ABBEVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) - Leaders of America’s core white supremacist groups have a laundry list of perceived grievances. They say the media ignore black on white crime; that desegregation has led to poorer schools for white students; that white people in the United States have lost power to black people.
And while they don’t condone last week’s shootings of nine black worshipers at a Charleston church, many of the leaders say they understand the motivation behind the attack – and predict more violence to come.
Interviews with half-a-dozen prominent white nationalists reveal a movement that they say has been re-energized by such things as the election of America’s first black president and, more recently, what movement leaders describe as “a siege” against white police officers.
“A lot of the whites in the U.S. are starting to wake up,” Robert Jones, grand dragon of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, said in an interview. White people, he said, are getting “fed up” with the lack of attention paid to crimes against white people by blacks.
But that anger hasn’t translated into membership growth for established hate groups. The Ku Klux Klan today, for instance, is a shadow of the white supremacist force it was in the 1920s, when its numbers peaked at about 6 million members. Today, the Klan has about 2,000 to 3,000 members nationally, with about 72 chapters, known as klaverns, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organisation based in Montgomery, Ala. that monitors extremist groups.
Overall, the number of white nationalist groups identified by the law centre was 518 last year, compared with 736 in 2008. And hate crimes have remained steady over the past decade.
But those numbers may be misleading, the law centre says, noting that the Charleston killings underscore fundamental changes in how the “white power” message is being spread today, with younger adherents shunning group membership in favour of the convenience and anonymity of online forums. One such site, Stormfront, describes itself as “a community of racial realists” and says that its number of registered users has more than doubled since 2008 to 300,000.
Dylann Roof, the man accused of last week’s attack at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, is not known to have joined any of the established hate groups, but a manifesto attributed to him describes how he was radicalised online, learning about “brutal black on white murders” while surfing the website of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens.
Bradley Griffin, a Council board member, called the Charleston attack “horrifying,” And attempted to distance the organisation from the killings. “No one in our group has ever said, ‘Go pick up a gun and shoot random people.’ I don’t know where this guy got that idea from,” he said in an interview.
But he also said he’s sympathetic to Roof’s anger. “If anyone touches a hair on a black person, it’s international news, whereas the most horrific crimes imaginable are inflicted on whites all the time, and I think the media kind of wants to downplay that,” he said. The Council’s website, which has since been taken down, described the group “as the only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights” and warned against “modern Negro thuggery.”
Kyle Rogers, a South Carolina member of the Council since 2001, estimated the group’s membership at 10,000, though he said only a fraction are active. He operates a flag-vending website from his home in leafy Summerville, South Carolina, and his business includes selling patches of the Rhodesian and Apartheid-era South African flags, similar to the ones displayed on a jacket Roof wore in a widely circulated photograph.
“We’re seeing a lot of young people wearing patches like that in the white nationalist world,” said Stephen Piggott, a campaign coordinator at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If you were walking down the street, the average person wouldn’t have a clue what that patch is. But if he was walking down the street wearing a Nazi swastika, it would be completely different.”
Griffin, whose father-in-law founded the Council, frets about the tendency of younger people to keep their separatist beliefs private.
“They hide on the Internet. They don’t organise,” he said. Violence could be avoided, he added, if “people have older men above them to show them discipline like they used to.”
Asked how he formed his views, Griffin pointed to his childhood in Eufaula, Alabama, a short drive from the birthplace of George Wallace, a former Alabama governor who tried to block desegregation at the University of Alabama in 1963.
“The political, the cultural views that I have are not surprising at all considering where I’m from,” he said. “There’s a long history of this.”
Leaders of the white power movement warn that last week’s shootings could presage a rise in violence by disaffected whites who see their world changing in ways they can’t accept.
“I expect that you’re going to see an uptick in those types of attacks,” said Brian Culpepper, a Tennessee chapter leader of the National Socialist Movement, the largest Neo-Nazi organisation in the United States, referring to the shooting in Charleston.
“Open borders is a huge problem,” he said in an interview, causing white people to be displaced by “third worlders,” and generating “resentment among the whites and among the nationalists.”
In South Carolina, white separatists have found particularly fertile territory. The state has the highest per capita number of hate groups in the country, including 14 white nationalist organizations and two chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, according to the law centre.
And the groups don’t necessarily include all of those sympathetic to their principles. Roan Garcia-Quintana said he resigned from the Council of Conservative Citizens because “they were all interested in just complaining,” he said. And he stopped attending meetings of the League of the South, a group that wants “a free and independent Southern republic” to protect its “Anglo-Celtic core population,” because they were “like a history class.”
Once a refugee from Cuba, he now heads a small organisation called “Americans Have Had Enough” founded to combat an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants.
Many African-Americans in the state say that such groups exacerbate racial tensions and help fuel the kind of violence Charleston saw last week.
“It didn’t surprise me,” said Mary Quarles, a black woman who grew up in Abbeville, South Carolina. “We’re in the South and the South is the South.”
She recalled how her great, great grandfather, a sharecropper in Abbeville, was lynched after being accused of disrespecting a white woman, according to the family history.
“It’s just sad that we’re still going through this,” she said.
Tajuana Eddleton, 42, who works in marketing in Richmond Virginia and attended college in Charleston, said she, too, wasn’t surprised by the murders.
“Although that doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful,” she said “Racism is alive and well. It might subside but the undertones are still a reality.”
Writing by Jason Szep in Washington; Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Julia Edwards in Washington and Edward McAllister in Charleston; Editing by Sue Horton