The squirt-sized black kid, maybe 8 years old, pedaled his shiny orange Mongoose bike around downtown Laurens, S.C. He scooted down a side street with a cheery "hello, mister" to a passer-by, then waved at a passing police car.
A few hours later, early on a September Saturday evening, the boy was back, zipping past the old Echo Theatre on Laurens' courthouse square. Inside, a convention of the white-supremacist Aryan Nations had just boisterously concluded.
The theater, now dubbed the World Famous Redneck Shop, is crammed with racist memorabilia, everything a fashionable bigot would need, from cheap Confederate flag flip-flops and bikinis to T-shirts that announce, "Ain't Racist, Just Never Met a Nigger I Liked." The shop's operator, John Howard, boasts that he's been a "member of the Ku Klux Klan for 40-some years," many of them as a grand dragon in the Carolinas. And he proudly points to a decades-old studio photo of him in emerald Klan robes.
The Redneck Shop was packed that day with like-minded racists from across the nation and even Europe. They'd listened to speeches with an unambiguous message: Hate Jews, blacks, Mexicans, gays, mixed-race couples, the FBI, "Jew-media" journalists, liberals, Arabs and Asians, more or less in that order. As the diatribes died down and the brutal ka-thud ka-thud of a hate-rock band filled the auditorium, the crowd, fully pumped with vitriol, began to exit into the Echo's lobby.
That's when the black kid rode past.
Howard, whose girth stretched an aquamarine knit shirt almost to the point of splitting seams, clambered down from a stool behind his sales counter, shook a stubby finger at the boy, and loudly sneered: "There's a nigger there I'd like to hang."
Snorts and hoots and hollerin' greeted Howard's just-shy-of-serious invitation to a child lynching. One rotund fellow in tattered overalls and a bushy blond beard winked at his compatriots, slapped his thigh and began an exaggerated pantomime of pulling a rope. Howard, picking up on the crowd's enthusiasm, hastily played a recording by a country band, what he chortled was "some damn good nigger music." The lyrics, unlikely to win a Grammy, began: "I'm an Alabama nigger and I wanna be free/I'm a member of NAACP."
ODDLY ENOUGH, the 24-hour high-octane orgy of racism billed as Aryan Nations' "25th World Congress" began the night before with a love story.
The official name of the organization is the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations. Where you have churches, you have weddings.
On Friday evening, Senior Pastor Jonathan Williams, the leader of Aryan Nations and a resident of Conyers, had married an Alabama couple. The bride, Carrie, wore appropriately Aryan tattoos and a beige gown. The groom, Joseph Frieda, sported the powder-blue uniform shirt of Aryan Nations. The star was the couple's lovely blond daughter -- not more than 6 years old, beribboned, adorned with flowers and attired in a dazzling, crisp white dress -- who precociously charmed strangers in the congregation by proudly talking about her mommy and daddy.
The ceremony was the conventional "I do" ritual -- conventional if you ignored Williams' bodyguard standing stage right dressed in ebony Klan robes and a towering black hood.
One of Aryan Nations' inner circle, Shae Spring from Arkansas, quipped just before the service that she could hardly wait to get out of her dress clothes, "put on a Nazi T-shirt and kick back."
After the nuptials, Williams ended the ceremony with an enthusiastic swinging-arm Nazi salute.
"Heil Hitler!" exclamations softly rippled among the 20 well-wishers. "Heil Hitler!"
THE TRUE BELIEVERS in an all-white America arrived Saturday morning. They came from Florida, Washington, Wisconsin, Idaho, Arkansas and most of the states in the Deep South. At least two crossed the Atlantic to attend. By 1 p.m., the old theater auditorium was packed with a crowd dressed largely in black T-shirts and with more tattoos per square inch of flesh than would be found at a skin artists' convention.
In the theater's balcony, arcing over the audience, was Howard's "Klan Museum," now officially closed but still displaying artifacts such as KKK emblems and photos of cross-burnings. Nazi flags were draped from two-story-high scaffolding inside the theater. The tower's bottom bars served as a makeshift closet to hang Klan robes when not in use.
More banners were strung together across the back wall: Old Glory; Old Glory stripped of its stars with the Aryan Nations emblem in their place; the classic swastika flag of Nazi Germany we all know from movies; the rampant lion on the yellow-and-red Scottish flag; the white background, blue box and red cross of the Christian flag; and the absolutely essential Confederate battle flag. Behind the pennants, the light blue wall was adorned with a bigger-than-life-size drawing of Jesus and, discordantly for an Aryan Nations congress, "brotherhood of man" inscriptions of the International Order of Odd Fellows (which wasn't part of the gathering).
