We continue our celebration of IREHR’s forty years of fighting white nationalism by looking back at some important movement milestones. In this installment, one of IREHR’s founders takes a look back at the monumental work during the farm crisis of the 1980s to stop efforts by the Posse Comitatus and other white supremacist groups trying to recruit struggling farmers.
Working with Farmers to End Posse Influence
by Leonard Zeskind
It was March 1984. After a few years of working hard to expose the Posse Comitatus, the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) was doing research on a new political formation calling itself the Populist Party. It was an obvious attempt to capitalize on the frustrations that farmers were then feeling. The trouble was, they weren’t “populist’ at all. The money behind the operation originated with Willis Carto, the man who set up the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review. Its nominal Chairman, Robert Weems, was a Mississippi Klansman. And its candidate, Bob Richards, while once gracing the front of a box of Wheaties, had his own history on the far right.
That summer, IREHR’s magazine ran a two-page story I wrote, “When is a “Populist” Really a Klansman.” IREHR, a small non-profit with no paid staff, was ahead of other monitoring organizations with bigger budgets. Although we have too few underpaid staff today, we are still ahead of the curve.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch Project and the National Anti-Klan Network in Atlanta asked me to write a background document on the Populist Party. That September, Klanwatch and the National Anti-Klan Network released it at a press conference in D.C. The IREHR’s name was in lights, and because of our research, a big hole was plugged in the network of knowledge about the farthest far right.
The crisis in rural agriculture continued to worsen, and the Posse problem continued to grow. The Spring 1984 edition of IREHR’s magazine contained an article, “Cattlemen’s Gazette Promoted Antisemitism, One of Many Phony Solutions to a Real Problem,” by Dan Levitas. Dan was then working for a farmer’s advocacy organization in Des Moines, Iowa. Still, he was, and remains, a solid member of the IREHR team. His book, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (St Martin’s Press 2002), remains the only book to describe and evaluate the debate that soon raged among progressive farmers about how to contend with the radical right. It also details who founded the Posse.
In addition to publishing the magazine, we published an important brochure called Who’s Behind the Farm Crisis. The magazine-sheet-sized fold-up brochure was designed to look like one of the pieces of racist far-right literature that circulated in the farm belt Midwest during the mid-1980s. Instead of rabid theories about the Federal Reserve and a supposed Jewish conspiracy, however, it gave a factual account of the causes of the debt-price squeeze that family farmers faced. It also gave a positive summary account of the history of the Jewish people that debunked antisemitic myths. An original press run of 5,000 brochures was snapped up, and an additional 40,000 copies were made by farmers’ organizations and churches across the Midwest. It became one of the most effective information tools in the fight against bigotry and for economic justice—all for an initial investment of less than $1,000 by IREHR. However, we were quickly exhausting all of our resources just to keep up with all that was happening.
Things shifted in July 1985 when I was hired as research director at the National Anti-Klan Network, soon to call itself the Center for Democratic Renewal. On the letterhead, the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights was still by my name. But I had sold the printing press equipment, so there would not be any more magazines. We could not afford to have somebody else print them. I had done free and reduced printing for movement causes until I was just about broke. Now, I was going to be making $15,000 a year to do research on the white supremacist movement. Who could pass that up?
In the middle of the month, officials unearthed the remains of two people who had lived on a Posse Comitatus encampment near Rulo, Nebraska. The arrest of the group’s leaders opened up a discussion of the far-right growth among farmers in the Midwest. That discussion was heightened that month when ABC’s 20/20 news program aired its “Seeds of Hate” episode, which showed, among other things, how antisemitism was being spread among farmers in financial trouble.
Soon after, I was invited to speak at a synagogue in Wichita, Congregation Emanu-El, along with Bob Stephens, the Kansas Attorney General. The synagogue had about 500 families as members at that time, and the sanctuary was packed. Stephens stepped to the microphone first. He described in gory detail the torture and murders that had happened outside Rulo. I could see the crowd grow uneasy as Stephens talked. So, instead of piling on more data about the danger we all faced, I told them about working with decent-minded farmers to suppress the antisemitism and racism. Some in the crowd quieted a bit. But in the question and answer session, the crowd burst forth. Speaking with a deep European accent, an old man stood up and said, “We should call in the IDF” to Kansas. It was nonsense, of course. There is no calling the Israeli Defense Forces into Kansas. But the fear was palpable. Finally, I stood up and declared in no uncertain terms that we would protect everyone, defeat the Posse, and good farm policy was possible.
