White Supremacy at Stone Mountain: 2016 edition

A Pro-White protester at Stone Mountain this weekend. Photo by Maura Friedman.

The Confederate flag is the size of a beach towel. It's limp on the pole in his hand as the man leans forward on the fence.

"We're behind bars, can you believe it?" he laughs.

Roughly two dozen "pro-White" demonstrators stood in clumps and waved Confederate flags in a gated area at the edge of a wide, empty parking lot on Saturday at Stone Mountain Park outside Atlanta, Georgia. Three hundred yards across the tar, hundreds of anti-racist counter protesters chanted and linked arms. Both groups were surrounded and kept separate by police in riot gear.

"I think about the Civil Rights Movement and wonder what I would have done, but this is it." Jules Purnell, a protest medic who traveled from Philadelphia to counter the "pro-White" rally, said.

John Estes, an established White supremacist organizer who spearheaded the "Rock Stone Mountain" rally, said the intent of the group gathered was to demonstrate against the removal of Confederate symbols "important to White heritage," saying it was the first step to "the genocide of the White race."

Stone Mountain is home to a "Confederate memorial carving" larger than Mount Rushmore depicting Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and was the site of the 1915 rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The city now has a predominantly Black population and a majority Black police presence turned out to separate the permitted "pro-White" rally from anti-racist dissenters.

"This caps off a year of a cultural war over if it's appropriate to display Confederate cultural symbols and if they should be contextualized," Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said. As that culture war has raged, the narrow distinction between groups that advocate for the flag as a symbol of heritage, and those who openly wave it in the name of White supremacy, has all but disappeared.


Mainstream concerns about the message behind the Confederate flag were revitalized in June after White supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black parishioners in the midst of bible study at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Shortly after the deadly attack, photos of Roof brandishing a gun and a Confederate flag surfaced online.

The Confederacy's roots in White supremacy are clear to history scholars, according to the SPLC. “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, said in his "Cornerstone Speech." Roof's photo, coupled with his 2,000 word White supremacist manifesto, seemed to turn the tide of public opinion.

Under mounting public pressure, South Carolina passed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from its State House. Virginia removed the flag from its license plates and major corporations like eBay and Amazon banned Confederate flag sales on their websites.

Still, some maintained that the Confederate flag could be interpreted to represent Southern pride, and the backlash against its removal was swift. More than 350 Confederate flag rallies have been held since the Charleston shooting, according to the SPLC.

Many participants in those protests insisted their affinity for the Confederate flag was about "heritage not hate," but White supremacists, and their rhetoric, cropped up at numerous pro-flag events. William Flowers, a leader of the hate group The League of the South, spoke at two such rallies, including one at the Alabama capitol building.

"To me, the distinction becomes pretty arbitrary when you have hate group leaders on state house steps giving speeches," Hankes said.

And "pro-White" leaders agree.

"There's no separation between heritage and race," Estes said. "Heritage comes from within, it doesn't come from culture."

Estes calls attempts to tie the Confederate flag to Southern heritage rather than race "ignorant" and "a tired tactic."

And this escalated message sometimes does hit its mark at flag rallies. At least one man's path to Stone Mountain started at one.

"He went nuts when Walmart pulled the flag, he protested that," one rally observer said of his brother, who was actively participating in the "pro-White" rally and waving a large Confederate flag. The brother, inspired in part by his father's avid Civil War reenacting, began traveling to support pro-Confederate flag rallies all across the United States.

The observer, who wanted to be unnamed because he is a state employee, said he wouldn't have labeled his brother a White supremacist before witnessing Saturday's rally.

"My whole family was happy he was passionate about something, but now it's gone too far," said the observer, who, along with his family, disavowed his brother’s views. He's beginning to question how and why his brother, who has a biracial son, was "radicalized," but says the questions are too painful to ask.

"I agree with that side," he said, pointing at the counter protest across the parking lot. The group was now chanting "Black and Brown, won't stand down."

His brother's new Confederate flag tattoo seems like a permanent brand for the opposite side.

Before the current Confederate symbol debate, there were two major periods of Confederate pride and monument and symbol dedication – immediately following the Civil War and during the civil rights movement, according to data collected by the SPLC.

During that second resurgence of loyalty to Confederate symbols, the Confederate flag was deployed by racists as they fought peaceful lunch counter sit-ins with physical blows, lawful school integration with thrown rocks and Black freedom with lynching.

“I think that there is a genuine misunderstanding that the flag represents a Southern distinction, but at the end of the day you need to take the full representation of something,” Nelini Stamp, a member of the anti-racist group Rise Up Georgia, said.

Membership in traditional radical right groups swelled again in America after Obama's 2008 election, which coincided with the collapse of the economy. The number of hate groups peaked during Obama's tenure at 1,360 in 2012 compared to a peak number of 171 hate groups during Bush's presidency in 2003, according to tracking by the SPLC.

And although those organized groups have declined in membership in the past two years, SPLC studies show that more extreme right radicals are moving their organizing to anonymous online spaces, including Stormfront, the largest radical forum, which is run by a former Alabama Klan leader and has just shy of 300,000 total registered users.

Anecdotally, hate group researchers say it seems that the past year of Black activism from groups like Black Lives Matter protesting police brutality have visibly spurred the level of vitriol in these forums.


The multi-racial coalition of groups present at the Stone Mountain counter protest, including #BlackLivesMatter, AllOutATL, RiseUp Georgia and Southerners on New Ground, called on the park to stop granting permits to known hate groups. Park officials say they wish they could.

"We don't want these things to happen anymore here. We've had enough of this, we're sick of it," John Bankhead, a spokesperson for the Stone Mountain Park police, said. "It's a first amendment issue, we tried."

Similar events have tied the hands of authorities at other government-owned parks. The American Renaissance, a White supremacist "think tank" moved its yearly conference to Montgomery Bell State Park in Tennessee after counter groups pressured private spaces like event halls and hotels to cancel AmRen's reservations, according to the SPLC.

Saturday's counter protest at Stone Mountain swung between energetic rallying and tense confrontation. A "Black joy" dance party temporarily blocked toll booths at the park's entrance. Protesters made their way through the woods to avoid police lines and get closer to the "pro-White" rally. Rocks and fireworks were thrown by self-identified anarchists when police blockaded their path.

By the end of the day, nine counter protesters were arrested – eight were charged with refusing to remove their masks on public property – a law originally passed to target hooded Klansmen – and one was charged with aggravated assault.

Counter protest organizers said their efforts were successful in creating an economic impact for Stone Mountain hosting the rally. Park attractions were closed early and its laser show canceled.

Citing low turnout rooted in police presence, the "pro-White" rally dispersed roughly three hours ahead of their permit expiration.

"We were the winners today," one man with the "pro-White" group said as he broke down his sun tent. He took a final glance at the crowd of counter protestors across the way.

"Anywhere where we can leave a mark for our White race, we win," Roy Pemberton, who identified himself as a Grand Dragon in the KKK, responded.

The Stone Mountain rally group planned to join the National Socialist Movement after their separate Confederate Memorial Day event ended for a joint cross burning in Rome, Ga.