Chip Pate is a history buff on a collision course with the near future. A marketing specialist in Pittsboro, in his spare time Pate serves as public information officer for the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the pre-eminent Confederate history group. He runs the Web site of his Siler City-based SCV camp, edits newsletters and historical journals, and writes columns. He helps restore rebel grave sites and fields questions from the media about Civil War heritage. Along the way, he says he’s spent upward of $15,000 of his own money promoting this region’s Confederate legacy.
But a few weeks ago, Pate removed his framed SCV certificate from the wall, and now he’s considering taking the commemorative license plate, which bears the Confederate stars and bars, off his car. Soon, he says, he may have to quit the organization altogether.
“This is a mess,” Pate says. “I realize I may not be a member of the SCV anymore, and that’s sad.” He is one among several prominent Confederate enthusiasts in this state who fear that the heritage organization they have proudly served is about to shame itself by endorsing modern-day hatred.
The former Confederate officer who founded the SCV charged it with waging “the defense of the Confederate soldier’s good name.” Just what that means is still open to debate. The 31,000-member organization is best known for staging historical re-enactments of key campaigns between the Blue and the Gray. But suddenly, this isn’t about playing soldier anymore.
The SCV has long been criticized by outsiders for harboring racist sympathizers, but lately, the fiercest conflicts have occurred within the group. Sectarian politics that hinge on questions of heritage and hate threaten to tear the 105-year-old institution apart.
Two Tar Heels are in the trenches, vying for the commandership of the Army of North Virginia, the largest of the SCV’s three national groupings. In one corner is candidate Kirk Lyons, a Black Mountain-based lawyer who has made his name as the defender of the radical, and frequently racist, right. In the other is Charles Hawks of Raleigh, a retired tax administrator and present commander of the SCV’s North Carolina Division. Hawks says he’d rather stay out of the spotlight, but that he wants to save the group from a public-relations debacle.
This isn’t exactly Antietam or Gettysburg, but the next tide-turning battle for the Confederacy will occur in Memphis, when the SCV’s national elections are held at the Peabody Hotel in early August.
For an organization supposedly stuck in the past, this election will chart the future. And each candidate is arguing, to the great-great-grandsons of rebel soldiers who will cast the votes in Memphis, that the organization will suffer defections if their opponent wins.
To hear the candidates tell it, this is a horse race, pure and simple, between two different breeds of latter-day Confederates.
Lyons wants the SCV to adopt a combative approach, using lawsuits and lobbying to promote Confederate issues, and sweep aside what he says is an old guard of SCV officials who are too timid because of their fear of being branded racist.
“I think this is the last gasp of the ‘let’s get along’ crowd in the SCV,” says Lyons, who emphatically denies he’s a bigot.
Hawks, for his part, says that this may be the SCV’s last, best chance to show its disapproval of racism in the ranks. So far, he has refrained from calling Lyons a hate-monger, but he will say this: “If you are found in a cave with bin Laden, you are assumed to be a follower of bin Laden. If we elect Lyons, then obviously we approve of his agenda, and his agenda is obviously racial.”
A scrappy and boisterous debater, Lyons seems to relish the opportunity to put his past on trial. “This will give the electorate the clearest possible choice for their commander,” he says. “They can say exactly where they want this organization to go. It could not be clearer.”
“I would agree 100 percent with that,” Hawks says. “That’s probably the only thing I would agree with him on.” A reserved and reluctant campaigner, Hawks says that he wouldn’t have joined the race at all, except that he felt Lyons must be stopped.
In his Black Mountain office, located in a nondescript apartment in this historically liberal town, Lyons is surrounded by militaria. Along with neatly stacked legal documents, piles of mass mailings, several desktop computers and hundreds of military history books, Lyons keeps piles of antique weapons and a closet full of historic war garb.
Lyons, 45, is an avid “re-enactor,” which is to say that he has spent many a day and night playing the part of long-dead soldiers from the Revolutionary War and Civil War. “This weekend, I’m supposed to be going to Trenton to stop Mr. Washington from crossing the Delaware,” he says, “but unfortunately, because of illness in the family and financial realities I think I’m probably going to be in the office.”
With five kids to raise and a busy law firm to run, Lyons’ re-enactor days may be dwindling. But he still prides himself on the authenticity of his outfits, which he’s been hand-sewing since he was a teenager.
