Hate finds a home in the Ozarks
The Joplin Globe
The Ozarks has been tagged as one of three centers of radical right extremism in the United States.
Part of the reason for that is an accident of geography: The rural, thinly populated rhythm of hill and hollow provides natural cover.
Part of the reason is historic: There are few blacks.
That is no accident.
A series of turn-of-the-century lynchings in the region prompted a black Diaspora. Hundreds of blacks fled the Ozarks for larger cities. That was followed by a period of intense Ku Klux Klan activism. The result is a homogenized area that one person described as “whitewashed.”
The people of the region also have deep religious convictions, a “don’t-tread-on-me-and-I-won’t-tread-on-you” attitude, and a wariness of government that borders on distrust and dates to the Civil War.
The latter characteristics provide another type of cover for radical right hate groups: cultural cover.
Into this mix came a preacher described as the greatest orator of his age. Gerald L.K. Smith, who made his home in the Ozarks, once was described as “the most prominent anti-Semite in America.” Smith, a father of tourism in the region, also had ties to the first generation of Christian Identity leaders.
And, it was in the Ozarks that a survivalist Christian sect evolved into a racist, anti-Semitic organization that first proposed a violent act “with a large body count to make the government sit up and take notice.”
The target was to be the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Arm of the Lord
President of his high school’s Future Farmers of America, Kerry Noble said there is little in his middle-class, Baptist background to set him up as a key player in a violent hate group.
A charismatic minister, Noble was 25 in 1977 when he and his wife joined a group of Christian seekers led by James Ellison.
Noble said he and his wife were looking for a more authentic Christian experience, believing that other churches had become too secular, too hypocritical. But in less than a decade, that group evolved into something the federal government described as the “No. 2 domestic terrorist organization in the country.” Noble was its No. 2 man, behind Ellison.
Noble said part of that group’s beliefs – that Jews were not the children of God but the seed of Satan, and that white people were the supreme race – came after Ellison went to the Church
of Israel, in Vernon County, and met its pastor, Dan Gayman.
The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, as Ellison’s group eventually called itself, would be responsible for a church arson in Springfield and for bombing a Jewish Community Center in Indiana. As early as 1983, it talked of blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Ellison and other members of the group even went to Oklahoma City at one point in the early 1980s to case the federal building, which Timothy McVeigh destroyed on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
An accident at the Covenant compound, and then a raid by local, state and federal officers, broke up the group before it carried out any more violent plans, according to Noble, who served more than two years behind bars for possession of unregistered weapons.
That raid began April 19, 1985 – 10 years to the day before McVeigh’s attack.
According to Noble, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, church members expected economic and social collapse, rioting, war, and even the possibility of nuclear war, and began preparing for
Noble, who has since renounced his earlier views, said Ellison believed he was told by God to move away from heavily populated areas, believing there were not enough righteous people left
in the cities to spare them. The group thought its only hope was a refuge in isolation.
“It had to be a certain distance from cities,” Noble said.
Ellison drew a circle around cities with more than 100,000 people and eliminated everything within a hundred miles as a potential location.
“There were six or seven places in the country where those circles don’t overlap,” Noble explained.
That includes the Ozarks.
Eventually, Ellison and his group moved what they called the Zarephath-Horeb community to 224 acres of peninsula that spilled into Bull Shoals Lake. It was located between Oakland, Ark., and
Noble said the nearest town of any size was 40 miles away, and the nearest paved highway was nine miles away. One, maybe two, unfamiliar cars passed down that road in a month.
Most of the world, the group believed, was going to perish during a tribulation, and the members of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord were going to be among the elect chosen by God to rebuild society. People who arrived at the compound needing help would be given help, but those who arrived with hostile intentions would be resisted with force.
To prepare for that, the group began stockpiling weapons, later converting some to automatic, and adding hand grenades and poison gas, as well as survival gear and food.
The CSA offered a course called “Endtime Overcomer Survival Training School,” providing hands-on training in urban warfare, guns, wilderness survival and martial arts.
A mock village for military-style training also was erected. It was called Silhouette City, and eventually would feature pop-up, cut-out caricatures of blacks, Jews and law officers to use for target practice.
Center of extremism
Although the CSA was broken up in 1985, the Southern Poverty Law Center says 32 similar groups exist in the Ozarks today, some with connections to Ellison. These groups espouse the same
anti-Semitic, separatist, racist message as the CSA.