Shortly after 1 p.m., Aryan Nations Chief of Security Rick Spring stepped up to the stage and struck a bell a dozen times. Each clang was for one of the 12 tribes of Israel -- the core belief of these people is that Europeans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites.
The leadoff speaker was the hulking Pastor Paul Brimie, the head of Aryan Nations' prison outreach program. A towering giant described adoringly by colleagues as a "pit bull of Yahweh," Brimie had swapped his muscle- and tattoo-displaying tank top for clerical garb. Shortly before his speech, he assured a pair of outsiders who had been allowed to witness the convention, "We treat everyone here like white people."
No such generosity found its way into Brimie's jeremiad, however. "Everyone here knows who we hate, who we're against and who is against us," he proclaimed. "We must PREPARE FOR WAR!"
THAT LONGED-FOR holocaust has stalled in recent years. Founded in the 1970s, Aryan Nations is recoiling from a few recent kicks to its pure white cojones.
In its first two decades, the group emerged as the most durable and cohesive of America's many neo-Nazi outfits. In the mid-1980s, many Aryan Nations members teamed up with other racists to form "The Order" -- which is still memorialized on the Aryan Nations website. The Order robbed banks, counterfeited money, ambushed armored cars -- and murdered -- to finance a planned overthrow of the U.S. government. The group's leader, Robert Matthews, was killed in 1984 in a shootout with government agents.
Since then, many Aryan Nations members, ex-members and associates have been nailed for violent crimes. One associate was convicted of three homicides, and another was accused of the 1999 shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish center and the murder of a Filipino-American postal worker. In the early 1990s, the American Front, a youth group with strong ties to Aryan Nations, bombed NAACP offices in Tacoma, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif.
Then came the big hit. Aryan Nations six years ago lost a $6.3 million lawsuit brought by Victoria and Jason Keenan, a mother and son who -- while looking for a lost wallet on a lonely Idaho road -- had been chased, shot at and beaten by Aryan Nations guards. The Keenans' offense? The guards fantasized the two were militant Jews; they were, in fact, of Cherokee descent.
As a result of the court judgment, Aryan Nations forfeited its 20-acre compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. A human rights activist bought the compound, burned the buildings and turned the property into a "peace park."
Four years later, Aryan Nations' founder, Pastor Richard Girnt Butler, died at age 86. And Butler's handpicked successors, Neuman Britton and Harold Ray Redfeairn (who once remarked, "Violence solves everything"), had preceded their fuehrer into master-race Valhalla.
Things looked bleak. Aryan Nations dwindled in numbers, and, despite its ardent longing to be the vanguard in a race-war Armageddon, appeared doomed to nothing more than a footnote filed under "violent fringe weirdos." The group's leaders claimed they were merely "decentralized," but Norm Gissel, one of the lawyers who scored the $6.3 million triumph over the racists, last year declared Aryan Nations an "extinct entity."
Not quite yet. A dedicated cadre intends to keep Butler's nightmare organization alive. The two major factions have regrouped near Atlanta -- you might call Interstate 20 "the Aryan Connector."
The smaller group, run by the thickly bearded August Kreis III, is based in Lexington, S.C., a suburb of Columbia about 200 miles east of Atlanta on I-20. Kreis, with about a dozen followers, had defected from Butler's leadership. But Kreis owned the Aryan Nations website, which forced his rivals to devise the name "twelvearyannations" for their Internet address.
The larger faction -- the one sponsoring the world congress -- is led by Williams and headquartered 100 miles west of Atlanta on the interstate in Lincoln, Ala.
Why two competing Aryan Nations? Both contingents hate Jews. But Kreis' brigade has decided to embrace Arabs -- even promoting al-Qaeda as doing the Lord's work as long as Muslims are killing Jews. Williams was incensed at such heresy. "The enemy of my enemy is not my friend," Williams exploded in an interview after the wedding. "I sympathize with Arabs, yes, sympathize because their lands have been stolen by Jews. But we have nothing for [Arabs]. The simple fact is that they aren't white."
Williams' contingent has about 200-300 members on its rolls, says Joe Roy, senior investigator for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors hate groups.
"We've grown 35 percent this year," Williams boomed to a cheering audience. The congress attracted about 170 men and women, more than double last year's attendance, according to organizers.
