League of the South pushes separatist views

Group beliefs include right of secession

Jacksonville Times-Union/September 10, 2001

By Matthew I. Pinzur

Jim Lear is waiting for the South to rise again, waiting like an old preacher waits for Jesus to return: patient, deliberate and certain. "We're setting up the base for an independent Southern republic," said Lear, the Northeast Florida chairman of the League of the South. "We're leaving this union."

Secession is the cornerstone belief of the Alabama-based League, whose 9,000-plus members yearn for a new South where foreign aid ends and school prayer begins, where abortion is banned, where parents educate their own children and where the state flag flies above the federal one.

"It would be a much more conservative place, in that it would look back to old, established wisdom and tradition," said Michael Hill, the group's national president. "It would be a more Christian-oriented nation." Most importantly, the ridicule and disdain dumped on Southerners by liberal Yankees -- as well as their version of 19th-century American history -- would be replaced by the restoration of true Southern culture.

"Our culture is being degraded and taken away," said Lear, a former chairman of the Nassau County School Board. "The history is a revisionist history." He calls Abraham Lincoln "the worst war criminal ever," and supports the League's petition for war reparations to Southerners. The First Coast is playing a growing role in the League: the group's statewide convention will be held this month at the Amelia Island Best Western Inn, and the group's largest chapter, Lear said, is in nearby Brunswick, Ga.

"Join now," proclaims a letter from Florida chairman Mac Watters, "and help form a new and Godly nation in Dixie!" The year-old Northeast Florida chapter has about 55 members, and although only about 20 regularly attend meetings, Lear said they are not worried about numbers.

"Just to pay your dues and carry a card in your pocket is not adequate," he said. "We're like the Marines, looking for a few good people."

Controversial positions

Also among the League's beliefs are a thinly veiled racism and a virulent hatred for public schools, which prompted the NAACP and members of the Nassau school board to call for the resignation of the board's attorney, who was then a League member.

Jacksonville lawyer Richard Withers, who joined the League this year and said he was unaware of its positions on race and public education, satisfied the NAACP by resigning his membership last week.

"Education, in the great Christian tradition, has always been the role of the parents," said Hill, the League president, who urges members to pull their children out of school. "Public schools, which were foisted upon the South during Reconstruction, have become propaganda factories and are not really educating people in the true sense of the word."

Withers said he joined the group only because Lear told him it was dedicated to improving the image of Southerners. "I had made some comment about a derogatory TV program that made us all look like toothless, trailer-dwelling, pickup truck-driving, Rebel flag-waving race car fans," Withers said. "He [Lear] said it was a relatively new organization, that it was not the [Ku Klux] Klan and it stood for a positive portrayal of Southern culture and lifestyle, and that sounded pretty good to me."

He said he never knew of the League's adamant opposition to public schools. "It's a little more than ironic to see these guys working for any kind of public school organization," said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project.

When Nassau County NAACP officials learned about Withers' membership in a group so venomous toward public schools, they promptly called for his resignation. The League's slippery position on race was never part of the complaint, said branch Chairman Bernard Thompson, although he is wary of its agenda. "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck," Thompson said. "The only thing that's missing are the hoods."

Outwardly, the League condemns racism and endorses treating blacks as "brothers in Christ." At the same time, it rejects what Hill calls "the flawed Jacobin notion of egalitarianism," saying white Southerners should not "give control over their civilization and its institutions to another race."

Lear said he is ambivalent toward those aspects of the League, insisting that all races would be treated equally in a free South. But the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading national watchdog, lists the League as a hate group that preaches the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan in more palatable language.

"It's a very genteel thing, a highbrow racism," Beirich said, adding that the League is one of the fastest-growing organizations on its hate group list. "The League talks constantly about how, if they created a state, it would benefit the European majority."

Beirich provided racially charged e-mail messages intercepted from Hill. One repeatedly refers to blacks as "negroes," and another condemns interracial marriage, saying Southerners should "intermarry with their own kind." "Let us not flinch when our enemies call us racists," reads another message. "Rather, just reply with, 'So, what's your point?'''

Hill confirmed writing the messages, but said the SPLC was "not honorable" when it copied them from a private mailing list.

A Christian nation

The League is also heavily religious, embracing the idea of a Christian nation where other religions are tolerated. "We wouldn't put them in indoctrination centers and try and make them become Christians," Hill said of Jews, Muslims and atheists. "We can encourage them, but we wouldn't try to do like the Muslims do in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and other places over there."

Lear and Hill rejected the Southern Poverty Law Center as an arm of left-wing extremists. "The SPLC is not held in the highest regard by your average Southerner," Hill said. "They make their money by scaring little old ladies."

Withers, however, attended four meetings of the League's Northeast Florida chapter before his resignation last week and said he never heard race mentioned at all.

"I went to the meetings and I did not pick up any overt or even any undercurrent of any racial animosity," he said. "Everything I saw was either pro-Southern or otherwise positive in its outlook. The most exciting thing they were interested in was encouraging the city of Jacksonville to acquire a former Civil War camp on the Westside and turning it into a park."

If Lear is a racist, a segregationist or even just a kook, he hides it well. His comfortable Yulee home is neither a steel-reinforced bunker armed for revolution nor a chapel for the worship of Confederate antiquities. It is a comfortable retiree's bungalow with a hot tub out back. In front flies an unfamiliar flag, a hand-painted rendition of Florida's Civil War battle flag.

Lear, of course, calls it the War Between the States. He has marched and signed petitions to protect Confederate emblems in state flags. "People say the Confederate flag reminds them of slavery," said Lear, a retired drug company salesman. "None of the black people I know ever was a slave." The group welcomes black members, Lear said, as well as native Northerners who are "ideologically Southern."

"You can't be racist and accept all these people," Lear said. "We don't believe that average black people feel the way the NAACP is trying to project."

Their nascent hopes of becoming a political force include a candidate for governor in Mississippi, John Thomas Cripps, and two black members running for mayor in Southern cities: Baxter Tisdale in Rock Hill, S.C., and H.K. Edgerton in Asheville, N.C.

"We have the right to vote how we choose," Lear said. "Eventually, we will elect people who feel the same way." The group aims for an intellectual image, filling its Web site with treatises on the legality of secession and the "Anglo-Celtic" roots of Southerners.

"They're interesting people," said Shirley Lear, Jim's wife, of the League members she has met. "They're not a bunch of rednecks swilling beer." Its educational arm, The League of the South Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and History, leads seminars on Southern history and independence, boasting professors from top schools like Emory University, the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia and Clemson University.

"We think the Southern tradition contains a lot of wisdom," said Donald Livingston, a philosophy professor at Emory and director of the institute. "The Southern tradition is usually demonized with slavery and racism. These are things Southerners have to come to terms with, but there's more to it than that."

Livingston, however, was unaware of Hill's writings on race. Hours after first being interviewed for this story, he said the institute does not necessarily hold with all the League's positions and disavowed Hill's position and tone on race.

Still, he rejects the notion of the League as a hate group. As one example, he cites institute work that celebrates the strong black church as a positive staple of Southern culture.

"The League certainly isn't a hate group," he said. "We're trying to fashion the concept of a Southern regional culture, and there is no Southern regional culture without blacks."

In every official capacity, at least, race plays a minor role in the League. The vast majority of its members' conversations and Internet pages -- the Web site is their main recruitment tool -- focus on Southern culture, secession and Civil War history.

"Within five years I'd like to see us wielding a lot of influence ... and I would like to see tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Southerners stand up and say we will not buy this guilt trip," Hill said. "Within 10 years, I'd like to see us have our own country."

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