The Ku Klux Klan, as it turned out, didn't show up. But Leo did.
Leo, who lives in Michigan and didn't want me to use his real name, retired from the Army last year after spending nearly a decade performing psychological operations (propaganda, basically) in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was aghast when Donald Trump won the White House—"After spending so much time overseas 'defending freedom,' seeing Trump get elected actually hurt," he told me—and outraged when a branch of the KKK scheduled a "Victory Klavalkade Klan Parade" for December 3 in Pelham, North Carolina.
"This parade is a perfect example of why Trump is so dangerous," Leo told me. "He courted the extreme elements of the right wing and got them to essentially run his propaganda machine. He knew what he was doing, and the KKK rightfully assumes they have his support."
Leo is in his mid 30s, and was dressed in all black with patches sewn into the forearms of his hoodie and a "Veterans for Peace" patch affixed to his denim vest. He had driven through the night to make it to Pelham in time for the parade, and still hadn't slept, but seemed little the worse for wear.
We were at a rest area in Pelham where various anti-KKK demonstrators were meeting in anticipation of the parade's anticipated 9 AM start time. The Klan's intention was to drive from Pelham across the Virginia border into nearby Danville, the the final capital of the Confederacy.
The 150 or so activists who had showed up were a mixed group. Many, like Marcy Freed of Trinity, North Carolina, had come because they hated the idea of the KKK staging a demonstration in their home state. Freed said she's been attending protests since 1963, when her mother took her to march for civil rights. When the Klan first announced the parade, she told me, "Our local newspaper said, 'Ignore them, they'll go away.' That hasn't worked, ever. Something I learned during the AIDS epidemic is that silence equals death."
There were local organizers for various groups as well as out-of-towners. Some protesters dressed in black, or obscured their faces with bandanas and T-shirts, while others didn't. Some were peaceful protesters, while others were antifas—or anti-fascists—and had shown up ready to fight, either with baseball bats or just their bare fists.
As 9 AM came and went, the Klan communicated to a reporter from the Times-News of Burlington that they would be pushing the parade back to later that afternoon due to a "snafu." (It was later reported by the Times-News that the night before, three KKK members had gotten into a fight that turned into a stabbing.) A rumor began circulating that members of the Aryan Nation had shown up posing as reporters and had tipped the Klan off to the counter-protest, and the group soon became distrustful of the gaggle of camera crews and reporters at the scene. I watched as one man with a camera walked through the crowd asking, "Anybody wanna do an interview?" only to have nearby protesters turn away. In need of quotes, some reporters tried interviewing one another.
With tensions rising, many protesters grew restless. One activist started asking around for people to donate their cars for a potential roadblock to cut the Klan off whenever they showed. Others took to marching in a nearby frontage road.
For years, the KKK has been a marginal group on the outer fringe of American politics. But Fitz Brundage, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has written extensively on Southern history after the Civil War, told me that he sees parallels between the alt-right and white nationalist movements that have embraced Trump and the iteration of the Klan that rose to prominence in the 1910s and 1920s. "That KKK was all about what they called 'Americanism' and was very socially acceptable in many communities, especially smaller ones," he told me. "They were worried that the true American character and identity had been watered down by immigration, liberal values, and liberal religious beliefs." These Klansmen were anti-black, but also anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, possessed of an all-purpose white rage.
"When you have economic decline alongside a broad and dynamic civil rights movement, it becomes very easy for people to think their economic disenfranchisement comes at the hands of minorities," said David Cunningham, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote a book on the KKK in North Carolina.
Brundage told me that as the KKK has been marginalized and other extremist groups have co-opted its original rhetoric, it has turned into something of a relic. "They've instituted these theatrical performances of white victimhood. They'll hold a rally, and there'll be ten Klansmen and 50 anti-Klan activists shouting at them."
Or in this case, no Klansman and several dozen anti-Klanners with nothing to do.
While the protesters waited around for a Klan parade that was looking increasingly unlikely, a small group of aging white people in downtown Danville stood outside the building where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived during the final week of the Civil War, waving Confederate flags as drivers honked and waved back.
"We've been here every Saturday since March 5. This is our 41st Saturday in a row," said Wayne Byrd, who is the president of Danville's Heritage Preservation Association, the group staging the demonstration. In August 2015, Danville made flying the Confederate flag on city property illegal, prompting the HPA to file a lawsuit against the city as another group called the Virginia Flaggers raised a 30-by-50-foot flag just outside town in protest.
Sporting a gray hooded sweatshirt with his organization's logo embroidered on the chest, a red baseball cap, and a bushy, faded blond beard, Byrd seemed genial enough, even if you take issue with his reading of the Civil War. "The way we see it," he told me, "blacks and whites got together in 1861 and fought the federal government for states' rights. The government don't want black and white people to come together again, so they keep us agitated through racism."
When I asked him how advocating for a flag that many people see as a racist symbol would actually help combat racism, Byrd grew defensive. "You've got your racists in all your races. I would consider Black Lives Matter and the NAACP"—he paused, shifting into PR mode—"some might consider them and their ideals to be racist, just like they would the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation."
Though Byrd disavowed having any affiliation with the Klan and said he hadn't heard anything about a KKK parade coming through Danville, the linkage between the Confederacy and the Klan are pretty undeniable. One of Byrd's associates sported a jean jacket with a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest—a former Confederate general who went on to serve as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK—lovingly airbrushed on the back.
For the protesters, the day began to take on a surreal bent: Spurred on by one rumor or another regarding the Klan's supposed whereabouts, they drove from Pelham to Danville, then from Danville to Pelham. "If this is an elaborate 4chan prank," I overheard someone moan, "I'm going to kill someone."
Despite the mounting frustration, some in the group considered the Klan's no-show a resounding success. "They're used to being able to do whatever they want in any little town in North Carolina," a protester wearing all black told me, "and if they can't have march in their hometown without maybe a hundred people showing up to beat their asses, then I call that a resounding success on our end."
Ultimately, the group decided to go back again to Danville, where they staged an impromptu anti-KKK march through downtown. Not long after they began walking through the streets blocking traffic, police started following the group, sirens blaring. Over a loudspeaker, an officer told the marchers they had ten minutes to vacate. Ten minutes later, the protesters hadn't moved. More cops joined the procession, but despite their warnings, they did little to intervene. As the demonstrators moved from block to block, some of the town's African American residents cheered them on, while others joined in.
Danville's white residents, meanwhile, were less supportive. A white guy in running tights offered some constructive criticism to the cops, screaming out, "Put 'em in jail, put 'em all in jail!" Another came out of his house to film the march on his phone, grumbling, "They're scared to show their faces."
It turns out that despite all that, the KKK did manage to hold a parade after all. Shortly after the demonstration in Danville, news surfaced that a short procession of cars flying Confederate flags had driven through Roxboro, a small town in North Carolina about 35 miles away from Pelham. In one video, a man can be heard yelling "white power" as he drives.
So did the KKK get what it wanted? Did the anti-KKK crowd? "Now that the dust is starting to settle, I think most folks feel yesterday went pretty well," said Greg Williams, an organizer with the local chapter of International Workers of the World who helped coordinate the protest. Though he's under no illusions that one event can banish something as long-lasting as the Klan, he felt the events of the weekend showed that "they're clearly on their heels." He added, "I think we need to be concerned about other white supremacist groups—we need to come down hard on them immediately and unconditionally."
All photos by Nolan Allan
Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.