By Greg Lacour
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - At least five people were arrested on Saturday as white-supremacist and African-American groups clashed outside the South Carolina State House, where the Confederate battle flag was removed last week after a half-century, authorities said.
Beginning at noon, a Florida-based group called Black Educators for Justice demonstrated on the north side of the capitol. Tensions rose quickly when a column of about 50 white supremacists, many carrying Confederate flags and one a Nazi flag, marched toward the south steps of the capitol at 3:15 p.m.
Lines of state police separated them from a large crowd that jeered and booed. When the group reached the State House lawn, a scuffle broke out, and police moved in quickly to keep the fight from spreading.
While no further violence broke out, the atmosphere, on a day when temperatures neared 100 degrees, remained tense. Several times, police had to separate people shouting obscenities at one another.
Ambulances took seven people to hospitals, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety said in a statement that provided no information on the severity of the injuries. No police officers were hurt, it said.
Racial and cultural tensions have peaked in South Carolina since the shootings last month of nine African-Americans in a historic Charleston church. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man charged in the killings, appeared to have been heavily influenced by such symbols as the Confederate battle flag.
Before the rally, a North Carolina-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan announced that it would demonstrate outside the capitol. But the group that occupied the south side steps, shouting “white power,” carried the banner of a Detroit-based group called the National Socialist Movement Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says is “the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi group in the United States.”
The crowd reached about 2,000 people at its peak, said Lieutenant Kelley Hughes of the state Department of Public Safety. Hughes said in late afternoon that authorities were still compiling information about the arrests, charges and injuries.
The Confederate battle flag has been a flashpoint for racial tensions for decades. Its supporters say it is a symbol of Southern heritage, while opponents argue the banner represents slavery and racism. This month, the state legislature voted to remove the flag from the State House grounds, where it had flown since 1961.
In Richmond, Virginia, more than 100 members of Confederate heritage groups converged on the state capitol grounds to blast efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag out of what they say is "political correctness."
“We’re sick and tired of the PC attacks to eradicate our heritage,” said Susan Hathaway, a founder of the Virginia Flaggers, a group known for erecting massive Confederate flags on Interstate highways in Virginia.
The flag’s meaning was a main topic of conversation - and argument - during the Columbia rallies as well.
Ray Johnson, a 55-year-old white man, waved the Confederate flag during the Black Educators rally and found himself in a heated discussion with Mike Scarborough, a 37-year-old black man.
“It’s a tribute to the people, women, children and animals who died for that cause, whether that cause was right or wrong. And I’ve already told you I think it was wrong,” Johnson told Scarborough.
Afterward, Scarborough said he thinks Johnson is sincere but misguided. “My point to him was, it’s not like you’re carrying photos of the soldiers who died or of a cemetery. You have a symbol of the whole system,” Scarborough said. “You can’t separate the two.”
(Additional reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond, Virginia; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)