COLUMBIA, S.C. — A sea of Confederate flags held by screaming Ku Klux Klan members fluttered in front of the South Carolina Statehouse Saturday, just as a counter rally featuring African flags on the other side of the Capitol wrapped up.
The Loyal White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, based in North Carolina, vowed to protest the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse last week — and made good on that promise.
About 50 members descended on the Capitol steps waving the rebel banners — at least one of which included a Nazi symbol — and immediately began shouting racial slurs at attendees of an earlier "Countering the Attack on Black Unity Rally." Those protesters were moved behind barricades, a distance away from the Statehouse steps, where they yelled back at the pro-Confederate flag group.
Within about an hour, everyone was ushered away from the Capitol by dozens of law enforcement officers, many outfitted in bullet-proof vests, helmets and camouflage. At least one physical scuffle broke out, and some people who got a hold of a Confederate flag tore it into several pieces.
About 2,000 people were at the Statehouse at the peak of the two rallies, according to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. The department said five people had been arrested after the KKK members showed up for offenses including disorderly conduct, simple assault and breach of peace. Additional officers were on scene at that time.
No officers were injured, but there were 23 calls for emergency services and seven people were transported by medical personnel, according to the Department of Public Safety. The temperatures rose to the high nineties in Columbia Saturday afternoon.
The earlier rally, including members of Black Lawyers for Justice and Black Educators for Justice, a Florida organization with links to the New Black Panther Party, began with about 200 people gathered around a podium and responding to passionate speakers shouting, "Black power!"
Justice Coats said she came to communicate a message about the Confederate flag. “Equality is more important than a symbol of hate," she said.
But Stan Stones, a Baptist minister, said he came to defend the flag but made clear that he does not support the KKK or their beliefs. The KKK “hijacked it in the mid-1950s, and they made it a symbol of hate. And Southern heritage has nothing to do with hate — it has to do with honoring those who fought,” he said.
A spotlight was cast on South Carolina after nine parishioners of a historic black church in Charleston were gunned down last month by a man espousing white supremacist ideologies. The gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, had also taken photos posing with the Confederate flag.
A debate raged over whether to take down the rebel banner from the Statehouse in response to the massacre, and lawmakers finally had it removed on July 10.
Many in South Carolina had urged residents to stay away from the conflicting demonstrations in Columbia that are drawing scores of protesters from out of state — from Georgia to New York.
Gov. Nikki Haley asked in a statement Friday night for people to avoid the Capitol on Saturday.
"Our family hopes the people of South Carolina will join us in staying away from the disruptive, hateful spectacle members of the Ku Klux Klan hope to create over the weekend and instead focus on what brings us together," Haley wrote. "We want to make the Statehouse a lonely place for them."
In response to Haley’s request, pastors from several local churches rescheduled a prayer rally that was set to take place on Saturday afternoon. The prayer gathering will now take place on Sunday in the same area where the KKK is expected to gather Saturday. “We are looking forward to redeeming that spot with an opening prayer of cleansing,” said a post on a Facebook page for the prayer rally that about 50 people had RSVP’d to.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin used the hashtag #IgnoreThem on Twitter to play down the rallies.
Some still showed up to observe the dueling protests. Susan Leighton brought her children down to witness what she said was a historical moment. “A lot more work needs to be done and real social change toward racial equality and a lot of reparation needs to take place, and I think if you don't see it and experience some things, you don't get the same message," she said.
An editorial in the Columbia newspaper The State also encouraged people to stay away from not only the KKK rally, but also the preceding "Black Unity Rally."
"Frankly, we don’t need help from members of any outside groups — and certainly not these sorts of groups," the editorial said, pointing out that the New Black Panther Party is classified as "racist and anti-Semitic" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Don’t show up to gawk, and certainly don’t show up to demonstrate how much you oppose the ugly, angry racism on display," the editorial said. "Just stay away."
Craig Stanley reported from South Carolina. Elisha Fieldstadt reported from New York.
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.