In 1982, Louis Beam drove 500 miles from a rugged patch of Texas land near the Gulf of Mexico to another rugged patch of land in the Arkansas Ozarks. He was headed to “the Farm,” a remote 250-acre commune of white supremacists calling themselves the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. The CSA was stockpiling weapons and training in guerrilla tactics to prepare for an imminent race war.
Beam was a small man, with a meticulously trimmed mustache. A former Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he was by the early 1980s more concerned with networking and organizing strategies than membership in any one group. Across the country — in Idaho, Washington state, California and Arkansas — there were “patriots” ready and willing to do anything for the white cause, it was just a matter of connecting them. Beam and other white supremacist leaders wanted to harness their followers’ racist zeal without inviting the prying eyes of law enforcement.
The solution was in Beam’s car: a Commodore 64, one of the earliest personal computers. Using a dial-up modem and a phone line, anyone could sign on to a bulletin board system and read or write racist screeds. He was traveling the country to share the good news of the early internet.
“Imagine, if you will, all the great minds of the patriotic Christian movement linked together and joined into one computer,” Beam wrote in one of his early online essays. “Imagine any patriot in the country being able to call up and access these minds.”
Beam had an appointment with Kerry Noble, the second-in-command of the CSA, to discuss bringing the group “online.” Noble, a strapping and bearded man, listened as Beam brought the computer into the CSA’s “sanctuary” building and talked of all the machine could do.
Noble, who has since renounced his white supremacist past, remembered thinking it was a preposterous idea. CSA members were construction workers, loggers and mechanics in the rural South. Their organization’s name evoked the crusades, not the digital abstractions of the Commodore’s neon type. He told Beam: “This is never going to fly. People are not going to sit there and tell the computer what to do.”
“You know, of course they did,” Noble said recently. Noble was not alone in this skepticism. In 1985, the Anti-Defamation League issued a report on the emergence of hate speech online, saying “there is little to suggest that this represents a great leap forward in the spread of anti-Semitic and racist propaganda.”
But back then, it would have been hard to imagine the power of what Beam had in mind for connecting white supremacist cells online. Today, he lives quietly in a suburb of San Antonio and does not speak to reporters (including for this article), but a look back at the strategies that he and his contemporaries set in motion reveals that law enforcement and the general public are still battling his vision for white nationalism. Today, the militant right has moved from PCs and rural compounds to platforms like Gab, 8chan and Parler on smartphones across the country.
For the past 40 years, there have been dueling narratives about white supremacists in the U.S.: dangerous or farcical. They are alternately seen as a hillbilly fringe with outsize ambitions for political revolution, and a savvy movement demanding constant vigilance. While the media, nonprofits and law enforcement have juggled these two ideas, white-power organizers have been busy connecting, recruiting and working at the digital grindstone — speaking to and expanding their base for decades.
The new radical right
Beam was born in Lufkin, Texas, in 1946. After high school, he joined the Army and served for 18 months as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, later boasting in his writing of killing more than 50 Vietnamese. He came back in 1968 with a “Born to Lose” tattoo and an abiding resentment of the United States government.
Beam joined the Klan and soon became a leader in the new wave of militant white supremacists that emerged after the Vietnam War. Unlike their predecessors of the Jim Crow era — who were often local sheriffs, City Council members or even state governors — these new white militants distrusted law enforcement and the government as much as they hated Black people, Jews and immigrants.
In his 1983 book, “Essays of a Klansman,” Beam wrote: “Today there no longer exists in this country a government for the protection and benefit of the descendants of those who created this Nation. In place of such a government, there now stands a powerful despotism of gullible and sometimes evil men committed to the eventual destruction of the White Race.”
During the 1980s, followers of the growing movement became fixtures of daytime talk shows like “Sally,” “Geraldo” and “The Jerry Springer Show,” where young skinheads in swastika T-shirts and large blond men from the KKK brandished Confederate battle flags and shouted at audiences whose reactions caromed between outrage and titillation. These new faces of the radical right were an object of fascination and derision, held up as cornpone bigots and ridiculous grown-ups playing war in the woods. But sandwiched as they were between programming on club kids and love triangles, they were never really made to look dangerous.
But off the air, and around the country, they were very dangerous. Beam and his cohort were looking to foment a race war, which they hoped would lead to the creation of a white ethno-state. With that in mind, he and other movement leaders declared war on the U.S. government at the 1983 Aryan Nations World Congress at the organization’s compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho.
According to a later memo from the Department of Justice: “Robberies and counterfeiting were discussed as ways to finance the movement. Bombings and assassinations were discussed as a means of achieving the desired ends.”
Between 1983-85, white supremacists were behind a nationwide crime spree. CSA members bombed a natural gas pipeline in Arkansas, killed a pawnbroker they mistakenly thought was Jewish and attempted to murder a federal judge and an FBI agent. Members of the Order, a secretive offshoot of the Aryan Nations of which Beam was rumored to be a part, robbed a series of armored cars in Washington and California. In Denver, they shot a Jewish radio show host to death in his driveway.
