Atlanta police said surveillance footage shows two men placing Confederate battle flags at two of Atlanta’s most notable landmarks early Thursday: Ebenezer Baptist Church and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site.
As investigators worked to identify the men and their motive, church and civic leaders decried the act as terrorism, vowing not to be threatened.
Police later Thursday released several black and white videos from Ebenezer’s surveillance cameras showing images of two men walking and placing flags at various spots.
Around 6 a.m. Thursday, a maintenance man spotted the four flags and notified a federal park ranger who then called police. Local and federal investigators were dispatched to the Auburn Avenue sites, where the flags were removed and taken as evidence.
Thursday’s incident was the latest involving the ongoing debate over the Confederate flag, sparked anew by the massacre of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., the white supremacist suspect who embraces the flag and the battle over the flag in South Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere.
At a mid-morning news conference, Ebenezer’s pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, said the placement of the flags was a terrorist act meant to intimidate.
“To place Confederate flags on the campus of Ebenezer Baptist Church - after this horrific act in Charleston [and] in the wake of all that’s happening in our country - whatever the message was it clearly was not about heritage,” Warnock said. “It was about hate.”
Ebenezer Baptist Church was once led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who is entombed nearby alongside his widow, Coretta Scott King.
“Let the message go out that we will not be shaken by this,” Warnock said. “We will not be intimidated.”
Atlanta police Chief George Turner said authorities have “good, strong physical evidence,” including images from the church’s surveillance video.
“We do have images of two white males placing those flags on the campus,” the police chief said, adding, “We’re trying to identify those folk right now.”
Turner said the incident could not immediately be classified as a hate crime without further investigation, but he did not rule out such a designation. The Atlanta FBI’s joint terrorism task force was involved in the case.
During the news conference, Judy Forte, superintendent of the National Park Service, said her office received a threatening phone message the day before the killings in South Carolina. Forte said the message was “very alarming and they did mention coming here to the historic site.”
There was no indication, however, that there was a connection between the phone message and the Confederate flags left in Atlanta.
Police said the people who left the flags could face charges that include criminal trespassing, terroristic threats and littering.
Following the Charleston killings, political leaders from both parties argued the Civil War-era flag symbolizes slavery and racial inequality, while supporters argued the flag remains a symbol of Southern heritage and pride.
Warnock, who has been outspoken on recent police shootings and the Charleston killings, said placement of the flags at the church was equivalent to placing a Swastika on a Jewish campus. He called the person or persons responsible “cowardly and misguided.”
Three of the four flags were placed on the church grounds: one below an encased poster that reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER, HANDS UP;” another by a garbage can; and a third at the base of a tree. A fourth flag was placed on a path leading to the nearby MLK National Historic Site.
Just after 9:30 a.m., the flags were removed and placed in the trunk of an Atlanta police car.
Warnock said it was ironic that the incident occurred on a day that he and other clergy from around the country had gathered to address the issue of racism and the “mass incarceration” of black men in the nation’s prisons.
Azuria Beeks, a 17-year-old member of the church, stood solemnly across the street from Ebenezer watching police officers scour the area Thursday morning.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “They’re living in the past. They want us to fear them. And it’s not working.”
Tracey Jackson, a 45-year-old from Atlanta who lives near the historic church, said: “This breaks my heart. It’s just taking the flag to another level. That flag represents what happened in the past. And too many people are holding on to that past. It just hurts.”
The national leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, co-founded by King, said the organization hopes to reach out those responsible for placing the flags.
SCLC President Charles Steele said they would be invited to the “table of brotherhood … to discuss our differences and impart Kingian nonviolence as we collectively work toward the great day when we all can join hands in love and respect as brothers and sisters in Christ and not perish together as fools.”
Meanwhile, the SCLC and local NAACP on Thursday called for the removal of all “symbols of hate” from Georgia’s public lands, including the Confederate flag, and Confederate images on the face of Stone Mountain. The groups have called a news conference for Friday to demand a meeting with Gov. Nathan Deal to discuss the changes.
Deal has said he wants a redesign of a state-sponsored license plate featuring the Confederate flag emblem, rather than have the plate phased out or eliminated entirely.
Regarding calls to alter the Confederate images on Stone Mountain, the governor said recently: “It’s not a debate that is useful.”
— Staff writers Steve Visser and Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.