As proposals to ban the Confederate flag gain momentum across the South in the wake of the Charleston church massacre, a civil-rights group is warning that white supremacists will try to exploit any backlash as a recruitment tool.
Officials at the Southern Poverty Law Center say fringe groups are framing the removal of the flag as "cultural genocide."
"There’s no question that organized white supremacy right now is using the battle flag as a rallying cry for their views," said Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director for the center.
Neo-Confederate and white-pride groups say the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage and a memorial to Civil War dead — not a symbol of the racist views of Dylann Roof, the white gunman who killed nine black church members last week.
Loud calls to take down the flag from the South Carolina capital and from other government-sponsored locations has opponents planning rallies and mulling boycotts.
On a forum run by the white-supremacist group Stormfront, members are chatting about buying flag stickers in bulk and slapping them up at their local Walmart to protest the retail giant's decision to stop selling Confederate merchandise.
"I say boycott Walmart or any other business which refuses to sell Confederate Flags, which are simply a part of American and Southern history and heritage," one forum member wrote.
A Facebook page run by Defenders of the Confederate Cross has invited hundreds of people to attend a Saturday protest at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia.
"Lets make our stand and show overwhelming support to keep the flag were it is or place it back on top of the dome!" says the invitation. At mid-morning, 42 people had replied that they would attend.
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The League of the South, which is pushing for secession, is also planning a protest in Columbia this weekend, though it has not announced details.
"I would like to see several thousand people," said Pat Hines, head of the group's South Carolina chapter.
"Obviously, the politicians are rushing to get the law changed while everyone is excited about the deaths of these people," Hines added, referring to the church massacre.
"I don't see the connection," he said. "We certainly didn't advocate the murders of random people like that."
Michael German, who infiltrated white supremacist groups during a 16-year FBI career, said the organizations should not be underestimated.
"White supremacist groups are recruiters so they’re constantly going out trying to seek new people, trying to spread their message. And they can do that," he said.
"They have radio shows, they have internet shows, they have rock bands that tour around the United States. So this is an ideology that has been around for a long time."
Beirich said some defenders of the flag could be riled up enough to get sucked into the white-supremacy culture.
"It is entirely possible that people who are maybe a couple steps into racist thinking will see the battle flag coming under attack and believe that they should be activists in support of a pro-South view, which frankly is a pro-white view when it comes to the battle flag," she said.