07/19/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/18/2016 05:59 EDT

Confederate flag under siege, but U.S. hate groups alive and well

The White House won't confirm whether Barack Obama saw them. But they were there.

Defiant protesters waving Confederate battle flags greeted the U.S. president's motorcade as it rolled up to his hotel in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

The very same flag Obama declared a symbol of racial oppression last month at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, the black pastor gunned down with eight other worshippers in a Charleston, S.C., church.

Since then, the flag has been removed from South Carolina's capitol grounds as an unwelcome, antiquated symbol of hate and slavery in the American South. Even Walmart, Ebay and Sears kicked Confederate flag merchandise to the curb. 

For a brief moment, the flag and much that it was associated with seemed destined to fade into the history books, but that may be a misreading of what's churning underneath. 

The flag's passing "has shocked white supremacists, southern white supremacists in a huge way," says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Montgomery, Ala.

"They're talking about cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing directed at white southerners. It's very possible we'll see violent reactions to the attack on the Confederate battle flag."

The SPLC has been tracking hate groups and other extremists in the U.S. for almost 30 years and found an odd thing recently.

These groups grew dramatically, from 2008 to 2012, coinciding with the election of America's first black president, but then the overall number of active hate and radical anti-government groups shrunk significantly after 2012, by about one-fifth.

Still, that is no reason to cheer. "What we've seen, instead, is an increase in the number of persons associated with white supremacist activity online and an uptick in the level of violence," Richard Cohen, the president of the SPLC, told Congress last week.

Hate by the numbers

On the law centre's radar is everything from neo-Nazis to Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates and racist skinheads. 

Its latest report, which is based on scanning websites, newspapers, even tapping into secret email groups and online chat rooms, says there were 784 active hate groups operating the U.S. at the close of 2014. That's up from 457 in 1999, but lower than the historic high of 1,018 in 2011. 

A separate category tracks so-called "patriot groups," or militias fed by a powerful resurgence of the anti-government movement that began with a string of domestic terrorist attacks in the 1990s, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

According to the SPLC, the number of these so-called patriot groups swelled from 149 in 2008, to an all-time high of 1,360 groups by the end of 2012.  

"It has really speeded up with the election of President Obama," says Potok. For these groups, he says, Obama's election represented only one thing: "The coming loss of white dominance."

The danger underground

Speaking before the Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. last week, Cohen said the number of registered users of a leading neo-Nazi online forum called Stormfront has grown to 300,000, a 50 per cent jump over the past five years.

"These sites are echo chambers where people like Dylan Roof, the confessed Charleston shooter, have their racist views validated and encouraged," the SPLC president told lawmakers.

According to the SPLC, the white supremacist movement has shifted from organized, brick and mortar hate groups into the relative anonymity of cyberspace, which in turn spawns "lone wolf" or "leaderless resistance groups," the latter often consisting of just a few people.

One reason to try to hide behind the web, Potok suggests, is that the social cost of associating with groups like this has risen. Members are being frequently outed by the SPLC and others such as the online activist hacking group Anonymous.

He gives the example of Klan members who were threatening to travel to Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of an unarmed black man sparked protests there last August.

"Anonymous turned around and hacked into some Klan websites and made public the names and numbers and home addresses of a whole bunch of Klansmen."

For his part, Potok anticipates more violence and a backlash provoked by the Confederate flag debate that could last for some time yet. But, in the end, "I think we're headed for a better place."

He also notes that a group called the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were planning to rally in support of the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia on the weekend, and that was just fine with him.

"They will help to ensure the death of the flag, because if anyone wanted to dispute the connection of the flag to the Klan, well, there they are, right?"