KKK, Black Panthers Clash At South Carolina Statehouse Rallies

Jul 19, 2015
Originally published on July 20, 2015 2:30 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Confederate battle flag no longer flies over the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. But yesterday, members of the Ku Klux Klan made good on their promise to protest its recent removal by state legislators. Some 50 people converged on the Capitol steps waving the rebel flag. As Sarah McCammon reports from Columbia, the Klan was far outnumbered by those who opposed their message.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: There were no hoods or robes or burning crosses. But there were flags. A few dozen Klan members descended on South Carolina's Statehouse holding Confederate battle flags and at least one banner with a Nazi swastika.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MCCAMMON: It didn't take long for the crowd of hundreds of onlookers to let the Klan know they weren't welcome. Chanting the names of black men killed in the hands of police, counter protesters told the clan to go home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting)Walter Scott, Mike Brown - shut this racist rally down.

MCCAMMON: Police set up barricades to separate the Klan members from the crowd. Organizers of the rally didn't show up for an interview we'd scheduled beforehand. But one leader, California Grand Dragon Will Quigg, told me last week by phone that the rally was in support of white civil rights and the Confederate flag. Earlier in the day, black activists, including the chairman of the New Black Panther Party, led a counter protest on the north steps of the Statehouse, not far from where the flag had stood.

DUSTIN BYRD: I don't think the Black Panthers should be here. I don't think the KKK should be here. But I think the flag should be up.

MCCAMMON: That's Dustin Byrd of Kershaw, S.C. He said he sees the flag as a symbol of his Southern heritage.

BYRD: My family's been poor their whole life. They've been sharecroppers their whole life. And I know they didn't fight for it for slavery. I mean, that's what I've got to say about it.

MCCAMMON: What about the fact that it does offend - deeply offend - many African-Americans?

BYRD: They going to have to get over it. I mean, this flag represents our state branched off from the great nation of America and became its own.

MCCAMMON: What the flag does or does not stand for was a major theme of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Chanting) Death to white supremacy.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black power.

MCCAMMON: At the Black Unity Rally, James Evans Muhammad of the Florida-based Black Educators for Justice said he advocates peace but believes that whites who want to work for racial justice should organize separately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES EVANS MUHAMMAD: What you call a battle flag is the result of black people suffering through slavery, through rapes and murders and robbing. And many of you have children in your family as a result of those rapes.

MCCAMMON: Also carrying the Confederate flag was Stephen Johnson of Irmo, S.C. The 28-year-old said he doesn't see it as a racist symbol. And he loves the KKK but hasn't joined them yet.

STEPHEN JOHNSON: Because I never really had a reason to until now. But now there's a reason.

MCCAMMON: And what is that reason?

JOHNSON: To support my heritage and my white race and for my future of my white children.

MCCAMMON: Holding a rally at a time like this is probably part of the KKK's recruitment strategy, says historian Pippa Holloway of Middle Tennessee State University. She says some white people feel their dominance in the culture waning.

PIPPA HOLLOWAY: Some people are frustrated with the way this country's going. And white groups, white supremacist groups, are able to channel some of that frustration and resentment into membership, into numbers and into publicity.

MCCAMMON: With emotions running high, worries about the risk of violent clashes prompted a massive law enforcement presence. At the peak, police say 2,000 people were present between the two rallies. There were several small fights and at least five arrests. Officers cut the Klan rally short by about an hour in an effort to prevent anything worse. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.