Surviving a Weekend with America's Premiere Pro-White Activist Group
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In late June, two days after temporarily relocating to Alabama, I'm seated in the conference room of a hotel in the town of Sheffield, in the northwest section of the state. I've come to the region to do research for a book about Latino immigrants in the U.S. South -- where their population is growing fastest -- and how they are (or aren't) being welcomed. After arriving in my motel and dealing with the initial pangs of homesickness, I stumble across an online posting for the annual meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, to be held 20 miles from where I am staying. I know that the right-wing group is the reincarnation of the White Citizens' Council -- formed to fight integration after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision -- and that it takes a hard line against immigration. Without any other plans, I decide to show up.
One of the first people I hear speak is an elderly man named Drue Lackey. I read from the program that he will discuss "Civil Rights in Alabama." Standing behind the podium in front of a group of 75 people, with a head of soft white hair that resembles two cumulus clouds, he begins with a caveat. "There are some things I can't talk about because the statute of limitations hasn't run out yet," he says.
As Lackey introduces himself, I realize that I've actually seen his face before -- and you probably have, too. He's the white police officer who fingerprinted Rosa Parks in Montgomery after her arrest, an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement. He spent 22 years in law enforcement, retiring as the chief of police for Montgomery in 1970, and recently self-published a book about the period. He tells us a story about the violence that rocked the city.
In reaction to the boycott, Lackey explains, whites had firebombed four churches and the homes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. While Lackey was investigating one of the incidents, he noticed a car slowly driving by. "This is something that for some reason criminals like to do, to revisit the scene of the crime," he says. His police instincts were correct: He pulled the car over and won a confession from the men, who led him to a stash of explosives that they were planning to use in the future.
"Now, we had an all-white jury on that case," he continues. "They deliberated for 45 minutes, and they returned a 'not guilty' verdict on all counts." The people sitting at my table, whose name tags identify them as being from Missouri, start to clap. Others join in, some standing, until the room fills with applause.
Lackey looks heartened by the response. He explains that one of the reasons he wrote his book was to tell the "other side" of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In his rendering, "The communist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to an elderly, feeble man," and "Martin 'Lootin' King was a traitor to his country." Presumably the only journalist in the room, I take my notes nervously, expecting someone to chase me out of this movement-building meeting.
I have no need to worry. Over the two-day conference, I hear a number of wildly racist claims, and no one seems to mind that I'm writing them all down. "We're witnessing the demise of the greatest race in the history of the world," thunders Paul Fromm, who I'll later learn is Canada's leading white supremacist. A speaker named Joel LeFever argues that the recent "pro-sodomite marriage" ruling in California can be traced back to the disastrous legalization of mixed-race marriages. Roan Garcia-Quintana, a Cuban American who is quick to point out that his ancestors are originally from Spain, laments the "invasion of aliens" from Mexico who "bring diseases and don't know how to use the toilet." I've spent some time with the far-right crowd, but this is the first time I've heard someone posit that Mexicans haven't figured out how to use the john.
What's shocking to me, as the day goes on, isn't just that this white power group has allowed me entrance after I've identified myself as a writer -- it's the presence of a politician. Alabama state Sen. Charles Bishop participates in the conference; his rant about the critical need to reject "Mohammed Obama" is followed by a presentation that gives a biblical defense of slavery. As speakers compete to see who can make the most incendiary remarks, I keep waiting for someone to take offense. In my mind, that moment was most likely to occur during a creepy talk by a Croatian immigrant, Tomislav Sunic, who says that he has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He starts off by expressing delight that "we are all Europeans here in the room." (Not entirely true: three African American females on the hotel staff serve the group a buffet lunch).
"We lost a substantial part of our best genes" in World War II, he says, blaming the lack of information about the annihilation of Germans on the Jewish-controlled media. "Jews are fully integrated but not assimilated," he says, then plays coy. "But I'm not going to speculate about that." A few people chuckle knowingly. He ends on what he calls an "optimistic" note. "In Paris you have French Jews and French Arabs fighting, so whites are out of the loop. I don't mind if they whack each other, because what do I care about them? I care about preserving our gene pool." Behind his cagey eyes I sense the desire to abandon all restraint and end the speech by leading the group in Sieg Heils, but instead he looks out at the audience, by now standing and clapping enthusiastically, and breaks into a grin.
Even though I've written a lot about immigration, I've never paid much attention to open racists. In fact, before attending the conference, I'd never even met one. I know that much of the hysteria about "Mexicans bringing leprosy" and of an "illegal alien crime wave" are racist, and inaccurate, but people making those remarks usually try to put on a veneer of scholarship, to carefully calibrate their remarks. This is different. Indeed, the speakers' passion to express their racist views often get in the way of their coherence, as nearly everyone finds it difficult to stick to their stated topics. For example, Fromm is supposed to talk about "Immigration"; a more accurate title would be something like "Let the Blacks Die."
