A group of 60 robed Ku Klux Klan members and swastika flag bearing members of the National Socialist Movement rallied Saturday, March 30, outside the Shelby County Courthouse.
The protest and a counter protest came with chilly temperatures and a rain that alternated between a mist and a downpour over several hours.
The protest of the renaming of three Confederate-themed parks by the group the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan drew an overwhelming Memphis Police and law enforcement response of an estimated 400 law enforcement officers and a group of counter protestors.
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong estimated the counter protestors, who were kept two blocks away behind a chain link fence, numbered 1,200.
One person among the counter protestors was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, according to Armstrong.
The Klan group was also behind a separate chain link fence around the southern side of the courthouse.
"Our forefathers right now are rolling over in their graves," one of the robed figures said as he talked about the renaming of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, a park named for the first Grand Wizard of the Klan and a Confederate general in the Civil War as well as a slave trader.
Several people in the Klan group spoke for about an hour on a megaphone that apparently had weak batteries.
“It is what it is,” Armstrong said at one point during the Klan rally. “It’s not my fault the batteries ran down.”
The speakers who could be heard punctuated their remarks with "white power" that those in the group responded to with modified and unmodified Nazi salutes.
"We need to have a James Earl Ray day. That's what we need to have," one speaker told the group after referring to the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis by Ray.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton praised Armstrong and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham for the coordinated response and the peaceful outcome. The response included the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, Memphis Fire Department, the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department, Germantown, Bartlett, Millington and Collierville police, the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the U.S. Justice Department.
“We in Memphis and Shelby County and in this region took what could have been the worst of times and turned it into the best of times n terms of showing that we can tolerate dissent even when the voices are voices that we are not pleased with,” Wharton said. “They kept the peace as they said they would.,” he added, referring to Armstrong and Oldham.
Wharton joined Oldham and Armstrong after earlier presiding over an Easter Egg Roll at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The city as well as the Greater Memphis Chamber and the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau organized the “Heart of Memphis” event as an alternative to the Klan rally. It included live entertainment and food trucks.
The Fairgrounds also hosted a “People’s Conference on Race and Equality” put together by the group Memphis United also as an alternative to the counter demonstrations.
Wharton and Armstrong contrasted the peaceful protest to a protest on the Courthouse steps 15 years ago by another Klan group. That protest ended with police dispersing counter demonstrators with tear gas and nightsticks and shattered windows at several nearby businesses.
“Downtown is a very complex area to secure. You look at the size of the area that we had to secure and you look at what happened in ’98 – we learned from that – allowing protestors to be in such close proximity of each other,” Armstrong said. “We looked at this thing and turned it every which way we could to try to accommodate everybody. The plan that we came up with was the most efficient plan. You see the results of it. There are no injuries. There is no property damage.”