As all of this was happening, the online proselytizing ramped up. Beam began his Liberty Net online bulletin board system in 1984. Shortly before, George P. Dietz had started the first white supremacist bulletin board system, which he referred to as “the only computer bulletin board system and uncontrolled information medium in the United States of America dedicated to the dissemination of historical facts — not fiction!” Then skinhead leader Tom Metzger began his own bulletin board network, which quickly surpassed both Beam’s and Dietz’s sites in popularity. Before most American households even had a computer, the white supremacist movement was highly cyber literate, deftly using the early internet to spread its message.
Mike German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI who specialized in domestic terrorism, said, “The first time I heard the word email was from neo-Nazi skinheads.”
By 1985, the Justice Department viewed the nationwide network of white supremacists as a threat to national security. Federal prosecutors decided to use the declaration of war at the Aryan Nations World Congress as the basis for an ambitious and highly unusual charge: seditious conspiracy. The U.S. penal code defines the crime as an act in which two or more people “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them.” In a multistate sweep, the FBI arrested Louis Beam and 13 other white supremacist leaders, and took them to Fort Smith, Arkansas to be tried.
Chaos descended on the normally quiet working-class town as the trial began in February 1988. The KKK held 15 rallies in front of the federal courthouse, blasting “God Bless America” over loudspeakers. Anti-Klan protesters carried signs reading, “Evil coneheads, go away.” The galleries of the courthouse were packed, while snipers were positioned on the building’s roof. Steve Snyder, an assistant U.S. attorney on the case, remembered taking a handgun to court in his briefcase every day.
Judge Morris Arnold, who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, presided over the case and carefully instructed the jury on the complex nature of the charges. According to Arnold, he told them, “The fact that you may think it was impossible for the defendants to overthrow the government is not a defense to the charge.” What mattered, Arnold said, was that the defendants believed they could topple the government and took steps toward that end.
In the government’s opening statement, Snyder laid out the defendants’ intricate plot, which involved weapons stockpiling, paramilitary training, armed robbery, murder of government officials, and planned attacks on infrastructure targets.
But wrapping all of those crimes up into a seditious conspiracy would be a tough sell. Rodney Smolla, now the dean of Widener University Delaware School of Law, lived near Fort Smith at the time and was quoted in several newspaper reports on the trial. He was wary of the prosecution’s legal strategy from the beginning. “Sedition has a troubling history in this country,” he said recently. “It has typically been used to suppress political speech.”
The defendants and their supporters seized on the suppression-of-speech narrative — rhetoric still heard today from the far right. Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., then the head of the White Patriot party, said, “The whole purpose of this is to silence the white patriot movement.” (He would go on to kill three people in an anti-Semitic shooting in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014.) Protesters outside the courthouse marched behind a banner that read “Repeal the anti-free speech sedition law.” And Beam called the charges “the McCarthyism of the ’80s.”
Arnold remembered reporters swarming Beam as he was brought to the courthouse. “Louis, did you aspire to overthrow the United States government?” a reporter called out. He responded with swaggering sarcasm, “What else would a country boy do on a Saturday night?”
The government’s key witness in the seven-week trial was Jim Ellison, the head of the CSA who had turned state’s evidence. A dark-haired, barrel-chested man, Ellison rattled off a litany of criminal activity, including a plot to kill a federal judge and the obtaining of 30 gallons of cyanide to poison the water supply of New York and Washington, D.C. He also corroborated the defendants’ exchanging of information and resources with the intent to overthrow the government.
But under cross-examination, Ellison’s credibility withered. He admitted that he had appointed himself “King of the Ozarks,” believed himself to be a direct descendant of King David of Israel and had declared one CSA member to be “spiritually dead” so that he could marry his wife.
Rodney Bowers, a reporter who covered the trial for The Arkansas Gazette, said he had no doubt that the men were dangerous and that “they wanted to kill.” But he also thought “that kind of crazy testimony that just didn’t go over well with the jury.”
“How are these guys going to pull off what the Soviet Union hasn’t been able to?” Bowers added.
After four days of deliberating, the jury found the defendants not guilty not only of sedition, but also of the conspiracies to kill government officials and of transporting stolen money across state lines.
Arnold was surprised. “I would have convicted them,” he said.
But the jury could not see past the question of plausibility. The idea that a bunch of blue-collar workers and religious zealots from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas could topple the most powerful government on earth had seemed absurd.
After the verdict, Beam and his supporters marched over to the Confederate statue across the street from the courthouse and declared victory over the “Zionist Occupationist Government.” As he spoke, his wife, Sheila, who stood beside him barefoot and in a flowing white dress, fainted. Beam scooped her up in his arms and carried her off into the distance.
According to Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” the trial changed the landscape, for both sides.
“After the trial,” she said, “many in the movement felt emboldened by the government’s failure to convict.”
She added that for law enforcement, the embarrassment of the verdict “led to institutional policies not to investigate the white power movement, but rather to limit prosecutions to individuals. This is the policy that would limit the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Louis Beam’s tract “Leaderless Resistance” had originally been printed in clandestine editions in the early 1980s, but in February 1992, he put the text on the internet, and its reach increased exponentially.
