September 1992
William Sherman
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


“Adolf Hitler is the greatest leader the white race ever had,” says Church of the Creator founder, Ben Klassen.

Klassen with two of his “exceptional boys.”

The rolling hills are quiet, a placid deep-green blanket of Great Smoky Mountains pine under a soft sun. Only a church violates the serenity. It's not an ordinary church. There is no cross, no pews and no listed telephone number or address.

Welcome to the Church of the Creator, a seventeen-acre landscaped compound in Otto, North Carolina, that includes small-arms firing ranges, paramilitary barracks and other buildings located off a narrow side road in this isolated southwestern corner of the state.

Inside a large converted barn that serves as headquarters, church founder and leader, Ben Klassen, a former Florida state legislator and retired engineer, intones a church prayer: "RAHOWA," he says softly. "Racial Holy War."

The church "Pontifex Maximus," as he calls himself, sits beneath a large painted portrait of Adolf Hitler. "The greatest leader the white race ever had," says Klassen. He is robust, with slicked-down black hair, and looks far younger than his seventy-four years. His moustache is trimmed exactly like Hitler's, narrow and squared off at the edges.

"We want a country rid of Jews and blacks," says Klassen, an articulate man who made his fortune in real estate.

"We're not wimps," he says. "We'll fight to defend ourselves… Jews aren't white, they don't even consider themselves white, the blacks are dragging us down…

This is his most polite rhetoric. His preaching is otherwise laced with phrases like "mud race niggers" and "human rat Jews." He calls the Federal Reserve Board a "Jew counterfeiting ring," and successive U.S. administrations "JOG-Jewish Occupied Governments."

However extreme his views, Klassen is no impotent one-man band. His church has thirty-four branches around the world (Jackson, Mississippi; Missoula, Montana; England and Stockholm among them); publishes a monthly newsletter called "Racial Loyalty" along with dozens of other books and pamphlets; and maintains numerous telephone hotlines for those who wish to call for news and information. Generally, those calls yield a recital of Klassen's latest thoughts. He is decidedly anti-Christian along with his other biases, claiming that "the Jews created Christianity and its turn-the-other-cheek-and-help-the-poor-philosophy as a way to bring down the Roman Empire and take over. The Sermon on the Mount is advice you would only give your worst enemy," he says.

Imperial Wizard James Farrands heads the KKK’s Knights of the Invisible Empire.

And his audience is growing. Since 1990 groups of committed young men have traveled here for extensive political training under Klassen's tutelage. The recruits wear white berets or cowboy hats, live in the barracks and practice shooting with automatic weapons on the firing range. Many are older teenagers. "Exceptional boys," Klassen calls them.

Klassen's newspaper urges these young followers to "Rise! Rise and let them feel the weight of your boot upon their necks, let them cower before you… we shall wage deadly war upon them."

Last year, a Klassen disciple followed those instructions to the letter. George Loeb, Jr., a Church of the Creator "reverend," allegedly shot and killed a twenty-two-year-old, black U.S. Navy sailor who had just returned from duty in the Persian Gulf. Loeb, thirty-four, was handing out church literature in a Neptune Beach, Florida, supermarket parking lot. The sailor, Officer 3rd Class Harold J. Mansfield of the USS Saratoga, and Loeb began arguing. According to a shipmate, Mansfield picked up a brick, but then dropped it, telling Loeb, "You're not worth it." Loeb then pulled out a .25 caliber semiautomatic and shot Mansfield in the chest. He is now awaiting trial on murder charges.

"I am no more responsible for that than the pope is responsible for all the Catholic felons in prison," KLassen says angrily, bridling at questions about the incident. "Not at all."

But just then, looking out the window, I notice a man named Steve Thomas, emerging from the barracks and walking toward the barn. Thomas is the church "reverend" charged with aiding and abetting Loeb's flight from Florida to New York where he was eventually arrested on a fugitive warrant.

"Oh," says Klassen when Thomas and his alleged connection to the murder is pointed out, "He's leaving tomorrow."

