The Center for Democratic Renewal Closes Its Doors TZF No. 3

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The Center for Democratic Renewal Closes its Doors
By Leonard Zeskind

The Zeskind Fortnight No. 3
March 29, 2008

 Next year would have been the thirtieth anniversary of the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) in Atlanta.  Founded as the National Anti-Klan Network by veterans of the civil rights movement—including the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Anne Braden, both of whom dated their activism to the late 1940s—it became a place where blacks and whites and others worked side by side to counter white supremacist activity.  It was an ever shifting aggregation in which a few board members labored in the trenches as if they were staff, where volunteers did some of the most difficult duties and the few paid “employees” did the work of many. I had the honor to serve it first as a board member and then for almost nine years as its research director.  I worked with three different executive directors who contributed to the development of the organization, each in their own way.  Although I resigned my post early in 1994 and lost track of it after that, I remember those earlier years with the clarity that comes from having an intense and overwhelming commitment. And now I must report

 that the Center for Democratic Renewal has permanently closed its doors.

 The National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN) dated its first moments to a meeting in August 1979, three months after armed Klansmen attacked a Southern Christian Leadership Conference march in Decatur, Alabama. Events accelerated that November, when a caravan of Klansmen and neo-Nazis shot up a demonstration organized by the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, North Carolina and left five protestors dead and nine wounded. When the National Anti-Klan Network sponsored a march and rally in Greensboro on February 1, 1980, thousands responded to that call to stand up against the resurgence of racist violence.

 NAKN was not the only effort of its kind started during those years. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama created its Klanwatch Project in response to the same events in Decatur.  In 1978, a coalition known as the “Interchange” project in Washington, D.C. began conducting research on the “far right.” After Ronald Reagan was elected president, People for the American Way initiated a media-centered campaign against the religious right.  The grouping that later became Political Research Associates in Boston first came alive in Chicago. Smaller less well-funded collectives such as TUFF (Those United to Fight Fascism) and coalitions such as People United to Fight the Klan and Government Repression emerged briefly and then faded away.  The problems of white supremacist activity and the far right, however, continued growing.

 In some of its earliest programs, NAKN worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Together we brought a successful civil suit against three Klansmen who had shot five black women walking down the street in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  A jury awarded the women $535,000 in February 1982.  The following year, on behalf of eight victims, we sued the United States Justice Department for failure to prosecute crimes of racist violence.  Although that case never came to trial, it remains in my mind a substantive mile marker in the fight for justice.

 The organization came of age in the early 1980s, when staff and volunteers began organizing in the hills of Northwest Georgia.  After they uncovered a Klan-created “workers’ union,” NAKN helped build a real multi-racial union in its place. And when a clandestine organization known popularly as The Order began robbing bank cars and killing people in a war against ZOG—the Zionist Occupied Government—during the mid-1980s, NAKN learned how to systematically collect information, analyze it, and provide it to the press.

 During those years, NAKN also developed a project in North Carolina, where the state’s failure to convict the Greensboro killers had resulted in a significant increase in white supremacist activity. It started a project to document and counter that violence. Soon a stand-alone organization, North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence, based in Durham, became a genuine partner in our larger effort.

 In 1984, a subset of the NAKN’s leadership began a strategic planning process that included about four long weekend meetings over a year’s time.  We began with the notion, articulated by better minds than mine, that the “coalitional” structure we had started with was out of date. Included in the long discussions of organizational assets and deficits, the importance of various stakeholders and donors, was a serious assessment—conducted over several months time—of the political environment in which we operated.  In other words, we grappled with out own collective understanding of the white supremacist movement, the Reagan Administration, the Christian right, as well as the strengths and weaknesses on the anti-racist side of the coin.  That planning process remains with me today as the gold standard of how such things should be done. And none of the many weekend retreats and four hour “planning” discussions that I have been part of in the years since measure up to the process NAKN underwent in 1984 and 1985.

 Although all the different parts of the organization were never of one mind, a significant core of the group began to understand that the Klan had changed from the days when it had defended Jim Crow segregation in the South.  In fact, a different kind of white supremacist movement existed in the 1980s.  It was an insurgent, even “revolutionary” phenomenon. Those of us, who had worked all of our adult lives trying to change the “system,” began a painful discussion about defending the remains of the Second Reconstruction.  And in 1985, the National Anti-Klan Network officially changed its name to the Center for Democratic Renewal and Education, Inc. (CDR) to better reflect that broader focus.