“The Ozarks is one of the three big centers of radical right extremism in the country,” said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
The other two hot spots are the Pacific Northwest and the heavily wooded North Carolina and Tennessee borderland.
According to Potok, these three areas have an anti-federalist tradition that in the case of the Ozarks dates to the Civil War. That anti-federalist tradition, Potok said, includes everything from ebellious moonshiners to gangsters such as Bonnie and Clyde who hid out in, and occasionally shot up, the Ozarks.
Anti-government views are not the only common strain.
Christian Identity groups, as they are known, have more luck recruiting in areas where there are fundamentalist churches with strong apocalyptic beliefs than in areas where there are strong
mainline Protestant and Catholic populations, Potok said.
“It’s a shorter journey (theologically),” he said.
Noble said good candidates for the CSA included people who felt their churches were not Christian enough, who were looking for a more radical Christian experience.
Rex Campbell, rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, also said the Ozarks is populated with people who have a strong independent streak, a result of their Scottish-Irish heritage. They
like to be left alone; in turn, they leave others alone.
“There is a real sense in the Ozarks of people minding their own business,” Noble said. “Nobody asked any questions of us.”
Living in an isolated area, having little contact with neighbors, played into the group members’ hands, Noble said. It protected them but also resulted in increasing radicalization.
“Initially, we thought the isolation was our best friend,” Noble explained. “It ended up being our worst enemy. That is part of what enabled us to become deceived.”
There is something else that groups with racist and separatist beliefs are seeking: areas that Potok characterized as “very white.”
Noble agreed, but noted that for members of his group, the anti-Semitic and racist beliefs came after they moved to the compound to prepare for the end.
But he said the Ozarks is a natural for groups with like-minded views.
“People who do want to get out of the cities, part of what they are looking for is more whiteness,” he said.
Today, the Ozarks is an “exceedingly ‘white’ place,” in the words of Jeffrey Nash, head of the department of sociology and anthropology at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield.
Springfield, the Ozarks’ largest city, is 3 percent black today; other cities are less so. However, at the end of the 19th century, some parts of the region had a much larger black population. Many historians think the black population was around 10 percent, although one census estimate put it as high as 25 percent in 1878.
In Joplin, blacks were among those attracted by the mining boom, and some blacks rose to own mine property. According to Joplin historian Gail Renner, “Some amassed considerable
wealth.” In Springfield, according to Nash, blacks owned the largest grocery store and held a seat on the school board.
Despite that, racial prejudice simmering just below the surface bubbled up in blood at the turn of the century with lynchings in Pierce City, Joplin and Springfield.
In 1903 in Joplin, a black man accused of shooting a police officer was dragged from his cell and hanged from a telephone pole at Second Street and Wall Avenue. That night, a mob burned the
homes of other black residents. When firefighters arrived, their hoses were slashed.
According to Renner, “The next morning, many blacks packed their belongings and left by train. About 100 black families fled.”
A similar episode erupted on Easter Sunday in 1906, when three innocent blacks accused of assaulting a white woman were lynched on Springfield’s public square. A mob of 5,000 people threatened further violence and destruction, but the governor sent in troops to stop the mob.
Several hundred blacks in Springfield fled for St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Tenn., and Tulsa, Okla., according to historian and Springfield resident Mary Newland Clary. She has heard the term “whitewash” used to describe what happened.
“Springfield experienced, along with the rest of the region, a Diaspora of African-Americans,” Nash said.
The following decades witnessed an outburst of Klan activity, including a rally attended by 1,500 hooded Klansmen in 1921 at Schifferdecker Park in Joplin.
Freeman Hospital was built, in part, with a donation of $10,086 made by the Klan, whose robed members received a standing ovation.
And Joplin’s Connor Hotel, the city’s symbol of cultural elegance, displayed a rooftop KKK sign during a rally in 1923 that attracted 1,300 marchers.
In Springfield, Klan members gathered at a cave that later became known as Fantastic Caverns, which is a popular tourist attraction today.
At the same time, industrializing cities were looking for cheap labor, providing other reasons for blacks to move to larger cities. The result was a decline in numbers and in clout for the black community, which at one time had one-third of the registered voters in Greene County.
