One of the largest and oldest neo-Nazi groups in the United States appears to have an unlikely new leader: James Stern, a black activist who has vowed to dismantle it. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Without notifying his followers or even his inner circle, the longtime president of a legacy neo-Nazi group handed his organization to a black civil rights activist from California.

James Hart Stern, 54, is the new president of the National Socialist Movement, a group whose members wear uniforms reminiscent of those worn in Nazi Germany, celebrate Adolf Hitler and organize public rallies across the county.

Stern’s first move as president was to ask a Virginia judge to find the organization culpable of conspiring to commit violence at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. The group has been accused of wrongdoing in a lawsuit but had previously denied any responsibility.

Next, he plans to transform the hate group’s website, visited by millions of white supremacists each year, into a space for Holocaust history lessons.

“I did the hard and dangerous part,” Stern told The Washington Post. “As a black man, I took over a neo-Nazi group and outsmarted them.”

For weeks, the sudden change in power had confounded those who study hate groups and perplexed those within the organization, who had heard nothing from Jeff Schoep, the man who led the Detroit-based organization for 24 years.

Paperwork to set the change into motion was first filed in January, but neither man publicly addressed the organizational changes until Friday.

Stern spoke first, and in a lengthy interview with The Washington Post said his unconventional rise to power was an “epic” tale that included infiltration, persuasion and a hint of manipulation. There’s a reason, he said, that some call him the “race whisperer.”

Hours later Schoep released his own statement, and later shared his version of events in a phone conversation with The Washington Post. “The truth has to come out," Schoep said. “I’d rather not comment on this stuff. He’s tell outright lies and slandering in the press so I feel like I have to address it."

In the lengthy statement to his followers, Schoep wrote that he had been “deceived” by Stern who “convinced me that in order to protect our membership from the ongoing lawsuit, I should sign over NSM’s presidency to him.”

To understand how Stern came to overtake Schoep’s organization, you first must understand how the Michigan neo-Nazi and California activist came to know each other.

While serving time in prison in Mississippi for wire fraud, Stern says he befriended his cellmate and onetime Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Edgar Ray Killen, who had been convicted in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers. Though Stern said Killen regularly called him a racial slur, he nevertheless granted his cellmate power of attorney over his life story and estate. (Killen’s family and lawyer dispute the veracity of the deal.)

Stern was paroled from prison in 2011. In 2016, he said he used his legal discretion to dissolve the Klan organization that Killen once led.

Around 2014, Stern says Schoep reached out to him to inquire about his relationship with Killen, who died in 2018. Schoep denies that account, saying Stern made first contact on the recommendation of Killen. He said Stern reached out to talk about his mission to aid racial reconciliation in the United States.

The two agree on what came next: a “race relations summit” in California, where representatives from Schoep’s organization met with black leaders to talk about ways they could work together without violence.

The hate group was founded under a different name in 1974 by two former officials of the American Nazi Party, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Schoep took control of NSM in 1994 and was responsible for growing its membership and brand, which was waning by the time he met Stern in 2014.

The two described fostering a strange kind of relationship over time, though they remember it differently.

Schoep said they talked only occasionally, and mostly about whether they should host another race relations summit and where it should take place.

Stern claims their conversations were much deeper. Though the two remained firmly entrenched in their political camps, Stern said, they also engaged in regular debate about the Holocaust, the ugliness of the Nazi swastika, the fallibility of Schoep’s white-nationalist ideals and, most critically, the fate of his hate group.

The goal, Stern claims, was always to try to change Schoep’s mind.

“From Day One, I always told him: ‘I don’t agree with you. I don’t like you,’ ” Stern said. “I talked to him because I wanted to hope to change him.”

That didn’t happen, Stern said.

But according to Stern’s version of recent events, he was able to accomplish the next best thing.

In early 2019, Stern said Schoep came to him for legal advice on the lawsuit, which Schoep denies. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by a Charlottesville counterprotester against the NSM and other white-nationalist groups.

During a conversation about the lawsuit, Schoep seemed “rattled,” Stern said, and began talking about making a change. “I was hoping he was talking about his ideology,” Stern said.

Instead, Stern said the white-nationalist leader called NSM an “albatross hanging around his neck” and said he was looking for ways to get out. Stern said Schoep was worried about the cost of the lawsuit, frustrated by problems in the organization, and weighing the possibility of leaving NSM at a time at a time when hate group experts say the group faced being outshone by the more refined efforts of new alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer.

