KKK rallies in S.C. for Confederate flag
Attacks on symbol energize supremacists
columbia, s.c. — On a boiling weekday afternoon on the outskirts of Atlanta, the KuKluxKlan hunted white people in a turquoise convertible.
Roy Pemberton, 62, a Klansman who wore the group’s socalled “blood drop” cross on his hat, trolled the suburban parking lots of Wal-Marts, Home Depots and Krogers looking for fresh recruits. But he also had a more immediate concern: a call for sympathizers to join Saturday’s rally protesting South Carolina’s recent removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds and its banishment to a museum.
“We’re just trying to save our heritage,” Pemberton told KKK potentials, almost all middleaged white men, handing them two business cards with the group’s hot line number.
Pemberton barked at one man who wanted nothing to do with him: “They take our flag, soon they’ll take your wife.”
The Loyal White Knights of the KKK, which calls itself the largest chapter in the United States, held a rally in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday afternoon to protest the removal of the flag, an effort spearheaded by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
The New Black Panther Party showed up early. Members encouraged the hundreds who came to keep things peaceful, while also encouraging African Americans to take ownership of their problems and fight back when necessary.
When Klansmen arrived later, the groups clashed intermittently, with three arrests, according to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety (SCDPS). A man wearing a Confederate flag vest was slugged in the head, and a skirmish erupted. One group seized a Confederate flag and sought to set it on fire before police intervened.
The Klan rally featured no speeches but chants of “White power!” from the roughly 2,000 who attended, SCDPS said.
The rally follows a swift reckoning for the Confederate flag that began soon after photos surfaced of Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof, who is white, displaying the banner long associated with racial hate groups such as the Klan. Roof, an apparently self-radicalized loner who grew upin and around South Carolina’s capital city, is accused of killing nine black worshipers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last month.
Retailers quickly moved to pull the flag and related merchandise off physical and digital shelves, and Southern states from Virginia to Texas are assessing how to deal with their ubiquitous Confederate memorials and symbols, along with roads and schools named for prominent Confederate figures.
The swift backlash has exposed the South’s raw struggles with race as the debate couples the symbolic dawn of a new era with the ugly vestiges of a past that sometimes seems not so far behind.
The Klan rally, while perhaps more a demonstration for the media than a sign of backward movement, is a reminder of the South’s relatively slow progress on race. Tom Turnipseed, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer who helped bring down the Klan in the 1990s, had mixed feelings.
“I want [the removal of the flag] to be a step forward,” he said. “[But] the struggle continues. What’s new?”
Besides the Klan, groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans have mobilized against taking down the flag, holding nearly 90 demonstrations nationally, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, with at least 20 more protests planned.
“This came like a bolt out of the blue,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC, which monitors organizations it designates as hate groups. “[Flag supporters] are a little shocked, and they didn’t expect to be losing this battle so quickly.”
The Saturday Klan rally drew the scorn of some flag supporters, who say the banner honors only Southern heritage. They recognize that the association with the Klan — a group responsible for the rape and murder of minorities throughout the 20th century — only hurts the flag’s cause.
Pemberton, the Klan member, is bespectacled and stout with one long tooth on the right side of his mouth. A huge Klan cross is tattooed on one of his biceps, and an orange flame with “KKK” and a cross is tattooed near a thumb. The retired carpenter and oil worker spends nearly every day he can seeking out recruits for his Klan chapter, the North Carolinabased Loyal White Knights.
Pemberton’s world is one of hate, cloaked, at least at times, in a veneer of righteous struggle. He said he would vote for Ben Carson, the African-American Republican candidate for president, over Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said he hates black people as a race, but not individually.
He said he will not initiate violence but stands ready to fight. He carried a small switchblade in his pocket on his recruiting run this week. A bag in his convertible’s back seat held two huge “Ka-Bar” blades, weapons favored by U.S. Marines and commandos, and a set of nunchaku.
“If they continue . . . there will be a war, and we will fight for our heritage,” Pemberton said. “There are things the South will fight for, and that is one of them. If it continues, there will be bloodshed.”
Down from a high of 4 million in the 1920a to about 4,000 now, the modern Klan poses little real threat, Potok said, adding that lone wolves such as Roof are the ones to watch.
“The Klan today is small, weak, poorly led and largely looked down upon by other white supremacist groups, who see them as illiterate and unhelpful in the greater struggle,” he said.
On Pemberton’s whirlwind Klan recruiting tour, the signs of the new South were everywhere. Among groups of white and black teens were interracial couples — for which Pemberton saved his most hateful invective — who held hands as they walked through the Wal-Mart parking lot.
But the decidedly random sampling of about a dozen white men yielded more nods and smiles — which could be politeness taken for empathy.
But no one committed to attend the rally Saturday — even a fellow Klansman said he couldn’t come because he was a member of another Klan chapter.
A man displaying a Confederate battle flag gives a Nazi salute Saturday on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse as rallies staged by the New Black Panther Party and a Ku Klux Klan chapter overlapped.