'Lonely,' KKK rally points to Klan's dwindling influence, say experts

South Carolina Governor Haley urged residents to avoid the Capitol on Saturday, when KKK and black rights groups' rallies will overlap. 

Johnny Milano/Reuters
Members of the Rebel Brigade Knights and the Nordic Order Knights, groups that both claim affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, gather for a group photograph in front of a lit cross after a cross lighting ceremony at a private residence in Henry County, Virginia, October 11, 2014.

Gov. Nikki Haley has urged residents to steer clear of the Ku Klux Klan rally set for Saturday afternoon at the steps of the South Carolina State House: "We want to make the Statehouse a very lonely place for them."

The Columbia City Council held an emergency meeting Thursday evening. Citing concern over potential violence, it passed a month-long weapons ban applicable within 250 feet of the State House, a regulation that is practically unheard of in the right to carry state.

Heightening officials’ concerns, the KKK rally will overlap with a rally hosted by several black rights groups, including a Black Panther-affiliated group from Florida.

The gun ban is in response to "planned demonstrations in the next few weeks by groups which are identified as 'hate groups' by the Southern Poverty Law Center, including the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party," according to the Council, as well as social media reports saying that protestors would be armed, according to local news.

The Loyal White Knights, a North Carolina chapter of the KKK, is protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag, which was taken down last week after legislators voted to remove it and relocate it to a museum following public outcry over the Civil War symbol.

In its application to hold the rally on Capitol grounds, the White Knights estimated between 100 to 200 attendees, according to NBC News, which is little more than its membership base, according to experts.

"The Klan today is weak, poorly led, divided internally, and without any political support whatsoever, so it is radically different from the Klan of history," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mr. Potok estimated that the Loyal White Knights of Pelham, N.C. – a group that claims to be the “Largest Klan in America” – has fewer than 100 members. He accused them of "simply injecting themselves into the conversation because they know they will get national and even international publicity."

The Klan claims a few thousand active members nationwide, a figure that researchers say is exaggerated, and a huge decline from the 5 million Americans who were chapter members 90 years ago.

The Supreme Court has historically extended First Amendment free speech protections to hate groups. Rulings that have gone against that trend include a landmark case in Ohio during the Civil Rights era, and in New York City, under the Giuliani administration.

Ohio made it illegal to advocate "crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing ... political reform," as well as assembling "with any society, group, or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism," in landmark case Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969.

In 1999, a New York City federal appellate court struck down the Klan’s right to wear their trademark masks at a planned “white pride” rally, ruling that the masks unlawfully afforded members protection against threats of physical and economic retaliation for their views.

[Editor's Note: The original story misidentified the city council.]

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