JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nearly one year ago, Ken Parker joined hundreds of other white nationalists at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That day, he wore a black shirt with two lightning bolts sewn onto the collar, the uniform of the National Socialist Movement, an American neo-Nazi group.
In the past 12 months, his beliefs and path have been radically changed by the people he has met since the violent clash of white nationalists and counterprotesters led to the death of Heather Heyer, 32.
Now he looks at the shirt he wore that day, laid out in his apartment in Jacksonville, and sees it as a relic from a white nationalist past he has since left behind.
“This is their new patch,” he said, pointing to a symbol sewn to the sleeve. “The old one, they had a swastika on there. They wanted to rebrand themselves to not look as racist, to be more appealing to the alt-right crowd.”
As he lays out more paraphernalia on his living room coffee table, Parker’s cramped apartment starts to look like a museum — not just of the modern hate movement, but of his life for the past six years.
He picks up a green robe from his time as a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, a title he earned by recruiting new members, first in Georgia where he lived after joining the Klan in 2012, and now in Florida.
“I think it cost $170, and I never got eyeholes on my hood,” Parker said as he held up the mask. He later explained why: “I didn't hide behind anything. I stood behind what I believed.”
Parker said he felt the need to be in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, to “stand up for my white race.”
“It was thinly veiled [as an effort] to save our monuments, to save our heritage,” he said about the rally. “But we knew when we went in there that it was gonna turn into a racially heated situation, and it wasn't going to work out good for either side.”
(Footage used is from the Emmy-nominated Fuuse film ‘White Right: Meeting the Enemy’ on Netflix.)
For Parker, the day ended up taking a different path. Hours before Heyer’s death, he and his group of neo-Nazis headed back to the parking garage to regroup after the rally was declared an unlawful assembly.
There, he met a filmmaker, Deeyah Khan, who was filming the event for a documentary on hate groups called “White Right: Meeting the Enemy.”
He recalls Khan’s kindness in a moment of his weakness.
“I pretty much had heat exhaustion after the rally because we like to wear our black uniforms, and I drank a big Red Bull before the event. And I was hurting and she was trying to make sure I was OK,” Parker says.
In the film, Parker is still unabashedly racist, vehemently stating his hatred for Jews and gay people. But as he interacted with Khan more, his proclamations became less certain. Then, over the next few months, he started having doubts.
“She was completely respectful to me and my fiancée the whole time,” he says of Khan. “And so that kind of got me thinking: She’s a really nice lady. Just because she’s got darker skin and believes in a different god than the god I believe in, why am I hating these people?”
A few months later, Parker was still weighing those doubts when he saw an African-American neighbor having a cookout near the pool of his apartment complex. As the sun set and the crowd thinned, Parker and his then-girlfriend approached the man, William McKinnon III, a pastor at All Saints Holiness Church.
Parker didn’t know McKinnon was a pastor at first, but says he knew there was something different about him.
“They sat down,” McKinnon recalls, “and she said they had some questions for me, and I just asked them what were some of the questions that they had.”
They kept talking, then decided to meet up for more discussion. Soon after, McKinnon invited Parker to the church’s Easter service. And on April 17, 2018 — six years after he joined the Klan and just seven months after Charlottesville — Parker decided he’d had enough.
A month after that, he stood before the mostly African-American congregation of his new church and testified.
“I said I was a grand dragon of the KKK, and then the Klan wasn’t hateful enough for me, so I decided to become a Nazi — and a lot of them, their jaws about hit the floor and their eyes got real big,” Parker recalls. “But after the service, not a single one of them had anything negative to say. They’re all coming up and hugging me and shaking my hand, you know, building me up instead of tearing me down.”
From there, the transformation sped up.
On July 21, wearing a different kind of robe, Parker waded into the Atlantic surrounded by members of that same church. McKinnon embraced him, and then dipped his head down into the water to baptize him.
He rose up, blinking and wiping water from his face, then walked toward a line of fellow congregants waiting for a hug.
Then this Monday, Parker took off his shirt at the Laser Skin Solutions tattoo-removal clinic in Jacksonville, revealing a swastika and the Klan symbol. On his left leg is a Confederate flag with the words “white pride” underneath.
The laser treatment was painful, but Parker wasn’t alone. Arno Michaelis, an author and a speaker who used to be part of the notoriously violent skinhead group Hammerskin Nation, was there to lend support. The treatment will take several more months.
“I want to say I’m sorry. I do apologize,” Parker says when asked about all the people he has hurt along the way. “I know I’ve spread hate and discontent through this city immensely — probably made little kids scared to sleep in their own beds in their own neighborhoods.”
The former neo-Nazi says he’s started to get messages from people in the hate movement. But instead of recruiting them, he now tells them to follow the same path he did.
“You can definitely get out of this movement. I mean, I was into that so much — it was my life, for six years. I never thought I would get out,” Parker said. “Get out. You’re throwing your life away.”