Lyons shows off his wardrobe, pointing out the authentic buttons, quilted linings, interior pockets and hand-stitched buttonholes. When possible, he uses original period fabrics, like the 130-year-old silver embroidery he picked up at a shop in Manhattan. “I’ve got sources literally all over the world for the wool, silk, and linen you need to make this type of clothing,” he says. “You know, if it’s not made with the right materials, it’s just not going to look right.
“This is what I collect,” he says. “All of these trunks are full. I have women’s clothes as well.
“If we were doing this interview in 1850, this is probably what I would wear,” he says. “It has a silk brocade vest, and then a black, broad-clothed frock coat. This is what Jefferson Davis would have worn in his office.”
Now that Lyons has launched a bid to wear the commander’s uniform in the Army of Northern Virginia, it’s the details of his career, not his garment-making credentials, that are making news. If there’s a pro-Confederacy activist who’s become accustomed to bad press, it’s Kirk Lyons. For the last 15 years, he’s been described in print as a white supremacist, an anti-government zealot, a leading extremist and everything in between.
“I’ll be the first to admit it, I’m a right-wing name dropper,” Lyons says. “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, save for the fact that I believe they have the same rights under the Bill of Rights and Constitution that everyone has.”
His connections to the radical right are well-documented, and could be summed up in many ways, but his critics usually start with The Wedding.
In September 1990, Lyons was married in a ceremony that suggested his love life had come into alignment with his professional one. The bride: Brenna Tate, daughter of Charles Tate, a leader of Aryan Nations, white power group. The setting: the Christian Identity church on the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. It was a double ceremony: Another daughter of Tate’s, Laura Beth, married Neill Payne, Lyons’ close associate. (Another of Charles Tate’s children, David, was then and is now serving a life sentence for murdering a Missouri state trooper while he was a member of The Order, a right-wing terrorist group.) Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler officiated, and to top it all off, Lyons’ best man was Louis Beam, former Grand Dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan.
Friends like these have made Lyons some enemies. One of them is Monroe Gilmore, who directs Western North Carolina Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry, a watchdog group based in Asheville. Gilmore and Lyons have fought a long-running war of words over whether Lyons’ racist contacts implicate him.
“He says this is just guilt by association,” Gilmore says. “But it’s association after association after association. And when you add to it his activities and what he has said, there’s no question why he is named one of the leaders of today’s white supremacy movement.”
Lyons dismisses criticism of his family ties, calling it “a gutter tactic” that “hits below the belt.” “I married the moonshiner’s daughter,” he says. “It’s the same type of thing. Are we going to attack my wife for the alleged sins of her family?”
Whether or not his reputation gets snarled in the roots of his family tree, Lyons’ work as an attorney and activist may trip up his run for the commandership, at least among moderates in the SCV. Since the late 1980s, when he earned a law degree from the University of Houston, he’s been on the front lines of various cultural and legal battles that were watersheds for the ultra-right.
Operating from Texas, he represented such defendants as Klan leader Beam, who, with Lyons help, was acquitted of federal sedition charges. (It was shortly thereafter, Lyons says, when he lectured on the case at an Aryan Nations conference and fell in love with Brenna Tate.) Other clients and advisees included members of violent right-wing groups like Posse Comitatus, the White Patriot Party and White Aryan Resistance.
Still, Lyons maintains that he’s neither a racist, supremacist nor separatist. “I’m a Christian, un-reconstructed Southerner from Texas,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever claimed to be.”
“I do not regret any of the clients I have represented,” Lyons says, because “they were all on trial because of what they believed.” Still, he is aware that “from a PR angle, a lot of my associations as an attorney obviously are not going to get me into Who’s Who.”
Lyons grounds his defense in religion. “I have never cared what non-Christians think about me,” he says. “I am concerned when Christians take opinions from non-Christians to evaluate me and my work. I’m upset when people go to these so-called watchdog groups and take what they say as holy writ about me.”
But Lyons has provided the watchdogs with plenty of fodder for their Web sites and newsletters. Shortly after his 1992 move to Black Mountain, he founded the CAUSE Foundation, “a clearinghouse for civil rights concerns for European derived people.” The acronym stood for Canada/Australia/United States/South Africa/Europe.
He’s been a lightning rod for criticism ever since. In April 1993, he participated in a protest at the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The same year, a German rightist magazine published a lengthy interview with Lyons, who made waves with his comments about the KKK: “I have great respect for the Klan historically but, sadly, the Klan today is ineffective and sometimes even destructive. … It would be good if the Klan followed the advice of former Klansman Robert Miles: ‘Become invisible. Hang the robes and hoods in the cupboard and become an underground organization.’ That would make the Klan stronger than ever before.”
