Program note: Go inside the KKK with African-American comedian W. Kamau Bell on the premiere episode of “United Shades of America” Sunday, April 24, at 10 p.m. only on CNN.

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Rally intended to focus on attempts to erase Confederate history, organizer says

Counter-demonstrators outnumber pro-white attendees

Atlanta CNN  — 

One “pro-white” demonstrator and eight counter-demonstrators were arrested Saturday during a rally at a suburban Atlanta landmark that pays tribute to Confederate leaders.

The eight counter-demonstrators were among a crowd that appeared to outnumber by nearly 10 to 1 those wearing “White Lives Matter” shirts and waving Confederate flags.

The ninth arrested person was from the pro-white group that staged the rally at Stone Mountain Park; he apparently threw a smoke bomb at law enforcement officers, said John Bankhead, spokesman for the park’s Department of Public Safety.

Police in riot gear appeared to outnumber everyone, maintaining a sprawling presence around separate areas containing the different groups. Tensions appeared to level off after the arrests, with the opposing groups keeping to designated areas of a parking lot at the base of Stone Mountain. By around 2 p.m., people from both sides began to leave the park, the latest site of the divisive battle over Confederate landmarks in the South.

Once a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, Stone Mountain Park is home to a large carving in the granite mountain depicting Confederate leaders President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

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A Confederate flag flies atop the mountain, with the mountain and its surrounding park now known as a recreational spot for families and tourists. The flag and the carving have drawn condemnation from those who say it glorifies a horrific period in American history, prompting efforts to remove the flag in the wake of similar efforts across the Southeast.

Rock Stone Mountain – the name given to Saturday’s rally by organizers – was held two days before the observance of Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia, a paid day off for some state employees. John Estes, an event organizer with the group Rock Stone Mountain, said Saturday’s rally was intended to focus on what he called attempts to erase Confederate history and the white race altogether. The large police presence and the park’s decision not to let them climb the mountain “cut down our numbers quite a bit,” he told CNN affiliate WSB-TV.

The counter-demonstrators were arrested as they tried to confront pro-white demonstrators. Police in riot gear cut them off and some began to throw rocks and fireworks at police, Bankhead said. They were arrested for wearing face-coverings resembling bandanas in violation of a law against wearing masks or hoods in public places, Bankhead said.

The NAACP shared images of the arrests and expressed concern over mounting tensions at the rally and going forward.

While Rock Stone Mountain did not have a specific affiliation, Estes said it was made up of like-minded individuals from all over who share a concern about the “future of the white race.”

Rally attendee Jeremy Walls of Mississippi said he was representing his state’s League of the South. He distanced himself from the Klan but said he “advocates for the South to be an independent people by just means.”

When asked about perceptions that the event carried a hateful message, he replied “Everything we do is out of love. Love of our people. The only thing we hate is what the Bible teaches us to hate.”

Counter-demonstrators were not buying it. They carried anti-Klan signs and some even wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag.

Stone Mountain Park closed attractions, including a laser show, for the rest of the day. It said in a statement that it issued permits to three groups “for free speech activity” and that it did not endorse the views of any one group.

CNN’s Melonyce McAfee contributed to this report.