Controversial Group Has Ties to Both Parties in South
By Thomas B. Edsall
The group's strong ties to the remnants of the now-defunct White Citizens Councils, a powerful force in Mississippi and other Deep South states in the 1950s and 1960s, gave it an organizational base as well as connections to small-town establishments, such as Rotary clubs. The group soon became part of the political culture – and both parties.
Its ties to the Democratic Party are strongest in Mississippi. William D. Lord, the group's senior field coordinator, said 34 Mississippi legislators, most of them Democrats, are members of the Council of Conservative Citizens. But most of the southern politicians associated with it are Republicans, including members in state legislatures and in prominent state party positions. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice (R) have been featured speakers. Fordice even enlisted the group's support for his legislative agenda.
But it is two other southern politicians – Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Rep. Robert L. Barr (R-Ga.) – who have brought the group its recent notoriety. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has attacked Barr, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, for speaking before the organization, which Dershowitz characterized as racist. Lott also has faced criticism and, like Barr, has tried to distance himself from the group. Yet there is evidence that Lott's ties to the group are far stronger than he has acknowledged.
During its 10 years of existence, the council has maintained sustained relations with Lott. Photos of Lott at the group's gatherings in Mississippi and of Lott meeting in Washington with its officials have appeared periodically in the Citizens Informer, the organization's quarterly publication. The Informer regularly publishes a column Lott writes and distributes from his Senate office.
One of its earliest publications, the spring 1989 Citizens Informer, pictures Lott as he "talks with relatives, from left, his Uncle Arnie Watson; cousins, Frances and Frank Hodges, and aunt, Eurdise. Arnie Watson, a former State Senator, is a member of the Carroll County Citizens Council's Executive Committee, and Frank Hodges is a member of the Carroll County Citizens Council."
The summer 1997 issue of the Citizens Informer has a picture of Lott meeting "privately at his office with CofCC national officers": Lord, President Thomas Dover and CEO Gordon Lee Baum.
In addition, Lord, a former regional director of the anti-integration Citizens Council, has twice served as chairman of the Lott Senate campaign in Carroll County.
Lott declined to be interviewed, but a spokesman issued the following statement in response to questions about Lott's relationship to the Council of Conservative Citizens: "Senator Lott has made his distance from the point of view of this group clear and isn't going to comment further."
In earlier statements, Lott's spokesman avoided making a flat denial of claims by some council officials that he has been a member. "He does not consider himself a member of this group and he has no firsthand knowledge of the group's views," the spokesman said.
Dover, the council president, said Lott "certainly has his right to affirm or deny his membership. . . . If he said no, I'll honor that for him. . . . I'm not going to say one way or the other. If he wants to deny it, that is up to him."
Council officials contend the organization is a mainstream conservative group advocating such policies as an end to racial quotas and forced busing, restoring states' rights under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, tough immigration controls and protection of such symbols of southern heritage as Confederate monuments and public displays of the Confederate flag.
In fact, the Council of Conservative Citizens promotes the views of its leaders and prominent members – a number of whom are strong believers in the preservation of the "white race," disagree with Supreme Court rulings ordering desegregation of public facilities and believe the United States is on the verge of losing its identity as a white, European nation. The White Citizens Councils were instrumental in forming private white "academies" as alternatives to the integrated school systems.
Baum, the organization's chief executive officer, said: "We are going to be a majority nonwhite nation in a couple of years. It that a legitimate concern? Yes, it is. We won't back away from that."
Politicians who have been associated with the Council of Conservative Citizens offer different explanations of their relationships with it.
Robbie Wilbur, a spokesman for Fordice, said the Mississippi governor's "contact has been mostly on common issues: voter fraud, government reform, smaller and effective government. . . . We've had some common issues." Wilbur said that if the group "did position themselves in some discriminatory type positions, we would not be supportive on that."
In South Carolina, Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon is a member of the group. It was at his invitation that Barr addressed a national council meeting in Charleston last year.
Witherspoon said: "I'm a member. I'm not that active, I don't go to all the things." He described the organization as a regular conservative advocacy group. "They have always been people I have had no problem with," he said. "Everything to me is fine from what I see and hear."
In Tennessee, Claire Bawcom, a vice president of the Tennessee Federation of Republican Women, writes a regular column for the Citizens Informer, and she is a regular speaker at the group's meetings.
Bawcom said her work with the organization has allowed her to promote her views "about the social issues," especially education. Asked about some of the racial views of the group's leaders, she said, "I don't get into anything of that nature at all. . . . I just don't pay attention but to what I'm interested in myself."
At Bawcom's urgings, former Tennessee GOP chairman Tommy Hopper and former Tennessee national committeewoman Alice W. Algood have addressed council meetings.
And in Alabama, Republican National Committeewoman Betty Fine Collins has spoken to the group and received a special council award, as has former Alabama governor Guy Hunt (R). Former Alabama GOP chairman J. Elbert Peters has spoken to the group at least once.
Jerry Creech, who recently resigned as chairman of the South Carolina council, said: "We [whites] are the minority now. . . . I think the white European built this country. Why do we have to make over into a Third World country?"
Algood spoke at a 1993 council meeting near Nashville. "The people who were in the group espoused pretty conservative principles, among those principles being it is not fair that I be taxed for someone else's mistakes," Algood said.
Algood said she has been "amazed" to see the council called "a racist outfit. . . . I'm not really aware of any particular tone or direction that has come out of that group of people that is racist."
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