CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Two very different groups joined forces outside Charleston City Hall Tuesday to send a unified call for peace and civil conversations amid racial tensions.
The South Carolina Secessionist Party and the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement challenged people on both sides of issues of race, the Confederate flag and monuments issues to avoid violence and come together to have real conversations.
"I know this is a very awkward scene," Shakem Amen Akhet, of the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement, said. "Never before have you seen these two separate factions together standing at one podium."
Akhet said both groups have had discussions about Confederate monuments coming down.
"We have come to the understanding that even though we disagree on a lot of subjects, we have to make sure there is no sort of violence that erupts in the city," Akhet said. "This is a very touching subject, and when you start talking about the history of slavery and the history of oppression and you start talking about soldiers in the Confederacy, there is a lot of emotion that it automatically emits."
"We're both hearing on both of our sides, these two communities over opposite sides of this debate, that Charleston has every bit of potential to become the next Charlottesville," South Carolina Secessionist Party Chairman James Bessenger said. "We don't want to see that. I don't want that for anyone on their side, they don't want that for anyone on our side."
Bessenger said the only way to prevent that is for leaders of both sides to extend a hand of peace to one another.
Akhet referred to violence at a 2015 Ku Klux Klan rally held at the South Carolina Statehouse as well as a deadly confrontation Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He called Charleston and North Charleston "hotbeds" and said he feels lawmakers and people do not understand the extent of the tension, admitting that both sides have gotten people agitated and frustrated.
"Our intention today is to let the public know that it's OK to protest, it's OK to have different sentiments and feelings and be strong about what you believe, there's nothing wrong with that," Akhet said. "But nevertheless what we don't want to see is a situation like Charlottesville."
"Neither one of our organizations is changing what we do, neither one of our organizations is changing our positions on anything," Bessenger said. "But it's up to us to facilitate that open dialogue.
Bessenger said both groups would discourage illegal activity like pulling monuments down, referring to a Durham, North Carolina incident Monday in which protesters tore down a Confederate monument.
"If we want monuments down in South Carolina, there's a mechanism for that," Bessenger said. "We can either get a two-thirds vote in the legislature or you can have the Heritage Act repealed. There's a legal mechanism for that without violence and criminal activity."
Bessenger said the two groups have agreed to facilitate and encourage open dialogue between communities of traditionally-opposing beliefs to better understand and respect differing perspectives on Confederate flags, monuments and symbols. They also agreed to discourage their members from participating in illegal activities and violence. He said they also agreed to discuss and collaborate on projects that are beneficial to both sides.
"Another thing that Mr. Shakem and I discovered in our conversations is that there are actually a lot of things we agree on, a lot of things we could work together to accomplish," Bessenger said. "It's a lot harder to hate somebody and want to fight somebody if you're working together on a common goal."
Responding to a reporter's question, Bessenger said his party would not stop displaying the Confederate flag in public, and said Akhet did not call for Bessenger's side to stop flagging because it precipitates dialog.
"What Dylann Roof actually wanted, we're trying our hardest today to prevent," Akhet said, referring to the convicted shooter in the Mother Emanuel Church massacre. Roof told investigators he opened fire in the historically black church on June 17, 2015, in hopes of starting a race war.
The two men paused to shake hands after speaking to reporters.