Lyons says his critics are considering the quote out of its context. “It was very practical advice, but the advice was geared strictly towards making sure that Germans don’t join the Klan. Now if you go to Germany today, you will not find the Klan. You can thank me for that.”
Then there were his 1992 comments at a meeting of German nationalists, which were broadcast by Spiegel TV. Lyons, speaking in German, opened his remarks by saying he was “honored to be in the country that has produced the world’s most famous composers, artists and architects as well as the greatest führer of the 20th century.”
Again, Lyons says, consider the context before passing judgment. And read his words very carefully. “It was a free speech test,” he says. “I knew about their anti-free speech laws, and so a German attorney and I sat down and we crafted my speech to push the envelope.”
Besides, he says, he didn’t name the leader he was praising, and the word Hitler did not pass his lips. Since the title “führer” translates to “political leader,” he says, “I could just as easily have been referring to Helmut Kohl.”
While Lyons became a popular figure among German rightists, he’s done most of his work on the home front. In 1996, he launched his current vehicle for litigation: the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC). The chief aim of the center, he says, is to “stop the ethnic cleansing of Dixie,” largely by filing suit against schools, companies and other institutions that bar the display of the Confederate flag. Lyons is chief trial counsel. His brother-in-law, Neill Payne, is executive director.
The SLRC has filed about 10 cases in federal courts, Lyons says, and is researching and filing claims in roughly 70 other cases. The firm’s victories are few. The most significant recent success came in the ongoing “Hank Williams concert T-shirt case.” Lyons filed a federal lawsuit for two high-school students who were suspended for wearing the shirts, which bore Confederate flags. Last March, a three-judge panel in Ohio ruled that the T-shirts constituted “speech” and that the case would go to trial.
Another important continuing case, Lyons says, is his effort to force Texas to return Confederate memorial plaques to the walls of the state capitol building–plaques that then-governor George W. Bush ordered taken down.
“We are promoters of a Southern civil rights movement, and it’s going to, over the next few years, revolutionize politics and the dispensation of justice in the South,” Lyons says. “And of course it’s going to have spillover into all of the heritage organizations.”
Lyons is part of a “reform faction” within the SCV that backs his mission, he says. “We are not some minority anomaly. The reform faction has been moving to essentially managerial control of the organization for several years now.” And indeed, in the last elections, in August 2000, the Army of Northern Virginia elected Lyons an “executive councilman,” so he’s already got a vote, and a foothold, on the SCV national board.
Many of the donations that keep his legal center operating come from SCV members, Lyons says. “Our opponents demonize the SLRC for one reason,” he wrote in a recent fundraising letter that went out to thousands of SCV members. “We are the most effective and hard-hitting fighters on the Southern Heritage front.”
Given his controversial history, Lyons is the media draw, but his opponent, Charles Hawks, enjoys his own prominence as the commander of the N.C. Division of the SCV. He’s also been an active defender of the Confederacy, but his approach differs markedly from that of Lyons.
If Lyons is a firebrand, Hawks is a slowly smoking ember. He answers questions about the election in clipped, carefully chosen phrases, and often defers to his spokesman, Chip Pate, for direct comment on the hot-button issues in the campaign.
Hawks, 59, keeps both the United States flag and the Confederate battle flag pinned to his blazer lapel, and his blood-red necktie is crossed with stars and bars. But that’s about as far as he takes it, cosmetically speaking; though Hawks says he appreciates the work of the re-enactors, that’s not his passion.
The SCV’s work, Hawks says, is mostly a matter of quiet and determined memorial projects. “This is what we’re doing to honor our veterans, getting their stories out,” he says. When critics question whether he’s manned the barricades enough for the Confederate cause, he ticks off a list of his historical efforts.
Hawks is proud of the N.C. Division’s role in arranging the rededication of the Confederate Memorial Forest–125,000 acres of spruce pines in western North Carolina that were preserved with funds from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. For decades, the forest has had no sign. Now, thanks to the SCV, it does.
And under Hawks’ leadership, the division has waged a successful legal challenge to secure the SCV’s right to have commemorative license plates, and conducted a vigorous outreach campaign to explain the objectives of the group.
Come May, when Hawks’ state division term expires, he had planned to retire from SCV leadership. Lyons’ announcement last fall that he would run for the commander’s post in the Army of Northern Virginia changed that. Hawks says he went to other division officers and entreated them to mount a challenge. “Nobody else would do it, so it’s up to me,” he says.
