While thousands of mourners and well-wishers have come to pay their respects to the nine people killed in a Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting last week and to further a message of racial harmony, there is one young man came to Charleston with a different message.
“Dylan Roof is a victim in regards to he was a white man born to a society that actively hates him and hates his people, hates his culture and his identity,” Matt Heimbach told “Nightline” in an interview Monday.
“There is a culture war being waged. There is a war on the streets against whites,” he added.
Heimbach, 24, is a college-educated white separatist who believes the United States would be a better place if it went back to segregation. But he condemns the rampage that Dylann Roof, 21, carried out at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church June 17, when Roof walked into a Bible study group and shot and killed nine people. Heimbach said he believes innocent people should never be targeted as a way to advance the white separatist message.
“My first gut reaction when I heard about the shooting was, ‘Uh no,’ because there is no circumstance where taking the lives of civilians, innocent women and children, that's never OK,” Heimbach said. “It's very important to show that the white separatists community does not believe in using terrorism against civilians."
But Heimbach refuses to blame his ideology for the violence caused by someone who may be a like-minded individual.
“The left that persecutes and hates white culture, white identity and the Christian faith, they are the ones that are responsible because you will push individuals only so long before they react,” he said. “You cannot step on an individual forever before they decide that they are going to bite back and that’s what we see.”
While Heimbach’s platform is inflammatory, some believe he is tapping into a growing and freighting trend of discontent in the United States. In the past decade, the number of hate groups has increased by nearly 30 percent, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Like Roof, Heimbach said he was not raised in a racist environment. Indeed, he said his upbringing was “very moderate” and his beliefs now have “caused a lot of tension” in his family.
Heimbach said he found his way into the white separatist movement through his love of history, taking part in Civil War re-enactments as a Confederate soldier.
The Charleston shooting has reignited the fierce debate over the Confederate flag, prompting “Take Down That Flag” protests on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia, where the flag still flies. While many see it as a symbol of oppression and racist hatred toward African-Americans, others see it as a symbol of pride for their ancestors, who fought and died in the Civil War.
Heimbach, too, has a fondness for the Confederate flag. A graduate of Towson University in Maryland, Heimbach founded a controversial student group on campus called the White Student Union while he was a student in 2012, and launched a nationwide campaign to spread his beliefs. He has since made a name for himself speaking on the white supremacy circuit at various conventions.
“White people are waking up,” he said. “White people are reacting and I pray and hope that they come and join me through this struggle politically.”