SC rally photo brings hope; ‘They didn’t care who was helping them’

S.C. Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith helps someone wearing National Socialist Movement attire get to shade and water during a Ku Klux Klan rally Saturday at the State House.
S.C. Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith helps someone wearing National Socialist Movement attire get to shade and water during a Ku Klux Klan rally Saturday at the State House. SPECIAL TO THE STATE

The waves of grief and grace that enveloped South Carolina after the racially motivated slayings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church have an end note.

An iPhone photo, snapped at the S.C. State House, that shows an African-American state law enforcement officer aiding a heat-stricken white supremacist during a rally Saturday has become a worldwide sensation.

The photo, taken by an aide to Gov. Nikki Haley, has reached nearly a million Twitter users.

People commented on Twitter about how they saw hope in the photo. “That sort of decency is the best weapon against racial hatred imaginable!” “What a beautiful lesson.” “Should be any every day occurrence.”

The central characters in the photo say they are surprised and humbled by the attention they have received.

“This has been something inspiring,” said Rob Godfrey, a deputy chief of staff to Haley, who took the shot.

Acts of kindness have continued since deaths of nine African-American parishioners on June 17. Some of the victims’ families forgave the alleged shooter. Thousands of visitors took flowers to the historic church. Large-dollar donations have fueled a fund set up to aid relatives.

On Saturday, however, many state leaders feared the worst when white supremacist groups and black-advocacy organizations planned State House protests on the same afternoon.

While some scuffles broke out, the rallies generally were uneventful. Instead, the highlight turned out to be Godfrey’s photo.

The white supremacist in his photo actually was the second man suffering from the heat to receive aid from two African-American public safety leaders — S.C. Department of Public Safety director Leroy Smith and Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins.

Jenkins said both protestors thanked him for helping them out of the near 100-degree heat during a rally held by Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups to protest the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

The rally, which featured chants of “white power,” took place on the south side of the Capitol, which has little shade. Also, many of the 50 pro-flag protestors wore all-black clothing.

Smith, who was featured in Godfrey’s photo, and Jenkins, whose hand can be seen holding up a rope, said the men did not ask that a white public safety official assist them.

They didn’t care who was helping them.

Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins

Both protestors were treated by emergency medical teams inside the State House and released, Jenkins said. Two other white supremacists were brought inside the State House soon before the rally ended, the fire chief said.

Inside a State House library, Jenkins said he spoke with the protestor in the photo, who wore swastika-adorned T-shirt, mostly about his health. The subject of the rally, the Confederate flag or the protestors’ views on race did not come up.

“It was very cordial,” Jenkins said. “It was nothing about the movement. He kind of joked a little bit. He said, ‘I’m getting too old for this.’ ”

Neither Jenkins nor Smith have the name of the man being aided in the photo.

Jenkins, a 36-year veteran of the fire department, said helping the white supremacists was his duty.

“When we respond to an accident or we respond to a house fire, we don’t know what peoples’ beliefs are. We don’t know what they’re thinking about you at the time. We don’t know if they like you or not,” Jenkins said. “When people need help, people need help.”

For all the attention that he is receiving, Public Safety’s Smith said he did not recognize himself in the photo when a colleague first sent him a copy Saturday.

He was told later by state staffers the photo was gaining in popularity. And the photo was a hit at Smith’s home, where his 16-year-old daughter told him it was cool.

I did the same thing any officer would have done. I saw a man in need.

S.C. Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith

Jenkins said the photo’s popularity speaks to how South Carolina is trying to improve race relations after the church shooting.

“We may have issues ... but I think people here are really trying to come together and put a lot of stuff behind (them),” he said. “I know in my heart that if that had been reversed and this was a Caucasian person and one of the New Black Panthers members (who also were protesting Saturday) went down, I assure the same care would have happened.”