Beyond the hardcore cadre, the backbone strength of Aryan Nations is the estimated 50,000 Americans who share the anti-black, anti-Hispanic and vehemently anti-Semitic beliefs of the Christian Identity movement, plus several times that number who may sympathize with the sect. "Becoming part of this movement means you're Yahweh's elite," Williams boasted in an interview. "You won't find a religion of fewer people, but the numbers don't mean anything because we go to war for Yahweh."
Williams is slightly built, affable, 26 years old, and -- unusual for Aryan Nations storm troopers -- has no visible tattoos. He said he was raised by Klan grandparents in Atlanta and is ordained as a Pentecostal minister. "I never joined the Klan," he said. "I wanted a different aspect," which turned out to be the Christian Identity theology and leadership offered by Aryan Nations founder Butler.
Butler's appeal is significant. "These people find fellow travelers with simple explanations to complicated problems," said Brian Levin, a former cop who heads a hate-group study center at California State University, San Bernardino. "A group like Aryan Nations, these are true believers, not just skinhead jerks who go out to beat someone up. Butler gives the group historical legitimacy; he spanned the 20th century of hate groups. In the 1970s, when the Klan hit bottom, he was there with Aryan Nations."
Williams' religious expertise comes from two correspondence courses offered by the American Institute of Theology, a Christian Identity repository of wisdom. The institute's website features a crudely drawn cartoon of a coiled snake with a body festooned with Stars of David and a head that's a caricature of a hooked-nose Jew.
Christian Identity is a branch of "Anglo-Israelism," a quirky movement that began in 1840 and taught that Europeans, especially the Brits, were the true chosen people. It wasn't inherently anti-Semitic and even embraced Jews as fellow Israelites. However, when Anglo-Israelism spread to America, anti-Semitism became a pillar of belief -- and was promoted by such notables as automobile magnate Henry Ford. In the 1930s, the religious sect attracted many of America's Nazi sympathizers, including Butler.
The Christian Identity theology holds that white Europeans are the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Jews aren't even God's children, Williams asserted, but the offspring of a sexual get-together between Satan and Eve.
"That's what the Bible is talking about in the story of the devil offering Eve the apple," Williams said. "Someday, the blinders will fall off Judeo-Christians" -- those whose religion, according to the Aryan Nations lexicon, has been distorted if not actually dictated by Jews.
Christian Identity also contends that Jesus -- Yahshua, as the Aryan Nations folk call him -- "was NOT a Jew," Williams asserted. Christ was one of a small group of true white children of Adam and Eve who remained in the Middle East after most of the real Israelites endured a diaspora that ended with them becoming Europeans. Only one of the 12 disciples -- Judas Iscariot, of course -- was actually a Jew, Williams added.
Throughout the Laurens gathering, leaders projected themselves as the "true Christians." Williams alternated between wearing a baggy, gray, knit polo shirt and a black suit with a clerical collar. He favors the Catholic white-tab-in-front variation, a bit ironic since Catholicism was denounced during the congress as "backward" and, even more damning among this congregation, "Judeo-Christian."
"There are many out there we want to reach with a message that's not watered down," Williams said. "Our heritage is the true Israel. 'Jew' is the name of a mixed-race people. The biggest lie besides the Holocaust is that Jews are the 'chosen people.' Satan is their father."
And, according to the Aryan Nations leader, non-white races were created before Adam, and are the sub-human "beasts of the field" referred to in Genesis 2:19. "It's clear they have lower intelligence," Williams said. "Blacks are soul-less mud people who never had Yahweh's breath of life."
DURING THE CONGRESS, staccato blasts of whites-fighting-for-whites oratory were interspersed with that staple of all conventions, milling around vendors' tables. Big sellers included The Apple Story booklet, which claims Jews are descendants of Lucifer; and CDs, such as the Definite Hate rock band's Welcome to the South album, whose cover features an empty noose dangling from a leafless tree.
And, like all conferences, catching up on news was important. The hot items generally focused on perceived affronts to white people. One hooded Klansman in a black robe with red, white and blue piping slumped dejectedly in a chair and complained loudly to anyone who would listen, and quite a few did, that there aren't "hardly any stores where I live where you don't have to deal with niggers."
Many parents brought their children to play amid the swirling white, red, green and black Klan robes, and swastika-emblazoned banners. During a break, two moms, one holding a babe, the other corralling a toddler in camouflage jammies, could be overheard chatting about things that worry all mothers. "At that age," said one, "you've always got to keep an eye on them."