Klassen's Church of the Creator is one of 346 documented hate groups operating throughout the United States, including the Ku Klux Klans, neo-Nazis and skinhead organizations, a startling 27 percent increase over the number of such groups in operation last year.

Bias incidents during 1991 include murders, bombings, arsons and hundreds of assaults, threats, cross burnings, harassment of minorities and vandalism against their property and houses of worship. In Arlington, Texas, three skinheads were charged with shooting a black man to death. In North Hollywood, firebombs gutted an orthodox Jewish school. In Houston, a white man with Ku Klux Klan tattoos attacked and attempted to rape a black woman. And in Boston, swastikas were painted on the campaign signs of a Hispanic city council candidate.

In New Jersey alone, the state police recorded 976 bias offenses, an increase of 18 percent over the previous year. Blacks were the victims in 358 cases, 37 percent of the total, while Jews were the most frequently victimized religious group. Twenty-one incidents involved homosexuals as victims. In neighboring New York State, police reported 1100 hate-motivated attacks against blacks and Jews for last year. And bias crimes and assaults against Asians are increasing across the nation.

Some organizations that track bias crime have attributed the increase to the ongoing recession and high unemployment, adding that hate group membership numbers generally follow economic cycles. Historically, in their twisted logic, bigots and their often jobless followers have blamed minority groups for economic downturns.

Hate group chapters are flourishing in the nation's urban centers, and are active in virtually every state. Among the most militant are the black-hooded Confederate Knights of America and various skinhead groups like the American Front with branches in Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and West Palm Beach, Florida.

The single largest organized Klan group in the nation is located just a few hundred miles east of Ben Klassen's Church of the Creator. It is the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, headquartered outside of Sanford, North Carolina, with members in at least twenty states.

And one recent day, Invisible Empire leader James Farrands, fifty-seven, a former tool-and-die maker, was found in the national office, pounding away on a computer, working on his mailing list. Farrands's white hood and Klan robe hang outside his office in a converted barn on his one hundred-acre property. Five blue stripes on the sleeves of his robe signify his rank, Imperial Wizard.

Sitting at his desk, Farrands wears jeans and a workshirt set off by an engraved leather shoulder holster containing a loaded .38 caliber revolver.

"First interview in three years," he says with a chuckle, flashing a gap-toothed smile as he continues to work the computer at high speed. The pistol is just "for protection," Farrands says.

Before joining the Invisible Empire, Farrands belonged to the United Klans of America. Members of this now defunct group have been convicted of numerous violent crimes over the years including the execution of a civil rights worker in the sixties. More recently, two members were found guilty in the 1981 beating and hanging of a nineteen-year-old black man who was grabbed off a street in Mobile, Alabama, at random. One klansman involved said they had "just gone out hunting."

Still, Farrands prefers to be known as the "new breed" of klansman. He calls himself not violent, claims to be closer to Pat Buchanan than Ben Klassen politically, says he is a "white separatist who doesn't hate anybody" and reports that his mission is to 'bring the Klan into the twentieth century." More than a decade ago, David Duke began he same mission for another Klan faction.
"I run this as a business," Farrands explains. "We're incorporated, we've got a federal tax ID number and we pay taxes. The Klan pays my wife rent for this office."

Members pay dues, at least twenty dollars a year, and Farrands sells a wide variety of paraphernalia-$30 Klan flags; White Only toilet signs; $10 Invisible Empire F-shirts marked "For Coon Day"; and other items including a monthly newspaper, The Klansman-all from a P.O. box mail drop in nearby Gulf, North Carolina.

"Most of the items have a 20 percent markup. We wanna keep it at that because my people are working men," Farrands says in an accent that reflects his roots as a 'poor white boy" from North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

Obsessed with detail, Farrands wrote a twenty-seven page, single-spaced Invisible Empire constitution with rules for every aspect of Klan behavior and ritual from how a cross should be built and lit-"the base shall be of a twelve-inch square of 3/4 inch plywood, clear fir, or an equivalent lumber"-to the specifications for Klan robes, which "shall be of lightweight cotton cloth." (The robes, incidentally, cost fifty dollars each.)

