JACKSON The head of the Mississippi state agency that sent out a tweet this week honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee once attended a rally of a racist organization that refers to black people as a "retrograde species of humanity."
On July 31, 2000, then-Mississippi Department of Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson attended a "Save Our Heritage" event hosted by the Council of Conservative Citizens, the white-supremacist organization that later inspired Dylann Roof's massacre of black worshipers in Charleston in 2015. The Citizen Informer, the CofCC's official publication, reported his attendance at the event.
The SPLC first published a report on Frierson's attendance at the rally in 2014, which gained new significance Thursday, when the Department of Revenue posted and then deleted a tweet that honored Lee, a Confederate general in the Civil War and slave owner.
"In honor of General Robert E. Lee's birthday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we will be closed on Monday, January 21," Thursday's now-deleted tweet read. "Robert E. Lee Day" is a public holiday in Mississippi and Alabama, and both states recognize on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Arkansas did as well until 2017, when it ended its observance of Lee's birthday and replaced it with a general Civil War memorial day in October.
In 1998, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., came under national scrutiny for his relationship with the group, as Republican Kirk Fordice did later as well. The Republican Party barred the group from its meetings and, in 1999, denounced it as "racist." Lott, now a lobbyist, later stepped down from the U.S. Senate for praising the mission of the racist southern Dixiecrats before the parties switched sides, especially on race issues, in Mississippi and nationally.
In 2009, Mississippi Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, was the keynote speaker at the national convention of the Council of Conservative Citizens here in Jackson. Chassaniol's participation attracted little media attention beyond this newspaper and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and she was and is still the Senate Tourism Chair and the Vice Chair of Corrections.
Chassaniol also admitted to being a member of CofCC before she did the group's keynote. She ended by telling participants to embrace their southern heritage, describing the group as “lone voices crying in the wilderness."
"Seeing all of you here today gives me hope," Chassaniol added.
In September 2000, now-Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., spoke at a CofCC meeting in Byhalia, Miss., that CofCC co-founder Gordon Baum and CofCC President Tom Dover attended. Wicker was a U.S. House member at the time. After the Charleston church massacre in 2015, Wicker drew the ire of supporters of "Confederate heritage" when he called for a change to the Mississippi state flag, which contains the emblem of the Confederacy in its canton.
'God is the Author of Racism'
The Council of Conservative Citizens grew out of the mailing list of the Citizens Council, a national white-supremacist organization headquartered in Jackson until 1989. Both the Citizens Council and the Council of Conservative Citizens long espoused "scientific racist" beliefs that black people were mentally and biologically inferior to white people and pushed myths that black people are more prone to commit crimes, especially against white people. The groups used that racist mythology to support white flight from public schools into private segregation academies.
From Terrorists to Politicians, the Council of Conservative Citizens Has a Wide Reach
"It's almost an open war on whites," CofCC co-founder Gordon Baum, now deceased, told the co-founder of this newspaper in 2001 in a phone interview from his home in St. Louis, Mo. "Whites rarely commit crime against blacks. (Black people) ought to be properly penalized." Baum called African Americans "subspecies of the same species."
"There's something wrong with rewarding those people to have children ... to encourage the least genetically well endowed to have children. IQ rates are going down," Baum said in the interview. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that CofCC have long referred to black people as "a retrograde species of humanity" and targeted "Jewish power brokers." The organization, founded in Missouri in 1985, opposes "efforts to mix the races" in its "Statement of Principles."
"God is the author of racism," the CofCC's website proclaimed in 2001. "God is the One who divided mankind into different types. ... Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God."
Targeting Immigration: 'Murderers, Rapists, Those Carrying AIDS'
In recent years, the CofCC focused heavily on opposition to immigration.
"Controlling immigration is about the security of this republic [terrorists illegally crossing the borders] and making sure countries like Mexico stop dumping their murderers, rapists, those carrying AIDS and other communicable diseases and gang members on America's door step," CofCC member Devvy Kidd wrote in the Citizen Informer in 2006. Kidd has a website called the Jackson Press.
Then-candidate Donald Trump made a similar comment when he announced his campaign for president in June 2015: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have a lot of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," he said.
Trump later spread neo-Nazi lies about black-on-white crime, following a favorite tactic of both the Citizens Council and the Council of Conservative Citizens.
The president now uses similar rhetoric to try to get support for his multi-billion-dollar border wall on the southern border of the U.S.
Mississippi Politicians and the CofCC
The story that created a national dialogue on school segregation, then and now.
The 2014 report noted that 23 Mississippi politicians have attended CofCC events, including U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, former Gov. Haley Barbour and former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Kay Cobb. Politicians from other states have attended CofCC events too, including one in Louisiana, one in South Carolina and one in Tennessee.
Barbour came under fire for his association with the group through CofCC Senior Field Coordinator Bill Lord, after he appeared in a photo with him and group leaders at the Black Hawk Rally in Carroll County, which long raised money for traditionally white segregation academies. Carroll County is also the home of the Teoc Plantation, where the late Sen. John McCain's grandfather owned slaves.
Lord was present in Baxterville, Miss., at the July 2000 event Frierson attended, and signed up new members there. Also there was State Rep. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall. He told the SPLC he did not know the CofCC hosted the event when he attended.
Frierson was not available for comment on his attendance at the CofCC rally on Friday. Frierson and Wicker both refused comment to the SPLC in 2014.