Although many whites in the Ozarks organized to defend minorities and combat the Klan, the ultimate effect was “race homogenization,” according to Nash, resulting in that “exceedingly white place.”
Therein lies part of the region’s appeal.
“I feel certain that the absence of African-Americans and Jews would be a major predisposing factor” in picking locations, said Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University and an expert on the Christian Identity movement.
The anti-Semitic link
Blacks are not the only ones targeted by the extremist right. Another theme of many of these groups is anti-Semitism, and here, too, the Ozarks has a connection.
A minister named Gerald L.K. Smith began publishing an anti-Semitic newspaper in 1942 called The Cross and the Flag. He published it with the help of a Kansas preacher, the Rev. Gerald
Winrod, another anti-Semite, who believed Jews started World War II.
Approaching retirement in the early 1960s, Smith fell in love with the city that calls itself America’s Victorian Village, Eureka Springs, Ark., and soon moved there. Although he left his publishing empire in California, he continued to run it from his home in Eureka Springs.
Barkun said Smith “was by the 1940s, and remained until his death in 1976, the most prominent anti-Semite in America.”
Barkun also has linked Smith to the birth of something else, the Christian Identity movement, which views Jews not as children of God but as children of Satan.
In the words of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord’s propaganda: “We believe the Scandinavian-German-Teutonic-British-American people to be the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel which Jesus was sent for.” Jews of today are not God’s chosen people but are in fact an anti-Christ race, whose purpose is to destroy God’s people and Christianity.”
That destruction would come about in part because of “inter-racial mixing and perversions,” and the fact that, according to the CSA, “Jews are financing the training of blacks to take over most of our major cities.”
There is some disagreement among scholars about whether Smith was simply a straightforward anti-Semite or a Christian Identity believer himself. Arguments can be made either way, said
But what is clear, according to Barkun, is that the Christian Identity movement in the United States developed with “a cadre of West Coast preachers, most in Southern California, and all in the orbit of the leading ultra right-wing figure of the 1940s and 1950s, Gerald L.K. Smith.”
“He was kind of a connecting link.”
Barkun said Smith had contact with the seminal Christian Identity figures in the country, including Wesley Swift and William Potter Gale, the latter of whom founded Posse Comitatus in the
Smith’s biographer, Glen Jeansonne of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said Smith himself never participated in or urged violence, even though his “extremist rhetoric” may have incited others to violence.
And, in fact, it would be the death of a Posse Comitatus member in an Ozarks shootout that led other extremist radicals, including the CSA, to plot revenge with a large body count.
On Feb. 13, 1983, two federal marshals arrived at the North Dakota home of Gordon Kahl to arrest him because of a parole violation in connection with an earlier conviction for nonpayment
of taxes. Kahl shot and killed both marshals. Federal officials caught up with him that summer in a farmhouse in the Arkansas Ozarks, and Kahl was killed in a shootout.
His death became a rallying point at the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord.
“It got the whole movement riled up,” Noble said.
He said it was an honorary member of the group, Richard Wayne Snell, who first talked about blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building in retaliation for Kahl’s death.
Snell was angry with the Internal Revenue Service, which had raided his home, and even took Ellison to Oklahoma City to case the federal building, Noble said. They were going to blast it apart
with a rocket bomb.
But the two never were able to carry out their plans.
They were attempting to build a rocket when it exploded in one of the CSA member’s hands, injuring him. The group saw that as a sign from God that the plan was not viewed favorably, Noble
said. Instead, CSA members began conceiving a plot to kill a federal judge, a federal prosecutor and an FBI agent, but those plans, too, collapsed.
Eventually, the raid by officers ended any CSA plans, and Ellison, Noble and others went to jail.
After his release from prison, Ellison went to Elohim City, another Christian Identity compound near Muldrow, Okla., according to Noble. Ellison even married a relative of Richard Millar,
the founder of that community.
Elohim City, which has ties to the CSA that go back nearly 20 years, is the place McVeigh called just weeks before the bombing.
Snell eventually would be convicted of murdering a black patrolman in Arkansas. Before that, he killed a pawnshop owner in Texarkana, Ark., whom he mistakenly believed to be Jewish.
He was sentenced to death and was executed at 9 p.m. on April 19, 1995 – 12 hours after McVeigh’s truck bomb destroyed the federal building.
Snell is buried at Elohim City.