Report: Nativist politics embolden KKK leaders' hopes for growth

Years after the Klu Klux Klan splintered after many members were sent to prison, leaders say they are trying to retool for a new era, focusing on immigration.

Johnny Milano/Reuters/File
Members of the Rebel Brigade Knights and the Nordic Order Knights, which claim affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, gather in 2014 at a private residence in Henry County, Va. Some Klan leaders say they believe that anti-immigrant sentiment is tilting in their direction as they attempt to rebuild for a new era.

A century removed from its heyday, when it grew to five million members and violently fought for the cause of white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan is attempting to reshape itself for a new era, an Associated Press report reveals.

Many Klan leaders say membership is up in recent years. They argue that politics are drifting toward their long-held ideals, pointing to popular appeals to American exceptionalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric that many analysts believe have helped fuel Donald Trump's momentum toward the Republican presidential nomination.  

"You know, we began 40 years ago saying we need to build a wall," Arkansas-based Klan leader Thomas Robb told the AP.

After a 1960s resurgence, many of the groups' leaders wound up in prison for deadly arson attacks, beatings, bombings, and shootings, the AP reports. Now, leaders say they have publicly rejected the violence that characterized the group in the aftermath of the Civil War, the 1920s and 30s, and during the Civil Rights movement, although they will allow it for self-defense. 

Traditional activities like cross-burning and secretive gatherings still take place in some areas, but joining the Klan is often an easy, online process, the AP reports. Prospective members who are white and Christian can fill out an online form and purchase one of the group's white robes for $145 (or $165 for a satin version).

But many longtime opponents say modern-day Klan leaders' public disavowal of violent tactics does little to diminish the virulence of their beliefs.

"While today's Klan has still been involved in atrocities, there is no way it is as violent as the Klan of the '60s," Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that tracks activity by groups it considers to be extremist, told the AP. "That does not mean it is some benign group that does not engage in political violence," he added.

The group's leaders have particularly rallied around the issue of immigration, a cause they first embraced during the early years of the 20th century as scores of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere came to the United States. The rise of Mr. Trump, who has promised to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, and an unclear ban on Muslim immigrants and/or people from "terrorist countries," could be a linchpin for supremacist and nationalist movements, KKK leaders told the AP. 

At the beginning of his candidacy, Trump struggled with an endorsement he received from the former KKK grand wizard David Duke, while there is evidence that his father, Fred C. Trump, was involved with a KKK rally in New York City in 1927.

Some leaders told the AP they are planning to merge independent Klan organizations with larger groups in order to build strength, though exactly how many members the group has is unclear.

"We will work on a unified Klan and/or alliance this summer," Brent Waller, imperial wizard of the United Dixie White Knights in Mississippi, told the AP.

In Eden, N.C., Chris Barker, imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said his local group, known as a Klavern, was growing. "Most Klan groups I talk to could hold a meeting in the bathroom in McDonald's," Mr. Barker told the AP.  But his Klavern, he said had "close to 3,800 members."

The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism and discrimination, says that Mr. Barker's Loyal White Knights is the most active Klan group today, but puts its membership at no more than 200 people. The Anti-Defamation League says total Klan membership across the country is around 3,000.

As with many organizations, the Klan's tactics have also shifted as the internet has opened up communication lines across the country.

"Traditional" Klan groups avoid public displays and practice rituals that have existed for more than a century, while others post web videos that inveigh against racial diversity and warn of a coming "white genocide," the AP reports.

Last year, the Loyal White Knights denounced the actions of Dylann Roof, a white man who scoured white supremacist websites before allegedly shooting nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C.

But after state lawmakers in South Carolina began an ultimately successful effort to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, they protested the effort, The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported.

Some groups have also moved away from the name of the Klan itself, as the group led by Mr. Robb in Arkansas did when it changed its name to the Knights Party USA.

"There is a lot of baggage with the name," Rachel Pendergraft, Robb's daughter, who leads the group with him told the AP. "You say the name 'KKK' and a lot of people have a narrative in their minds of what it is about, what it does. The name resonates with people, whether it is good or whether it is bad."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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