 That year CDR also developed a formal partnership with farm and rural advocacy groups, including Prairiefire Rural Action in Des Moines, Iowa.  Together we developed an educational program to combat the influence of racist and anti-Semitic groups such as the Posse Comitatus and Populist Party that were preying on farm communities suffering from a severe economic and social crisis.  Between 1985 and 1987, about 2,000 farm and rural leaders from across the Midwest and Great Plains came to training sessions and workshops and learned the tools they needed to effectively stop the rural radical right.

 The CDR worked extremely hard in the Pacific Northwest and assisted in the development of several organizations, including the Coalition for Human Dignity in Portland and then Seattle, the Montana Human Rights Network and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.  I personally remember speaking to a November 1985 meeting in Spokane of the Interstate Task Force on Human Rights and being the first to inform people in that region that white supremacists were planning the creation of a Northwest Aryan Republic in their hometowns.

 We could justifiably count credit for several other “firsts,” as well.  We were the first to note the emergence of white power skinheads.  We were the first to report on David Duke’s Populist Party candidacy for president in 1988. A Seattle conference we organized on anti-gay violence helped push other organizations in the Northwest to include that issue within their mandates. And when “Hate Crimes” legislation was under discussion on Capitol Hill, we fought against those who would leave sexual orientation out of the bill and as an unprotected class. 

 This work in communities across the country did not stop CDR’s program in its own back yard.  Volunteers and staff monitored every Klan rally they could in Georgia and the immediately surrounding states, particularly during the spring and summer months when such events were held almost weekly.  A new level of activity began in January 1987, however, when a racist mob of 400, led by members of two different Klan factions, attacked and stopped a small “brotherhood” march in Forsyth County. Although 20,000 civil rights marchers descended on that county the following weekend to “complete the march,” that brief show of anti-racist force did not stop the accelerated pace of white supremacist activity that followed.  Gradually, however, CDR was able to nurture the small voices of moral opposition to racism in North Georgia. A lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center helped break up the Klan factions. And a new CDR project aimed at empowering the black community in Gainesville showed great success in the early 1990s.

 In an age before Wikipedia and the widespread use of the Internet, school children and college students asked for information and help on term papers, and CDR staff developed for this purpose “information packets” consisting of newspaper clippings, excerpts from racist propaganda and other materials on topics ranging from the Klan, to racist skinheads to the Aryan underground.  We produced a series of “background documents,” monographs, and regularly produced a newsletter. Academics used our publications as source material; sometimes they would recognize our assistance, and other times our help went unacknowledged. And our “Weekly Update,” which was written every Monday morning and mailed out to about 200 addresses that evening became the standard in its field at that time. During those years of my association, we published two editions of a “how to” organizing manual.  And those too became standards, used by the Methodist Women’s Division, the United Auto Workers Union’s Civil Rights Division, and local community-based efforts in every part of the country.

 The office in Atlanta would sometimes receive calls from white women hoping to find a Klan group that would whip their errant husbands into shape.  On occasion, a call would come from some unhappy Klan or Aryan-type who wanted our assistance getting away from the white supremacist movement.  The staff would try and point the women towards more appropriate social service agencies, and we would make a decision about whether or not to help the unhappy Aryans based on whether they were being honest with us.

 A phone call from Blakely, Georgia in 1990 began a sequence of events that no one who was involved will ever forget.  The Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had a chapter in that small soutwest Georgia town and three Klansmen were nested inside the fire department—including the fire chief.  The town itself was a rural throw-back to the pre-civil rights era, where black people were denied a real vote and homes in the black community burned down from official neglect.  In two of those fires, small children were burned to death.  CDR filed and won a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit that resulted in all three Klansmen resigning from the department. And a voting rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the Concerned Black Citizens Committee resulted in the first election in the town’s history of black people to the city council. 

 The Blakely case underscored the political dilemma CDR faced in the earliest years of the 1990s, as the political trajectory of the white supremacist movement changed once again.  There we were, attending to the worst situations in the most racist backwaters of the country, while David Duke and then Pat Buchanan were pushing a new post-Cold War white nationalism into the center of the electoral universe.  Ultimately, as small as we were, we could not work effectively on both parts of the problem at the same time.

 As the 1990s continued on, however, the organization wound up dealing with neither aspect of white supremacist activity.  It lost its ability to organize around the worst incidents of racist violence, and it never managed to maintain any prolonged work in the more political realm either.  As the years went by and the personnel changed, the focus got blurrier and blurrier, until it ceased to exist altogether.  And now, with the doors finally closed,  we need to remember all of the good work that was done by so many for so long.