A torch-wielding group, including a prominent white nationalist, protested Saturday night against plans to remove a Confederate monument in the hometown of the University of Virginia.

Local media outlets reported that the group rallied around the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, chanting "You will not replace us," "Russia is our friend," and "Blood and soil."

The protesters included Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who popularized the phrase "alt-right" and has advocated for an "ethno-state" that would be a "safe space" for white people.

"We will not be replaced from this park," Spencer told the crowd at a different rally held hours earlier in Charlottesville on Saturday. "We will not be replaced from this world. Whites have a future. We have a future of power, of beauty, of expression," he said.

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said in a statement that Saturday's protest was either "profoundly ignorant" or meant to instill fear in minorities "in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK."

"I want everyone to know this: We reject this intimidation," Signer said in a statement. "We are a welcoming city, but such intolerance is not welcome here."

Erich Reimer, chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Party, said in a statement that the "intolerance and hatred" that the protesters are seeking to promote is "utterly disgusting and disturbing beyond words," The Daily Progress reported.

The debate over Confederate symbols has swept through cities across the South since the 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church. The gunman was a self-avowed white supremacist.

In Virginia, Republican Corey Stewart's vocal support for the Lee statue also has pushed the issue into the state's high-profile race for governor. Stewart has pledged that no Confederate monuments would be removed if he is elected.

In New Orleans, workers on Thursday removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the second of four monuments to Confederate era figures the city has voted to remove. Late last month, the city removed a 35-foot tall granite obelisk tribute to whites who battled a biracial Reconstruction government installed in New Orleans after the Civil War.

The Charlottesville City Council voted last month to sell the Lee statue, but a judge has agreed to a temporary injunction that blocks Charlottesville from moving the statue for six months, The Daily Progress reported. The city also plans to rename Lee Park and another park named after another famed Confederate, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.