Outside the South Carolina statehouse, William Bader stood tall and defiant as he brandished a large Confederate battle flag. It was not unlike the one embroidered on his black shirt, or the one a local honor guard recently removed from a flagpole outside the legislative building where he protested.
Bader, an imperial wizard in the Trinity White Knights, drove hundreds of miles from Kentucky – or, rather, “Klantucky”, as he quipped – to Columbia, all in hopes of defending the flag on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
“They took our flag, so be it,” said Bader, a member of the Ku Klux Klan for the past two decades. “They’re taking our heritage from us. They’re taking the freedom out of America.”
More than a week ago, South Carolina lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to take down the Confederate flag from its prominent position on the statehouse grounds. The controversial decision, which followed a racially motivated 17 June shooting that left nine African American men and women dead inside a historic Charleston church, prompted competing rallies between white supremacist and black activist groups.
The Loyal White Knights, a North Carolina-based group thought to be the largest KKK faction, scheduled the protest to stop the removal of the flag. The group decided to carry on regardless. They received support from other KKK factions, National Socialist Movement members and Christian fundamentalists.
“The blacks have been out here attacking people, stealing people’s property, taking their flags,” said Steven Johnson, a South Carolina father of two who was among those waving Nazi flags during the rally. “I’m scared of what my family’s about to grow up with.”
Forgoing their notorious hoods, more than 50 protesters brandished flags and yelled racial epithets at minority onlookers from behind the protection of steel barricades, watched by dozens of law enforcement officers. According to Bader, some KKK members had planned to hold a church burning, wearing the infamous Klan uniforms.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley this week called for people to ignore the “disruptive, hateful spectacle” of the KKK members and “to make the statehouse a lonely place for them”. Despite the wishes of the Republican governor, who demanded the flag’s removal following the Charleston shooting, about 2,000 people showed up to watch the demonstration, according to public safety officials.
Earlier in the afternoon, black activists from several groups called for further progress in breaking down racial barriers. Members of Black Educators for Justice, a Florida-based group founded by a one-time New Black Panther Party leader, Black Lawyers for Justice’ and other organizations wore military fatigues and yelled chants associated with the Black Power movement.
“White America is going to have to come to grips with all people of color,” said Nancy Thomas, a Michigan resident who had traveled to Columbia for a family reunion and watched part of the demonstration.
“I’m glad they took the flag down, but the flag is a piece of material. The hearts of the people whose minds are so set on the flag remaining, their hearts need to be changed.”
An African American activist, Malik Stroman, waved a Pan-African flag and a sweater with a middle finger printed on top of a Confederate flag. In between attempts to rile up KKK members, he chastised the disproportionate response of local law enforcement officers, whom he felt protected the white supremacists, something he said wouldn’t have happened for a comparable black group.
“The KKK is like a gang,” Stroman said. “Now, if we said a whole lot of bloods were going to have a rally, all of them would be locked up. But the KKK can come up here and get protected.”
Despite the KKK’s visible presence on Saturday, the group’s national influence has dwindled. Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, estimated that the KKK has fewer than 4,000 members, down from four million at its peak in the 1920s and roughly 40,000 members at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Current Klansmen, he said, are fractured into nearly two-dozen groups, many of whom are odds with one another.
“The Klan today is weak, small and poorly led,” Potok said. “It’s without any real influence in the political mainstream. It’s a far cry from what it was before.”
For some activists like Columbia resident John Holmes, the irony of white supremacists touting the flag, after a month filled with southerners proudly defending its place in their heritage, did not go unnoticed. A descendant of a South Carolina lynching victim, Holmes wore a sign around his neck that said “unarmed black man, don’t miss”. The military veteran said it was important to rally against the KKK because the removal of the Confederate flag was only a small sign of change, especially in a state like South Carolina.
“South Carolina has only been first in one thing: seceding from the United States,” Holmes said, referring to the outbreak of the American civil war in 1861. “They come in last in everything else – minimum wage, education, Medicare. The flag needed to come down first before they could address the other social issues.”
Dr Lonnie Randolph, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) South Carolina chapter, said his organization had a policy of not counter-protesting rallies, in part because the KKK has the “right to protest and the right to be wrong”. Like Holmes, he did not believe race relations had improved – aside from in college athletics. He said the state’s schools remained segregated, lawmakers continued to pass laws hurting African American people, and people still believed in the principles behind the Confederate flag.
“Hate groups are as common as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and racism in America,” Randolph said. “America is still a racist nation. South Carolina is still a racist state … we’re in denial and won’t admit it.”
That tradition of bigotry was on full display on Saturday, as the white supremacists stepped on Israeli flags, chanted slurs and waved their flag. After a heated, hour-long demonstration, protesters from both sides clashed in Columbia’s streets as police escorted the white supremacists back to a parking deck where they had first congregated.
As the protest snaked into the streets, officers wearing tactical gear attempted to keep the opposing activists at arm’s length. The two sides exchanged words and hurled objects ranging from water bottles to metal pipes. One white supremacist crashed into a light pole amid a sea of Klan critics, police arrested at least five activists, and paramedics transported seven people to a local hospital.
As a thunderstorm rolled into town, effectively ending the protests, several Klan opponents burned the scraps of a Confederate flag that had been stolen from one white supremacist.
Jeff Ruediger, a Charlotte resident visiting his girlfriend’s daughter at the University of South Carolina, was among the eager participants who torched the once-proud symbol of the south.
“We should stand up for equality, he said. “The Confederate flag is a symbol of racism. We should remove it.”