But normalcy ended there. One of the moms, in a turquoise blouse, is married to a Georgia Klansman and had a large KKK cross and drop-of-blood medallion around her neck. The other woman, quite cute in tight jeans and heavy blood-red lipstick, sported a T-shirt with "88" emblazoned across her pert Aryan bosom.
The letter "h" is eighth in the alphabet. "88" stands for "HH" -- or "Heil Hitler." "88" was also a fashionable cryptic tattoo among the crowd. It competed for skin space with the Klan's "311" ("k" is the 11th letter), the lightning-bolt Nazi "SS" and the Aryan Nations symbol of Christian cross, sword (symbolizing the need for violence) and half-swastika (glorifying National Socialism).
On one side of the auditorium during a break in the speeches, a man who identified himself only as Darren from Toccoa alternated between wearing Klan regalia and a Confederate flag leather vest. Jerald O'Brien, attired in a "White Boy" T-shirt and with a large ornate swastika tattooed on the top of his shaved head, grimaced for cameras after his ordination as Aryan Nations' newest pastor.
Across the room, Doug Hanks was looking decidedly normal. The preppy Hanks -- clad in a "Hanks University" T-shirt (there is no such school) -- was peddling books he'd authored. One, on the AR15 assault rifle, tells how to skirt federal laws on gun registration. The other, a novel titled Patriot Act, is touted as the new Turner Diaries, a 1978 depiction of a future race war that has long been regarded as a prophetic bible for militia groups and white supremacists. Hanks explained part of his motivation for writing Patriot Act: "In Turner Diaries, you had blacks still wearing Afros."
In 2005, Hanks ran as a Republican for the Charlotte City Council -- until it was revealed that he'd posted 4,000 messages to the racist stormfront.org website. He explained that the "real reason" he withdrew was that he'd discovered Republicans as well as Democrats had cloaked lethal plans in innocuous-sounding environmental programs. "Green space," he said, is a code word used by politicians to hide a scheme that will end with the murder of all but 500 million of the world's 6.5 billion inhabitants to make room for, mostly, Jews and minorities. "Until we convince people of the evil Israel represents, we'll never get anywhere," Hanks said.
Midway through the afternoon, the band Definite Hate, superstars of bigot rock, marched in with a contingent of groupies and roadies. One band member's T-shirt featured the legend "Dancin' in the Air," with an illustration of a lynched black man. A second shirt announced "Carolina Hate Rock." Another T-shirt had a skull with a Star of David on it, and the message: "Associating with ZOG and Known Race Traitors Is Hazardous to Your Health." "ZOG" translates as "Zionist Occupied Government," a reference to federal authorities.
A dozen or so groups -- ranging from the venerable Klan's multitude of splinters, to upstart outfits such as Arkansas-based White Revolution, to Nazis of various stripes -- sent delegates to what Aryan Nations leaders described as a "unity conference" of white supremacy.
There was even a German in attendance, Peter Josef Boche, who runs a racist church in Berlin. At one point, Boche was surrounded by a group of women and girls. The stubble-faced German, accompanied by his properly blond daughter, was leading a session in how to rakishly throw up the right arm in a stiff-armed "Heil Hitler!" salute.
JOSH FOWLER, NATTILY robed in green, albeit sans hood, was one of the first in a series of Klan speakers. He swaggered onto the Echo's stage flanked by two bodyguards, one bearing a round shield adorned with the Klan cross. The youthful grand dragon of one of the Klan groups from South Carolina first warmed up the crowd with a little humor, joking that he welcomed speaking inside, at a podium. "Most of the time," Fowler quipped, "I'm on the back of a pickup truck."
The tempo of Fowler's speech quickened and the decibel level soared, until at full screech he brought the audience to its feet in cheers by announcing that what he "really hate[s] is white women with little mongrel babies."
Although an Aryan Nations event, the largest contingent was from the KKK. The two groups share the Christian Identity and violence-as-a-solution philosophies, and memberships overlap. The major difference is taste in costume -- the neo-Nazi uniforms of Aryan Nations vs. the Klan's robes, hoods and masks.
However, one Klansman was outfitted in black SWAT-team-style fatigues, his shirt emblazoned with military lettering that announced he was a "U.S. Army Veteran" and a member of the "AWKKKK" (American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan).
