Grand Dragon Sue Green holds a cigarette between her hot-pink fingernails and watches the men in her klavern slice through burlap bags with buck knives. Inside the garage crammed with timber, old blankets, tools and other assorted junk, the sacks' odor chokes like mustard gas.
"Burlap smell pretty good, don' it, Bubba?" one of the plainclothes knights asks a friend.
Outside, it's cold and drizzling, but the knights won't let the weather spoil their ceremony. Fresh from a recruitment rally and stuffed with gumbo and weenies, the new, Conroe-based Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan is going to light three crosses behind Green's red brick house.
Green is a 60-year-old grandmother who wears a jacket over a gray T-shirt with "KKK" printed in Confederate colors. She watches with pride as her 20-year-old son, David, staples burlap to a ten-foot cross. Another son, 41-year-old Ken, sits on a freezer and cuts through another sack. Ken says he supports the klavern but won't join because his best friend is black.
Beside Ken, a CD player bellows music from revered Klan singer Johnny Rebel.
"Some niggers don't die / they just smell that way," Johnny twangs over pedal-steel guitar. The klavern sings along with glee.
This is Mr. Rebel's prime motif. Whether strolling the stinky streets of Coontown or lurking mischievously in a woodpile, his songs' African-Americans are a great source of amusement for the Invisible Empire.
As the men wrap the crosses, the women soak torches in a bucket of diesel fuel. Inside the house are the klavern's unofficial seamstress and Shaggy, their crippled mascot. Shaggy, a mutt recovering from a run-in with a car, was around even before the Invisible Empire splintered from the American Knights last year. He's such a part of the klavern that the seamstress is designing him a robe.
Like all the other robes, this one will have to be washed at home. Too many dry cleaners have deliberately burned holes in the robes. The Klan just can't get a break.
By now, the seamstress is one mask short of a full set of uniforms. And that's not the only worry: The Harris County nighthawk -- security guard for the klavern -- got lost near Highway 105 on his way back from dropping off the rental van they drove to the rally. So Green has to go pick him up. Renting a van is a necessary hassle, since members say local authorities could identify them if they drove their own vehicles to events.
When the grand dragon and Harris County nighthawk return -- the latter with a pistol strapped to his leg -- the men set up the crosses in the muddy woods 50 yards behind Green's house.
But there's another problem: They don't have enough diesel to soak the burlap. Ken and another nonmember, whose exceptionally large noggin earns him the nickname Waterhead, have to drive back to Montgomery to restock.
A miffed grand dragon returns to the house, sits at the kitchen table and takes swigs from a can of Diet Coke. This Klan stuff is hard work.
Green's entry into the group came two decades ago, when she married a member of the Waco chapter of the American Knights of the KKK. After a traditional wedding, the couple donned their uniforms and a reverend Klansman made them lifelong mates in the eyes of the Klan.
Headquartered in Indiana, the AK was then one of the most organized and hard-core Klan groups in the country, according to national hate group trackers.
But Green says she grew tired of her affiliation with what she describes as a group that spewed hate and recruited violent ex-cons. She decided to form her own klavern of the Texas-Oklahoma Invisible Empire of the KKK, which she describes as a low-key, nonprofit white rights organization. While proud of her efforts, she asked to use the pseudonym Green, explaining that she might be fired from her regular job if her real identity were published.
After one year, Green says, her klavern has 25 members. Besides being proud of their pigmentation, they take pride in being a different kind of Klan. Members say they don't allow criminals or drugs and they absolutely do not drink on meeting days. Green says she runs a background check on every prospect. And the Invisible Empire claims it is not a hate group, unlike the Cleveland, Texas-based White Camelia Knights.
During the Christmas season, Green says, klavern members call Montgomery County schools without revealing their Klan ties and get lists of needy families. They drop food baskets on the families' doorsteps, along with cards that say, "Merry Christmas from the Ku Klux Klan." Some of the families are black and Hispanic, but Green doesn't have a problem with that.
In fact, Green proudly explains that she rejected one applicant who said he wanted to join for the express purpose of hanging blacks. She says this while sitting at home in front of an altered yellow street sign that reads, "Caution: Hit Nigger Children at Play."
Members also say the prominent klavern positions of women also sets them apart from some Klan branches. Not only is Green the grand dragon, she's also the higher-ranked grand klaliff. Their Exalted Cyclops, or local leader, is also a woman. The EC says people shouldn't fear the Invisible Empire's uniforms.
"To me, it's like the pope," the Exalted Cyclops says. "He wears a robe."
Members and their leader all insist they don't hate minorities -- they just want them to stick to themselves.
But Joe Roy, of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, says there's no difference between Green's Klan and the others. "We have a saying down here in Alabama: You can put lipstick on a pig and call it Monique, but it's still a pig," Roy says.
Of the 676 hate groups Roy tracked nationwide last year, only the Klan showed a decrease in membership -- he estimated it at roughly 5,000 to 7,500. Klaverns have been so hungry for members that many are putting women in positions of power, which was unheard of years ago, he says.
