ELLIJAY, Ga. - Ku Klux Klan members rallied here Saturday to condemn illegal immigration, homosexuality, sex offenders, blacks and President Barack Obama, while counterdemonstrators preached love for everyone.
About 40 robe-clad Klansmen stood in the Gilmer County Courthouse parking lot as several hundred spectators watched from across the street. Police said there were no incidents.
The Klan's biggest gripe nowadays, if the Saturday event is any indication, appears to be illegal immigration. Speakers spent most of the hourlong rally assailing Hispanic immigrants.
"Most of you probably don't realize how bad this illegal alien situation actually is," said a man who identified himself at Imperial Wizard Jeff Jones. "Us real Americans don't want these ... people in our country."
He blamed lack of jobs and increases in tuberculosis, HIV and car accidents on illegal immigration.
"Ellijay has a major illegal alien community," said Jones, who claims the state headquarters for the KKK is in Gilmer County. "They are nothing but a bunch of leaches, parasites, like ticks on a dog, sucking our country dry."
People who said they were Klan leaders in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi all spoke, but none gave full names or could be contacted after the rally.
Countering the Klan, some people carried signs proclaiming love for all people, regardless of ethnicity. Around 15 came from the Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church to "provide an alternative message," said Myra Kibler, president of the congregation.
"We were incensed they would do this on Sept. 11," Kibler said. "We just didn't want their message to go unanswered. And we are thankful there are many other people here who want to make a different statement [than the Klan]. We want to provide an alternative message. ... We say that we are standing on the side of love."
"IMPOTENT AND IRRELEVANT"
The Klan that onlookers saw Saturday is a mere flickering shadow of its former power and influence.
During the 1920s - the Klan's heyday - the group had more than 4 million members, according to Mark Potok, head of intelligence for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Today, a fractured Klan with small branches all over the country has fewer than 6,000 members, he said.
"The Klan of today is small, fractured, impotent and irrelevant," Potok said.
The group has been crippled by lawsuits, infighting and waves of more sophisticated white supremacist groups that have siphoned members, said Potok.
That's the general impression of Andrew Stevens, a native of England who became an American citizen a few years ago. He had never seen a Klan rally but came to Ellijay expecting some sort of spectacle.
"These are just a bunch of knuckle-dragging idiots," Stevens said. "It's really pathetic to see how irrelevant they are, almost a parody of themselves."
STILL SOME APPEAL
Glenn Whitman drove from Tennessee to hear what the Klan had to say Saturday. He said he wasn't a member, but he didn't disagree with everything the speakers had to say.
"They are angry; I am angry. Who wouldn't be angry?" Whitman said, referring to the economy and illegal immigration. "They're illegal, for God's sake. They are turning our country into a Third World nation."
BY THE NUMBERS
5,000-6,000: Estimated current membership of KKK in U.S.
40: Estimated number of Klan groups in U.S.
4 million: Estimated Klan membership in 1920s
Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-Defamation League
He declined to say where he lives in Tennessee.
Most of the supporters, who cheered and shouted "white power" with the Klansmen, appeared to have traveled with the group. They left after the event.
Gilmer County Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Frank Copeland, speaking after the event, said officers checked the Klansmen's license plates and found only one Gilmer County plate among 30 vehicles. Others came from South Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and one had a New York plate, Copeland said.
No one would say how many law enforcement officers were present Saturday, but Lt. Copeland said at least 100 were in Ellijay to prevent a violent incident.
As the Klan left, a dozen or so Georgia State Patrol troopers with riot gear walked out of the courthouse and drove away. Sheriff's deputies, state troopers, city police and Department of Natural Resources rangers were at the rally.
Copeland said the cost of all that protection would be tallied later.
"It's definitely an expense," he said. "We've got to pay these officers to come down here ... but we don't really have a choice."
Marcelle Lowry, who owns the barbershop on the town square, said the county can ill afford such an expense in lean times.
And it's not good for the town's budding tourism economy, which relies on weekend travelers from Atlanta, Lowery said.
"I don't know if their reason [for being here] is because of the economy, but the cost is kind of defeating the purpose because it's hurting our economy," Lowery said.
Contact Adam Crisp at email@example.com or 423-757-6323. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/adam_crisp.