GASTONIA, N.C. – Fears over illegal immigration are fueling a resurgence in membership to the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and across the country, according to Klan officials and organizations that track hate groups.
In Gaston County near Charlotte, the imperial wizard of the Mount Holly-based chapter of the Klan says membership is growing faster than he's seen since joining in the 1960s.
"People are tired of this mess," said Virgil Griffin, 62. "The illegal immigrants are taking this country over."
Griffin recounted 1960s Klan rallies when dozens, sometimes hundreds, marched through towns such as Mount Holly, Salisbury and Wilmington.
"We were strong in the '60s," he said. "We're not that strong now. We're hoping to get there."
The group wants to increase its numbers so it can influence local and national politics. The Klan's goals include military border enforcement and ending taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants.
Klan members often associate with racist skinheads or neo-Nazis, and illegal immigration is a top issue for all of them, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
From 2000 to 2005, the number of hate groups grew 33 percent in the United States while Klan chapters grew by 63 percent, according to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
North Carolina has grown from 27 to 35 extremist groups, including eight Klan chapters, in the past five years, according to the center.
The FBI in Charlotte reported sporadic rises in Klan activity in recent years but nothing significant.
Still, Klan growth in North Carolina reflects a "surprising and troubling resurgence" around the country as the group uses new tools such as the Internet to recruit members, said David Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Washington.
The Klan remains dangerous because of its history of intimidation and violence, he said.
There are as many as 803 white supremacist groups and 150 Klan chapters nationwide, according to Potok.