"We don't hate anybody," he reiterates, "We just love white people and we're against affirmative action and giveaways."

But when confronted with references to the hundreds of atrocities committed by the Klan over the years since its founding after the Civil War, including church bombings, floggings, arson and more than four thousand lynchings, the Imperial Wizard raises his voice. "I took over in 1987 and we haven't lynched nobody," he shouts defensively and then goes into high gear.

"How many people did the Roman Catholic Church kill in five years... the pope was selling cardinal's [offices]... the Jew is up there pulling the strings... the niggers are no good... no, I won't tell you how many members we have..." he races on, still working his computer.

Fighting that swell of extremism is another organization, Klanwatch, a nongovernmental nonprofit arm of the well-known civil rights foundation, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of Montgomery, Alabama. SPLC attorney and executive director Morris S. Dees co-founded Klanwatch in 1980 in the wake of a violent KKK assault on black civil rights marchers in Decatur, Alabama.

Klanwatch director Danny Welch, who has been fighting hate groups for seven years.

Klanwatch produces volumes of detailed reports on hate groups operating around the country, which are in turn passed on to law enforcement agencies, from sheriff's offices in small towns to the very highest levels of the United States Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That information is often used by the government to prosecute a hate crime and its sponsoring groups.

"Klanwatch in many senses is like the CIA" says SPLC legal director Richard Cohen. He explains that police agencies generally react only after crimes have been committed. So most of the intelligence work -the legwork of finding out who's planning trouble before it happens- is left to Klanwatch. At the same time, information developed by Klanwatch is used by the SPLC to bring civil suits against hate groups in order to cripple them financially.

"If you win a large monetary award in court from a group on behalf of a victim or group of victims, you take away their resources. They can't print their magazines, run their radio shows and advertisements or maintain their telephone hot lines. We sue them to put them out of business," says Cohen, who along with Dees, prosecutes the civil cases.

The entire operation, based in the law center's highly secure concrete-and-glass building, is just a few blocks from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King did his first preaching in the fifties and near the main bus station where freedom riders were once brutally beaten by local cops and Klansmen.

In his office, Klanwatch director Danny Welch, forty, a soft-spoken former robbery-homicide detective with ten years on the Montgomery Police Department, sits working at his computer. It is a machine well-equipped to do battle with those of Farrands, Klassen and the other hate group leaders and their minions.

"We've got a heck of a data base," he says, tapping the monitor. "Everything's cross-indexed by groups, individuals, activities and crimes."

He punches the keys, calling up a litany of statistics: "1998 groups and chapters, 9954 members, new clippings, pictures, bios, who is associated with who, where they've been and where they're going."

When asked about Ben Klassen and the Church of the Creator, Welch punched several keys and began reading from the computer monitor. "Klassen, born in the Ukraine, a Mennonite, emigrated to Mexico with his family in 1924, then to Canada, BSc degree in electrical engineering, University of Manitoba, he was in the John Birch Society in Florida, after that he was in the legislature, that was in 1966.

"You know he left the Birch Society in '69 because he thought they were too liberal, too soft on Jews."

Welch swivels around in his chair. "Klassen's dangerous and a large percentage of his membership have been arrested or imprisoned for everything from murder to drugs. His cult is spreading in the prison system," says Welch.

He warns against "being fooled" by the fact that neither Klassen nor Farrands fits the stereotype of the old-fashioned, uneducated, beer-swilling hate monger.

"Take a look at David Duke," says Welch, "Now there's a pretty smooth operator."

Most of Klanwatch's day-to-day work is gathering information. In an office near Welch's, staffer Sidney Hill is dialing scores of Klan and other hate groups hot lines around the nation in succession, taking notes and taping recorded hate messages, such as, "We don't want big-lipped gorilla-smelling niggers in our neighborhood." The list seems endless: Knights of the KKK, out of Harrison, Arkansas, White Aryan Resistence, United White Worker, Aryan Independence, the Church of War in Beverly Hills and numerous skinhead groups.

Then there is the covert side of Klanwatch. Welch and other staffers have informants in various groups. Often, Klanwatch staffers attend hate group meetings and rallies.

