KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Leonard Zeskind hunches over, one eye clamped to a loupe, and inspects an old black-and-white photograph taped to his office door.
The picture and what he’s looking for tell a lot about what has been on Zeskind’s mind the past few decades.
Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: May 2009)
Taken in 1967, it shows the funeral of George Lincoln Rockwell, the assassinated leader of the American Nazi Party. Standing among the two dozen grievers, next to a floral display in the shape of a swastika, is a thin young man with dark hair, wearing a jacket and narrow tie.
Zeskind wants to figure out whether it’s a young David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klansman who went on to score startling electoral success in the early 1990s as a Louisiana political candidate.
“I think he’s too tall,” Zeskind said, postponing a conclusion until he gathers more evidence.
To Zeskind it’s another dot to connect in the evolution of radical, right-wing American politics. In the past 30 years, he has become known as one of the most effective and dogged researchers on the topic, an indispensable resource on fascist and neo-nationalist movements around the globe.
This week brings the culmination of what is essentially a life’s work — or at least a project he started 15 years ago. His new book, “Blood and Politics,” is being issued by a major New York publishing house, and for a few moments at least, Zeskind will step into a public spotlight he normally shuns.
The scope of Zeskind’s book can be found in his subtitle: “The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream.” It’s Zeskind’s attempt to trace the fragmented lineage of the ultra-right in the U.S., to interpret it as a historical movement, rather than isolated spikes of often-violent activity, and to show how some of its cherished ideas (anti-immigration, for one) have slowly seeped into the wider realm of American political life.
Neo-Nazi publishers and Holocaust deniers. Christian Identity camps. Farm-crisis exploiters. An Arkansas sedition trial. Skinhead-metal recruitment drives. Zeskind’s long and detailed book covers and connects vast amounts of territory, much of it unfolding in the nation’s hinterlands.
“He knows more than anyone,” said Judy Hellman, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau here. “Only once in your life do you meet a Lenny Zeskind. He’s a good friend and a great fighter for right.”
Zeskind, 59, trim and pewter-haired, traces his political awareness to his boyhood in a Southern city he declines to name. (He keeps a low profile and guards details of his life, which has been threatened more than once over the years.)
At the time of his bar mitzvah, at 13, he was impressed by an NAACP speaker at his synagogue.
“The issue of racism has been a central concern of mine since I was a kid,” Zeskind said in his scratchy tenor, a voice that seems squeezed through a tube of coarse sandpaper. “I grew up in an era of great change. Race was always of some immediate concern.”
An avid reader from a middle-class family, Zeskind studied philosophy, worked in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and chose a modest, blue-collar career path.
He got to Kansas City by happenstance in 1970 and worked in a lamp factory, but he also spent hours on his own as a community organizer, trying to heal the rift between the black and white worlds.
In a recent essay — he posts one every two weeks on his Web site — he recalled a scene from that work, when he sat with two twentysomething white men who were methodically working their way through a couple of cases of beer.
“We talked about the neighborhood,” Zeskind writes, “a desperately poor enclave of white working class people surrounded by blocks filled with desperately poor black working class people. Everybody was looking for a decent job. They told me about their friend newly back home from Vietnam who was shaking his amphetamine habit.
“I asked them why they used to drive down one of the nearby streets in the black neighborhood pumping .410 shotgun shells into the front of houses. Neither one of these two young men had an answer. By the time they had finished their cases of beer, however, they had decided that shooting at black people’s homes was just plain stupid.”
Zeskind spent much of the ‘70s as a steel worker and welder, as well as a community activist. By the next decade, he was publishing a grassroots newsletter, a compendium of “anti-racist, anti-fascist news and analysis.” Even then he was connecting the dots among murderers, bombers, white supremacists and fringe politicians.
For several years he commuted back and forth to Atlanta, where he worked for an anti-Klan organization eventually known as the Center for Democratic Renewal. He traveled extensively to monitor right-wing events and to speak wherever he was invited.
In the 1980s he began working with the Jewish Community Relations Bureau in Kansas City in response to virulent anti-Semitism emanating from a radio station in western Kansas and being spread around farm country by a violence-prone group called the Posse Comitatus.
