The strange story of Sewanee, the KKK, and a Franklin County Gay/Straight Alliance

Memorial Cross at the University of the South. Photo by Michael Hicks.

Find a map of Tennessee and trace your finger down its middle to the south. There, you’ll find Franklin County slung low on the Alabama border. It’s a small place. Roughly 8,500 of the county’s 41,000 inhabitants live in Winchester, the county seat; everyone else lives clustered in smaller, more rural communities.

Franklin County is known primarily for being the home of Sewanee: The University of the South (simply ‘the University of the South’ to locals). But this year, it grabbed national headlines thanks to a different educational institution: Franklin County High School (FCHS).

In December 2015, FCHS students formed a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA). GSA co-founder Josh Dailey told me why.

“I started the club to create a safe environment in which we can talk freely without harassment,” he said, adding that he wanted to give students “a voice.”

“It's hard to be an LGBT student in Franklin County,” he explained. “I have personally been involved with some incidents including one where a high school student threw holy water on me. I've also been called a faggot and a queer.”

FCHS’s GSA isn’t unusual. According to Kari Hudnell, a spokesperson for Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), there are 4,000 GSAs registered with the group across the United States. The clubs also have a well-established legal right to form.

But they are not always welcomed, especially in conservative counties. Two years ago, parents in Elyria, Ohio protested Elyria High School’s GSA because they claimed that it promoted premarital sex to children. When news of FCHS’ GSA became public, some parents there objected too.

“If we allow this club to just pop up, what’s next?” John Wimley told WSMV 4, an NBC affiliate. “Somebody who might want to join ISIS. They might want to. You can’t tell them no.”

Wimley, who refused a request for comment, launched a Facebook page to oppose the GSA and urged other parents to crowd public school board meetings in protest of the GSA’s presence. He didn’t work alone: Local parents (and reportedly a Franklin County school board official) contacted MassResistance, a Massachusetts-based anti-LGBT organization which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). MassResistance’s founder, Brian Camenker, is a graduate of the University of the South and therefore has long-standing ties to the area.

Camenker’s presence in Franklin County helped escalate the GSA fight from a regional controversy to a national one covered by outlets like CBS News, ThinkProgress, the Advocate and MTV.

But this culture war isn’t just about broader debates on religion or even LGBT rights. It is a peculiarly Southern conflict.

As the nation shifts toward a broad acceptance of marriage equality, the South is increasingly at war with itself. A recent New York Times article examined the trend: Urban areas are moving left while rural areas are pulling further to the right. There’s a generational divide, too. Young Southerners are less likely to be religious and more likely to support LGBT rights than their older relatives.

Franklin County, then, is no outlier. It simply happened to catch the country’s eye. But the story of its GSA isn’t just about anti-LGBT animus. The need for—and resistance to—Franklin County’s GSA is rooted in the area’s history of White supremacy.

The county has a bloody past. From 1866 to 1946, residents lynched three Black men for alleged crimes against Whites; one was shot and the others burned alive. The burnings were public affairs, documented in the New York Times and the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald. An NAACP report at the time described one 1918 burning in wrenching detail: Locals tied Jim McIlheron to a tree, tortured him with hot irons and castrated him before burning him to death before a crowd of roughly 2,000 people in Estill Springs, a small community near Winchester. It took him a half hour to die.

36 years after McIlheron’s murder, the U.S. Supreme Court ended school segregation. But Franklin County resisted the order. Its public schools remained segregated a full decade after Brown v. Board of Education. In 1963, eight families filed a federal lawsuit to compel the county to adhere to the law. The lawsuit is still technically open, though the county obeyed a judge’s order to desegregate in 1964. And despite this history, FCHS’ mascot is still the Rebel, and its official fight song is Dixie.

White supremacists no longer burn men alive in Franklin County. Instead, local prejudice has adopted new tactics—and focused on new targets. Though racism has hardly disappeared in Franklin County or anywhere else, White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the League of the South now speak of a more general conflict between “traditional” Christian, Southern values and shifting social mores. Cleary, not everyone who opposes LGBT rights is a White supremacist. But animus toward the LGBT community has become part of the movement’s ideology.

This hasn’t yet resulted in the sort of vigilante violence that cost Jim McIlheron his life. The mostly White supporters and organizers of the GSA say they haven’t received direct threats to their safety. But the county’s troubled history is never far from the surface.

One image stands out among the Winchester Herald Chronicle’s photos of a February school board meeting: An older White man stands in front of a battered red pickup truck streaming Confederate and Christian flags. His biker vest displays a swastika and Nazi SS bolts.

From the photo, it’s not immediately obvious that the man, Terry Cagle, is there to protest the GSA. Cagle’s patches are consistent with those worn by the Soul Survivor Brotherhood, a relatively new biker gang known to have White supremacist members. His travelling spectacle seems more appropriate for a biker rally than a school board meeting.