"By 2060, whites will constitute less than 10 percent of world's population," he laments. "We think of blacks as being very prolific, but they're mostly in Africa. And while they might normally have 10 kids, nine of them usually end up dying. So along came well-meaning white Christians," he says, his voice adopting a mocking tone, "and you have a Kenyan woman with eight kids and all of them survive." I wonder if people understand exactly what he's saying, and look around my table. The middle-aged woman across from me, no doubt a Christian, is nodding gravely at the crisis of African babies surviving.
Sunic, the obvious Nazi, is supposed to speak about "Political Correctness," but he hardly mentions the term. Instead, he launches into a discussion about the need to learn about things like the Jewish-Communist plot "even if you're not into, uh, some heavy-duty book reading." The only presenter who adheres to his stated topic is Dr. Gary Roper, whose theme is "Antebellum Slavery." Though he argues that, from a Christian perspective, slavery in the South was a perfectly moral institution, he does at least talk about slavery.
The most unintentionally comical part of the conference involves dealing with the media. CCC National Field Coordinator Bill Lord -- who was an organizer with the original White Citizens' Council -- stresses the importance of choosing your words carefully when around strangers, using a personal example. "The Southern Poverty Law Center once said that they heard me say 'Martin Luther Coon,'" he told them. He waited for the laughter to die down. "Now, does that sound like something I would say?" Amidst the renewed laughter he repeats the need to be diligent so that the media doesn't inadvertently overhear your words. I sit in the middle of the group, notebook and pen in hand, and write his message down. To be fair, others at my table are taking notes as well, so I suppose I blend in -- this is a skills-building workshop, after all.
Do groups like the CCC matter? I like to think that they don't, but I am also surprised that 75 people showed up, from states that included South Carolina, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, New York and Mississippi. They actually had 150 people at last year's conference in Greenville, S.C. They reportedly have 20,000 subscribers to their newspaper, and according to their website, they have chapters in 21 states. But I'm willing to bet that a number of those chapters consist of one or two men spending most of their time on the internet, passing racist emails back and forth loaded with indignant exclamation points.
What's remarkable about the group isn't so much its numbers, but that many Southern politicians actually listen to them. In 1998, the Washington Post revealed that then-Senator Bob Barr of Georgia and then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had both spoken at CCC meetings. According to CCC's newspaper, the Citizen Informer, Lott told the group that "the people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries."
When asked about the CCC's racist orientation by the Post, Lott's spokesperson said the senator had "no firsthand knowledge" about the group. It was later discovered, however, that Lott had met with the CCC numerous times and that an uncle and cousin were both members. Having now sat through two days of their meetings -- where indeed many people echoed Lott's concerns about their children and the direction of the country as it becomes less white -- it's hard to imagine missing the fact that these people are ... umm ... racists.
But although many politicians backed off from the CCC in the wake of the published reports about Barr and Lott, a number of local politicians -- like Alabama state Sen. Charles Bishop, who I hear speak -- still participate in their functions. In 2004, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that since 2000, 26 elected officials had met with the CCC, most from the state of Mississippi. These included its current governor, Haley Barbour, a number of state officials and a member of the state's Supreme Court. Elected officials from Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina have also spoken to the group.
The group's mission has evolved as the demographics of the South change, and the influx of Mexican and Central American immigrants has drawn at least some of the members to the conference. "Where I'm from, there are now more Mexicans than niggers," one older man from Alabama tells me. The implication is clear enough: There's a new target in town. In fact, nearly everyone I talk to mentions the imaginary Reconquista plot whereby immigrating Mexicans are motivated by a desire to recapture the Southwest. "They're not coming to be good little immigrants, they're coming to take over!" thunders Fromm, a little man himself.
But though they're concerned about immigrants from south of the South, at the moment there's another equally grave concern: the upcoming election. While Barack Obama has been subject to a whispering campaign, those whispers begin somewhere as shouts -- and that somewhere is in places like the CCC's annual meeting.
"There's an election coming up, and no matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you better pay attention to what's going on," Bishop says at the conclusion of his remarks. At this, the crowd murmurs. "We got a young man running for president. Don't make no difference whether he's black, white or yellow. But I have a problem with his ideology, with the things he believes in. Obama for president. I can't even say that. This is a great turning point. 'Mohammed' Obama, is that right?"
"Hussein," the crowd calls out.
"That is something we just can't afford in this country," Bishop says. "My grandkids can't afford it. If you care about your grandkids' rights, then this is the election. If the Hispanics and the blacks get together, ladies and gentlemen, we'll do what we're told. Now I know that McCain isn't as conservative as we'd like --"
"He isn't a conservative at all!" someone yells.
"You got that right!" adds another.
"But he can be our salvation," continues Bishop, clearly upset at the interruption.
"It's time for you to stop talking," shouts an angry voice.
By now Bishop is livid. "Well, don't come crying to me when you get your tails beat and have to say, 'Yessuh, Mr. Obama.'"
As Bishop walks out and the African American staff begins to clean up the mess left by the CCC, I ask one of the men sitting near me what he thinks about Obama. "O-ba-ma," he repeats, momentarily lost in thought. "What's wrong with a country that allows someone named Obama to run for president?" He shakes his head and sighs. "That's not a European name."