One Friday morning late last month, nearly a dozen men sat on a concrete bench on the first floor of the federal building in Florence, S.C., about 90 miles southwest of Fayetteville. They were waiting for a hearing to begin in Courtroom No. 1, upstairs.
The men were mostly of a type: middle-aged, from surrounding towns, clad in blue blazers or Sunday-go-to-meeting suits. Several wore ties patterned after the Confederate battle flag. Shiny lapel pins, also bearing images of the flag, showed that more than half of them were Life Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The Sons, an organization of some 30,000, is today an ultra-right organization. One of their magazines, The Southern Mercury, has named Lincoln as the nation's "first communist president." (Abe's ideological successors: Wilson, Roosevelt and Obama.)
Though they waited more than 90 minutes, none of the Sons yakked into, toyed with or even looked at any cell phone. A few grumbled about tyranny and looming "socialism," but mostly, they engaged in the endearing, nearly bygone custom of storytelling.
Their tales were ribald, especially those about their days as young men in the military services. Had the Reader's Digest seen fit to publish them, it probably would have chosen "Alcohol in Uniform" as a heading.
Though also middle-aged, one of the men, known to everybody by the initials H.K., didn't fit the mold. Instead of a suit coat and tie—the attire judges require of adult males in federal courtrooms—H.K. was wearing a Confederate uniform. His stories weren't about soldiering days, either, but about his brushes with civilian law officers in 2002-03, when he marched from Asheville, N.C., to Austin, Texas, as a standard bearer for the Confederate battle flag. The trek had taken four months.
Unlike the other men, H.K. is not a member of the Sons. He hasn't been able to satisfy its chief requirement that applicants cite one or more ancestors who wore the Confederate gray. H.K. Edgerton is the defrocked president of a western North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He is black.
Sitting on the first-floor bench, Edgerton told the others that being barred from the courtroom because of his Confederate getup didn't sit well with him. He went upstairs to query the judge, who was not available. So Edgerton knocked on the door of a room for attorneys and their clients to ask the counsel of the fellow Life Member whose arguments the others had come to hear, Kirk D. Lyons of Black Mountain, a small town 15 miles east of Asheville. At Lyons' urging, Edgerton changed into a dark suit.
Lyons, 53, is an amiable, tall, husky Texas transplant who, because he now sports a gray moustache and goatee, bears a resemblance to Col. Harlan Sanders of fried chicken fame. For more than a decade, he has been filing lawsuits that challenge restrictions on the display of the Confederate battle flag and its depiction—thus far—on T-shirts, cell phone covers, prom dresses and purses. A nonprofit headquartered in Black Mountain, the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), has paid him an annual salary of $45,000 for the crusade.
SLRC's board of directors includes the CEO of Dixie Outfitters, which manufacturers the sort of Confederate-theme clothing that employers and school officials in many locales have banned, and a Chapel Hill novelist who claims to be the older sister of the late musician Frank Zappa.
Though it is located inside a '70s-era cast-concrete building, architects gave Courtroom No. 1 a 19th-century look, with high ceilings, mock neoclassical columns, cherry wood-stained entablatures and beams. At the front of this nearly cavernous room, Judge Terry Wooten, his secretary and a court stenographer sat on elevated platforms facing a podium, the tables for the defense teams and for Lyons, who was the plaintiff's attorney, and a public section of pews, where Edgerton and the others took seats.
The matter at hand was a suit originally brought to enjoin the school district at Latta, a South Carolina town about 25 miles northeast of Florence, from banning items of clothing bearing Confederate symbols. The suit arose out of a 2004 incident in which a teacher at Latta Middle School ordered student Candice Hardwick to turn her Confederate-flag T-shirt inside out or don a T-shirt supplied by the school. The teacher's order was in keeping with school policies banning "disruptive" clothing, under which Malcolm X T-shirts had also been forbidden. When Hardwick refused to comply, the teacher sent her to a detention hall for the rest of the day.
