Dylann Roof’s turn to a radical belief in white supremacy was a recent development, according to his friends and acquaintances. But the roots of his belief apparently run much further back, to an organization founded in the 1950s.
In a manifesto uncovered over the weekend, an author widely believed to be Roof wrote that he began Googling after the murder of Trayvon Martin. “The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens,” he wrote. “There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?”
The manifesto is wrong on the facts. A 2014 report by the Sentencing Project found that the media empirically tend to over-report crimes with black offenders and white victims. But the group he cited, the Council of Conservative Citizens, has spent a great deal of effort trying to convince people that black-on-white crime is a real menace. (Journalists are often bombarded with publicity materials for White Girl Bleed a Lot, a book purporting to reveal the truth about black-on-white crime.)
Along the way, the CCC has become the largest white-supremacist group in the nation, according to some observers. Members have donated thousands of dollars to politicians; some national politicians have joined, and dozens have spoken to CCC meetings, often regretting it later. On Monday, Republicans around the country hastened to give back cash they’d received from the CCC’s president, Earl Holt III. Yet despite its size, influence, and unabashed espousal of white separatism, the CCC seems to often go unnoticed, surfacing mostly at times of high racial tension.
The CCC’s roots lie in an older, now-defunct organization called the Citizens Councils of America (also known as White Citizens Council), which aimed to be a (somewhat) more respectable alternative to the Ku Klux Klan for white southerners who opposed integration; the group was sometimes called the “uptown Klan.” In 2010, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, still considered a potential presidential candidate, told Andrew Ferguson, implausibly, that the Councils helped bring about school integration without violence: “The business community wouldn’t stand for it. You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town.”
Barbour’s name soon dropped from consideration. He was right that the Councils helped tamp down the Klan, which seemed uncouth to more buttoned-down segregationists, but once the fight against segregation had been lost, the Councils lost their raison d’etre and slowly faded away. In 1985, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, a former CCA Midwest field director named Gordon Baum founded the Council of Conservative Citizens as a successor group. Among his co-founders was Lester Maddox, the one-time Georgia governor who rose to prominence after chasing black patrons from his restaurant with an ax handle.
The CCC is now, according to the SPLC, the nation’s largest white nationalist group and at its peak boasted 15,000 members. Though the CCC is sometimes described as “thinly veiled” white supremacists or the like, that’s misleading—it makes little secret of its agenda. (Nonetheless, Ann Coulter has previously stepped forward to defend the group from the white-supremacy attack.) In a statement of principles, the group says:
We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people .... We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.
New members also receive a pamphlet about Martin Luther King Day co-written by the late racist Senator Jesse Helms. The Anti-Defamation League collects other examples of ties to hate groups and extremists.
The group also maintains ties overseas; in 1998, according to the white supremacist site American Renaissance, a delegation from the group “had the pleasure of presenting Jean-Marie Le Pen with a Confederate flag that had flown over the South Carolina state capitol.” Le Pen founded France’s far-right National Front, but was recently suspended from the party by its current leader—his daughter—for remarks casting doubt on the Holocaust.
The CCC also prominently protested in 2000 when South Carolina lawmakers moved the Confederate battle flag from atop the statehouse—where it had flown since 1961—to a site elsewhere on the capitol grounds in Columbia.
Since the shooting, and since the manifesto attributed to Roof was revealed, the CCC has moved to distance itself from him. A post on the group’s website condemns the massacre but takes great pains to look for other explanations than racism: Roof’s “interest in racial politics started only very recently,” it says, suggesting that drugs could have been a factor and noting that some of Roof’s apparent Facebook friends are black. It also implies that his friends are to blame for not stopping him. In a separate post, the CCC again condemns Roof but insists that the danger of black-on-white crime is real. The statement directs inquiries to Jared Taylor, who also runs American Renaissance.
Despite its open espousal of white supremacy—or, a cynic might say, because of it—the group continues to attract high-profile politicians. Then-Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, a Republican (and later a Libertarian presidential candidate), delivered a keynote address to the group in 1998. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who was forced to resign the Senator Majority Leadership after praising Senator Strom Thurmond’s segregationist “Dixiecrat” presidential bid of 1948 at a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, was also linked to the group. “Sen. Trent Lott once addressed this group's national board, welcomed its leaders to Washington, had photos taken with them in his office and then said he didn't know what they were about,” The Washington Post reported. “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.” Mike Huckabee also delivered a speech to the CCC, via video, in the early 1990s, but later condemned the group.
Why do politicians keep speaking to the CCC? The outwardly neutral name might have something to do with it. Every time a politician is caught, he—like Lott—insists he didn’t know what the group’s stances were. When it was revealed that Representative Steve Scalise had spoken to a different racist group earlier in his career, he too said he didn’t know about its position—and at least one black Democratic colleague vouched for him.
The fact is that politicians are eager to raise money and often don’t carefully vet groups before speaking to them. And CCC members have spread their money around. As The Guardian first reported over the weekend, CCC President Earl Holt III has donated some $65,000 to candidates in recent years, including GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum. (Holt took over the group after Baum’s death in spring 2015.) Holt’s contribution records read as a who’s who of conservative candidates in recent years—including Mark Sanford, who represents Charleston in the House. Holt has given to black candidates, including Representative Mia Love of Utah and former Representative Allen West of Florida. Bizarrely, in some of his donations, Holt identifies himself as a self-employed “slumlord”; others call him a real-estate developer or landlord. Commenter accounts around the web using his full name are repositories of racism and slurs.
On Monday, many of the politicians who received donations hastened to give the money back. The “toxic donor” story is a familiar one in politics—group or individual does bad thing; reporters find contributions; recipients give back money; news cycle returns to normal. The CCC has survived multiple turns in the media spotlight, and as revolting as its ideology is, it’s perhaps not surprising that it can continue to find adherents. The question is whether politicians will be wise enough not to affiliate themselves with it once again.