Though the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that the Ku Klux Klan is in its “last gasp” and has just 4,000 to 6,000 members across the nation, don’t tell that to the Black residents of Abbeville, South Carolina. There, the KKK is actively recruiting and distributing bags of candy with leaflets and recently held a three-day “KKK Jam” rally in a town they are now considering their national headquarters.
Demond Dawson, youth pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, told Al Jazeera America that the children at his church have heard about the increased Klan presence and have been asking him a lot of questions.
He said the children want to know most about the hooded masks.
“That scares them,” Dawson said. “It’s just more trouble on me, raisin’ them up to do the right thing when they can see people with masks on, then I’ve got to explain to them, ‘why do you have a mask on?’”
Dawson said there’s a rumor racing through the Black community that the Klan soon will be holding a march through the town square.
“[The kids] haven’t seen them yet, but I don’t want them to see them,” he said.
Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and extremists in the U.S., said the Klan’s latest drive is all about recruitment — increasing the membership rolls so the group’s leaders can bring in the much-needed dues payments.
The number of klaverns in the U.S. has receded to about 150, according to the Law Center. Four years ago, that number stood at 221 klaverns. The 150 represent a membership of about 4,000 to 6,000 Klan members nationally.
Al Jazeera pointed out that membership during the 1960s Civil Rights era was about 40,000 in the U.S., and 4 million during the Klan’s peak in the mid-1920s.
“The Klan group in Abbeville is tiny, and the Klan in general is not the threat we think they are,” Brooks told Al Jazeera America at a peace rally last week in Greenville, South Carolina, held in direct response to the Klan’s rally in Abbeville one hour away. The Greenville rally drew a crowd of more than 300 — compared to 116 members from 15 states that the Klan claimed on its website had attended its rally.
“For a group like this to come together to stand against them minimizes them and diminishes their power even more,” Brooks said, adding that the Klan is trying to recruit all over the country.
“The Klan and hate groups in general continue to be more attractive to people who are less educated, people who are poor, the sort of white people who are feeling particularly marginalized and who are feeling the realities of the shifting demographics,” Brooks told Al Jazeera. “They’re constantly recruiting because their membership rolls are dwindling. They are becoming more and more irrelevant every day.”
“The Klan, those fliers, the notion that the Klan still exists is enough to spark fear in people, and that’s a very real emotion,” she said. “It wasn’t that long ago that they were wreaking terror.”
Abbeville County resident Charles Murray, who is the self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard of the New Empire Knights, told Al Jazeera by email that the New Empire Knights have been headquartered in Abbeville since March 2013, when he claims the group was formed and he was elected leader.
“I have fewer members than I want and more than you probably think,” he said. He told Al Jazeera that teachers, doctors and law enforcement officials are among the members.
He said the goal is “to build a legit pro-white organization and become the voice of White America.” Al Jazeera reported that on its website the group said activities at its rally included speeches, a cross burning and a vote deciding not to hold public rallies.
Black residents said they were fearful that something bad was going to happen.
“Something is gonna break out,” Abbeville resident Charlene Crawford said, adding that she fears it will end up with someone being killed over race.
Residents are still aware of a 1916 lynching of a wealthy black landowner who was stabbed, dragged through town, hung from a tree and used for target practice – all in a dispute over cottonseed pricing.
“That stuff happened back yonder,” Crawford said. “It’s time for people to change. It’s time for us to love one another and stop hating one another. All of us bleed the same blood.”
She pointed out that the local government hasn’t spoken out against the group.
“You think the city’s men are going to come over there for us? No they will not,” Crawford said.