Cagle, who lives in Franklin County, didn’t answer a request for comment. But he did explain his motivation to the Herald Chronicle at the time. “I believe in God’s Word and the Bible, and I don’t hate the people here,” he said. “I’m more about the children than I am about anything.”

That explanation didn’t mollify his critics. Inasmuch as Facebook comments prove anything, the comments on the Herald Chronicle’s photo reveal a sharply divided county.

“Does Junior Mint here know that both the Nazis AND Confederates LOST their wars???” asked Paul Drake, whose profile lists an affiliation with the University of the South. “You might get by with that anti-White attitude up in that college but come down to the valley and run your mouth,” responded Joe Curran. Down-thread, Curran also posted “RAHOWA,” which the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s website identifies as an acronym for “Racial Holy War.”

Another county resident, Daniel Buckner, praised Cagle’s patches, referred to the Holocaust as the “Holohaux” (sic) and informed a pro-GSA commenter that “The only crosses burned anymore are on private land and are to shine the light of the Lord.”

Cagle has since deleted his Facebook page. But he and his cluster of defenders aren’t the only evidence of White supremacist sympathies in the county.

A photo taken by Sewanee resident Lisa Rung at a March school board meeting shows a gray minivan with Franklin County with plates decorated in Confederate flag stickers. “SECEDE” one blares. Another declares “GOD, FAMILY, SOUTH” A third advertises the League of the South (LOS), a neo-Confederate organization that campaigns—still—for Southern secession from the United States. The SPLC has classified it as a hate group.

The LOS also explicitly defines itself as a socially conservative Christian organization. “The South still reveres the tenets of our historic Christian faith and acknowledges its supremacy over man-made laws and opinions,” the group says on its website, and adds that its allegiances are not to the federal government but to “[T]he Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Church.”

According to Rung and a helpful stick figure family sticker, the van belongs to the Wiedlich family. The Wiedlichs have, along with Wimley, fought the GSA; at a February 8 school board meeting, Robert Wiedlich announced that GLSEN bussed in members of middle and high school GSAs to a conference where “they were subjected to stuff like fisting, rimming, oral sex and anal sex.” (This rumor has circulated among far-right activists for years, even though Media Matters for America debunked it in 2009.)

The SPLC’s hate map reports one other active hate group in Franklin County: The Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It is difficult to tell precisely how active this KKK affiliate is, or how many locals belong to it. But there is evidence that White supremacists with ties to other hate groups have been active—with violent results.

In 2013, Corey Matthews, a Winchester, Tenn., volunteer firefighter, was found beaten to death in a rural Franklin County cornfield. The Franklin County sheriff’s department eventually charged four local men with Matthews’ murder. According to Assistant District Attorney Steven Bount, each defendant has ties to the Aryan Nation—and so did Matthews. One defendant, David Jenkins, was convicted last year. A second defendant, Coty Holmes, was convicted last month.

“A decision was made that Corey Matthews (had) to get out of the Aryan Nations,” Blount told Jenkins’ jury. “A decision….came down from the hierarchy [that] they were going to kick him out. And how do you kick him out? There’s a ‘beat down’ and a ‘patch over.’”

According to Blount, ‘patch over’ meant removing Matthew’s Aryan Nations tattoo by force.

“What was it? Blessed in and bled out, and that decision was made,” he said.

Not everyone agrees the county has a problem with White supremacy.

Sgt. Chris Guess, the public affairs officer for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, rejected the idea that the club controversy had revealed any long-standing problems.

“You’ve been talking to the University of the South, haven’t you?” he asked me. “That’s the story you’ll get from the University of the South.”

“For Franklin County to be painted as a White supremacist county because left-wing liberals don’t get their way—I resent that,” he continued. “All I’ve heard is that ‘you need to be more tolerant.’ But I’ve found that when you have an opinion different from a left-wing activist they’re not very tolerant.”

Guess said residents should notify authorities if they feel threatened, but added, “It’s just rhetoric. They [White supremacists] have First Amendment rights.”

To Guess, recent concerns over the county’s White supremacist activity has sinister roots.

“It’s just a misdirect from their [LGBT activists] real intent, which is to indoctrinate people from the earliest possible age that it’s ok to be gay or lesbian or transgender,” he said. “But everybody don’t believe that way.”

He then reiterated his belief that the county has “no significant issue” with White supremacy and is “not unique.”

Guess isn’t just the sheriff’s department’s public affairs officer: He’s also on the Franklin County School Board, and in that capacity he has proved himself to be one of the GSA’s chief antagonists.

Earlier this month, he voted to adopt a new district-wide policy on student organizations that requires students to get parental permission before joining any non-curricular club. “For my children, myself and what I truly believe is the majority of residents in Franklin County, I will not be browbeaten, threatened or bullied into compromising my values or belief system,” he said before his vote.

The measure passed 6-1; the only holdout was Adam Tucker, who represents the town of Sewanee.