Klanwatch was monitering the annual Aryan Youth Congress rally up at Hayden Lake, Idaho, held April 18, on the weekend closest to Hitler's birthday. "Louis Beam was there," Welch recalls, referring to a former Texas Klan leader. "And the other big Klan leaders, Thomas Robb, all of them, and Beam spit and threw a piece of raw steak on the floor and said, 'This is for you federal dogs [infiltrators], I know you're here. Take it back to your Jewish fathers."

And while intelligence gathering is Klanwatch's major activity, the organization's most effective weapons are the civil suits filed by the SPLC against extremist groups and their leaders. Judgments obtained have resulted in the seizure of hate-mongerers' personal property and assets, in addition to property and bank accounts held in the names of the groups themselves. The proceeds of such judgments are turned over to victims of specific bias cases, or, when murder is involved, to victims' relatives.

 "The cost of fighting one of our lawsuits alone can drain their finances, and responding to subpoenas and answering lengthy depositions and other interrogatories can tie them up for months," says Cohen.

Prominent civil rights attorney David Schoen explains that Klanwatch and the SPLC have based their legal war "on the premise that hate groups and their leaders should be held civilly responsible for the crimes that members commit.

"The SPLC has really perfected that idea and has set legal precedent for that route of redress in the courts. The Justice Department and state agencies were criminally prosecuting specific acts, such as murder and arson, but they weren't doing anything in the civil area," says Schoen. "SPLC and Klanwatch have a terrific record in the courts."

That record includes federal civil rights lawsuits against Alabama Invisible Empire members; a court order prohibiting Klan paramilitary training in Texas; a seven-million dollar judgment against the United Klans of America for a 1981 lynch murder in Mobile, which permanently broke that hate group; a one-million dollar judgment against two major Klan groups, including Invisible Empire Klansmen who attacked Forsyth County, Georgia, civil rights marchers, putting a crimp in Farrands's operation; and a twelve-million dollar judgment against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistence after Dees and Cohen proved in court that the hate group organizer, using broadcast and printed propaganda, directly incited skinheads to murder an Ethiopian man in Portland in 1988.

But Klanwatch pays a price for its efforts. In 1983, three Alabama klansmen, later caught and convicted of arson, obtained blueprints for the Montgomery sewer system, burrowed their way to the former Klanwatch headquarters and set a fire inside the building causing serious damage. A few years later, informants tipped off law enforcement authorities to a North Carolina Klan plan to purchase antitank rockets and a plot to blow up the present headquarters. The leaders of the Carolina group, then called the White Patriot Party, were arrested and convicted on a number of charges including weapons possession.

The death threats are more than occasional and Dees has always been high on the hate group hit list. But he has become accustomed to the risk. "When I'm at a trial, I've got bodyguards sometimes," says Dees, fifty-five, a member of a long-established Alabama farming family. "But I don't have so much security that it interferes with my life. I don't want that."

Soon after graduating law school, Dees founded a profitable cookbook publishing company and other businesses, and later began civil rights work. He has been called a "nigger lover" and a "race traitor" most of his adult life. Because he grew up "in the country," as he says, he feels he is personally more than a little familiar with the Klan and its membership.

"Now, if they'd look at themselves, they'd realize they have more in common with the poor blacks they want to victimize than with anybody else. The typical Klan member isn't making much money and he feels disenfranchised, especially in this economy," he explains.

"Then they look around and they see a black or an Asian with a job and somebody else says it's the minorities' fault, or the Jews's fault, and they join up."

The real danger "is when you've got people sitting in a room together reading this stuff," Dees says, pointing to a stack of Klan, neo-Nazi and Church of the Creator hate literature. "They get all pumped up by it-'Racial Holy War' and what not-and then they figure out who they're going to kill next."

How will Klanwatch deal with the hate group leaders, the men who are selling the paraphernalia, the promises and the rhetoric? What about Ben Klassen and his Church compound and James Farrands, running his Invisible Empire?

"I think we'll pay them a little visit," says SPLC attorney Richard Cohen with a smile. "With a subpoena."

William Sherman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in New York City.