BURNETTOWN - The Ku Klux Klan got a sympathetic reception Saturday in Burnettown, where 75 people were willing to stand in tall grass, infested with chiggers and yellowjackets, at a local ball field to hear a message of white power.
Just as many left early as an afternoon sun beat down with no mercy, however, and the 33 marchers, many of them in Klan robes and peaked hats, got little encouragement from clusters of townfolk who watched from street corners, front porches and yards, where most of the commentary came from barking dogs. Some drivers honked and waved.
But 33 Klansmen from three KKK factions collected fistfuls of applications from those who remained. And several asked directions to Gaston for a cross-lighting to occur after dark, more than 60 miles away, at the home of Carolina Knights Grand Dragon Clarence "Shorty" Gladden.
He said he was pleased with the turnout in what the Carolina Knights say is the beginning of an effort to visit small towns throughout the state recruiting members. Burnettown, like Salley and Wagener before it, did not quite know what to make of that, and some residents gathered in the Baptist church to pray while the Klan was in town.
The Carolina Knights' visit to Salley and Wagener in March was canceled because of threatening weather, much to their mayors' relief. But in Salley, Mayor Bob Salley had put a Bible verse on the town sign beside the spot where the KKK would have gathered:
"A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another."
At Burnettown, Mayor Hector Rodriquez spent his Saturday putting up banners for the Sassafras Festival coming up in October and waited for a report from Police Chief Greg Norris, who had help from state and county law enforcement officers, there in force.
"I am just glad that they came and went with no trouble," Mr. Rodriquez said.
The KKK acquired during its turbulent history a reputation for violence and racial hatred, but Mr. Gladden told the crowd at Burnettown, "We are not out here like the old Klan was to hang people, beat people and all like that. We are here for our white rights."
Klansman John Howard, who owns Redneck Shop in Laurens, said there is a "place reserved in the fiery pits of hell" for ministers who told their congregations it would be wrong to rub elbows with the KKK on Saturday.
The theme of the rally was the Klan perception that white people are losing jobs to immigrants; their neighborhoods are being destroyed by black criminals; their moral values are being undermined by abortion, racial intermarriage and acceptance of homosexuality; their tax dollars support shiftless people on welfare; and their schools are catering to black students at the expense of whites.
If that sounds like some other conservative groups that are more popular, Klansman Claude Huff said, "If not the Klan, join some other white organization with moral principles. It's all about your freedom. If you don't stand up for it today, it will be taken away tomorrow. America is going downhill, and only white people can save it."
Mr. Huff is grand dragon of the Carolina Knights in North Carolina. He was one of several speakers with harsh words for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he called "a group of piece - a piece of this and a piece of that." Its economic boycott of South Carolina led to removal of a Confederate flag from the Capitol dome in July, and the North Carolina grand dragon said that was just for starters.
"They just want to be the top dog and you be nothing but slaves," he said. "When are you going to realize that?"
Several people in the crowd shouted, "We already do."
Among them was Kip Hutto, 37, of Bath, who said the flag debate - "economic terrorism, the way I see it" - persuaded him to become an activist. He chose the Klan, he said, because it is "Christian-based," and "not what people say it is."
Sean Webb, 23, of Graniteville, said he came to hear the Klan's message because he's "tired of some black people, not all, who seem to think the white man owes them something."
Sharon Reedy of Aiken, who participated in the march and also spoke at the rally, said the best thing women can do for their husbands and children is stand with the Klan.
Two women, both holding infants, wouldn't give their names.
"Our husbands told us not to come," one said, "but we felt like we had to. White people have got to do something or it will be worse for our kids than it is now."
Some of those who left early said they had come out of curiosity.
The State Law Enforcement Division, which keeps tabs on Klan activity, believes the group is taking advantage of racial overtones in the flag debate here. Like other groups with strong flag sympathies, the Klan is gaining some members in the aftermath of the flag fight, SLED Chief Robert Stewart said.
"We have noticed some increase in activity," he said, but the Klan is far from the numbers it enjoyed at the height of the civil rights movement, in the 1960s and '70s, when 6,000 or more South Carolinians belonged to Klan organizations, he said. All told, the four Klan groups on SLED's radar screen appear to have fewer than 200 members among them.
The Carolina Knights have been drawing about 35 people to their white unity rallies in Gaston, the SLED chief said. The International Knights, which has an active chapter in Laurens, is believed to have about 40 members, and the Indiana-based American Knights have half a dozen members in South Carolina, he said.
Klan marches in North Charleston and Summerville earlier this month were sponsored by the American Knights after the Carolina Knights dropped plans to visit those towns. The North Charleston event drew fewer than two dozen apparent Klan sympathizers, SLED reports showed. The Summerville event drew about 120 hecklers.
Another faction, National Knights of the KKK, has some members in the Rock Hill area and is recruiting in this area. They are holding an invitation-only rally in Clearwater in October. Several members of the National Knights participated in the Burnettown event.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, also called Klanwatch, told The Augusta Chronicle in June that the Klan is virtually dead in South Carolina after a federal lawsuit and a series of criminal trials that tied the Christian Knights of the KKK to fires at black churches.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.