COLUMBIA, S.C. — On a boiling weekday afternoon on the outskirts of Atlanta, the Ku Klux Klan hunted white people in a turquoise convertible.
Roy Pemberton, 62, a Klansman who prominently wore the group’s so-called “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 middle-aged white men, handing them two business cards with the group’s hotline number. “Racial Purity is America’s Security!” one said.
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, which was taken down in an effort spearheaded by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
The New Black Panther Party showed up earlier in the day to protest, on the north side of the statehouse. 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. A man wearing a Confederate flag vest was slugged in the head, and a skirmish erupted. Police could be seen breaking up other fights, detaining people and hauling them away. One group seized a Confederate flag and sought to set it on fire before police intervened.
The Klan rally, which ended around 4 p.m., featured no speakers but chants of “White power!” from the approximately 100 who attended. Law enforcement officials estimated that about 2,000 people were present at the peak of the rallies. Five were arrested and there were 23 calls for emergency services, according to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety.
Saturday’s event followed a swift reckoning for the Confederate flag that began soon after photos surfaced of Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof, who is white, showing him displaying the banner long associated with racial hate groups such as the Klan. Roof, an apparently self-radicalized loner who grew up in and around South Carolina’s racially diverse capital city, is accused of fatally shooting 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 figures from the Confederate side of the Civil War.
The swift, seemingly overnight, 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 state in the 1990s, said he turned during his lifetime from a so-called “genteel segregationist” into an ardent civil rights activist.
“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 across the country, 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 only hurts the flag’s cause. As a group responsible for the rape and murder of minorities throughout the 20th century, the white supremacist group endorsement of the banner lends credibility to opponents of the flag who call it anachronistic and a symbol of hate.
Pemberton, the Klan member, is bespectacled and stout with one long tooth on the left 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 — now racked with pain from arthritis and other maladies — spends nearly every day he can seeking out recruits for his Klan chapter, the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights. He lives off his girlfriend’s $600 a month Social Security check, and, fed by a steady diet of FOX News, resents what he views as African Americans’ vaunted social status and ability to get away with crimes against white people.
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 nunchucks.
“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.”
The modern Klan poses little real threat, Potok said. Those who analyze the influence of white supremacists worry more about violence from people such as Roof — the so-called lone wolves.
“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.
The Klan is about 4,000 members strong — down from a high of 4 million during the 1920s — with 23 chapters nationwide.
Even on Pemberton’s whirlwind Klan recruiting tour, the signs of the new South were everywhere. Groups of black and white teens hung out. Interracial couples — for which Pemberton saved his most hateful invective — 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 — than one might have expected in a new South.
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. But then there were those such as Sam Taylor, 63, who sat in a run-down RV in a Home Depot parking lot chain-smoking cigarettes.
“I have nothing against it, man,” he said of the Klan’s message. “All they do is put white people down.”