White power rallies come to Georgia

Updated April 21, 2016
A Confederate flag waves at the base of the mountain after a pro-flag rally at Stone Mountain Park on Saturday, August 1, 2015, in Stone Mountain. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Not one, but two white supremacist rallies will occur in north Georgia Saturday, a disturbing double-echo of the state’s divisive past. The day is expected to include Confederate flags waving at Stone Mountain and Klansmen marching with neo-Nazis in Rome.

Afterward, the groups are planning to gather for a private party featuring a cross burning.

Authorities are beefing up security for a rally called Rock Stone Mountain, which will transform a corner of the family-friendly park in DeKalb County into a celebration of white power. Aiming to appear more mainstream, organizers say they will avoid Klan robes and other garb at the event, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the parking lot near the park police station.

Park officials are aware the rally reflects the troubled past of a site where the modern Klan was born a century ago, but said the group has a right to assemble. The permit says they expect anywhere from 200 to 2,000 people.

“We wish this wasn’t happening. We tried to find a way to stop it, but couldn’t,” said park police spokesman John Bankhead. “We just want them to have an uneventful and peaceful event.”

The Stone Mountain rally is striking for the surprising cast of counter-protesters who say they oppose the white-power event. One group includes Confederate flag supporters, an integrated biker group and some militia members, all who say they are distancing themselves from the rally’s message of hate. They will gather on the big lawn under the mountain carving of Confederate war leaders.

Another group protesting the white power rally is composed of left-leaning groups, students, anti-fascist organizations and labor groups, all under the umbrella name of All Out ATL. They will be at Confederate Hall, near the base of the walking trail up the mountain.

Without offering numbers, Bankhead said park police will be out in force, accompanied by representatives of the GBI, Georgia State Patrol, Corrections Department and DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. He said those rallying and the counter-protesters would be spread throughout the park so “they can’t even see each other.”

Some 60 miles away in Rome, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement will hold its annual national gathering, where they will march in their black uniforms — joined by Klansmen and Skinheads in their own garb — down a main street.

The confluence of events marks an extraordinary moment for the white power movement, and for Georgia. Organizers say it is rare for two events to occur simultaneously in the same area. Moreover, the rallies have brazenly advertised their racial agenda, something of a change from times when they rallied under the auspices of, for instance, saving some Confederate symbol. This agenda has bonded some of the most extreme groups but caused divisions with others.

For Georgia, Saturday could be a bad moment in the national spotlight, a step backwards towards a history of hate and oppression, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“This plays into the notion that the South has not changed,” he said. “It’s a throwback.”

For those who fought the civil rights battles a half century ago, the prospect of two such rallies is especially painful.

“It makes me sad, really. It is troublesome,” said civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis. “People will be questioning what is going on in Georgia, and why.”

Lewis does not expect any repercussions on the scale of companies pulling out their business or entertainers refusing to perform in North Carolina and Mississippi after those states adopted laws some perceived as discriminatory.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday’s rallies.

Lewis said Georgia’s leaders have a moral responsibility to speak out against such events.

The white-power rallies are timed to coincide with Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Adolf Hitler. John Estes, an organizer of the pro-white rally at Stone Mountain, said his group is not spreading hate.

“This is all about love and concern for the white race,” Estes said. “This is about saving our white race. We’re attacked on every side.”

There have been a handful of rallies there in the past year, as activity heated up following the Charleston shooting of nine church members by an avowed racist, and a proposal to place a memorial on the mountain to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This time, the white-power group’s openly racial agenda has driven away some Confederate flag supporters who say their own cause is “heritage not hate.” They’ve come to resent white power groups using the symbol of the Confederate flag, said Steve Panther, a Michigan-based supporter of Confederate heritage who is one of the organizers of a counter-protest group.

Meanwhile, organizers say the Rome rally represents a coming together of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Aryan Nations after years of disagreement.

In a sign of the growing sophistication of such groups, the National Socialist Movement issued several press releases. They asserted they will send a strong message against the enemies of free speech and what they see as the forces threatening the American way of life.

“Your time has ended, and we are on the rise!” a press release said.