The Jackson Free Press also sought to ask Frierson's department about the Robert E. Lee tweet Friday, but the department's communications director was also out.
The account deleted the tweet after facing backlash on social media.
"More reason not to visit MS. Hope ya didn't want any Revenue related to tourism," a Twitter user with the handle @grym01 wrote.
The department did not respond to a request for comment Friday because their communications director was not available.
In 2016, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Frierson to lead the department as the commissioner of revenue. Frierson also served in the Mississippi Legislature, where he was also controversial.
Robert E. Lee's 'Cruel and Brutal' Slavery History
The Jackson Free Press revealed to the world in February 2016 that Gov. Bryant had declared April "Confederate Heritage Month," but with no mention of slavery.
Last year, State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, praised Robert E. Lee as a "man of unimpeachable integrity" who "opposed both slavery and secession." He made the comment while he was running in last year's U.S. Senate special election. Historians pounced.
"The idea that Robert E. Lee was somehow opposed to slavery is belied by his entire history," Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse said. "He was a slave owner. He inherited slaves—that's true—but what he did to those slaves was much more cruel and brutal than their previous owners had been."
Kruse cited historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, whose account of Lee's life stands in contrast to the heroic portrait McDaniel and others paint.
"Under Lee's watch, every family except for one was broken up, which was an unusual form of cruelty," Kruse said. "He tore mothers from their children, wives from their husbands, and on and on. He was not a kind master."
Kruse pointed to the 1866 account of Wesley Norris—a former slave of Lee's—who said that after an attempted escape, Lee ordered that he and another slave be whipped across their naked flesh and then washed with brine. "Literal salt in the wound," Kruse said.
"This was not a kindly slave master," Kruse continued. "That's a myth in general, but Lee was definitely not that."
Lee's Role in the Civil War?
"He did support secession—he led an armed revolt against the United States," Kruse said of Lee. "He broke the oath he took as a soldier of the U.S. Army and waged open war against the United States, and in that war, he was notably cruel to any African Americans he encountered."
In their own words, Confederate leaders explain secession, the Civil War and their views about black people.
Kruse pointed to the Battle of the Crater in 1864, in which soldiers under Lee's command massacred black Union soldiers as they tried to surrender. Later, as president of Washington Lee College, Lee turned a blind eye as students were accused of abducting and raping black girls and of attempted lynchings.
"He refused to see African Americans, both slave and free, as people," Kruse said.
In 2017, a Jackson elementary school named for Confederate Vice President Jefferson Davis changed its name to Barack Obama Magnet IB Elementary School. Ninety-seven percent of students at that school are black.
"Jefferson Davis, although infamous in his own right, would probably not be too happy about a diverse school promoting the education of the very individuals he fought to keep enslaved being named after him," PTA President Janelle Jefferson told the school board at the time.
Lee Elementary in Jackson is still named for Robert E. Lee, even though 94 percent of its students are black.
Former and Current Legislators Attended Council Events
All but one of the Mississippi politicians identified by the SPLC report as having attended CofCC events were Republicans, except for former State Rep. Jack Gadd, D-Hickory Flatt, who served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2012. In 2001, he spoke to the Marshall County CofCC about redistricting, and he was "one of several lawmakers who invited the Marshall County CCC to visit them at the Capitol on Feb. 19, 2003," the SPLC notes.
Former State Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, who spoke to the CofCC in Jackson in 2001 and 2003, told the SPLC in 2014 he did not see the group as a "KKK-style organization." He told the SPLC that they should instead investigate the NAACP. Moore resigned in 2017 citing health concerns, but House Speaker Phillip Gunn said he was facing sexual harassment allegations.
The racist Council of Conservative Citizens held its national convention in Jackson, Miss., in 2009, and the Mississippi Senate tourism chair was its keynote speaker.
State Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, also spoke to the Jackson branch in support of the state flag in April 2003 and at its "Southern Heritage Celebration and Political Rally" that May. He refused comment to the SPLC in 2014, as did State Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, who spoke to the Webster County branch twice in 2003. Byram Mayor Richard White spoke to the CofCC in 2001 when he was a Republican state senator, but also refused to comment.
State Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, spoke to the CofCC in 2001, but told the SPLC he was "not involved" with them.
Others admitted to attending events, but offered ignorance as a defense.
House Rep. Gary Alan Chism, R-Columbus, told the SPLC he had never read the organization's materials, even though he spoke at events in 2001, 2002 and in 2003 at a "Southern Heritage Defense" panel. Former Rep. Dannie Reed, R-Ackerman, told the SPLC he had read the literature, and could not understand why they were considered a hate group.
State Sen. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, who spoke before the group in 2004, told the SPLC he thought they were "a business group." Former State Rep. James Ellington, R-Raymond, told the SPLC he did not know "a thing about" them, but they "seemed like normal people to me."
Former Jackson City Councilman Ben Allen of Ward 1 told the Jackson Free Press in 2004 that he had spoken to the group in 1997 or 1998; the organization's Citizens Informer had reported in 2000 that he was one of its speakers.
"If they ask me back to speak again (hands in air), you know I can tell you this: I don't want to denigrate any organization; they can do what they want to do. I would not now or ever be a member of it; I wouldn't support it," Allen, the now-retired president of Downtown Jackson Partners, told the Jackson Free Press.
Follow Jackson Free Press State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter at @ashtonpittman and Donna Ladd @donnerkay. Email story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read related work at jacksonfreepress.com/slavery.