James Hart Stern, a 54-year-old African-American man from California, has pulled off a miraculous feat.
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Stern managed to convince Jeff Schoep — the president of a long-standing neo-Nazi white supremacist group called the National Socialist Movement — to sign over control of the organization to him, according to an article in The Washington Post.
“Stern’s first move as president was to address a pending lawsuit against the group by asking a Virginia judge to find it guilty of conspiring to commit violence at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Next, he plans to transform the hate group’s website into a space for Holocaust history lessons,” The Post revealed today.
Stern’s tale of how he managed to infiltrate and subvert the group that would surely not welcome him among its members is a long strange tale that begins when he was serving time in a Mississippi prison for mail fraud. By chance, he became cellmates with onetime Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Edgar Ray Killen who had been convicted in the murders of three civil rights workers in the infamous “Mississippi Burning” case.
Despite regularly addressing Stern with racial slurs, Killen wound up giving Stern the power of attorney over his estate and the rights to his life story. After Stern was paroled, he used that legal authority to dissolve the Klan chapter that his cellmate once led.
The legend of his relationship with the KKK leader circulated through right-wing circles, and one day Stern received a cold call from Schoep to ask about his relationship with Killen, saying that this was the first time he had reached out to a black man since Malcolm X, who supported black separatism.
The two men developed an uneasy relationship with Stern determined to change Schoep’s perspective on racial issues. Early this year, the National Socialist Movement leader called Stern to ask for legal advice on a lawsuit filed by a counterprotester from the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally against NSM and other white-nationalist groups who participated in the violent encounters there.
Worried that he could be ruined financially by the legal bills from the suit and from any subsequent actions that the more unhinged members of his group may have gone on to take, Schoep told Stern that the NSM was now an “albatross hanging around his neck” and said he was looking for ways to get out.
Stern offered to help give Schoep a fresh start by taking over the control — and the legal liability that came along with it — of the neo-Nazi organization and its website. Surprisingly, Schoep said yes.
“He knew that he had the most vulnerable, the most loose-cannon members that they had ever had in the organization,” Stern said. “He realized somebody was going to commit a crime, and he was going to be held responsible for it,” The Washington Post reports.
By mid-January, Schoep had filed the paperwork to formally transfer the Detroit-based organization to Stern’s control. By mid-February, it was his name, not Schoep’s listed as the NSM’s representative in the lawsuit filings.
He now plans to plead guilty on behalf of the NSM, but won’t dissolve the group out of fear that the existing membership would simply re-incorporate it under the same name. His plans to turn the website — which currently attracts millions of views from Nazi sympathisers world-wide — into an educational resource to fight the beliefs of the Holocaust deniers who form the primary membership of NSM are in progress.
“Everything is out in the open,” Stern said. “My plans and intentions are not to let this group prosper. It’s my goal to set some hard records right.”
For the leader of a group whose members wear uniforms akin to those used by SS officers during World War II to hand over the leadership of the organization to someone with diametrically opposed views is virtually unprecedented, except that Stern has now managed to do it twice.
“Signing over leadership of an organization this old is the equivalent of a death sentence in the white-nationalist movement,” said Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen since I started tracking these things five years ago.”
Stern believes that infighting within the organization was the real reason that Schoep handed him the keys to the NSM kingdom. He thinks that the neo-Nazi leader wants to start a new white-supremacist group with less baggage that could appeal to a wider audience.
Whether he’ll be able to is still unknown because, although he no longer has legal responsibility for the NSM’s portion of the Charlottesville lawsuit, he is still listed as a defendant as an individual, a situation that Stern says that Schoep will have to face the consequences of.
“It’s definitely not good for him, and it shouldn’t be good for him,” Stern said. “You spend 25 years terrorizing people, you can’t rebrand overnight. It doesn’t work like that.”
With Stern’s actions, his life story would now offer Spike Lee the perfect sequel to BlacKkKlansman.
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Original reporting by Kattie Mettler at The Washington Post.