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This article was written for the September 2015 edition of the Searchlight magazine, published in London UK.  We now re-publish it with permission.

The chain of events began in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, June 17, when 21-year old white nationalist Dylann Roof attended a Bible study session at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.  After an hour, Roof reportedly jumped up and started shooting, going through five clips of ammunition.  Nine died, six women and three men, included the church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who also served as a state senator.  Roof purposely left one woman alive to report his actions and his statement: You rape our women and youre taking over our country and you have to go.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, he was captured by an alert patrolman in North Carolina.  The FBI announced that Roof, who had a small-time criminal record, had purchased his .45 cal. handgun through a hole in the federal gun laws.  It soon became known that Roof had discovered the white nationalist movement through the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens. And they uncovered pictures of the shooter posing before the Confederate battle flag.

The Confederate battle flag immediately became the point of public controversy.  In South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag (actually it’s the battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia) had been flying on the dome of the state capitol building since 1962, when it was erected as a symbol of state resistance to federal desegregation.  The flag had been under constant attack by the NAACP state conference, and it was moved near a state capitol monument in the year 2000, as part of a compromise between civil rights advocates and flag supporters.  Now with the flag showing up as the emblem of the murderous church shooter, South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley called for the flag to be lowered and removed from state grounds. (Haley had been born a Sikh and had converted to her husband’s Christianity, and for a short period was a Tea Party favorite.)

Legislation was introduced to lower the flag, and in a bitter debate state senators and representatives with ties to various Tea Party organizations voted to keep the flag.  It passed both houses, however, and the Confederate flag was taken down amidst demonstrations for and against on July 10. A number of retailers announced that they would no longer sell Confederate flags or emblems.

State restrictions on voting rights stayed in place, however.  No law was passed to end racial profiling by police authorities.  And while Democrats pushed for Medicaid expansion in the state, the Republicans have kept it out, as of this writing.  Nevertheless, the NAACP and other civil rights advocates could claim a partial victory when the flag came down.  According to Klan groups, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the League of the South and other white nationalist groups, however, the lowering of the flag in South Carolina was a loss they could not stand.

The American South is littered with Confederate memorials.  The Daughters of the Confederacy erected statues of Confederate soldiers near the courthouse in every county seat.  In Tennessee, there is a Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, memorializing the Confederate Infantry General and founder of the Ku Klux Klan.  Forrest’s grave and a statue still stand in downtown Memphis, although efforts have begun to remove both.  In Stone Mountain, Georgia, a large rendering of Confederate generals was carved into the hillside.  The same officers and more are situated as large statues in downtown Richmond, Virginia.  And other monuments, statues and memorials to white supremacy and the Confederacy are scattered everywhere. They have been the bane of every anti-racist for generations.  Now a public battle over these sites has once again been joined.

Over the July 4th weekend, before the actual vote in the South Carolina legislature, IREHR counted more than 40 “Save the Flag” rallies marshaled in every corner of the southern and border states.  After the vote, on July 12, approximately 5,000 people in 2,000 vehicles from across central Florida gather in Ocala for a “Southern Heritage not Hate” rally for the flag.  As of this writing, these pro-Confederate rallies continue.  One reporter for Huffington Post counted almost 140 rallies set through the month of August.  Most have been organized through Facebook pages.  Almost none have been organized by an identifiable political organization. Almost!

The Loyal White Knights Klan held a rally in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capitol, on Saturday, July 18.  Individuals from the National Socialist Movement joined in. They shouted typical Klan chants like “Racial Purity is America’s Security,” but they did not wear the Klan’s white robes. Instead, they carried a sea of Confederate battle flags, obviously hoping to cash in on the conflict over the flag and recruit new members.  In the end, they were run off the rally site by competing protests by anti-racists.  Whether or not the Loyal White Knights recruited any new members, however, the Confederate flag battle has given a new focus and intensity to white nationalists of every stripe.

A Sudden Change Coming

Since President Obama was first elected in 2009, white nationalists have been without a strategy or a focus for the here and now.  Issues such as desegregation, school busing and affirmative action, which fueled white supremacist organizations in the 1980s, have been decided for the time being.  For a while white nationalists helped build the anti-immigrant movement, which still is motivated by racist ideas.  Little of the militia-style energy that fueled the Minutemen and other border watchers remains, however.  Now that movement is largely in the hands of the Tea Partiers. They also tried to use the issue of “crime,” but violent crime rates have been declining, even while young black men get sent to prison for decades for possessing two joints of marijuana.  They built a ring of think tanks and institutes and websites that focused on the long-term dispossession of white people, but had no organizing strategy for the present.  “Developing white consciousness,” as American Renaissance urged, is for the few and the middle class professional.  The white nationalists have banged against Obama’s presidency, but frankly, that is the Tea Party movement’s issue—and that too is coming to an end as a new election cycle nears.

Now along comes the issue of Confederate flags and monuments.  It has broad—although not universal—appeals among southern white people.  A recent New York Times poll of racial issues showed that 57% of white people in the USA believe that that flag is a symbol of “Southern pride,” rather than racism.  Somehow these white people do not count black people, whose enslavement was defended by troops fighting under this flag, as part of the South.  As such, some might swallow the lies upon which white nationalism exists, if white nationalists develop an aggressive and skilled campaign to attract them.

There is no guarantee that white nationalists will act in a skilled fashion, of course. And there is lots of evidence that the racists will be the nasty brutes that they have always proven to be.  Consider a recent case in the state of Georgia, where a black city council member from Atlanta has been lobbying to add Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Jimmy Carter to the Stone Mountain relief carvings of Confederate Generals.   The population of Stone Mountain is now 75% African American, and the overwhelming majority must regard the carvings as a racist relic.  But the black city council member has been receiving much hate mail, including death threats against him and his family that must be considered significant.  Such racist behavior by the hate mailers is brutish and barbarian, not skilled.

Further, anti-racists of all colors have flocked to the “Black Lives Matter” banner, asserted first in the fight against racist police violence.  And anti-racists are now moving faster on police issues than they have in decades.  Further, the large coalition of 180 progressive groups gathered by the NAACP in North Carolina, under the slogans of Moral Monday demonstrations, have proved themselves a model for others in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.  The model will spread, adding anti-racism to protests about wages, the environment and other issues.

This anti-racist effort will prove broader and more aggressive than in years immediately past.  It will push the white nationalist movement into the dustbin, or it will provoke them to greater aggressiveness.  The conflict over Confederate monuments and flags, combined with the assertiveness of the “Black Lives Matter” campaign will likely result in heightened activity by white nationalists, during the year ahead.   People of good will must continue to protest racist police violence, and they must push ahead the demands of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina.  Plus they must prepare to explicitly push back at the white nationalist activity coming down the pike.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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