August 1985 became a “turnaround” month for all of us seeking to stop the Posse, stop the spread of antisemitism and racism among farmers, and build a mini-movement for democracy and human rights. There was no more denying the problem.
In October 1985, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) held a press conference to denounce the Posse and its antisemitism. Rabbi James Rudin, then a staff leader at AJC, was the motivating factor behind this event. They invited me to speak alongside Dixon Terry, a farmer from Iowa. He was a real leader, and if he had wanted to, he could have easily won a race for the U.S. Senate. But he was killed by a lightning bolt while walking out of a field several years later. A real loss for everyone! Dixon told the press in New York (and they were all there, plus some) how the phony legal schemes and the bigotry were hurting farmers. Farmers were victims, he said. And he criticized the 20/20 piece for failing to note that there were peaceful progressives in the farmer’s movement. In no uncertain terms, he said, the Posse had to be stopped.
I used the press conference to release a “background” document I had prepared just the day before traveling to New York. It provided numbers of activists and supporters in the Midwest and gave a solid overview of the problem. We spread this short document everywhere.
Less than a year later, in July 1986, the Kansas City Jewish Community Relations Bureau (JCRB) organized a mass meeting at the Kehilath Israel Synagogue in the suburb of Overland Park. The JCRB, with the support of Women’s American ORT, had started a project to stamp out rural antisemitism and help farmers win some important economic victories. JCRB hired an extra staff person. Jews went out to meet farm families, and farm families came to town to meet Jews. (Some of those friendships still stand.) Jews went out to Chillicothe, Missouri, to stand with farmers protesting the FmHA there.
Roger Allison, a farmer leader in Missouri who founded the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, spoke at this synagogue meeting. Daniel Levitas, then in Des Moines, Iowa, spoke. I spoke. And David Goldstein of the JCRB spoke. The word was out: we were taking on the Posse and the Posse-like groups. And we were not going to stop until they were over.
We also organized trainings. The first one was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in November 1985. A wide array of grassroots farmer groups sent people, including the North American Farm Alliance, a coalition-style organization with members across the Midwest, and Prairiefire Rural Action, which came to be our main partner as we began organizing two-day trainings across the Midwest and Great Plains for farmers and rural clergy.
Farmers made presentations on the economic crisis that gripped rural America during years when a farm was going under every seven minutes in our country. An hour was spent explaining the Christian Identity message that the Posse and others used. An African American leader and a Jewish person each had an hour. The law governing loans was discussed. And I gave a two-hour session on the far right and its principal organizations. Then we spent several hours in workshops geared toward developing local responses.
There was something to remember in every training. In Kansas, I met the parents of James Thimm and learned that their son had gone to his preacher with questions about the theology of the Posse. He got no answers and was later killed by the Posse leader at Rulo. Meeting these people led me to write my monograph on Christian Identity, published by the Division of Church and Society at the National Council of Churches. The Rev. Mac Charles Jones, then of St. Stephens Baptist Church in Kansas City, spoke at a training in northern Iowa and was kept up all night talking with women who had never spoken to a black man before. In Jamestown, North Dakota, a small group of organized far-rightists came out to hear our talk. In Epps, Alabama, the training with black farmers from the Federation of Southern Coops came out in force and taught the trainers some things.
After several years, we had done trainings in every state between Ohio and Wyoming, North Dakota to Texas. Over 1,500 farmers and rural clergy attended. And the Posse Comitatus had largely died (although it made a bit of a comeback during the militia movement of the 1990s and among sheriffs lately).
We never did get a permanent economic fix. But bankruptcies ended their mad rush to hell. Progressive farm groups won victories that made a real difference. Yet, independent family farmers were still driven off the land in droves. And the quest for justice in rural America remains.
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