Five other Klansmen, sartorially more traditionalist, were garbed in multihued robes and formed a circle of skyward-pointing hoods that bobbed up and down as if they were listening to music that only they could hear.
Watching them with an admiring look, one gent, attired in an authentic Johnny Reb uniform, asked that his name not be used because "I'll get in trouble with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They say we can't be racist any longer. Can you imagine?"
Fowler was followed on the podium by Virgil Griffin, a legendary Carolina Klan relic who participated in a 1979 Greensboro, N.C., riot that ended with the slaying of five union organizers. No one was ever convicted for the crime, yet an Aryan Nations officer named Ryan (he refused to give his last name) told the assemblage that Griffin "is my hero. Five commies went to hell that day."
Griffin's tastes differed from brother Klansmen. He wore a knee-length light periwinkle-purple robe adorned with what looked like a dressy red Girl Scout sash. Despite the feminine touch, Griffin described himself as a "warrior for God" and, with fists slugging the air, Griffin urged the crowd to "get every weapon you can get. We're gonna hit back."
His most vitriolic comments were reserved for Hispanics, the new punching bags of the far right. "They breed like rats, worse than niggers, and send their money back to Mexico," Griffin roared. "Only thing I got for them is a bullet right between the eyes. Ship their dead butts back to Mexico."
Chris James, a delegate from White Revolution, also picked up on the anti-immigrant theme. He preached that racists could attract converts by finding "common ground" with the general public on issues such as illegal immigration. "Think racially and act locally," he urged.
During an intermission, James had a request for the Aryan Nations organizers: "Would you mind selling pop next time?" he said.
Aryan Nations officials looked puzzled. James explained, "So I don't have to buy a drink from the Neeeee-grooooo on the corner."
RICK SPRING IS the dapper Aryan, one of the few remaining confidants of the late Richard Butler. Clad in black jacket and pants, the only signal of what Spring is about is his elegantly embroidered red, gold and powder-blue Aryan Nations armband.
During a break he showed his knack for explaining things. For example, about those swastikas on fluttering flags and tattooed on his colleagues' arms and heads, Spring opined, "They're just good luck signs. Some people say they're Nazi symbols, but that's not what I see."
And, on violence? "Aryan Nations is the whipping boy," he said. "True, in the past... ." He tapered off and then cranked back up, "You've heard of people 'going postal,' but have you ever heard of someone 'going Aryan Nations,' like I mean violent? The only time we're violent is when violence is brought to us."
The scariest of the Aryan Nations speakers was Ryan, who wouldn't disclose his full name but who lives in South Carolina. He vowed to kill the "dogs of ZOG."
"You better hope I don't come in your bedroom window," Ryan said to FBI informants he suspected were in the audience. "Warriors kill and break things. We're warriors in waiting."
Ryan, whose biceps were adorned with 8-inch Nazi "SS" tattoos, capped his speech with a dance across the stage, a la Mick Jagger, and a bellowed challenge: "You want to see blood in the streets? I do!"
ARMED WITH A loopy theology, and not averse to a good brawl, where do the white supremacists go next? Their longed-for race conflict lacks a "when" and "how." Holding up Eric Robert Rudolph -- now serving a life sentence for several bombings, including the one at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta -- as a model Christian terrorist, Aryan Nations' speakers touted "leaderless resistance" and "lone wolf" tactics.
For years, Aryan Nations aspired to have an uprising in the Northwest, and turn five states into, literally, The Aryan Nation. With the group staggering from the double whammy of litigation and factionalism, the new goal is more modest: South Carolina.
Aryan Nations' Washington leader, who gave only his first name, Paul, is 60-ish and has a British accent from 25 years in England. Paul outlined possible strategies for the group: establishing a state in Alaska ("few minorities," he said), or a wholesale "South will rise again." Both of those he discounted as impractical, although certainly worthy.
In the end, Paul observed, the best option is to "look at the secession of South Carolina. Start with this state."
DURING AN INTERMISSION, the delegates took a break outside the front doors of the Redneck Shop, milling around an Aryan Nations flag mounted on a curb facing the county courthouse. Several of the men malevolently eyed a downtown shopper, Tyrone Russ, one of those black men deemed not quite human by the racists.
A supervisor at a Wal-Mart distribution center, Russ was visibly stunned to learn that scores of hatemongers were gathered down the street from the stores he was visiting with his young sons.
"As long as there are people," Russ said, "I guess there will be ignorance. But I thought all of that ignorance had left here long ago."
Read more of John Sugg's experience: Hating the haters.
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