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Confederate flag rally tests a diminished Ku Klux Klan

The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan calls itself the largest Klan group in America. But it doesn't take much these days to claim that mark.

The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan calls itself the largest Klan group in America. But it doesn't take much these days to claim that mark.

The Knights, who on Saturday will rally at the steps of the South Carolina Capitol to protest the removal of the Confederate battle flag, claims a few thousand active members nationwide, a figure that researchers say is exaggerated but remains a tiny fraction of the 5 million Americans who were on the rolls of Klan chapters 90 years ago.

Now the Loyal White Knights says the Klan is poised for a return from the extreme fringe of American culture.

The group is trying to tap into anger among many Southern whites over a backlash against the flag that followed the killing of nine black church parishioners by a white man last month. The Klan says the reaction was excessive, and has fueled a broader feeling of dispossession among those who believe their country is abandoning "white heritage."

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If that's true, then the rally in Columbia, South Carolina, will be a pivotal test for today's KKK, which is less a cohesive organization than a collection of disjointed mini-Klans that pop up and die off.

The Klan, which has historically relied on public displays of violence and intimidation, is struggling to find its place within the contemporary white supremacist movement's think tank-style organizations and sophisticated-looking websites that argue for "white civil rights." The groups advocate for complete separation of the races — Jews included — and a return to white-dominated communities where separatist symbols like the Confederate flag continue to fly.

The KKK has publicly denounced the Charleston, South Carolina, church killings, allegedly carried out by a young man who visited white supremacist websites, posted photos online of himself posing with the Confederate flag and is believed to have written a manifesto that griped about the weakened state of the white supremacist movement, including what he described as "no real KKK" and "no one doing anything but talking on the Internet."

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But the Klan became enraged when the state legislature reacted to the killings byremoving the Confederate battle flag from the front of the State House.

"They cannot punish everyone for what one man did," Amanda Barker, Imperial Officer of the Pelham, North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights, told NBC News.

Barker said the move to take down the flag has inspired many to reach out to her group, which she says has received over 6,000 membership applications in the past two weeks.

She says the Loyal White Knights has also gotten thousands of calls in support of Saturday's march.

But in its application to hold a rally on the Capitol grounds, the group said it expected only 100 to 200 to participate. And a few dozen of the marchers will be members not of the Klan but of the National Socialist Movement, a Michigan-based group that calls itself a white civil rights political action organization.

Will Quigg, California Grand Dragon for the Loyal White Knights, said it was difficult to predict how many would show up. "That's why we are called the Invisible Empire," Quigg said.

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Gov. Nikki Haley, who led the effort to take down the flag, has urged people to stay away from Saturday's rally. Authorities are beefing up security for the event, which will coincide with a march in support of the flag's removal, raising concerns of a violent clash.

Black Educators for Justice, a Florida organization with links to the New Black Panther Party, will hold a rally nearby on the Capitol grounds to urge for more action beyond the removal of the flag. A leader of that group, James Mohammed, said members of the New Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam and Black Lawyers for Justice also will attend.

He said the black groups were not expecting violence. "But if any person of color is harmed in any way we have no choice, obviously, but to defend ourselves and to expose who are under those hoods," Mohammed told NBC News.

The Klan remains a secretive organization, allowing it to make unverifiable claims about its size. Leading Klan researchers say the group's claims of membership and influence are overstated.

"The Klan today is weak, poorly led, divided internally and without any political support whatsoever, so it is radically different from the Klan of history," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has used legal maneuvers to win crippling monetary awards from KKK chapters around the South.

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The Klan, formed in the wake of the Civil War, has seen several brief surges in popularity in recent decades: the period of anti-immigrant fervor of the 1920s, the Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and a modest resurgence in the 1970s, in reaction to freedoms won by blacks.

But over the long term, the Klan has been steadily losing members.

From its peak of 5 million in 1925, national membership dropped to 42,000 in 1965, and hit 11,000 in 1981, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Today, Potok said, there are fewer than 4,000 members of the Klan nationwide, divided into "23 bickering groups" that all claim to be the one true Klan and clamber for attention.

Potok estimated that the Loyal White Knights has fewer than 100 members and accused them of "simply injecting themselves into the conversation because they know they will get national an even international publicity, and they are right about that."

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Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University who researches hate crimes, argued that the backlash against the Confederate battle flag has actually hurt the Klan, because it has shown that the group's ideals are far out of touch from public opinion. Green said he'd seen no evidence that KKK activity or membership were on the rise.

"The Confederate flag is one of the foremost symbols of their ideological outlook. So the idea that they can muster fewer than 200 people is an indication of how far their membership has dwindled," Green said.

At the same time, researchers have documented as many as 90 pro-flag rallies around the South in recent weeks, some held by Klan chapters, some by other white supremacist groups.

"I suspect we are on the precipice of a new wave of Klan activity," said Leonard Zeskin, who runs the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and is the author of "Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream."

Zeskin cautioned anyone from dismissing the Klan as out-of-touch goons. As the makeup of American society, and the arc of political opinion, moves further away from white dominance, the Klan will seek ways to turn it to their advantage, he said.

"We are moving toward a turning point in American history, toward a demographic transformation in which white people will become minorities," Zeskind said. "Every one of the racist organizations knows that date is coming. They talk about it and they strategize about it, and they hope that the battles of 2035 are sharper than the battles of today." 

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