Burleson: Center Fighting Confederate Flag Ban Says He Wasn’t Member
Mar. 11–An attorney for two teens who are demanding that Burleson High School drop its ban on their Confederate flag purses has a professional and personal background intertwined with some of the nation’s most notorious white supremacist groups.
Before he started crusading for Confederate pride, Kirk Lyons, chief trial counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, was the go-to attorney for Klansmen, Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis and others on the racist and anti-Semitic fringe.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
He previously told other media outlets that people should not mistake him for his clients. However, organizations that monitor extremist groups say that’s a tough sell in this case.
“It’s a bogus defense,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Mr. Potok said he believes that Mr. Lyons “has been every bit as much a member of the movement as he was the attorney for the movement.”
Mr. Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Report, noted that Mr. Lyons’ wedding was held at a neo-Nazi compound, and his best man has previously been on an FBI Most Wanted list.
Mr. Lyons, a self-described “unreconstructed Southerner,” declined to return phone calls for this story on “advice of counsel.” He said he might agree to an interview if The Dallas Morning News was “willing to sheathe your hatchet.”
Officials with the group responded March 2 by letter and wrote that attacks on the Southern Legal Resource Center focus on “guilt-by-association.”
“Mr. Lyons is not now and has never been a member of any organization that could remotely be characterized as ‘white supremacist,’ ” wrote Roger McCredie, the pro-Confederate group’s executive director. “As a young attorney in the mid-1980’s, he represented several right-wing clients, not because of their ideology but because he believed them innocent.”
He also noted that Mr. Lyons is a member in “good standing” with the State Bar of Texas.
The Southern Legal Resource Center says on its Web site that the Southern Poverty Law Center uses scare tactics to worsen racial tension and enrich its founder, Morris Dees. Mr. McCredie noted in a letter that Mr. Dees also represented Klansmen before he founded his civil rights group in the early 1970s.
Mr. Lyons, a former Houston resident, previously said that his organization, which he described as an American Civil Liberties Union for Southern heritage, doesn’t represent extremists like he did in the past.
Today, the clientele for his Black Mountain, N.C., practice is likely to be students violating school dress codes or carrying Confederate flags to high school football games.
The two Burleson seniors were kicked out of class more than a year ago when they attended school with Confederate flag purses, which were Christmas presents. The lawsuit, filed Feb. 2 in federal court, said the girls were simply showing off their Southern heritage, but school district officials said they were worried that the symbol, considered racist by many, would be a disruption.
Rick McAllum, father of plaintiff Aubrie McAllum, said he wasn’t bothered by Mr. Lyons’ background.
“We know everything about Kirk Lyons,” Mr. McAllum said, adding that he researched the lawyer on the Internet.
When asked whether he was concerned that Mr. Lyons’ wedding was held at the white supremacist Aryan Nations compound, Mr. McAllum said: “I don’t know anything about that.” Mr. Lyons acknowledged the location of his wedding during a 1992 episode of the Geraldo talk show, and that information has been widely publicized by his critics.
“I don’t know anything about the Aryan Nations,” Mr. McAllum said, “and I don’t know anything about being a racist. I don’t know anything about those things because I’m not raised that way, and I’m not that way. And neither is my daughter.”
The family of Ashley Thomas, the other plaintiff, did not return phone calls or respond to a letter requesting an interview left at their home. They did forward the letter to Mr. Lyons.
According to past interviews in The News and other papers, his clients included Louis Beam, a former Klansman charged but found not guilty of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government; Tom Metzger, founder of White Aryan Resistance, a racist group that was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center; and David Irving, an author who claims the Nazi Holocaust never happened. The mother of Waco cult leader David Koresh also hired Mr. Lyons to represent her son during the government standoff outside Waco 14 years ago.
Linda Eads, an ethics professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school, said lawyers often must distance their personal beliefs from the beliefs of their clients.
“Our ethical code says that unless we find the client to be so repugnant that we can’t do a good job for the client, then we are supposed to not take the clients’ political viewpoints, social viewpoints into account,” she said.
However, sometimes attorneys do suffer because of their clients. Ms. Eads said that Stephen Jones endured much criticism and personal attacks after he represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Mr. Lyons’ past
While many lawyers make a living representing people society considers repugnant, Mr. Lyons’ actions outside the courtroom raise some questions by organizations that have followed his career.
He founded a group called CAUSE, which stood for Canada, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Europe. Those were all places where the civil liberties of whites were under attack, Mr. Lyons told The Oregonian in 1992. The newspaper said he was a “self-described white separatist.”
Marilyn Mayo, director of right-wing research for the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said these types of “civil rights” groups often have white supremacist underpinnings, such as former Klansman David Duke’s EURO (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) or National Association for the Advancement of White People.
“The fact that he [Mr. Lyons] chooses to take on these cases from promoting the Confederate flag to defending the far-right figures over the years shows that he has a certain affinity for these clients and causes,” Ms. Mayo said.
Separation of the races was one of the pet projects of the Aryan Nations, an anti-Semitic, white supremacist group with ties to Mr. Lyons. The organization’s former compound in Idaho was the site of Mr. Lyons’ wedding. He married the daughter of an Aryan Nations official, and his best man was Mr. Beam, the former Klansman charged with sedition.
In a letter to the editor in the Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer, Mr. Lyons said: “Oh yes. Let’s attack Lyons through his wife’s family. Are you people able to sleep at night?”
In his letter, Mr. McCredie wrote that Mr. Lyons was married 17 years ago in an Episcopal ceremony at the Christian Identity church his wife’s family attended. “He has never been a member of the Christian Identity Church,” Mr. McCredie wrote. “(Mr. and Mrs. Lyons later joined the Presbyterian Church and have raised their children in that denomination.)”
The Aryan Nations’ Church of Jesus Christ-Christian, where Mr. Lyons was married, is part of the fragmented Christian Identity movement, said Michael Barkun, a political science professor at Syracuse University in New York. He said the basic tenet of Christian Identity is that northwestern Europeans — not modern Jews — are the biological descendants of the tribes of Israel.
Some sects stop there, but Dr. Barkun, who wrote a book about the origins of the movement, said the Aryan Nations’ version of Christian Identity is among the most extreme. They also believe that Jews are descendants of Satan and nonwhites are not descended from Adam and Eve.
An Anti-Defamation League report in 1994 also said that Mr. Lyons attended a retreat held by Pete Peters, a Colorado minister who preached that the death penalty for homosexuals was “prescribed in the Bible” and distributed books claiming the Holocaust never happened.
The neo-Nazi National Alliance said in a 1989 newsletter that Mr. Lyons was a member and that the creation of his first legal center would do for whites what “Jews have done for our enemies.” Mr. Lyons claimed that he was only a member to get the newsletter and keep current on radical-right trends as part of his law practice.
Although his current work is still racially charged because of the South’s history of slavery and institutional discrimination, Mr. Lyons has continued to deny persistent accusations of racism. The Southern Legal Resource Center promotes itself as a group that defends the heritage of all “Confederate Southern Americans” no matter what their race.
His organization also frequently publicizes the lone member of its board of advisers, H.K. Edgerton, an African-American activist and former NAACP chapter president who often appears in public in a Confederate uniform. He told the Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2000 interview that “it was better to be an African in the southland as a slave than to be free in Africa.”
“I think Kirk Lyons has been able to convince some that he isn’t a Klansman at heart. Most people who know anything about him and his work know better,” said Mr. Potok, whose Southern Law Poverty Center has spent years investigating Mr. Lyons.