LOS ANGELES — A pitched leadership battle is taking place inside one of the country’s oldest neo-Nazi groups. On one side, a true believer is pushing to attract new members and expand the ranks. On the other, a black former Baptist preacher is hoping to destroy the hate-spewing group from the inside.
James Hart Stern, the 55-year-old preacher from Los Angeles, took control of the group, the National Socialist Movement, in January. He is now struggling with Burt Colucci, 43, a longtime member, over leadership of the group. The fight has thrown the organization into upheaval during a time when far-right extremism is on the rise and other white supremacy groups are gaining ground.
The two men are fighting over who has control over the group’s official website. That site is now more important than ever, as more hate groups recruit with memes than marches. The N.S.M., as the group is known, has struggled to keep up as its membership dwindles.
The bizarre and twisting tale of how the battle came to be involves an unlikely prison friendship, lawsuits and even a team of Hollywood producers.
With roots in the American Nazi Party, the N.S.M. dates back to 1974. It once had 61 chapters in 35 states, and was known for leaders who galvanized followers to commit violence against Jews and African-Americans.
Although more of their hate these days is expressed online, the group still marches, armed with rifles, waving swastika flags and Nazi insignia, and looking to provoke groups who advocate for the rights of gay, black and Jewish people, its biggest targets.
Mr. Stern, who considers himself a civil rights activist, has moved the N.S.M.’s corporate registration from Michigan to his native California in a bid, he said in interviews, to dismantle the group. For a few months this year, he controlled the domain of the group’s website, but then lost it to Mr. Colucci. He is now suing to get it back.
Because so many people who are attracted to hate messages are online and skew young, he said, his plan in taking over the group is to bombard visitors to its site with videos about Jewish history, including a continuous run of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” This would serve, he argued, to educate people who initially came looking for hateful propaganda.
Mr. Stern acknowledges that having a black man at the helm probably won’t shift the hearts and minds of hard-core believers, but he thinks stunts like showing “Schindler’s List” can impact impressionable young people. “If you’ve never heard the truth about the Holocaust, this could change everything,” he said.
Mr. Stern has gotten so much attention for his effort that he scored a deal for a biographical series with Mark Wahlberg’s production company.
For his part, Mr. Colucci, the longtime member, argues that he is the one who is actually in command of the N.S.M. He has registered the group in his home state of Florida, and in an effort to increase its appeal to more strident believers, he has reinstated the swastika as the group’s symbol. He and several armed members of the group crashed Detroit’s Pride weekend.
The leadership battle comes at a time when far-right attacks have been rising. Legislators and experts who monitor far-right groups say the uptick illustrates the challenge of policing movements that are increasingly splintered.
Brad Galloway, who spent 13 years in one group, called Volksfront, and now works to counter extremism at the Organization for Prevention of Violence, warns that despite the infighting within the N.S.M., the group still presents plenty of danger.
That Mr. Stern was even able to gain legal title to the group shows just how fractured organizations like it have become. And it is the result of an even stranger alliance.
After a conviction for wire fraud, Mr. Stern was housed in prison for a time with Edgar Ray Killen, the Ku Klux Klan leader who was sentenced to 60 years for the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists. At that time, Mr. Killen was in his 80s, and so feeble that he could barely eat.
Mr. Stern says he kept Mr. Killen alive, and gave him his own meals when other inmates put feces in Mr. Killen’s food tray. Over the 15-month period when they were housed in close proximity, Mr. Stern says, the older man confided in him about dozens of additional murders for which he was never convicted.
Mr. Stern was paroled in 2011, and left the Mississippi State Penitentiary with power of attorney over Mr. Killen’s estate and a cache of documents written by Mr. Killen in prison that white supremacists considered sacrosanct. In those documents, according to Mr. Stern, Mr. Killen confessed to having links to 32 additional murders.
The Clarion Ledger, a newspaper based in Jackson, Miss., reported in 2011 that Mr. Killen was willing to admit to those murders if the authorities would agree to move him from prison to house arrest. But investigators were not able to link those cases to Mr. Killen, and he was still in prison when he died in 2018.
“Someone once asked Edgar Ray Killen, why did he write me those letters, close to 100,” Mr. Stern said. “Because of the things we endured, we grew a bond.”
In 2016, now free and living in California, Mr. Stern legally disbanded the White Knights, the Ku Klux Klan chapter that Mr. Killen once led. He then wrote a book about his actions. It was the same plan he wanted to bring to the N.S.M., he said.
But it wasn’t going to be that simple. The far-right group’s previous leader, Jeff Schoep, who ran it beginning in 1994, also wanted Mr. Killen’s letters as a keepsake and to burnish his reputation as a pillar of the white nationalist movement.
Mr. Schoep had tried to broaden the group’s base in the past few years as new organizations emerged online. For instance, he dropped the group’s longtime symbol, a swastika over a shield-shaped American flag, because younger white nationalists were apparently less interested in overt displays of Nazi symbolism.
Unlike the loosely affiliated hate movements that have been popping up online, the N.S.M. still requires members to formally apply, and to document their ethnicity before they are accepted into the group. Mr. Stern never went through that process.
Mr. Schoep struggled to gain traction among new extremists. Under his leadership, the group wasn’t hard-core enough for veterans of the movement, yet remained too far out on the fringe for younger adherents, said Brian Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Then Charlottesville happened. Members of the N.S.M. helped plan the Unite The Right Rally there in 2017 that erupted in clashes. The group’s participation resulted in several lawsuits, including a state suit accusing the group of employing a paramilitary strategy to engage in violence at the event, using “clubs, flagpoles, and shields to batter their ideological opponents.” A suit in federal court claimed that the N.S.M. and two dozen other groups caused emotional harm to people in the city and at the University of Virginia campus there when they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and trapped some bystanders in a building.
Mr. Schoep’s motivation for handing over the legal ownership of the organization and control of its website to Mr. Stern was not clear. But Mr. Stern said Mr. Schoep was so weary of the lawsuits that he did not need much convincing to agree.
Mr. Schoep did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
With a stroke of a pen, the transfer happened in January. Mr. Stern became the group’s legal president, and promptly dismissed the group’s lawyers and filed a motion asking the judge overseeing the federal lawsuit to rule against the N.S.M.
In March, though, Mr. Schoep changed his mind about Mr. Stern. In a letter shared on the group’s website, he wrote, “James Stern used deception and manipulation in an attempt to gain control over the organization,” without detailing his own motives.
The same day, Mr. Stern filed suit against Mr. Schoep and the group’s members, claiming theft, defamation, and pain and suffering, and seeking damages of $500,000. But by April, his plans were fizzling. The judge in the federal case recognized Mr. Schoep’s lawyers as representing the group, and barred Mr. Stern from participation in the case.
In May, as Mr. Stern signed the deal for the biographical series, the group that he claimed to lead was imploding.
Many members did quit, according to Matthew Heinbach, the group’s former community outreach director. Mr. Heinbach estimated in March that in 2018, before Mr. Stern became involved, the group had about 40 dues-paying members.
Sensing his chance, Mr. Colucci, who lives in a suburb of Orlando, Fla., and says he works in the oil industry, moved to incorporate the group under his own leadership in Florida, and gained control of the group’s website. He says Mr. Schoep no longer has any role in the organization.
It is unclear how the rival claims of leadership will be resolved.
For now, Mr. Stern insists that the group remains based in California. “I’m still the president of the N.S.M.,” he told The New York Times.