In the 3,400-word essay, Beam channeled a guerrilla warfare sensibility, arguing that, in order to avoid government infiltration, the white supremacist movement should organize in cells of five or fewer people — what would come to be known as “lone wolves” were best. “It becomes the responsibility of the individual to acquire the necessary skills and information as to what is to be done,” he wrote. Each “patriot” would have to make “a private decision in the quietness of his heart to resist: to resist by any means necessary.” Once the act was committed, the leaders of the groups could publicly disavow the violence — and avoid prosecution.
“No one need issue an order to anyone,” Beam wrote.
According to Stephen Jones, Timothy McVeigh’s defense lawyer, McVeigh told him that he had read “Leaderless Resistance” and that “clearly Louis Beam was someone that was very important to him.”
The widely accepted narrative of McVeigh, who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, is that he was a loner Army veteran with a venomous disdain for the government. But it is not generally known how connected he was to the white supremacist movement. In their book, “American Terrorist,” based on a series of death row interviews with McVeigh, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck wrote that McVeigh briefly was a member of the Klan, owned a white supremacist T-shirt, and sold at gun shows copies of “The Turner Diaries,” the apocalyptic race-war novel foundational to the white power movement.
The authors also wrote that McVeigh had been captivated by the early internet and in high school “had converted his bedroom into a makeshift computer lab. Long before the internet became common in American homes, he owned not one but two Commodore 64s.” Though it is unclear if he ever visited Beam’s Liberty Net, the site was up and running as McVeigh explored the internet as a young man.
The Murrah building had long been a potential target for white supremacists. Kerry Noble had cased the premises with other CSA members as early as 1983. They had even begun building bombs, but one of them exploded in a CSA member’s hand, which the group considered a sign from God to wait. When McVeigh did carry out the bombing, Noble was working as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Texas. He saw the news on television and recognized the plot instantly. “They did it,” he remembered thinking. “They finally have done it.”
In a legal irony, McVeigh’s defense team essentially argued what the prosecution in the Fort Smith trial had argued: that the bombing was orchestrated by a complex network of white supremacists and far-right militia members. According to Jones, three weeks before the bombing, McVeigh called someone living in Elohim City, a far-right compound in Eastern Oklahoma with connections to the CSA, the Aryan Nations and the Order. “His supply chain plus his travels indicated a fairly sophisticated group of people,” Jones said. “It was our opinion that most of the ones that he associated with were either the Midwest bank robbers or people at Elohim City.”
He added: “I was convinced after talking to him, analyzing carefully what he said through numerous interviews, that he was trying to protect others, and assuming all the responsibility himself.”
But only McVeigh and one immediate accomplice, Terry Nichols, were convicted in the bombing. The government’s case, Jones argued, missed a big part of the story.
“They never referred to Tim McVeigh as a terrorist,” Jones said. “It was a murder case. And so they avoided the political connotation.”
In the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, vast law-enforcement resources were brought to bear on terrorism, but relatively little went toward investigating or tracking domestic terrorism. “Most of the people who call themselves terrorism researchers became terrorism researchers after 9/11 focusing specifically on al-Qaida,” said German, the former FBI agent.
In 2009, Daryl Johnson, a senior homeland security intelligence analyst, wrote an internal report raising the possibility that the recession, the election of the first Black president and disaffection among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan “could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.”
Over the next 10 years, Johnson’s warning went largely unheeded. A 2018 report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School said, “Domestic terrorism is a blind spot in the Justice Department’s counterterrorism strategy,” an assertion that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein agreed with publicly.
During those same 10 years, social media reached near ubiquity. On platforms like Twitter and Facebook, extremists could organize and share information, often in plain sight. Instead of thousands of people reading online bulletin boards, tens of millions were seeing racist Pepe the Frog memes, “white genocide” rhetoric and conspiracy theories about Democrats running child trafficking rings.
In 2017, during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event that was largely organized online, James Alex Fields, 20, drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. A little more than two weeks later, an article titled “You Just Got a Promotion within the Alt-right” appeared on the website run by alt-right leader Richard Spencer. The article, which promoted Beam’s theory of leaderless resistance, read in part: “You have to take action yourself. No other way around it.”
Belew, the University of Chicago history professor, said, “I think you might be surprised by the continuing relevance of, and references to, Louis Beam as a central figure in the white power movement today.”
She added: “It’s critical to understand that we should not understand acts of mass violence carried out by the white power movement as ‘lone wolf’ attacks. The white power movement is continuous, today’s paramilitary groups and lone-wolf gunmen trace their ideological and organization heritage across decades.”
Today, as extremist groups are expelled from Facebook and Twitter, they migrate to social networks like Gab and encrypted chat platforms like Signal. In the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers coordinated their movements over the walkie-talkie app Zello, for instance. And the goals can sound chillingly similar to those envisioned by Beam and his cohort. The FBI recently arrested members of The Base, a network of white-nationalist cells, for plotting a series of attacks — including on drinking water supplies — that the militants hoped would lead to a race war. The scale of it all makes Beam’s Commodore 64s look disturbingly prescient.
Louis Beam has never been convicted of a felony. He has not given a public speech since 1996, but his website is still up.
“In a way, his work is sort of done,” said Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “He got his message out there.”