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Hate groups climb in SC for 3rd straight year even as Charleston politicians combat them

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Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (copy) (2018 SPLC)

Members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Pelham, N.C., argue with members of the crowd at the South Carolina statehouse on Saturday, July 18, 2015, in Columbia. A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found the number of hate groups both in South Carolina and nationwide is on the rise. The report comes even as lawmakers in the Palmetto State have pushed to condemn hate through legislative channels. File/Staff

The number of hate groups in South Carolina increased for the third consecutive year in 2018, even as some lawmakers — many from the Charleston area — pushed to condemn hate and racism.

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday released its annual "Year in Hate and Extremism" report, which documents the number and types of hate groups operating nationwide. 

The SPLC defines such a group as "an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity." 

The report found 17 active hate and extremist groups operating in South Carolina in 2018, up from 14 recorded here in 2017 and 12 in 2016.

Nationwide, the number of hate groups rose to 1,020 — its highest level in two decades, a 30 percent increase in the past four years.

The Alabama-based civil rights group blamed President Donald Trump, his administration, right-wing media outlets and the spread of hate online for the spike. Invoking the words of former South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford in her assessment, Heidi Beirich, the law center's Intelligence Project director, said, "Trump has unearthed some demons."

"Elected officials have the power to set the tone in this society and when you validate racism, hate ... and antisemitism, you're giving groups the license to engage in that kind of activity," Beirich said.

In South Carolina, however, political leaders at the municipal, state and federal levels have been pushing back against hate with legislative efforts. Nearly all of the politicians leading the charge on these issues either represent or have ties to the Charleston area.

Charleston City Council in November became the first municipality in the state to pass a hate crime ordinance. At the S.C. Statehouse, Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, has pre-filed legislation to pass a hate crime law.

In Washington, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat whose district also includes substantial parts of Charleston, led a bipartisan charge to reject white nationalism and white supremacy in January after Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King made racist comments in an interview with The New York Times.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., joined Democratic senators and presidential candidates Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California in refiling a bill to make make lynching a federal hate crime. The bipartisan measure passed unanimously in the Senate this month and now heads to the House.

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"I know the president will sign it," Scott said of the bill in an interview with The Post and Courier.

In 2018, Scott sunk two of Trump's federal judge nominees over concerns about their records on race, but he disagreed with the center's assertion that Trump is partly to blame for the rise in hate groups.

"I think that people like to find someone to blame for other people's actions," Scott said. "Hate is something that resides in the human heart."

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said she was not surprised to learn South Carolina's legislative efforts to fight hate could be traced to Charleston.

"They saw hate hit their doorstep. They know what it is capable of," Gillespie said, referencing downtown Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, where a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black parishioners during their weekly Bible study in 2015.

Scott thought of the Charleston-centric efforts another way.

"I think it's maybe our path of redemption in many ways. We are rewriting the history of our Holy City and of our state in pushing back against hate in the city and the state where the Civil War started," he said.

This is Gilliard's third try to pass a state hate crime bill. South Carolina is one of only five states without a hate crime law.

"By virtue of our history alone, we should now tell the country that in South Carolina we're serious about race relations; that we're not just speaking words, but that we put our words into action,"  he said.

Beirich said these political efforts can have a real impact.

"When those kinds of activities are condemned, it has a suppressive effect (on hate groups), and signals to the public at large that this kind of stuff is unacceptable," Beirich said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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