while working to assure others that racists have no place in their midst.
The other is represented by Kirk Lyons, a Texas lawyer who has defended members of the Ku Klux Klan, unabashedly declares himself a white separatist and takes every opportunity to battle what he calls "Southern ethnic cleansing."
At stake is the future of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a 105-year-old organization that goes by the motto: "Honoring our veterans. Nothing more. Never less." "Our cause and our colors are being attacked," said Charles Hawks, who is running to oppose Lyons in the race for leadership of one of the organization's three national divisions. "We cannot risk the potential damage to our organization's honor and good name by electing this candidate to a higher office."
Hawks, a 59-year-old retired North Carolina state revenue officer, was among those appalled last year when Lyons was elected councilman for the Army of Northern Virginia, giving him a seat on the SCV's general executive council. Now, the two men are battling for the coveted position of army commander. The winner, in a symbolic sense, would be the heir to Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Lyons agrees that if he wins during August's elections in Memphis, Tenn., it would represent a major change: "It would be the death knell of the bedwetters of the SCV."
From his Southern Legal Resource Center office in Black Mountain, N.C., he says, "They're the people who want to go into a closet, turn the light on once a year and fly their flag in the privacy of a broom closet. And they've never been comfortable with fighting for the flag.
"They'd just as soon polish headstones and meet, eat and retreat."
Founded in 1896 to honor Confederate dead, the Sons of Confederate Veterans has prided itself on being nonprofit and nonpolitical. Confederate veterans who established the group charged it with "the vindication of the Cause for which we fought" and "the defense of the Confederate soldier's good name."
But it seems the group spends much of its time arguing with people about whether you can defend the Confederacy without being a racist.
In 1990, the group passed a resolution condemning hate groups. It points to black members as proof of inclusiveness.
But as the Southern heritage movement grows and becomes more vocal, the SCV has found it increasingly difficult to stay on the sidelines. Groups like the League of the South and the Southern Party are openly working toward secession, and members of those organizations have cross-pollinated the SCV. More strident members such as Lyons are pushing the SCV to go further.
Before he's even heard the complaints against him, Lyons begins to recite the "little litany of things that I've supposedly done or said or been." It starts with his 1990 marriage at the Aryan Nations Church in a ceremony performed by neo-Nazi leader Richard Butler. "Guilt by association," Lyons complains.
(WNCCEIB EDITOR'S NOTE: Lyons neglects to say that HE chose his best man for that wedding, Louis Beam, former Grand Dragon of the Texas KKK and that he apparently met his wife when HE chose to attend the 1998 World Aryan Congress in Idaho. For more examples of how Lyons appears to skirt reality, Click Here. Lyons constantly 'associates' and then tries to distance himself from those voluntary associations.)
Lyons once commented that white Americans will soon become "extinct as the dodo bird" if something isn't done to slow immigration and race mixing. He proposed carving the country up into mini-states, each reserved for people of the same heritage.
In a recent issue of its "Intelligence Report" magazine, the Southern Poverty Law Center called Lyons a "white supremacist lawyer whose clients have been a 'Who's Who' of the radical right."
Lyons says the SCV is where the National Rifle Association was in the 1960s, when Congress passed sweeping gun control laws. The NRA went from being a sport-shooting club that focused on education to the staunchest defender of the Second Amendment, he says, and the SCV must undergo a similar metamorphosis.
"We have 31,000 members," Lyons says. "We're the most effective Confederate heritage organization in the world, but it's not enough. ... We're going to have to raise a million members. We're going to have to raise millions of dollars. We're going to have to get where the NRA is today to do this."
In the meantime, Lyons is assailing those who would violate what he sees as Southern civil rights.
His law center has filed dozens of lawsuits and complaints alleging "heritage violations," and is mailing fund-raising letters to SCV camps around the country. He recently hired as his case manager the daughter of an SCV political-action committee leader.
Lyons has filed suit against President Bush's gubernatorial staff in Texas over the removal of two Confederate plaques in the state supreme court building. And in one of the most recent cases, Lyons is seeking to establish Southern national origin status by challenging the U.S. Department of Labor's decision banning a booth for "Confederate-Americans" from a diversity day celebration.
Critics say Lyons has glommed on to a political cash cow.
"Guess it doesn't matter that the client is claiming origin from a nation that hasn't existed since 1865," scoffs William Pate Jr., an SCV member who works as a marketing specialist from Pittsboro. "Lyons portrays himself basically as the cavalry coming to rescue the heritage from the heathens."
Hawks had no plans to run for the "thankless job" of commander of the SCV's Army of Northern Virginia, named for one of the three Confederate armies and covering the region from Maryland to South Carolina. But he didn't want to see Lyons win unopposed.
Gilbert Jones, a Greensboro restaurateur and commander of the SCV's Northern Piedmont Brigade, said he worries that "radicals would be in control of the SCV."
"I don't believe we can defend our ancestors' honor with dishonorable people," he said.
Darden, a retired data processing manager from Courtland, Va., says Lyons has never expressed any racist or extremist views in his hearing.
"When you're in front leading the battle, you're going to get hit right straight forward," he says. "We just need more people like Kirk."
James Turner, a former commander of the Army of Tennessee, another SCV region, says he was worried about some of the things he'd heard of Lyons and his clientele. But Turner says Lyons sat down with him and addressed every one of those concerns to his satisfaction.
"They paint him with a tar brush, but it doesn't apply," says Turner, a Nashville, Tenn., accountant and architectural software distributor. Lyons says it's the left-wingers that are stoking the controversy about him. But some of the loudest cries aren't coming from the liberal left - or from the outside.
"My credentials as a conservative are impeccable," says Gilbert Jones, a Greensboro restaurateur and commander of the SCV's Northern Piedmont Brigade.
Jones says Lyons' election to commander would be a signal that "the radicals would be in control of the SCV." He worries it might already be too late.
At this year's convention of the Military Order of Stars and Bars, a group for descendants of Confederate officers, Jones warned attendees that the SCV needs to clean house.
"I think we ought to take the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the skinheads and show them to the door," he told the assembly in Lafayette, La., which included Lyons. The reaction, he says, spoke volumes.
"I'll tell you, about half the room went quiet," Jones says. "I got some good applause, but some color left some faces in the room.
"I don't believe we can defend our ancestors' honor with dishonorable people."