BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Born in the ashes of the smoldering South after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan died and was reborn before losing the fight against civil rights in the 1960s. Membership dwindled, a unified group fractured, and one-time members went to prison for a string of murderous attacks against blacks. Many assumed the group was dead, a white-robed ghost of hate and violence.
Yet today, the KKK is still alive and dreams of restoring itself to what it once was: an invisible white supremacist empire spreading its tentacles throughout society. As it marks 150 years of existence, the Klan is trying to reshape itself for a new era
Klan members still gather by the dozens under starry Southern skies to set fire to crosses in the dead of night, and KKK leaflets have shown up in suburban neighborhoods from the Deep South to the Northeast in recent months. Perhaps most unwelcome to opponents, some independent Klan organizations say they are merging with larger groups to build strength.
"We will work on a unified Klan and/or alliance this summer," said Brent Waller, imperial wizard of the United Dixie White Knights in Mississippi.
In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, Klan leaders said they feel that U.S. politics are going their way, as a nationalist, us-against-them mentality deepens across the nation. Stopping or limiting immigration — a desire of the Klan dating back to the 1920s — is more of a cause than ever. And leaders say membership has gone up at the twilight of President Barack Obama's second term in office, though few would provide numbers.
Joining the Klan is as easy as filling out an online form — provided you're white and Christian. Members can visit an online store to buy one of the Klan's trademark white cotton robes for $145, though many splurge on the $165 satin version.
While the Klan has terrorized minorities during much of the last century, its leaders now present a public front that is more virulent than violent. Leaders from several different Klan groups all said they have rules against violence aside from self-defense, and even opponents agree the KKK has toned itself down after a string of members went to prison years after the fact for deadly arson attacks, beatings, bombings and shootings.
"While today's Klan has still been involved in atrocities, there is no way it is as violent as the Klan of the '60s," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that tracks activity by groups it considers extremist. "That does not mean it is some benign group that does not engage in political violence," he added.
Historian David Cunningham, author of "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan," notes that while the Klan generally doesn't openly advocate violence, "I do think we have the sort of 'other' model of violence, which is creating a culture that supports the commission of violence in the name of these ideas."
Klan leaders told the AP that most of today's groups remain small and operate independently, kept apart by disagreements over such issues as whether to associate with neo-Nazis, hold public rallies or wear the KKK's trademark robes in colors other than white.
So-called "traditional" Klan groups avoid public displays and practice rituals dating back a century; others post web videos dedicated to preaching against racial diversity and warning of a coming "white genocide." Women are voting members in some groups, but not in others. Some leaders will not speak openly with the media but others do, articulating ambitious plans that include quietly building political strength.
Some groups hold annual conventions, just like civic clubs. Members gather in meeting rooms to discuss strategies that include electing Klan members to local political offices and recruiting new blood through the internet.
It's impossible to say how many members the Klan counts today since groups don't reveal that information, but leaders claim adherents in the thousands among scores of local groups called Klaverns. Waller said his group is growing, as did Chris Barker, imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Eden, North Carolina.
"Most Klan groups I talk to could hold a meeting in the bathroom in McDonald's," Barker said. As for his Klavern, he said, "Right now, I'm close to 3,800 members in my group alone."
The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish protection group that monitors Klan activity, describes Barker's Loyal White Knights as the most active Klan group today, but estimates it has no more than 200 members total. The ADL puts total Klan membership nationwide at around 3,000.
The Alabama-based SPLC says there's no evidence the Klan is returning to the strength of its heyday. It estimates the Klan has about 190 chapters nationally with no more than 6,000 members total, which would be a mere shadow of its estimated 2 million to 5 million members in the 1920s.
"The idea of unifying the Klan like it was in the '20s is a persistent dream of the Klan, but it's not happening," Potok said.
Formed just months after the end of the Civil War by six former Confederate officers in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Klan originally seemed more like a college fraternity with ceremonial robes and odd titles for its officers. But soon, freed blacks were being terrorized, and the Klan was blamed. Hundreds of people were assaulted or killed within the span of a few years as whites tried to regain control of the defeated Confederacy. Congress effectively outlawed the Klan in 1871, leading to martial law in some places and thousands of arrests, and the group died.
The Klan seemed relegated to history until World War I, when it was resurrected. It grew as waves of immigrants arrived aboard ships from Europe and elsewhere, and grew more as the NAACP challenged Jim Crow laws in the South in the 1920s. Millions joined, including community leaders like bankers and lawyers.
That momentum declined, and best estimates place Klan membership at about 40,000 by the mid-'60s, the height of the civil rights movement. Klan members were convicted of using murder as a weapon against equality in states including Mississippi and Alabama, where one Klansman remains imprisoned for planting the bomb that killed four black girls in a Birmingham church in 1963.
Cunningham, the historian, said the Klan dwindled to nearly nothing during the 1970s and '80s, when the SPLC sued the Alabama-based United Klans of America over the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, a black man whose beaten, slashed body was hanged from a tree. In an odd twist, Donald's mother wound up with the title to the Klan's headquarters near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, because the group didn't have the money to pay the $7 million judgment awarded in the SPLC suit.
KKK leader Brent Waller was raised in Laurel, Mississippi, in the shadow of the civil rights-era Klan. He has boyhood memories of flaming crosses and of Sam Bowers, a Klan boss who served six years in prison for his role directing the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, and who later was convicted of killing a civil rights leader in 1966.
Rather than a white robe, Waller, 47, wears a snow-white suit and orange tie when in public on Klan business and insists on donning sunglasses in photos to protect his identity.
Stopping immigration, not blocking minority rights, is the Klan's No. 1 issue today, Waller said. His group operates by the KKK rulebook called the "Kloran," which was first published in 1915. Various versions of the book are now online, and an edition posted by the University of Wisconsin library states in part: "We shall ever be true in the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy and will strenuously oppose any compromise thereof in any and all things."
The current hot-button issue for Klan members — fighting immigration and closing U.S. borders — is one of the most talked-about topics in the presidential election. Klan leaders say Donald Trump's immigration position and his ascendancy in the GOP are signs things are going their way.
"You know, we began 40 years ago saying we need to build a wall," Arkansas-based Klan leader Thomas Robb said.
Years ago, the group Robb heads near Harrison, Arkansas, changed its name from the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to the Knights Party USA, mainly to get away from the stigma associated with the Klan name. It now presents itself as more of a political or Christian entity.
"There is a lot of baggage with the name," said Rachel Pendergraft, Robb's daughter, who leads the group with him. "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."
Despite trying to rebrand itself in many ways, 150 years later, the Klan has not stepped away from burning crosses, though it rarely does so in public. Instead, the "lightings," as members call them, are held on private property away from law enforcement and demonstrators.
In April, Klan members and other white supremacists held two rallies on the same warm Saturday in Georgia. As the sun set, about 60 robed Klan members and others holding flaming torches gathered in a huge circle in a field in northwest Georgia to set a cross and Nazi swastika afire.
"White power!" they chanted in unison.
"Death to the ungodly! Death to our enemies!"