The Rev. James Hart Stern has a lot to be happy about after successfully scaling and conquering many challenging summits throughout his life. For the past 30 years, Stern has been a major player behind the scenes of Los Angeles’s community activism, and an ally within the national community helping to combat racism.
From organizing the first original gang summits between the Bloods and Crips in the late 80s, organizer of the Korean Summit that helped develop a better relationship between Black residents and Korean storefronts, and the disbandment of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. If you re not from the Los Angeles area you may not be familiar with Stern’s name, but there’s a great chance that you are familiar with his work. Stern has recently made a strategic move to manage to be in control of the National Socialist Movement, the Neo-Nazi organization that was responsible for the “Unite the Right rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in three deaths and nearly 40 non-fatal injuries in 2017. The National Socialist Movement consists of members that identify themselves as alt-right, neo-confederates, neo-fascists, white-nationalists, neo-Nazis, and a Klansman.
Many questions have been asked how did a Black man become the head of such a group? But in order to know how Stern rose as the leader of America’s civil rights group for Whites, you have to know how Stern himself arose to scale many challenging summits over the years throughout his life.
Born in 1964 and raised in the South Los Angeles community of Watts. Before Stern’s birth, the south Los Angeles community was known as a “sundown town.” No Blacks were allowed on the streets and they rushed to get home before the sun went down or they risked being lynched by KKK members who wandered the community looking for them. Stern’s family was a middle-income family that was the third largest owner of real estate in the area. Though a turbulent time for Blacks, the South Los Angeles area became grounds for racial conflict, and just as Blacks were moving into the area, Whites were beginning to move out.
Conflict arose on August 11, 1965, when a White police officer pulled over a Black man for reckless driving. It was reported by an onlooker that the cop also kicked a Black pregnant woman. News of a cop abusing a Black pregnant woman angered many residents and south revenge. Known today as the Watts Riots, 34 people were killed and thousands injured.
“This was a race riot,” said Stern. “There wasn’t no looting. They weren’t fighting each other. They were literally looking for White people. There was a rule that changed the history of Black folks out here with White People. For every Black person that died. Three White people had to die that night.”
The Jewish community of Watts was afraid for their lives and tried escaping by destroying their own land. They blamed the damage on the riots and later collected the insurance money to help them move out of Watts.
“Black rioters went to Linwood, South Gate, Hawthorne and they were killing White families. They didn’t care who they were,” said Stern
After the riots and things began to calm over the years, Blacks began to move into the communities of Watts and Inglewood during the 70s. Building their own communities of homeowners, business owners and more, but during the 80s, the crack-cocaine era made a big impact on destroying Black communities. As drugs were used to drive an intense feud between rival gangs, Bloods and Crips, over turf wars. Stern stepped in and organized the country’s first gang summit in 1988 and again in 1989.
November of 1991 the Los Angeles community was enraged after 15-year-old, Latasha Harlins, died after being shot in the head by a Korean storefront owner, Soon Ja Du, who claimed she felt threatened by the teen. Du was later convicted of manslaughter and received five years of probation, 400 hours of community service and fined $500. The death of Harlins occurred just 13 days after the beating of Rodney King and believed by some to be the reason of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Stern organized the Korean Summit with other community leaders around Los Angeles. “I asked them. How can you come into these communities and not know how to communicate or interact with the people that you are selling products or services,” says Stern. Stern convinced the Korean business owners to hire local residents to handle their customer service. The Korean owned bank, Harmony Bank, agreed to also invest in the communities by providing loans to Blacks to start businesses of their own.
After years of laying low and keeping a low profile by working with a cosmetology organization. In 2004, a barrage of law enforcement officers came knocking on Stern’s door: FBI, the Postal Inspector, US Marshalls, and the local sheriff’s department were serving a warrant on Stern from the state of Mississippi for identity theft on a wire transfer. Extradited back to the state of Mississippi over a 30 day period, Stern finally found himself in a jail cell without any information on why he was being held or even properly charged. After writing motions on pieces of napkins, toilet paper, and paper towels to get the judges attention. Stern’s case attracted the attention of a local prominent Mississippi attorney, and with his help charges were later dropped and a settlement was provided to Stern. But while incarcerated in Mississippi, Stern became cellmates with, Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan member that was the subject of the 1988 film, “Mississippi Burning.”
After spending one year and six months as the cellmate to one of the biggest known Klan members at the time, Killen initially had a bigoted view towards Stern. Killen wrote his life story and gave Stern the power of attorney of his story and movie rights before his death; also making Stern the leader of the Mississippi state chapter of the KKK. A Black man… it was all over the news about him being the new leader of the KKK. Stern later worked to disband the entire state chapter.
Sometime after Killen’s death and after receiving much publicity for being the Mississippi leader of the KKK. Stern was contacted by the representative of Jeff Schoep, the National Socialist Movement’s (NSM) Director at the time. “I didn’t know who Jeff Schoep was and I Googled his name as I was talking to his rep,” says Stern. The commander wanted to buy Killen’s ID card from Stern, but he wouldn’t sell it. Stern later became friends with Schoep and they kept in contact with one another over the years.
In August of 2017, the National Socialist Movement held a “Unite the Right” movement in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Schoep was sought after by many government agencies for his involvement. Desperate for help, Schoep called Stern asking him for advice on how to separate his name from the organization. Stern volunteered to take over the group for him.
Stern says he told Schoep, “you want to prove that you have nothing to do with the Charlottesville riot? Give it to me, a black man.”
Schoep replied, “a nigger?”
Stern says he laughed after Schoep called him the racial slur, and said, “after all of these years we have been talking to one another. You finally called me the “n” word.” Schoep apologized and said he didn’t mean it. Upset with the situation Schoep hang up the phone in Stern’s face.
The following morning Stern said Schoep called back asking if he was serious about taking over the National Socialist Movement and told him that he can have it if he wants it.
Immediately taking control of the group, Stern has worked to dissolve it. He has been receiving threats from Schoep for his actions and the headlines he has been making. During the month of March, Stern filed a restraining order on Schoep to protect him and his family.
Nowadays Stern is living low and trying to maintain good health as he scales his current summit, a battle with stage 4 cancer. Stern has played a role in organizing events and combating many issues of our time that many are unaware of. His inspiration has inspired many to help tell the many summits that he has organized and accomplished to scale as well and follow his footsteps to brave the next summit ahead of us.
Stern is the author of, Mississippi Still Burning (From Hoods to suits), and co-authored by North Carolina writer Autumn Karen (as Autumn K. Robinson). Currently available at your selected book retailer.