Schoep felt underappreciated by his followers and left out of the mainstream white-nationalist movement.

In that angst, Stern saw an in.

“I saw a crack in that armor,” Stern said.

So he encouraged Schoep to get a fresh start by handing Stern control of the Detroit-based organization and website, Stern said, by making him president of the organization in official documents and signing a sworn affidavit.

With some convincing, Schoep said yes.

“He knew that he had the most vulnerable, the most loose-cannon members that they had ever had in the organization,” Stern said. “He realized somebody was going to commit a crime, and he was going to be held responsible for it.”

Schoep denies large portions of Stern’s account. He said he only signed over the group because Stern had convinced him that the ownership change would get the lawsuit dismissed.

“Now I don’t believe any of this was true,” Schoep said.

“A lot of the things Mr. Stern is saying is the exact opposite of the truth,” Schoep said. “He has openly said that he manipulated me. What he is trying to do is put me in a lot of danger.”

In mid-January, Schoep filed incorporation paperwork with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to formally transfer the National Socialist Movement to Stern, according to documents filed with the state. By Feb. 15, Stern was listed in court documents for the lawsuit as NSM’s representative. Stern is not listed as an individual defendant in the suit.

Several of the people listed on the NSM website as leaders within the organization did not respond to a request for comment from The Post on Friday. One man, who identifies himself as SS Capt. Harry L. Hughes III and is listed as the public relations director for NSM, said in an email that he is “not involved in the NSM’s legal affairs."

Hughes said he had been “waiting in suspense” for answers, along with other members, before Schoep’s statement Friday night. Schoep confirmed that hardly anyone knew of his deal with Stern until recently.

Even though documents show that Stern is now president of the NSM, Schoep said he doesn’t actually have access to any of the group’s online platforms or social media accounts.

“He doesn’t have control of nothing,” Schoep said.

Experts find the moment to hold more significance. Keegan Hankes, an SPLC research analyst, said the transfer is "one of the strangest things I’ve seen since I started tracking these things five years ago.”

“Signing over leadership of an organization this old is the equivalent of a death sentence in the white-nationalist movement,” Hankes said.

Schoep acknowledged in his statement that his actions created confusion among his followers but said that it was time for “fresh blood” in NSM leadership and announced he had formally stepped down as “commander” of the organization. Burt Colucci, chief of staff of the National Socialist Movement, will be taking over as commander, according to the statement.

"It is important for me to communicate that my actions are always done for a reason, and I would never purposefully damage the organization I have spent so many years serving,” he said.

It remains unclear how NSM will be able to maintain its organizational infrastructure with Stern legally at the helm of the corporation. In his statement, Schoep said he intends to challenge Stern’s ownership.

“This paper appointment will not stop us,” Schoep said. “Mr. Stern’s bad faith actions may leave me no choice but to protect my rights in a court of law, as I believe he fraudulently manipulated me for the purposes of gaining control of, and dissolving NSM.”

Though Schoep is no longer legally affiliated with NSM, he still faces the lawsuit because he is listed as a defendant.

“It’s definitely not good for him, and it shouldn’t be good for him,” Stern said. “You spend 25 years terrorizing people, you can’t rebrand overnight. It doesn’t work like that.”

Stern, who runs Racial Reconciliation Outreach Ministries, said he is still sorting through the legal intricacies his NSM leadership entails. He is listed as the attorney representing the NSM in court filings. But he is not a licensed lawyer and a judge recently ruled that he could not represent the group for that reason.

Stern said he is working on hiring an outside lawyer to refile his motion for a summary judgment on the lawsuit. He has also offered the plaintiff’s attorneys full access to NSM social media accounts, he said, because he claims to own those, too.

“Say what you want about me,” Stern said. “But I’ve done this twice now.”

Stern says he’s preparing for what comes next and is seeking guidance from Jewish leaders. He said he does not plan to dissolve the corporation because he doesn’t want Schoep’s followers, or others in the white-nationalist movement, to reincorporate it.

Stern admits his plans for the website are still evolving, but his primary goal is to offer it as a reclaimed space to Jewish organizations that could help him educate NSM’s followers on the history of the Holocaust.

“Everything is out in the open,” Stern said. “My plans and intentions are not to let this group prosper. It’s my goal to set some hard records right.”