James Bessenger and Shakem Amen Akhet had never met in person when they sat down to a couple of cold beers at an Applebee's in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday night. They had chatted over social media for a few months, but face-to-face conversation — that was a big step.
The conversation got off to an awkward start, but both men gradually eased up and settled into a polite rhythm. They disagreed on almost everything, but that was inevitable: Bessenger chairs a Confederate heritage party and Akhet leads a local black nationalist movement.
"We've always been at odds with them," Akhet told NBC News in a phone interview on Tuesday evening, referring to the Confederate group. "Bessenger is one of the most polarizing figures in the city. But we needed to have a discussion."
As the conversation warmed up, the two men found some common ground.
Bessenger cherishes Confederate monuments, such as the Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the Charlottesville furor, but he was "disgusted by the platforms" of some of the neo-Nazi and alt-right groups who violently clashed with activists protesting racism on Saturday. Akhet, for his part, worried that similarly ugly confrontations could come to Charleston, a city already riven with anger and anxiety since the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015.
"We respect each other," Bessenger, the chair of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, told NBC News in a separate phone interview Tuesday night. And so the two men decided to team up on "The Charleston Accord," an agreement to foster dialogue between their communities and encourage peaceful protest.
At a joint news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Bessenger and Akhet stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind a lectern and explained to reporters why two men from across a stark social divide had come together in peace.
"I know this a very awkward scene," Akhet told the reporters. "Never before have you seen these two separate factions standing at one podium."
Bessenger stepped up to the microphones and said Charleston had "every bit of potential to become the next Charlottesville."
"We don't wanna see that," Bessenger said. "I don't want that for anyone on their side. They don't want that for anyone on our side."
The only way to prevent bloodshed in Charleston was to "extend the hand of at least peace," Bessenger said. "Not necessarily friendship," he was quick to add.
"I don't believe that just because I wanna preserve the monuments for what they mean to me and what they mean to our side of the debate, that this gentlemen and I, or our organizations, have to duke it out in the streets to settle that discord," Bessenger told reporters.