In 2006, after Hardwick encountered similar problems at Latta High, she and her parents filed suit, moving their wrangle into the courts. Judge Wooten had called the Friday meeting to dispose of a defense motion that he dismiss the case. Lyons—as the plaintiff's attorney, the real protagonist in the case—had come to convince Wooten that it instead be set for trial.
Sometimes in an exasperated tone, from the podium Lyons argued that the dominant precedent should be Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case involving students who had worn black armbands to an Iowa school. The Court had found that while administrators may legitimately take actions to protect school-day routine, "the wearing of armbands in the circumstances of this case was entirely divorced from actually or potentially disruptive conduct" and that "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right of freedom of expression."
Vinton "Dee" Lide, the lead defense attorney, quoted principals who in depositions had said that race relations in the Latta schools, divided about evenly along black-white racial lines, are "tense." He also cited a 1996 incident in which two white students from Latta High set fire to a church whose congregants were black.
Lyons countered that discipline records for the Latta middle and high schools showed only a dozen verbal altercations and fistfights per year, that these records were not coded to indicate which, if any, of the incidents arose from racial animosity, and that none mentioned the Confederate flag. The church-arson incident, he said, was archaic evidence because students have since adopted reformed views about race.
Judge Wooten postponed ruling on the dismissal motion, but in his remarks seemed to agree with Lyons about the importance of the Tinker case.
But if he does permit the Hardwick suit to go to trial, champions of Confederate flags are far more likely to praise Lyons than the Tinker ruling, which overruled the suspensions of students who wore their armbands in protest of the Vietnam war.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps an eye on hate groups, has had its sights on Lyons for years. When Lyons moved from Houston to Black Mountain in 1992, community leader Monroe Gilmour joined the effort. Today he maintains a Web page of hair-raising reports about Lyons on behalf of a group with a clunky name, the Western North Carolina Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry. But nothing in the watchdogs' arsenal of information prepares the reader to withstand Lyons the personality, as opposed to the carrier of archaic and frightening ideas.
He stands 6 foot 3, and though now on a diet that is apparently working, has quit participating in Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments because their ranks "have got enough middle-aged two-ton Tonys like me, and there weren't many men like us in uniform in those days." His style of dress is antiquated, that of a white Southern lawyer from the 1920s. Until it wore out, he sported a straw boater; today he usually wears a cowboy hat. He has been an officer of the Civil Air Patrol, a scoutmaster, a museum consultant, a member of the Royal Scottish Dance Society, the Company of Military Historians, an association of antique photo buffs—and for 25 years, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In conversation, he is courtly and often oblique, not loud or blustering. He speaks of his wife with reverence, but does not display photos of the couple's four boys and three girls—because, he explains, he wants to protect them from the notoriety that encircles him. But all of his eligible children belong to organizations sponsored by the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans.
He calls himself a "Pat Buchanan/ Ron Paul conservative who has always been an advocate for nonviolence." Though he admits that he supported the Vietnam War, he repents of that, and what he says about current conflicts would singe the ears of his admirers. His take on the 9/11 attack is that, "We have beaten the dog so much that it is biting us." (University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill was fired for saying as much.)
"We got into Afghanistan and Iraq for bad reasons," Lyons adds. "We were lied to and it is folly to think that we can make war on the entire Islamic world."
In conversation, Lyons will even admit that the Civil War "was a rich man's war and poor man's fight," and that during the segregation era, "Southern whites foolishly clung to their reactionary clown leaders and methods, never considering that 'the coloreds' had a point." Yet he looks askance at integration and intermarriage and insists that had he been alive for the Civil War: "I would still enlist in the Confederate Army to prevent what the northern war criminals did to the South."
He has argued in court—unsuccessfully—that southerners, black and white alike, are members of a national minority as "Southern Confederate Americans"—and merit protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In an e-mail exchange after our interview, he told me, "Blacks have been sold out by their own leadership so they can have their dachas and 401ks and private schools for their kids." I countered by saying that the same was true for whites. "I quite agree!" he replied.