“Just as Kirk is judged for the company he keeps, so will the SCV be judged by the men we elect,” Hawks says. “When this becomes the face of the organization, then we’re all branded as racists.”
For years, the SCV has gone to some pains to separate itself from associations with racist causes. In 1989, for example, the national convention passed a resolution denouncing hate groups that fly the rebel flag. Still, no matter who is flying it, that flag remains an offensive symbol to many. And that’s all the more reason, Hawks and his supporters say, to choose leaders untainted by charges of bigotry.
“This is a critical time for the SCV,” Hawks wrote in a Nov. 15 letter announcing his candidacy. “Our cause and our colors are being attacked on numerous fronts, and often being raised on high by organizations whose objectives are not to honor the sacred memories and sacrifice of our ancestors, but rather to sow seeds of prejudice and divisiveness.” He warned that Lyons’ “alleged ties, whether real or perceived, to certain infamous organizations could be devastating to the SCV.”
Lewis Lawrence, a farmer in Sanford who serves as heritage officer for the N.C. Division, says that a Lyons victory would nullify years of SCV outreach efforts. “We’re always talking about wanting to be accepted as a mainstream civic organization, and then we have someone like this running,” he says. “As long as I’ve been in the SCV, we’ve always stood against white supremacy and the Klan and things like that, and Lyons’ path would appear to be the exact opposite.”
A fog of racial contradictions surrounds a recent scene at a Chinese lunch buffet in Black Mountain, two days after Christmas. At first, it seems a most unlikely gathering.
On one side of the table are Kirk Lyons and Neill Payne, alleged white supremacists. On the other sits H.K. Edgerton, a black civil-rights activist clad in Confederate gray.
In the 1990s, Edgerton served as president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. Then he started dressing in Confederate battle garb and toting the rebel flag and a “Heritage, Not Hate” sign. Today he is chairman of the board at Lyons’ legal center, and may be Lyons’ biggest fan. The pair line up at the buffet before returning to their table.
These men don’t just eat together, they fight together. The SCV camp run by Lyons and Payne has appointed Edgerton an honorary member, even though he has not identified an ancestor who fought with the Confederacy. The trio were introduced in 1997 by civic officials who hoped they could broker some peace during an upcoming KKK march in Asheville, which authorities feared might turn violent. At the time, Edgerton was president of the Asheville NAACP.
Between mouthfuls of egg rolls and fried rice, they recount their fateful meeting, which took place in a pub. “We hit it off with him immediately,” Lyons says. “It’s like we’d met a long-lost friend.”
“For me, it felt like being at a peace conference, because out of all this terror and evilness, I had met two men who had finally showed me a little light,” Edgerton says.
The happy-hour crowd flowed in, Lyons says, and “we sat and talked, gosh, for hours, while everybody in Asheville walked around us.” It was about then that someone snapped the notorious “napkin photo.”
“We started joking about the NAACP being ‘the Klan with a tan,’” Payne says. “And we said, ‘Well, H.K., we’ll just join your Klan.’”
Strange high jinks ensued. “We put our ‘hoods’ on–the dinner napkins,” Lyons remembers. The three men hoisted the napkins to their foreheads and posed for a photo. When the photo ran on the front page of the Asheville Citizen-Times, it made for surreal Southern slapstick, either hilarious or revolting, depending on your perspective. The state NAACP responded negatively, and in January 1999, Edgerton was ousted in a reorganization of his chapter.
Edgerton says he’s happier with his new crew. “I wish to God, if I could have a wish, that I could meet at least 10 more ‘white separatists’ like Kirk D. Lyons and Dr. Neill Payne,” he says.
“All my life, I have been taught to hate white folks in the Southland of America. And all this lying has been done to black folks about that flag and about the Southern Christian white folks–my problems have never been with the Christian white folks in the South.”
Edgerton’s problems, he says, are with the Yankees, who he blames for bringing misery to blacks in the South. “It was our homeland, just like it was white folks’. I certainly wouldn’t call Africa our homeland; they didn’t want us then and they don’t want us now.”
“You know, those Africans who climbed off those boats didn’t know anything about my lord and master Jesus Christ,” he adds. “It was on these Southern plantations where Sunday was the most integrated day of the week.”
Edgerton says many Southern blacks made common cause with the Confederacy. “I wear this gray not just for myself and my family, I wear it for all the black folks,” he says. “Those who remained loyal to the South, their voices were not heard, because of the propaganda machine. We earned a place of honor and dignity around here. As soldiers, and on those plantations we made all the implements of the war, and the foodstuffs. If it wasn’t for the black folks, I don’t believe those boys would have lasted days, much less for years.”