After a horrific murder of Posse followers was uncovered in Rulo, Neb., the national media took notice, and Zeskind’s phone began ringing as journalists sought him out for information.
“That’s when Lenny Zeskind gets famous,” he said quietly.
Zeskind had been running training sessions for farmers throughout the Great Plains in order to help them recognize the “bad guys” and to promote interfaith and interracial good will.
Hellman recalled that Zeskind spoke at forums in small Kansas towns intended to counteract the hate-the-Jews message and to bring Jews, Christians and black people together in dialogue.
Ever since, Zeskind has served Hellman’s organization as a sounding board, consultant and early warning on anti-Semitic and other rabid-right activities in the region and beyond.
In 2005, Zeskind participated in a forum here, along with the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau, to spread the word among area school leaders about recruitment efforts by a white-power, heavy-metal record label that had surfaced at Raymore-Peculiar High School.
“I think he really cares about people,” Anita Russell, executive director of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP, said of Zeskind, who is a lifetime member of the organization. “He cares about equality, about equal rights for everyone. I think that’s what drives him.”
Lately they’ve been working to counteract an effort by a group seeking to get an anti-affirmative-action initiative on Missouri’s ballot in 2010.
In 1994, Zeskind left the Center for Democratic Renewal and returned to Kansas City full time. He continued to write articles and speak when called on, but he also began working on a book.
It wasn’t easy, he discovered, and it took him at least three years to find a satisfactory structure. He wanted to keep the focus on important characters and illustrate, no matter how differently they sometimes operated, the underlying historical force at work. That force became much clearer after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Seemingly overnight, a tide of nationalism erupted around the globe, including the United States. Not just ultra-rightists but apparently mainstream conservatives such as Pat Buchanan made 180-degree flips from “go anywhere to fight communism” types, Zeskind said, to inward-looking nativists who began railing against immigration and any vision of America that included multiracial democracy.
“Lenny has done a tremendous amount to uncover and describe nativism in American culture,” said James Ridgeway, an investigative reporter and editor at Mother Jones magazine who has written stories about and with Zeskind. “Most mainstream historians don’t touch it. They skate right past it.”
In 1995, when a truck bomb blew the face off a government building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, Zeskind traveled to Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas with Ridgeway and a photographer to produce a piece for the Village Voice in New York.
“Lenny Zeskind has always been the one guy who has a grip on being able to interpret what was going on,” Ridgeway said.
Even though there was an immediate rush to blame Muslims for the bombing, he added, it was his own instinct to look at the right wing, and Zeskind affirmed that.
“He laid out the historical steps that led up to this,” Ridgeway said of Zeskind. “There were a series of meetings and writings, et cetera, that suggested that this world of the far right was not dead by a long shot. It was very active.”
Despite his obvious leanings, Zeskind maintains a spirit of fairness in his work. He’s as critical of lefty “wing-nuts” as he is of those on the right. In one recent essay, for example, he skewers Noam Chomsky, a darling of leftist anti-imperialists everywhere, for lending his endorsement to a French Holocaust denier.
Inevitably, Zeskind is not the object of universal affection.
On his Web site, David Duke called him “a typically hypocritical Jewish supremacist who defends apartheid Israel ... while at the same time lectures America on the evils of white people defending their heritage and civil rights!”
One day last week, Zeskind was on the phone with a colleague who was planning to travel to Europe to monitor elections. Nationalist parties have made gains in England, France, Belgium and elsewhere, Zeskind said.
Then came a call from a professor who wondered what Zeskind knew about “scientific racism” at his campus. The academic-oriented movement argues against immigration and racial diversity, basing its views on cultural, social and biological research.
“These people are all professors,” Zeskind said, after pointing his caller to two of the movement’s Web sites.
The completion of Zeskind’s book — early blurb writers have used the words “brilliant,” “definitive,” “breathtaking” and “essential” — marks a kind of transition. Where he once actively operated a loose network of researchers, he now more often serves as a repository of knowledge and ongoing dot-connector.
“I still do some front-line research,” he said, “but my role is, I’m the guy people go to for advice.”
He has established the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which is based in his nondescript office suite in Kansas City, a warren of rooms filled with file cabinets, bookshelves and tables piled high with documents.
“Now,” he said with a sweeping arm gesture, “I’m the granddaddy of all this.”