The Klan just doesn't have the same mystique it used to, and with the prevalence of other hate groups and their Web sites, Roy says, "you can find something to fit your hatred better than the Klan." Infighting and other problems have also hurt the Klan, he says.
The Invisible Empire splintered from the American Knights, which was one of the fastest-growing factions until their national leader got thrown in prison last year for holding a television reporter and cameraman at gunpoint after an interview. Since then, the AKs dropped from 33 to 18 chapters nationwide, Roy says.
Mark Pitcavage monitors extremist groups from his Columbus, Ohio, office for the Anti-Defamation League. He says Klan groups try to recruit in one of two ways: either by being blatantly racist, like the American Knights, or by saying they're just a white civil rights group, like the Invisible Empire.
"The reality is, they are hate groups," Pitcavage says. "The Klan is founded on hate."
Pitcavage doesn't even consider groups like the Invisible Empire to be the real Klan, which he says hasn't existed as a unified organization since the mid-1940s. It peaked in the 1920s with a few million members and considerable influence, then gradually splintered into regional or local groups that never had more than 10,000 combined members.
Which is exactly why Green and her group decided to hold a recruitment rally north of Houston on November 2. They're trying to get the numbers up.
On a cold, rainy Saturday, a white van carrying 12 Klan members rolls into Montgomery's Cedar Brake Park. State, county and municipal police agencies put 75 officers in the park. The cops and Klan in the park equal one-fifth of the town's population.
Members of the sheriff's tactical squad gather in a pavilion, their riot gear lined up neatly on the ground. Their expressions are as ugly as the weather. Green inadvertently scheduled the rally for the opening day of deer season. Dozens of cops and deputies had to change their schedules to baby-sit in case of violence.
"Next time, check your calendar," some of them tell the knights as they step out of the van.
Park entrances are blocked off, and the cops relegate the rally to the rear of the park. The only blacks on hand are wearing law enforcement badges. An African-American councilwoman scheduled a barbecue picnic and domino competition for the black community on the other side of town.
Klavern members armed with various flags -- U.S., Texas, confederate and POW -- amble into the barricades, with four black-robed nighthawks circling the eight white robes. Some wear sunglasses behind their masks. One nighthawk wears a Halloween witch's wig, the scraggly black locks jutting out from under his hood. He says later that it's all part of his disguise.
About a dozen spectators show up, not counting Klan sympathizers Ken and Waterhead. Four members of the county Democratic Party stand behind two gigantic Ron Kirk campaign posters. The low turnout is disappointing for the klavern, especially after the series of night rides they held to get the word out. For the past few weeks, they've cruised slowly through Conroe and Montgomery, throwing rolled-up leaflets about "black apes" and the Zionist Occupational Government onto front lawns.
A tiny megaphone emerges from under one of the white robes, and before the man holding it can speak, he accidentally hits a switch that makes the bullhorn blare out a metallic recording of "Dixie." All the hoods immediately swivel in his direction, but he does his best to play it off, nonchalantly raising it to his lips.
This knight, who calls himself James Confederate, launches into a history lesson not found in traditional schooling. He claims blacks commit 90 percent of crimes, that black men love to hook white girls on drugs, and that descendants of slaves should be grateful for Christian last names.
"Our government is selling out to the blacks," James Confederate shrieks.
A hundred yards away in the pavilion, Montgomery Mayor Mary Sue Timmerman braces herself against the cold and anxiously waits for the Invisible Empire to leave. Then she'll take the cops out for lunch, a way of saying thanks for having to miss out on that ten-point buck.
"This is the first time I've seen them, and I hope the last," she says. "I don't even think they like themselves."
An hour into the rally, the drizzle turns to monsoon, and the Klan packs up before the solemn rally can turn into a wet-robe contest.
As cops and spectators depart, a police helicopter buzzes overhead, indicating how seriously the law took this rally. All this effort for 12 people and a megaphone that whistles "Dixie."
While the klavern claims to have recruited eight members from the rally, there are no new faces at the following cross-lighting.
The members finally get the burlap soaked, don their robes and follow flashlight beams into the muddy woods. Ken and a teenage couple who aren't members follow in a Jeep.
At the crosses, klavernists grab unlit torches and try to form a circle. Some knights have stepped too far away. A nighthawk gives directions ("closer, closer no, wait, back up") for a minute or so before the wavering oval transforms into a true circle.
Green pulls a torch from the bucket, holds it up for Waterhead to light and ignites the others' torches. "Do you accept the light?" she asks them.
Waterhead holds Green's torch so she can read a short speech about the ceremony. It turns out that cross-lighting is all about stamping out ignorance and superstition. That, and warning about the dangers of interracial marriage.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The brief speech ends; they drop their torches at the crosses, which blaze up instantly, releasing the suffocating stench of diesel and burlap. They stand in silence, staring at the crackling flames and thick plumes of smoke. Ken snaps pictures from the Jeep.
Breaking the silence, Green yells, "White power!" The others respond in kind.
Because the burlap didn't soak long, the fires dim after a few minutes.
Then the rain starts to pour down on them. With nothing else to do, the Conroe Klavern of the Texas-Oklahoma Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan trudges back home for leftover weenies.