Look back to your map. See where Franklin County’s terrain wrinkles, far in its northeast corner: That’s where Sewanee and the University of the South perch high up on the Cumberland Plateau. Students and faculty affectionately refer to the school as ‘The Mountain.’

Founded in 1857 by Episcopalian clergy, the school is home to a seminary and its motto is scriptural, inspired by Psalm 133:1: “Behold How Good and Joyful a Thing it is for Brethren to Dwell Together in Unity.”

It has also traditionally served the scions of the South’s upper class. Its stone arches and green quads invoke Oxford and Cambridge and its traditions are equally reminiscent of the Old World. Upperclassmen who meet certain academic standards are permitted to join the Order of the Gownsmen: Members are allowed to wear Black academic gowns to classes, almost a North American version of Oxford subfusc.

Despite its European influences, the university is quintessentially Southern—and not just because it inherited Tennessee Williams’ estate upon his death. It has also not been spared the struggle between Old and New South. Relations between the school and some conservative alumni became so heated the New York Times covered the saga in 2005.

The dispute reportedly centered on the perception that the university had decided to move away from its historical Confederate sympathies. In 1997, a controversial university-owned mace dedicated to KKK co-founder Nathan Bedford Forrest disappeared in disputed circumstances. Gerald Smith, who teaches religion at the school, told the Times he accidentally broke the mace and the school simply decided not to repair it, even though alumni had offered to pay. Administrators also removed flags bearing Confederate imagery from the campus chapel.

Over a decade later, the gulf between the school’s past and present seems wider than ever—and it’s matched by town-gown strain. Sewanee’s Episcopalian seminarians and clergy attended school board hearings in support of the FCHS GSA, which may explain why Guess invoked the school as the source of talk about the area’s White supremacist ties.

According to BJ Anderson, a Franklin County native who sides with the GSA, the university has “always been a liberal place.”

“But just drive down the road, and it’s different,” he said. “A lot of them [Franklin County residents] see the University of the South as outsiders moving in.”

And the differences aren’t just cultural, say some members of the university community.

“Tensions between the university and the county stem from economic disparity and from the fact that the vast majority of the faculty choose to send their children to the nearby private school of Saint Andrews-Sewanee [School] rather than down the mountain to the public schools,” said Paul Halloway, who teaches classics and Ancient Christianity at the university. “I suspect that to many folks in the county the university feels like a gated community.”

“Needless to say, stereotyping and misunderstanding run both ways,” he added. (He and his wife send their children to the county’s Huntland School, which is public.)

It’s not difficult to understand why some locals consider Sewanee an elitist enclave. A year’s tuition at the University of South costs $54,500. St. Andrews-Sewanee School, a private day and boarding school, charges $18,500 per year for its Upper School; it costs $45,000 to board. But in 2014, the median household income in Franklin County sat at just $42,600.

Sewanee and the university are clearly not the only sources of support for the GSA. FCHS is in Winchester; Dailey and most of his classmates live nearby. Many of the activists who rallied behind the club hail from other, smaller communities like Estill Springs, Decherd and Cowan. That’s little surprise, since the town of Sewanee contains a mere 2,000 members of the county’s total population, and the university adds only 1,500 students to the mix.

But the socioeconomic and political differences between the university community and the rest of the county are real, and appear to have contributed to the perception that equality for LGBT people is a cause for wealthy, out-of-touch outsiders. The sight of Sewanee Episcopalians with LGBT activists did not undermine the convictions of the GSA’s opponents; it led to no discernible large-scale religious epiphanies, no doctrinal liberalizations.

Instead, it’s been a spark to dry tinder.

Unity might be blessed, but it still seems like a far-off dream in Franklin County.

It may soon be home to a second hate group. Wimley and Camenker are currently raising money to start a local chapter of MassResistance; Camenker claims he has obtained a matching $5,000 grant for the purpose.

Though there’s no evidence that Wimley, Camenker or Guess hold White supremacist views or intentionally sought the support of White supremacist groups, their fight undeniably attracted the attention of radicals who agree the club is an attack on traditional values. And those militants seem unlikely to disassociate themselves from the struggle. According to Anderson, Robert Wiedlich’s wife is running for a spot on the Franklin County School Board.

But for now, the GSA survives. Its supporters are concerned that the county’s new parental permission requirement will force students to out themselves in order to participate in the club, and there is talk of legal action. It’s not all bad news: Dailey said there have been some positive improvements at school. Students opposed to GSA initially tore down its flyers, but he reports that this seems to have stopped.

He told me he knows the fight isn’t over—that “community resistance” makes students feel they “have to be careful when not on school grounds.”

Despite the pressure, he’s certain Franklin County’s LGBT community isn’t going anywhere. “It's time for change in this small community,” he said.

“For most of these LGBT students Winchester is home,” he added. “We’re here, proud, and comfortable [with] who we are, and we are very much in the Winchester population and not going anywhere.”