Hate might be marginal in Illinois, but it's here

T here's no Prairie State David Duke politicking from the Right in the corridors of the Capitol in Springfield. There's no homegrown Fred Phelps haranguing gay mourners at funerals in Chicago. But hate groups exist and persist in Illinois.

Still, they aren't flourishing, probably because hate philosophies are disagreeable to most people and because hate factions are disorganized, according to observers and leaders such as Matt Hale, the 27-year-old East Peorian who heads the white separatist World Church of the Creator.

Nationwide, there are a lot of hate groups, according to Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, a quarterly publication that tracks the radical Right. "There were 537 hate groups in the United States in 1998," Potok says - a 13 percent increase from 1997. Each state has at least one, except Iowa, Maine, North Dakota and South Dakota. Seventeen exist in Illinois, though that's fewer than in 1997.

"Organizations themselves don't indicate activity," Potok says. "They range from the Council of Conservative Citizens, with 15,000 members nationwide, to some outfits with two or three people and a post office box." But, Potok adds there has been considerable Klan-like and neo-Nazi activities in the Midwest, particularly in the Rust Belt, where higher-paying manufacturing jobs have declined. "They seem to hang on in areas with a lot of unemployment."

Potok's judgment is similar to Hale's, who has said, "Most of our members are working class. They have the least to lose, and they don't have a lot of money, so they can get involved in our movement without much retaliation."

Others say most Illinoisans are tolerant now, but changes in strategy by hate groups elsewhere haven't happened in Illinois, so there's still some risk people could be convinced to engage in hate activities disguised as something else.

"Illinois isn't much different from anywhere in the country. Hate exists, racism exists, and most people acknowledge that," says Essie Rutledge, a sociology professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb. "But since the Civil Rights movement, there's been much more of a public sense of impropriety, of it just being wrong to be racist. It's generally not acceptable in society." Still, she warns, people may be more receptive to hate messages if they're expressed as white unity.

There's little unity among the groups. Discussing Duke, Hale has commented, "David Duke, in our opinion, has gone too far in his denunciation of his past and Adolf Hitler. He has also tried to appease the Jews, which we, of course, find absolutely abhorrent." Duke, a former Klan leader of Louisiana, served in the legislature and ran for a seat in Congress.

Politics has been disappointing for Hale, who won just 14 percent of the vote in a 1995 East Peoria City Council election. But it still offers potential, he's said. "When I run again for city council, I will be running as much as anything to spread the word of creativity and the white racial cause. Whether I win or not is not even really all that important."

Spreading the message is also a defense against hate, says George Gordon, an active member of the Jewish congregation of Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington. "There hasn't been a major outbreak of racism or hate crimes in Bloomington-Normal, but a lot of local people have made a real effort to be proactive on racism and other hate. We're trying to head it off." Gordon has taken part in the series of "Not in Our Town" demonstrations supported by minority advocates, gay activists, organized labor and clergy. "What's the old saying? 'Evil will triumph if good people do nothing'? Well, we want to do something."

A political science professor at Illinois State University in Normal, Gordon believes social burdens can pressure people to seek scapegoats. "When there are uncertain times, some people look for certainty," he says. "Hate groups try to provide that. Sometimes more rural or remote areas can be breeding grounds because people are relatively out of the way and may feel alienated. At other times, it's just people who feel out of it, who feel they have no influence on power."

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Like Hale, Fred Phelps offers absolutes to people - in his case, those who may feel uncomfortable, confused or shocked by gays and lesbians. But the Kansas minister is more of a zealot. He picketed the funeral of gay torture victim Matthew Shepard, and demonstrated at the funerals of Barry Goldwater, whose son is a homosexual, gay journalist Randy Shilts and even Al Gore Sr., the former U.S. Senator whose son, Phelps believes, is part of a White House that is too cooperative with gays and lesbians. "Phelps is another kettle of fish altogether," Gordon says. "Phelps is much worse than Hale. Hale's only 27; maybe he's still learning. Phelps should know better."

Effective responses to such hate are education and openness, says Jay Miller, executive director of the Illinois affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has 13 chapters statewide. "When hate groups spout hate speech, censorship is not the answer," Miller says. "The answer to bad speech is good speech. After all, if there's suppression, who's going to decide what's suppressed? Whoever has power, and that's usually the government." Hale has a narrow spectrum of ideas, he adds. "Government lies are much harder to filter."

Miller says he has faith in Illinoisans. "Sure, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but given truth - which, granted, can be hard to determine - people usually will make good decisions. Truth usually will out in an open society."

One wide-open marketplace of ideas is the Internet, where hundreds of Web sites have been identified as promoting hate by HateWatch, a Cambridge, Mass.-based resource group that monitors bigotry on the Web.

Is hate one ideology?

Phelps has said, "A sovereign God has been proposed to put a little restraint on these wild, promiscuous, anal-copulating beasts. That's what the Bible calls them." Hale has said, "I recognize the white race as the race which has created all worthwhile culture and progress on this planet. The niggers and other mud races, which are anti-civilization by nature, have been 'tolerated,' the result being that the civilization is gradually ceasing to exist. ... Those who reign, therefore, are responsible for the growing mayhem in our country. They are responsible for the growing destruction of the American civilization."

Hale concedes philosophical divisions within much of the radical Right. "These factions will slip away, in a sense," he says. "I believe that will happen when times get bad enough in this country."

Hale was appointed three years ago to replace World Church of the Creator head Ben Klassen, who committed suicide. Hale's title is Pontifex Maximus. The group, founded in 1973, has 46 chapters in 17 states, according to Intelligence Report. And some have been associated with criminal activity, according to Mark Monteyne, an Illinois State Police crime intelligence analyst who coordinates "threat groups" from his Springfield office.

"Extreme beliefs are not cause for us to track activities," he adds. "We follow guidelines, and crime is the predicate. A group or individual has to have posed a potential threat, something tangible. And fortunately in this state, there's not a lot of that type of criminal activity tied to Hale's [group] or other hate groups." 

Bill Knight teaches journalism at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

33 / July/August 1999 Illinois Issues

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