Monday, September 04, 2006
By Mike Linn
A Republican appellate court candidate was recently photographed soliciting votes at a meeting of the right-wing Council of Conservative Citizens, considered a racist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Terri Willingham Thomas, who is running for Position 3 on the Court of Civil Appeals, said she doesn't know anything about the organization and only attended the meeting to hear a history lesson on Robert E. Lee.
She said she thought the meeting was for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but can't recall exactly how she heard of the gathering.
Heidi Beirich, who helps track hate groups for the SPLC, said the National Republican Committee condemned the Council for its racist views in the late 1990s.
"Her own party has condemned this group," Beirich said. "It's been widely reported how racist this group is -- and I'm talking crude racism."
Thomas, who fended off questions last month regarding her family's ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the right-wing group, faces Democratic candidate Jim McFerrin in the election.
Thomas said she's not racist and challenged voters to review what she described as her longstanding record of fairness and racial equality. The photo, in the May-June newsletter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, was provided to the Montgomery Advertiser by the SPLC. It shows state Council director Leonard Wilson urging the group to support Thomas in the July runoff at the organization's monthly meeting in Cullman, where Thomas is a district judge.
Thomas said she's neither a racist nor a member of the group.
She said she doesn't research groups to which she campaigns because she's too busy with work and family, isn't computer savvy and doesn't have enough money to hire someone to do it for her.
"If there were five voters gathered, I was there asking for their vote," she said of her campaign during the GOP primary. "I have traveled 80,000 miles asking for votes. I spoke to a group in Birmingham at a luncheon -- I was invited -- and I could not for the life of me tell you what the name of that group was. I imagine I'm safe on that one because there were different races present."
SPLC President Richard Cohen said some candidates will troll for votes anywhere, which is unfortunate.
"If they don't know who they are talking to or what they believe, you've got to wonder: Why are they showing up in the first place," he said.
According to the SPLC Web site, the Council of Conservative Citizens is widely believed to be a reincarnation of the White Citizens Councils that sprang up in the South in the 1950s and 1960s to oppose school desegregation. An SPLC statement on splcenter.org says the 15,000-member Council has tried without success to mask its white supremacist ideology to better promote a right-wing political agenda.
A national board member of the Council of Concerned Citizens, Leonard Wilson, donated $100 to Thomas' campaign this year. He described himself as a friend of Thomas' parents but said his organization is not a hate group.
Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said he's concerned Thomas hasn't repudiated her family's ties to the Ku Klux Klan and Council of Conservative Citizens, which honored her father with a national appreciation award in 1993.
Turnham said she should make a public statement about whether or not she agrees with the beliefs.
"Through this entire revelation she has not one time said, 'I repudiate the things these organizations stand for,' " Turnham said.
Thomas declined to repudiate their beliefs because she said she doesn't know what they believe in. She said she won't rely solely on the SPLC's analysis of the group and doesn't want to ask Wilson about the group because he might not tell her everything she needs to know.