NAHUNTA, Ga. - Cheers and jeers greeted 48 Ku Klux Klan members who rode into Nahunta today for a rally focusing mostly on undocumented immigrants.
The tense but non-violent event drew a mostly supportive crowd of at least 500, in addition to a major police presence and several dozen protestors nearby. Many in the crowd waved Confederate flags and held children, applauding and shouting "white power" during the two-hour gathering held by the Knight Riders, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
"We are here to tell you wake up Georgia and stop the Latino invasion now," Imperial Wizard Jeff Jones said. "I know plenty of people who are willing to work and would do anything right now."
Many supporters who came out said they wanted to hear what the Klan had to say, which included Jones railing against employers' illegal hiring practices, in addition to his questioning of Mexicans' patriotism toward the U.S. and offering a sprinkling of racial slurs.
He encouraged supporters to vote for new leaders.
"Get rid of the people running this country," he said. "They're running it into the ground."
Protesters shouted "you are causing trouble" and "you are haters" during the rally.
Law enforcement reported no incidents of violence during the event. Before the rally began at noon, Nahunta Mayor Ronnie Jacobs expressed concern about the impact the gathering could have on the city of less than 1,000 residents.
"This is going to leave a bad scar on the city," he said. "A lot of people are taking it bad having them here today."
Jacobs estimated 300 law enforcement officials from surrounding counties, as well as the Georgia State Patrol and the U.S. Department of Justice, were in town to maintain order.
Jacobs said blacks and whites "get along great here" and he had no idea why the Klan chose his town for the rally.
He said City Hall received more than 1,000 calls from as far as California asking for information about the rally. "Some wanted to be part of it," he said.
Gary Moore, chairman of the Appling County NAACP, said he thought more local Klan supporters would have attended, except it would damage their position in their communities.
"You've got a lot of closet people - businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, judges - that aren't going to jeopardize their livelihoods," he said.
He described the Klan's message as propaganda.
"It's a smokescreen to what they believe in their hearts," he said.
Viola Lewis of Hazlehurst described the rally as "a disgrace and shame."
"They're spewing hate," she said. "Everybody here is an immigrant except the Indians."
But supporters had a different perspective.
"They like the Ku Klux Klan around here," said Ronnie Deloach of Blackshear. "It's part of their heritage."
Don Spaulding of Brunswick said the rally was "pretty good."
"They had some good answers for what we wanted to hear," he said. "There are too many illegal Mexicans."
However, Patrick Wells, a member of First Jordan Grace Baptist Missionary Church in Brunswick, was not swayed by the speeches.
"Their message hasn't changed one bit," he said. "It's a message of hate."
Another congregation member, Diamond Thomas, 15, of Brunswick, described Klan members and supporters as ignorant and said she will never attend another rally.
"I was shocked," she said. "I pray for them."
Brantley County Sheriff Robert Thomas said all 18 deputies were on duty to maintain order, but without help from other law enforcement agencies, "violence may have erupted."
"I think things went pretty good," he said. "Without the other counties the crowd would have done what they wanted to do. I've lived here all my life and never seen anything like this."