Without notifying his followers or even his inner circle, the longtime president of a legacy neo-Nazi group has signed over its control to a black civil rights activist from California.
James Hart Stern is the new leader of the National Socialist Movement, and his first move as president was to ask a Virginia judge to find the group guilty of conspiring to commit violence at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, allegations made in a lawsuit filed that year by a counterprotester against NSM and other white-nationalist groups.
Stern's control over the neo-Nazi group and his swift actions to self-incriminate it have confounded the NSM's members and perplexed those who study hate groups, largely because he and the group's former president, Jeff Schoep, have not spoken publicly since the formal paperwork was filed in mid-February.
Stern, who spoke with The Washington Post on Friday, said he had been waiting for a court hearing on the lawsuit scheduled for that morning before sharing the full story - one that he said includes infiltration, persuasion and a hint of manipulation.
For five years, the two men had fostered a strange kind of relationship, Stern said. And when Schoep came to Stern for legal advice over the lawsuit in January, the California activist said he "saw a crack in the armor" and pounced. Schoep wanted a way out of NSM, Stern said, because he felt underappreciated by his followers and left out of the mainstream white-nationalist movement that had swept the country in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Schoep was concerned about the repercussions of the Charlottesville lawsuit and the legal bills he was shouldering, Stern said, and he confided in the California activist as he sought solutions. So Stern, seeing an opportunity, said he encouraged Schoep to get a fresh start - by handing over control of the Detroit-based organization and website to Stern.
And Schoep said yes.
In mid-January, Schoep filed incorporation paperwork with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to formally transfer the National Socialist Movement to Stern, according to documents filed with the state. By Feb. 15, Stern was listed in court documents for the lawsuit as NSM's representative. Stern is not listed as an individual defendant in the suit.
"I did the hard and dangerous part," Stern said. "As a black man, I took over a neo-Nazi group and outsmarted them."
Now, he's preparing for what comes next - and seeking guidance from Jewish leaders. Stern said he does not plan to dissolve the corporation because he doesn't want Schoep's followers, or others in the white-nationalist movement, to reincorporate it. His plans for the website are still evolving, but his primary goal is to offer it as a reclaimed space to Jewish organizations that could help him educate NSM's followers on the history of the Holocaust.
"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."
This isn't the first time Stern has befriended a white supremacist so he could infiltrate a hate group. While serving prison time in Mississippi for mail fraud, Stern was cellmates with onetime Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted in the "Mississippi Burning" killings of three civil rights workers. Stern said Killen regularly called him a racial slur in the year and a half they shared a jail cell, but the two nevertheless formed a relationship.
In 2012, after Stern was out of prison, Killen granted him power of attorney and ownership of 40 acres of land, Stern said. In 2016, Stern used his legal discretion to dissolve the Klan organization Killen once led and garnered media attention. Two years later, Killen died at age 92.
It was that case that piqued Schoep's interest in Stern, according to the activist. Stern said that in 2014 Schoep called him without notice and asked several questions about his relationship with Killen. The two later met in Beverly Hills for a small race summit and have maintained phone contact ever since.
They talked about the facts of the Holocaust, the ugliness of the Nazi swastika and the fallibility of Schoep's white-nationalist ideals, Stern said. "From day one, I always told him: 'I don't agree with you; I don't like you,' " Stern said. "I talked to him because I wanted to hope to change him."
Stern said he was "blunt" with Schoep but that the man still "confided" in him about personal and professional strife.
"He knew that he had the most vulnerable, the most loose-cannon members that they had even 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."
Schoep took control of NSM in 1994 and was responsible for growing its membership and brand as an organization of Holocaust deniers and Adolf Hitler acolytes. The group maintains a website that draws in millions of visitors from around the world, Stern said, and has organized public rallies where violence has broken out.
The group, whose members wear SS-like uniforms that mirror those worn in Nazi Germany, was founded under a different name in 1974 by two former officials of the American Nazi Party, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Signing over leadership of an organization this old is the equivalent of a death sentence in the white-nationalist movement," said Keegan Hankes, an SPLC research analyst. "It's one of the strangest things I've seen since I started tracking these things five years ago."
Schoep did not respond to a request for comment from The Post on Friday, nor did several of the people listed on the NSM website as leaders within the organization. One man who identifies himself as SS Capt. Harry Hughes III and is listed as the public relations director for NSM, said in an email that he is "not involved in the NSM's legal affairs and am not at liberty to discuss anything, until Commander Schoep personally makes a statement."
"Just like you and the rest of the media, I'm waiting in suspense, too," Hughes added.
Matthew Heimbach, a leading white-nationalist figure who briefly served as community outreach director of the organization last year, told the Associated Press that there has been conflict between NSM's leaders, including Schoep, and its membership. Heimbach estimated the group had 40 dues-paying members last year.
The biggest challenge the group has faced, the SPLC's Hankes said, was being outshone by the more refined efforts of new alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer. There was tension within the organization about the need for a shift to a less violent, less explicit brand of neo-Nazism, he said.
"A lot of these groups see [NSM] as extremely detrimental to anything regarding identity politics," Hankes said.
Stern told The Post that he and Schoep discussed this infighting and that Schoep expressed a desire to leave NSM behind and start a new organization with less baggage. Though Schoep is not longer legally affiliated with NSM, he still faces the lawsuit because he is listed as a defendant in an individual capacity.
"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."
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)