Inside a Confederate Rally in Memphis, From Morning Cigarettes to Evening Beers

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The first participants of the Dixie Freedom Ride arrived just after 9 am on a bitterly cold Saturday in the parking lot of a Walmart SuperCenter in Southaven, Mississippi. A mix of pick-up trucks and sedans flying the Confederate Battle Flag began to trickle in. In a few minutes, the manager of the Walmart, flanked by multiple police officers, would ask them to leave. (“It’s private property,” he’d say.) But at 10:30 am, a group of about 15 Dixie Freedom Riders were still huddled in a circle, puffing on cigarettes and preparing to drive a few miles north to Memphis, where they would protest what they considered the illegal removal of two Confederate monuments.

Last month, the Memphis city council voted in favor of transferring ownership of two public parks to a recently formed non-profit organization called Greenspace, Inc, who bought them for $1,000 each. Within hours of the vote on December 20, the city had removed statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general (and early Ku Klux Klan member) Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In the wake of the controversy, a Facebook group calling itself Confederate 901 put out a call for protesters to meet in Memphis on January 6. But after missing the city’s deadline to apply for a protest permit, Confederate 901 decided instead to caravan through Memphis and display Confederate flags from their vehicles.

“We’re hoping to bring the African-American community and the white community—you know, all communities together as one,” said Confederate supporter Renee Land as she waited in the Walmart parking lot Saturday morning. “We don’t want our history removed. If you’re going to remove that statue, then let’s just go all over entire United States to remove every statue we have.”

Billy Sessions, a Confederate activist and an organizer of the Memphis protest, also disavowed any association with white nationalist groups.

“The Confederacy, the history has been twisted on that, but we’re all Southerners,” Sessions said later. “No matter what color you are, we’re all Southerners. It’s not about racism. It might have been about racism hundreds of years ago when the slave ships come across the Atlantic, but it’s not anymore. The white supremacists have hijacked the Confederate flag and it has been seen as a symbol of hate, but it never intentionally was.”

Billy Roper of The Shield Wall Network, who also showed up in Memphis that day, has a different view. Roper is a self-proclaimed white nationalist who the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “the uncensored voice of violent neo-Nazism.” Roper is known for his unabashed use of racist, anti-Semitic language and violent rhetoric, at times suggesting that genocide and eugenics should be considered as potential tools to create an all-white ethno-state within the borders of United States. “Ethnic cleansing is no new concept,” he said during the Memphis protest. “It’s always been human nature.”

The way he saw it, the Shield Wall Network was here to nudge the Confederate activists in the right direction. “My job is to be as extreme as I can be legally,” he said. “My radical flank works to make Confederate 901 more radical and extreme.”

At one point during the day, Billy Roper and a group of about a dozen supporters managed to post up just outside of Health Sciences Park, formerly known as Forrest Park. Once there, they unfurled a banner: “Diversity = White Genocide.”

By 10 am on Saturday, it was clear that the City of Memphis had no intention of turning this protest into another Charlottesville. A quarter-mile perimeter was established around the park with various checkpoints that included metal detectors and an extensive police presence.

The violence some community members feared never materialized as counter-protesters from Take ‘Em Down 901, the NAACP, and other city and civic leaders urged residents not to engage, instead calling for a day of community service.

Tami Sawyer, founder of Take ‘Em Down 901 and political planning chair of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, posted a message to Facebook on Friday evening: “While some will choose to ride around and gather in the name of hatred and white supremacy, we are calling for all Memphis to ‘show up!’ But don’t show up by protesting, counter protesters. Show up by taking this opportunity to show the world that we work together to serve our community.”

By Saturday morning the hashtag #SHOWUPMEMPHIS began to circulate on social media. Sawyer said she drew inspiration from the efforts of Take ‘Em Down NOLA in New Orleans where the city saw the removal of three confederate monuments in May.

“I’d been on the front lines for three or four years and saw no change,” Sawyer said. “I was encouraged to think of a small change that might be able to happen in the short term and I immediately focused on the monuments.”

By 3 pm on Saturday, only a small pocket of anti-racist activists had come and gone. Neither the protesters nor the counter-protesters had the opportunity to lay eyes on one another. The Confederate 901 caravan never drove into the city, opting only to make a continuous loop around the I-240 for two hours before stopping at a rally point to disband outside of the city.

“We did it and it was peaceful,” said Billy Sessions as he sat back in his chair, exhausted and dazed.

Back at a smoky hotel room in Arkansas a few minutes outside Memphis, Sessions, along with members of “patriot” organizations Hiwaymen, the Carolina Defenders, and the leadership of Confederate 901, shared stories over beer.

But the protesters couldn’t completely relax. They’d received a number of threats on social media during the day, they said. A Springfield XD handgun sat on the nightstand, a remnant of the tension earlier that day.

“The night that the statues came down, I was angry,” said George, a Confederate 901 organizer, who didn’t want to give his last name. “I’m a real big history guy and a big fan of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I’ve even been up there to clean the statue and I’ve put flowers on his grave for the past four or five years. I have a great respect for him.”

“I know how inner-city Memphis is,” added James Del Brock, co-founder of the Hiwaymen. “I’ve drove through a lot of it. I’ve drove through it with my motorcycle and battle flag. I’ve always wanted to know, because I’m a white person, how to reach into the inner city without getting shot.”

As they sipped their beers, the protesters signed a Confederate flag. The founder of the Carolina Defenders, who offered his first name, Tom, made a point to note that the signatures were in commemoration, not desecration.

“I can’t sit back and watch it anymore,” Tom said. “There’s a point where every American has to stand up and say, ‘Look, our kids aren’t going to have a future or anything to look forward to if the constitution keeps getting trashed the way it is.”

Overall, though, the mood was hopeful. A man who would only identify himself as Phillip and the founder of Confederate 901 says the group is seeking 501c3 status. They recently received a $10,000 donation from a single donor. “The money is coming in,” he said proudly.

This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.