In other circumstances, jolly, precedent-quoting Lyons might be a favorite among civil libertarians, who are usually people with a liberal bent. Indeed, the presumably liberal ACLU recently brought and won Confederate flag cases in Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia. But Lyons has a personal and professional history to make any progressive quake.
A 1978 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in history, and a 1983 graduate of the University of Houston's law school, he first came to the public eye in 1987, when he sought to secure the release on bond of Louis Beam, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who a few years earlier had won notoriety as Texas Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Beam and 13 other figures from the armed ultra-right had been indicted on charges of sedition—planning to overthrow the government—and conspiracy to murder federal officials in Arkansas. His co-defendants in what came to be known as the 1988 Sedition Trial included Robert E. Miles of the Christian Identity movement—whose adherents commonly believe that Jews are the offspring of a mating between Satan and Eve—and Richard Butler, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian, aka Aryan Nations.
Lyons participated in the Sedition case as an unpaid assistant to the lawyer appointed for Beam. By most accounts, he served a useful role as diplomat between the defendants, suspicious even of their own ranks, their attorneys—whom they suspected of having covert ties to the Zionist Occupation Government, or ZOG—and the court. Because the government's case relied on the testimony of an unreliable informer who was already serving time, the accused walked free.
In the wake of the acquittal, Aryan Nations honcho Butler staged a victory celebration at his Hayden Lake, Idaho, redoubt and, Lyons says, paid him to give a speech. While there, Lyons met Brenna Tate, who had grown up in the Nations fold. Lyons was 32, Tate, 18. They were wed in Butler's church in 1990.
In the bargain, Lyons acquired a brother-in-law, David Tate, who, as a member of the anti-Semitic underground, known as The Order, had in 1985 killed a Missouri state trooper and was already serving two life terms.
Though seven children have since been born to Kirk and Brenna, the setting of their vows—and the opinions that he voices outside of court today—ensure that Lyons will never be accepted as a harmless, white civil libertarian. He says that "racism" is a nonword and that "egalitarianism is the sworn enemy of liberty," that he doesn't know if the Holocaust happened. He denies being a Nazi because "the Nazis weren't Christians," but also says "God spreads his gifts differently among groups, peoples and genders."
Often in a cameo or supporting role, Lyons gained even more ill repute after his marriage by representing a host of pistol-packing nonconformists and their offspring. Thomas Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance, was one of his clients, as were the children of gun-rights hero Randy Weaver. In 1993, Lyons recruited big-name criminal defense attorneys to represent David Koresh and his lieutenant, Steve Schneider, and in 1996, again in the role of attorney-diplomat, he orchestrated the surrender of 16 gun-toting Freemen, ending an 81-day Montana standoff—the longest in American history.
His critics complained that he sympathized with the rogues who were his clients, and Lyons hasn't precisely denied the charge. "In political cases," he observes, "you must be willing to accurately put forth your client's point of view—which means you must understand him and he must trust you. Holding your nose while defending such a client does not raise the prerequisite trust to be successful."
But by the time the standoff ended, his standing as the ultra-right's Darrow or Kunstler was collapsing. Days after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, conspiracy theorists convinced themselves that in order to discredit the gun-rights and militia movements, federal-agent provocateurs had spurred McVeigh to act, even placed explosives against the Murrah's concrete skeleton before he lit the fuse that led to the cargo area of a Ryder truck.
A leading figure in the scenario that the conspirators drew was Andreas Strassmeir, a young German who had for several years been a layabout in ultra-right lairs. Strassmeir was a friend of Lyons who, when the OKC furor arose, spirited Strassmeir back to the Rhineland, out of reach of independent investigators. The Spotlight, a venerably paranoid organ of the ultra-right, ran a series of pieces in which columnist Sam Francis speculated that, among other things, "Strassmeir was a shared asset, on loan to the U.S. government, but ultimately answering to German intelligence." Lyons, the Spotlight alleged, was his "handler." Lesser-known ultra-right organs styled him as an FBI, CIA or Mossad operative.