Lyons backs him up: “But for the slaves on the plantation remaining loyal and taking up the place where the white men left, the Confederacy would have ground to a halt in the first year of the war.”
There has been much speculation about the nature of Lyon’s relationship with Edgerton. “Kirk is using him to show he’s not a racist, but that’s obviously not the situation,” Hawks says. “He’s just got him there to show as a prop.”
But during their lengthy lunch conversation, Edgerton and Lyons seem to be authentic allies. They banter freely, and mimic and praise each other. There is much they agree on.
Both say they want the United States to crack down on immigration. And on the issue of interracial romantic relationships, their views mirror each other.
“My brother is married to a Filipino woman, and I’ll be very honest, I did not approve of their marriage,” Lyons says. “I am a traditional Southerner and all that implies. That doesn’t mean that I hate other races, but I did not approve of the marriage. He should have married a Southern girl.”
A Southern woman of any lineage? “A white Southerner,” he clarifies.
“My brother’s married to a Puerto Rican,” Edgerton interjects, while Lyons and Payne listen from across the table. “I certainly did not subscribe to that. That really sent me through three or four loops.”
“Some folks have a problem, they say, Kirk D. Lyons wants to have his children have white babies,” adds Edgerton. “Well, what’s wrong with a man wanting his grandchildren to look like him? I’d certainly like to have some that look like me. I can’t have Dr. Payne’s son come and have sex with my daughter; I don’t know what that might look like.”
“Well if you really believe black is beautiful, the only way you’re going to perpetuate that is by having black children,” Payne comments.
After the laughter dies down, Edgerton continues. “Does that make me prejudiced or a racist? The thing about race-mixing is: I don’t know what God had in mind when he made black folks and he made white folks, but he must have known something. I think some better things could come out of it if black folks stayed with black folks and white folks stayed with white folks. There’d be a lot less problems around here. At least the lily field would stay a lily field.”
Lyons’ alliance with a black Confederate re-enactor makes for an interesting sideshow, but it has in no way tempered the rancor in SCV debates about the controversial lawyer.
This is an uncivil war, as the campaign has lost all semblance of civility. The epithets are flying like musket rounds. The Lyons contingent calls the other side “grannies” and “bedwetters.” The Hawks camp fires back with “bigots” and “sheetheads.”
The two combatants are gearing up with the same weapon, the one that seems to matter most: history. There is nothing more sacrosanct to the SCV members on both sides of this campaign.
“Most of the people coming into the SCV in the last 10 years have done so because they want to fight for Confederate heritage, they want to fight for the flag,” Lyons argues. But thousands have left the organization, he says, “because the SCV was not the heritage fighter it ought to be,” and he’s out to change that by mounting a strident defense of the symbols of the Confederacy.
Protecting the past requires fighting hard in the present, Lyons says. “The principles that underlie the organization we need to keep, but we need to organize everything else so that we can fight a modern political war,” he says. He wants to empower the SCV, but not at the expense of being politically correct.
“People are always going to call names at someone who’s effective,” Lyons says. “That just means that our opponents are afraid of us. They fear us, and that’s a good thing. And that’s what Charles can’t understand: that our opponents are never going to love us, and that this is a fight to the finish.”
Hawks, for his part, has been studying up on Lyons’ personal history, and he will be sharing it with SCV members at upcoming candidate forums. “The salvation of the organization is that they’re going to learn about his background,” Hawks says. “I think he’s going to be surprised to find out how many people, once they know about him, are not going to support him.”
Still, Lyons has some prominent supporters who are familiar with his record. Both the current national SCV commander and the present commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, among other senior officials, are backing Lyons. “There’s a vocal minority that will support Charles,” he says. “But I am not worried about this election. I’m not a betting man, but I’d be happy to bet you $100 that I’ll be the next ANV commander.”
Several state SCV leaders say they have a contingency plan for what to do should Lyons win: They will leave the organization and continue their Confederate history work under a different name.
Gilbert Jones of Greensboro, commander of the state SCV’s Northern Piedmont Brigade, is among those who would be inclined to quit. “If we elect Kirk, we are trading in our honor. It would be a sign that the inmates are in control of the asylum, and I couldn’t stay.”
Pate says the race is forcing hard choices for SCV members. “There’s always the question, do you stay in a racist organization, and fight against that? My answer is this: I will stay and fight, but only until the racist character [of the organization] is known to me. Then I’m out. This election is a big flashlight that will show whether the SCV is a racist organization or not.”