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Dec 2003 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Race and the St. Louis Public School Board — A Prequel
By Larry Handlin

Running a web log that concentrates on local and state politics is unlikely to bring you much attention except from hardcore political junkies. I figured I had pretty much reached the pinnacle of attention when Rochell Moore extended her notorious curse on Mayor Slay and his supporters to me.

But then an article that I wrote one year ago caught the attention of Earl Holt when a friend of his apparently googled him and found an article that I had written that labeled him a white supremacist. Holt took offense and wrote to me to express his displeasure in a way that only confirmed that he is, in fact, a white supremacist.

Earl Holt Strangely, Earl Holt's past in Saint Louis is not widely known even though he and his allies nearly gained a majority on the Saint Louis Public Schools Board of Education in the early 1990s. In 1987, three candidates won election to the Board as 'anti-busing' candidates. Thomas Bugel, Shirley Kiel and Louis Fister served from 1987 to 1993. All three were members of the Metro South Citizens' Council, an organization that grew out of White Citizens' Council of the Deep South. The White Citizens' Councils were formed to promote segregationist policies and politicians during the Civil Rights Movement. One of the more notorious members was Byron de la Beckwith, the man who murdered Medgar Evers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report indicates that when the White Citizens' Councils fell apart, the Midwest Field Organizer was Bridgeton native Gordon Lee Baum. Baum used the mailing list of the Councils to organize a new national organization called the Council of Conservative Citizens. The local branch was known as the Metro South Citizens' Council and Thomas Bugel headed that branch. Early on the Metro South Citizens' Council had attracted fairly mainstream politicians, including Gene McNary and Richard Gephardt, to organizational events such as picnics. Once the organization received more publicity, most politicians, including McNary and Gephardt, apologized for any contacts and distanced themselves from the organization.

In 1989, Holt and Nancy Hagan joined the three other members on the board, giving them 5 votes out of 12. The 1989 election was hard fought, though, with Earl Nance forming a coalition called the All City Slate that included longtime board member John P. Mahoney. Relations were so rocky on the board between factions that the Federal Court overseeing desegregation threatened to take over the schools and essentially dismiss the board.

By 1991, civic leaders started to realize what a public relations disaster it would be to have a Board of Education with a majority coalition organized by white supremacists. Civic Progress and its member companies donated more than $150,000 to an integrated slate of candidates who were chosen to run against a new slate, called the Friends and Advocates of Neighborhood Schools of St. Louis, put together by Bugel. The integrated slate, known as 4 Candidates 4 Kids, included Robbyn Stewart (Wahby) (currently Slay's education staffer), William Purdy (immediate past president of the board), Eddie Davis and Paula Smith. The lowest vote getter of the winning slate, Stewart, beat the highest vote getter of the Friends slate, Carol Wilson, by 8,000 votes.

While irregularities were found in the election, the courts found that those irregularities were not enough change the outcome. Fister, Kiel and Bugel used that finding as an excuse to not run again. They claimed the 1991 election was rigged and that they expected the 1993 election would be suspect as well. In March 1993, just before the next election, Holt resigned from the board two years early claiming he was fighting a losing battle. Soon after the four figuratively took their marbles and went home, they seemed to have completely disappeared from the collective consciousness of Saint Louisans.

Holt and Bugel make random appearances in the news from time to time. Bugel has been the public face in the case of Dr. Tom Sell, a dentist in federal prison charged with a crime, but unable to stand trial due to mental illness. Holt is quoted at small rallies protesting immigration or for concealed carry. Holt has some infamy from a WGNU show he co-hosts with Baum every Friday night from ten to midnight.

The tension over discussing groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens stems from their frequent proclamations that they are not racist, but actually just fighting for the same rights for white Americans as such groups like the NAACP do for African-Americans. Holt and his allies were always careful to use code words in regards to race. References to busing were the most frequent way to do this, but provided a lazy media with a hard task — demonstrating how those comments were different from others who objected to busing for reasons other than race.

Holt and Bugel were careful to avoid giving the press a smoking gun and few besides Jo Mannies and Greg Freeman tried to tell the story in context of the history of the organization that put the slate together.

Assuming that Holt was simply relegated to being a sideshow on a generally entertaining radio station, I did not think much of calling him a white supremacist. He belonged to an organization that was built upon the establishment tool of white supremacy in the 1960s and his code words really are not hard to decode. In December of 2002 I wrote an article explaining why John Ashcroft could not know who Tom Bugel was or be familiar with the Council of Conservative Citizens. It was a minor point that supported a Joe Conason article on Salon describing Ashcroft's ties to neo-confederate organizations and Conason linked to it.

I forgot about the article for some time, though every once in a while the Sell case or a minor rally by the CofCC would come up and I would touch on the subject. Then one morning I opened my mail and had an e-mail with Eudora's language warning and Earl Holt as the author. The title was Whadda Ya' Know. I figured it was Viagra spam or something. When I read it I was shocked — not so much that Holt would use such language, but that he would publicly use it. He had cultivated an image as someone who was above such behavior.

I checked the headers and posted it not thinking much more of it and then went to work. I did not think it would get much attention given the guy was known as a racial provocateur. I was wrong. I started to get e-mail a little after noon and then realized my site had crashed from too much traffic. Atrios, a pseudonymous blogger from Philadelphia and a high traffic liberal site, had linked to the letter and it was causing quite a buzz. In fact, it appears that Holt started to receive phone calls from people around the country asking if he wrote the letter and whether he stood by it. Apparently after he indicated he did write it, most of those conversations degenerated into unpleasantries.

Realizing this had become a bigger deal; I waited for that night's radio show and pretended to be Don from Saint Louis. I asked Holt what all the chatter on the Internet was about and he admitted he had written the letter and closed with suggesting he had called a spade a spade.

At the prodding of some web loggers I had sent copies to the Post-Dispatch, the American and the RFT. I continued to write it off as a peculiar Saint Louis event until Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune prodded me for three days straight asking me what I had going to expose this guy further. It was only then that it started to dawn on me that this actually did matter. If for nothing else, Earl Holt and his efforts to 'reform' the Saint Louis Public Schools deserved the appropriate historical context. Fortunately, Mike Seely of the RFT felt the same way and tracked down the story as a real reporter can and addressed the letter with WGNU management and James Buford of the Urban League.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is now picking up the story. While I questioned whether this was much of story at all in the beginning, I now know that the next time Gordon Baum tries to claim he and the organization is not racist, a reporter will only have to do a quick web search or visit the Intelligence Report at the Southern Poverty Law Center to see the kind of person with whom Baum hosts his weekly radio show.

In some ways, it's good to have Earl Holt around. In the early 1990s the fight was over race. Now the fight is over how to effectively reform an educational system. There was debate in during Holt's tenure over whether historical discrimination should be addressed by the Saint Louis Public Schools. That is no longer a debate and indeed, the focus is now how to best serve poor African-American students. Holt's existence not only sheds light on a racist organization, but should also demonstrate how far we have come as a community.

Larry Handlin keeps up with St. Louis and Illinois politics, to an alarming degree.

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