The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The political success of the Council of Conservative Citizens, explained

FILE: Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., steps away from the podium after announcing he would retire from the Senate in 2007. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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The white supremacist group now at the center of the fallout from the Charleston shooting has a long history with politicians in the South -- a history that includes a level of success that today seems pretty remarkable.

Accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof cited the Council of Conservative Citizens in his racist manifesto. The group and its current leader, Earl Holt, donated about $25,000 to Republican candidates in 2012, and this weekend Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said he'd return the estimated $8,500 that Holt donated to him. Sen. Rand Paul and others also quickly said they would return contributions.

[Campaigns distance themselves from white supremacist leader’s donations]

In the billion-dollar world of national politics, $25,000 isn't a lot. But there's little doubt that in the 1990s, the council had the ear of some of the nation's most powerful politicians -- and has since become more radicalized. The Republican Party, in particular, has had trouble keeping the group at arms length.

"They've kind of been in plain sight," DePaul University professor and historian of white supremacy Euan Hague told The Fix.  "They've been a consistent presence in the Southern political landscape."

Here's a brief history of the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Born of school desegregation

The nationwide council wasn't formed until 1985, but it has roots in the school desegregation era. It was started by officials of  the White Citizens Council, a 1950s southern group that sprang up to oppose the Supreme Court-mandated desegregation of public schools.

Gordon Baum was one such White Citizens Council official to help form this new council. The Missouri personal injury lawyer sought support for his new group via mailing lists from the White Citizens Council.

Many of these neo-Confederate groups, the CCC included, derive their ideology from even further back in American history, Hague wrote. They (inaccurately) believe the Civil War was fought not over slavery but for the future of American Christianity. The groups' leaders share 19th-century theological writings making a biblical justification for slavery and segregation.

"Neo-Confederacy is an active and ongoing attempt to reshape the United States in the Old South's image," Hague wrote in an essay published on the Southern Poverty Law Center Web site.

Groups like the CCC advocate a return to Christian values they say call for homogeneous societies.

"We believe that the United States of America is a Christian country, that its people are a Christian people, and that its government and public leaders at all levels must reflect Christian beliefs and values," the group's statement of values reads. "We therefore oppose all efforts to deny or weaken the Christian heritage of the United States."

This council eventually grew to about 15,000 members, mostly in the Deep South. Hague says many of the people who lead these types of neo-Confederate groups are intellectuals -- lawyers, professors, pastors and community leaders -- who skilfully spin history to match their beliefs. Even movies like "Braveheart" are interpreted by white supremacists "as mirror images of their own struggles," Hague wrote.

Making national headlines

The Council of Conservative Citizens had significant political influence among some Deep South politicians in the 1990s. But it mostly flew under the national radar until 1998, when Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) gave the keynote speech at the CCC's 1998 national convention.

Barr said he wasn't aware of the group's white-supremacist leanings at the time. He quickly disowned the group.

"I find the racial views of this group repugnant and would never have spoken there, even the one time I did, if I had known of its views beforehand," he wrote to the Washington Post.

But whatever Barr thought of the Council of Conservative Citizens, it soon became clear he wasn't the only Southern politician catering to it.

A relationship at the highest levels of politics

The Washington Post next reported that then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) also addressed the group at a 1998 national convention. What's more, Lott addressed its national board and shook hands with the group's leaders in his Washington office, smiling for photos that would later appear on the CCC's Web site.

Lott, like, Barr, denied knowing what the council was all about.

“I think of these matters in personal, not political, terms. I could never support – or seek support from – a group that disdained or demeaned my friends, my neighbors, my staffers, or my constituents because of their race or religion,” Lott said.

But the Washington Post's Kevin Merida reported at the time that his family in Mississippi certainly did.

The CCC's directors wink and nod at that. One of them was a county chairman of Lott's '94 reelection campaign. One of them is his uncle.

[Behind the scenes: Kevin Merida on Trent Lott's association with a racist group]

Next, photos surfaced of 2004 Republican candidate for governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, posing with CCC leaders at a barbecue. Barbour said he wouldn't ask the group to take the pictures down from the council's site. He won the election, serving until 2012, when he opted not to run for president (in part, the thinking goes, because of his stumbles on issues of race).

But amid these revelations, national Republicans felt significant pressure to distance themselves from the council.

Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson asked all party members to resign from the group. Congress voted on a resolution in 1999 to denounce the group, but it failed.

Even after all that, though, the CCC kept cropping up in Deep South Republican politics. Neo-Confederate group members started winning elections to local school boards and city councils. A 2004 Southern Poverty Law Center investigation found "dozens" of politicians had attended council-sanctioned events and given speeches, from Barbour and Lott on down to state representatives. They were mostly Republicans, but some Democrats were included on this list, too.

"They invited me to come to a dinner to speak to their group, and I don't know a thing about them," Mississippi state Rep. Jim Ellington told the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But any politician familiar with his or her hometown knew what the CCC was about, Hague said.

"They tied themselves in knots to keep a polite distance, but also not offend people who would vote for them," he said.

Becoming less mainstream

Throughout all this, the CCC vehemently denied any attempts to label the group as white supremacist or racist.

But as more and more Deep South politicians denounced it, its leaders took a hard turn toward just that, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes.

After Sept. 11, 2001, some leaders of groups like CCC said the U.S. had the terrorist attack coming to it because of its support for desegregation. That was too much for some of the council's more moderate members, who left. The people who stayed behind were all the more radicalized, Hague said.

In the early 2000s, co-founder Baum called black people "a retrograde species of humanity." (Warning: Link contains strong and offensive language.) The group's current head, Earl Holt allegedly wrote in 2008 on the comments section of a radio show he co-hosted with Baum that school desegregation "is a colossal waste and nothing more than a symbolic gesture" and used racist language, including the n-word, several times.

His rants, the Southern Poverty Law Center says, were in defense of accusations the council was white supremacist.

And this was the world, Hague said, that Charleston shooter Roof was immersed in: "These groups speak in the same language as this mass killer did."