Black police officer Leroy Smith photographed helping a white supremacist overcome by the intense afternoon heat during a Ku Klux Klan rally held outside the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, has spoken about the incident, saying he is overwhelmed by the response to the photo.
According to the Associate Press, Smith initially declined interview requests but finally agreed under pressure from reporters representing several news organizations.
In a statement Wednesday, Smith said the photo that shows him helping a white supremacist wearing a swastika-emblazoned T-Shirt of the National Socialist Movement, a Detroit-based neo-Nazi group, “captures who were are in South Carolina.”
He also said he hopes it will help people to work to “overcome hatred and violence.”
“I believe this photo captures who we are in South Carolina and represents what law enforcement is all about… I am proud to serve this great State, and I hope this photo will be a catalyst for people to work to overcome some of the hatred and violence we have seen in our country in recent weeks.”
He explained that the elderly man in the viral photo was actually the second demonstrator that he helped up the statehouse steps while tensions rose between KKK demonstrators and members of the New Black Panther-affiliated Black Educators for Justice.
According to Smith, during the faceoff between the hostile groups, a man approached him, saying that some of the demonstrators were in need of medical attention due to the heat.
Smith said that he responded in the company of Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, also an African American.
He assisted the first demonstrator, a white man, up the steps into the air-conditioned interior of the Statehouse where he was treated by emergency workers.
The first man could walk on his own, but the second man — the elderly man in the viral photo — was too weak to walk on his own.
Smith said he did not hesitate to help him.
“I saw a man who needed some help, and I was going to help him… He was struggling, fatigued, and appeared to be lethargic. I knew there was no way he could make it up the steps on his own.”
He was not able to get the man’s name but recalled he said he was not from South Carolina.
Smith also praised his men.
“I can’t overstate how proud I am of law enforcement officers who put their lives in peril to maintain order.”
The Associated Press reports that when its reporter got in touch with the National Socialist Movement, a spokesman for the group confirmed that the protester in the viral photo was a member of the organization. But the spokesman declined to identify him, saying the man wanted to be left alone.
When the AP reporter questioned the spokesman about the viral photo, he lost his temper, made offensive remarks and hung up.
The photo that showed Smith, director of South Carolina’s public safety agency, assisting the elderly protester up the stairs was snapped by Associated Press photographer Rob Godfrey.
The photo went viral online with thousands of views, shares and comments from social media users who were struck by the sight of a black man offering assistance to a KKK demonstrator.
The KKK rally, held on Saturday, July 18, was in protest of the decision by the South Carolina authorities to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse. The decision to remove the flag came after a heated debate sparked by the murder of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina by self-confessed white supremacist Dylann Roof.
The KKK protesters, reportedly members of North Carolina’s Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, clashed with members of the Black Educators for Justice from Jacksonville, Florida, a group reportedly affiliated with the New Black Panther Party.
Fights broke out between members of both groups and groups of protesters on both sides engaged in stone throwing.
Ku Klux Klan members were caught on camera hurling racist insults at black protesters.
The National Socialist Movement (NSM) is a “white supremacist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic political party,” founded in 1974 by Robert Brannen and Cliff Herrington, former members of the American Nazi Party.
The South Poverty Law Center (SPLC) classifies the group as a hate group. However, NSM describes itself as a “white civil rights organization.”
[Image: Twitter/Rob Godfrey]