KENNER, La. — Fresh out of prison for bilking supporters, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke hosted a weekend gathering of enthusiastic backers eager to hear him as he lashed out at Jews, blacks, immigrants and the “Zionist-controlled media.”
About 250 of them chanted “Duke! Duke!” as he took the stage Saturday night during his “unity and leadership conference.” None cared that he had just served time for swindling contributors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a direct mail scheme.
“It was essentially a political conviction,” said Paul Fromm, director of the Canadian Association for Free Expression.
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The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group that monitors hate groups, has identified Fromm as a Holocaust denier and said the Memorial Day weekend conference was a gathering for like-minded white supremacists and right-wing groups.
The Web site for the Duke-founded European-American Unity and Rights Organization identified participants as leaders of Stormfront, the National Alliance and the British National Party.
“I think the congress is intended to deflect attention from Duke’s conviction for bilking his supporters and it’s a publicity stunt pure and simple to make him look like a candidate rather than a convict,” said Lance Hill, director the Southern Institute for Education and Research.
Despite Duke’s legal travails, some extremists apparently still hold hope that he can unite and lead a political movement.
Don Black, the creator of Stormfront, one of the first white nationalist Internet sites, praised Duke for his political savvy.
“He’s demonstrated that he’s been the lead man in the past,” Black said. “I believe the conference represents the beginning of a viable political movement for white America.”
But those who monitor Duke’s activities have their doubts.
“He seems to have survived this fall from grace – in terms of being convicted of mail and tax fraud. He’s still being looked to as a leader because right now there is a void in leadership in the white supremacist world,” said Marilyn Mayo of the Anti-Defamation League.
“He has talked about running for office again, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be accepted by any mainstream party,” Mayo said. “It’s not that he’s come full-circle, it’s just that he’s out in the open with the views that he’s always held.”
Duke rose to national prominence after winning a state House seat in suburban New Orleans in 1989, despite his past as a Klan leader and avowed neo-Nazi.
Distancing himself from overtly racist views, he made the runoff for governor in 1991, alarming anti-racist organizations and drawing worldwide media attention to Louisiana. He was soundly beaten in the runoff by Edwin Edwards, made a poor showing in 1992 presidential primaries and failed to make the runoff in a later race for Congress.
Potok calls Duke’s 1999 autobiography “My Awakening” ample proof that Duke fully embraces racism.
In the book, Duke promotes theories of black people’s inferior mental abilities and suggests an “Aryan” revolution may be needed in the future “to free our people and secure our survival.”
“He is a neo-Nazi. That is his world view,” Potok said.
In mid-May Duke left a halfway house after spending a year in federal prison in Texas. He pleaded guilty to bilking his supporters and cheating on his taxes in 2002 but later denied any wrongdoing.
In Saturday’s speech, Duke attacked President Bush and his administration as pawns of Israel and betrayers of the white race.
However, Duke repeatedly warned the audience to not allow themselves to be characterized as white supremacists and racists, and to carefully pick the words that describe themselves and the “white civil rights cause.”
“We have to be precise about how we use our words,” Duke said. “What we speak creates the world. I believe that. We have to start speaking in a way that empowers us.”