The upshot was that Lyons' financial backers quit sending him checks. Financially strapped and increasingly isolated, in 1996 he founded the SLRC and began pursuing Confederate causes. In his youth, he points out, he had been president of the Texas division the Children of the Confederacy, and had signed on with the Sons on the day he turned 21. The move from the armed to the merely disputatious right wing was a small and comfortable step.
Lyons got off to a noteworthy start in his new role, as an attorney for Alberta Stewart, an Alabama woman who, in 1927, at 21 and already a widow, had married octogenarian William Jasper Martin, a Confederate veteran. Martin died four years later, but within 60 days, Alberta remarried, this time to a grandson of her most recently departed spouse. With help from Lyons in 1996 she won an Alabama Confederate pension, which she collected until 2003, when she was interred amid hoopla and honors from the Sons as the Last Living Confederate Widow.
But his past blotched even his status with the Sons. Though apparently he still enjoys the respect of the organization's leaders, Lyons was in 2002 narrowly defeated in a race to become commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, an important Sons post. Nobody surveyed the delegates who cast ballots, but everyone familiar with the group presumes that he was defeated because of his ultra-right past—or else, because of his friendship with the German agent who stood behind Timothy McVeigh.
Hard times are here, and nonprofit foundations of all kinds and colors are suffering. The Sons, whose income from membership dues has been declining as members die of old age, has also seen its stock market holdings go south. Both mortality and financial troubles have depleted the SLRC's base of contributors, Lyons says, although federal filings do not yet show proof of his claim.
But Lyons isn't lying, or merely poor-mouthing, as he has done so many times before. There are indications of SLRC's financial weakness, maybe of its impending end. A year ago, Lyons was earning $48,000 a year as its chief counsel. Today he is receiving a weekly check for $467, about half of his former pay—in unemployment benefits. Hardwick may be his last flag lawsuit, and he confesses as much.
But the flag-and-T-shirt defender says that he already has a plan in mind: "If Congress passes a general amnesty, I'm going to start handling immigration cases," he declares. The Mexican and Central American population of the Asheville area, like that of the rest of the state, has burgeoned over the past two decades, and Lyons hopes to take his cut of any rush to naturalize.
The idea is rife with contradiction, to say the least. Though he says, "I certainly cannot blame them for taking advantage of our weakness and lack of national resolve," Lyons is opposed to immigration from Latin America on both racial and cultural grounds. But, he says, "Raising seven kids is the most important thing I do," adding, "I have to make a living in a world that is increasingly hostile."
When the Hardwick hearing ended, Lyons, Edgerton and their fans from the Sons adjourned to a Southern-fare cafeteria in Florence for lunch. Their mood was steady, one of muted expectations, fitting for a suit that is already five years old. Like the battle flag, the Hardwick case has weathered moves for suppression and, like it, has survived the ill-repute and blunderings of its principals—in this case, of Candice Michelle Hardwick, who in 2007 dropped out of Latta High. Her suit lives on—it has not been mooted—as a First Amendment case only because she demanded financial compensation for anguish and alleged harassment: If her Constitutional rights weren't violated, at least as a legal matter, it's likely that nothing actionable occurred.
The persistence of lawsuits like the Hardwick case and innumerable other post-conflict tussles over the Civil War is not easy to understand. More books have been published about the Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, as the Son calls it—than about any other topic in American history, some 60,000 of them. Still, the nation has arrived at no resolution, no clear consensus about symbols like the Confederate battle flag, among whose plenitude of meanings "White Makes Right!" is certainly one. And while it is gratifying to have First Amendment precedents like Tinker to guide us, a venerable adage from Mexico perhaps provides more definitive insight into our endless quarrel. The adage says, "Cosa mala nunca muere"—"a bad thing never dies." Though Appomattox is more than a century behind, the Confederate battle flag and squabbles over what it signifies cannot yet be laid in their graves.
Dick J. Reavis is a journalist and author of The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (Simon & Schuster). His forthcoming book about day labor will be published in early 2010. He is an assistant professor of English at N.C. State University.