Black civil rights activist Rev. James Stern has just become the president of the one of the largest neo-Nazi organizations in the United States. In an interview with CNN, Stern said that he intends to use his new position to:
“Change it, reverse it and ultimately destroy it.”
It is difficult to determine precisely what led up to Stern securing his position as president of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), but secure it he has. The former president, Jeff Schoep, who was responsible for the decision to hand the position over, has said that Stern misled him. Schoep made his decision because of a federal civil suit the NSM is currently involved in, in which the organization was accused of negligence and conspiracy to violence during the Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017.
Schoep claims that Stern persuaded him that handing him the NSM’s presidency would protect the NSM from the lawsuit. Stern says that Schoep turned the presidency over to him because of the NSM’s troubles with the lawsuit and potentially because of conflict within the organization itself.
How Could This Even Happen?
How two men with such opposing ideologies first became acquainted starts with Stern serving five years in prison for wire fraud in the same Mississippi prison as Edgar Ray Killen. Killen was a Grand Wizard with the Ku Klux Klan and had been convicted of killing three civil rights workers, which was the subject of the film Mississippi Burning.
The two men apparently formed an unlikely connection. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says that Stern and Killen shared a cell together from August 2010 to November 2011. According to James Stern’s website, Stern protected Killen from the other inmates, and as a result, Killen gave Stern a level of trust and even confessed a number of crimes to him (whether or not this is true has not been verified).
Killen forms the link between Stern and Schoep. According to The Washington Post, Stern claims that Schoep reached out to him in 2014 because he was interested in the fact that Stern knew Killen. Schoep contradicts this, saying that Stern reach out to him first at Killen’s recommendation in order to “talk about his mission to aid racial reconciliation in the United States.”
Both men concur that they collaborated on a racial reconciliation summit in California. They kept up some form of contact over time, although they disagree about how in-depth their conversations were. Stern says that he was always trying—unsuccessfully—to change Schoep’s ideology.
It’s noteworthy that, according to his website, Stern served as an associate pastor at Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church and New Providence Baptist Church, both in the Los Angeles area. It also seems that Stern has been an advocate of peace between various hostile groups for some time. This Washington Post article describes peace talks Stern helped organize between the Crips and the Bloods, two of California’s most infamous gangs.
Regarding his current presidency, Stern says that Schoep approached him in early 2019 for advice about the NSM’s lawsuit. Besides the expense of the lawsuit, Stern claims, “He knew that he had the most vulnerable, the most loose-cannon members that they had ever had in the organization. He realized somebody was going to commit a crime, and he was going to be held responsible for it.”
Schoep rejects much of Stern’s story and says he only gave him the presidency because Stern persuaded him that the lawsuit would go away if he did. According to Schoep, “A lot of the things Mr. Stern is saying is the exact opposite of the truth. He has openly said that he manipulated me. What he is trying to do is put me in a lot of danger.” Schoep has threatened to take legal action against Stern for his duplicity.
Setting Things Straight
One of Stern’s first decisions as the NSM’s new president was to issue a summary judgment asking a judge to hold the group fully responsible for conspiring to commit violence at the 2017 rally. He will have to refile, however, since a judge has ruled that he cannot legally represent the NSM.
According to The Washington Post, Schoep has downplayed Stern’s position as a “paper appointment” and has said, “He doesn’t have control of nothing.”
But SPLC research analyst Keegan Hankes says that this incident is “one of the strangest things I’ve seen since I started tracking these things five years ago. Signing over leadership of an organization this old is the equivalent of a death sentence in the white-nationalist movement.”
Stern does not plan to dissolve the NSM, but his plans do include using the platform to educate NSM members about the Holocaust. He said, “Everything is out in the open. My plans and intentions are not to let this group prosper. It’s my goal to set some hard records right.”