DAWSON SPRINGS, Ky. -- Along a Hopkins County back road dotted with sagging mobile homes and pine forests is a 28-acre compound that is headquarters to the second-largest Ku Klux Klan group in the United States.
The entrance to The Imperial Klans of America is marked by a high gate, and Klansmen wearing fatigues and holstered pistols stop visitors at the fence. Klan, Nazi and Confederate flags fly nearby.
Ronald Edwards, the 47-year-old founder and leader of the Klan group that has at least 23 chapters in 17 states, waits inside an adjacent guard shack decorated with a sign that denigrates African Americans.
He's the target of a pending Southern Poverty Law Center suit that seeks damages for a 2006 assault by two IKA members of a Hispanic teenager in Meade County.
The center says Edwards' Kentucky-based group, formed in 1997, promotes violence and hate, cultivates ties with skinhead groups and hosts one of the country's more notorious white-power festivals.
But like many other Klan groups, Edwards, as an Imperial Wizard, sits atop an organization without much funding, clout or support. Its headquarters consists of little more than a handful of trailers, a collection of vehicles, a playground and a wooden stage.
Edwards won't say how many members he has, but experts estimate that he has a few hundred, only some of whom take part in occasional leafleting, the odd rally, Bible study sessions, meetings, cross-burnings at the compound and its annual Nordic Fest.
The group hardly makes a stir anymore in nearby Dawson Springs, according to police and officials.
Edwards himself says most members are poor or on disability.
Yet the Poverty Law Center says that Edwards has been the charismatic glue that has held together a group that has used the Internet to reach a vast audience, many of whom espouse its views but never become official members.
"I wouldn't underestimate the IKA," Richard Cohen, Southern Poverty attorney and president, said. "While their assets are probably quite modest, their influence has been much more profound."
Experts estimate that Klan membership nationally is about 6,000 to 8,000, just a fraction of the 5 million it had in its 1920s heyday.
Today's membership has remained steady, researchers estimate, even as Klan chapters have risen from 110 in 2000 to 164 last year within 34 splintered, named groups.
The IKA ranks made it the second-largest Klan group last year, behind the Illinois-based Brotherhood of Klans, according to the law center, which tracks hate groups.
"It's really quite a small movement," said Kathleen Blee, a University of Pittsburgh sociologist who studies the Klan. Yet while organized Klan violence has decreased, she said, "they keep the pot of racial hatred going."
Life at the compound
During an interview at his compound, Edwards sat in a chair inside a small shack surrounded by guards -- including a thin, 54-year-old man who identified himself only as a Klan historian, and a 31-year-old who called himself the compound's sergeant-at-arms.
Edwards, who has earned money with painting and contracting jobs, lives on the property in a mobile home with a girlfriend and two young children. He also has four older children, only one of whom fully shares his views, he said.
Klan members from outside the area come and go, he said, some staying in a trailer outfitted with bunks.
Edwards, who said he likes to carry a .45-caliber pistol and a .22-caliber pistol, has been in at least one other Klan group, rising from positions of Exalted Cyclops to Imperial Wizard. Edwards views Jews as Satan's children, African Americans as inferior, and says immigrants are ruining the country. He rails against desegregated schools, mixed marriages and affirmative action.
"I'm a separatist more than anything," he said.
Asked how he got involved with the Klan, Edwards told of growing up in a working-class, minority Chicago neighborhood in the 1970s. He lived with his single mother, who tended bar and waited tables to support her seven children.
Although he could barely read and write, Edwards said he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work as the night manager at a gas station.
Run-ins with minorities, he said, who "picked on me a lot," led him to join a white street gang when he was 14.
For a time he was involved with an Arkansas-based Klan group, but by the 1990s he had settled in Kentucky. He became convinced that white rights were being "trampled upon," he said, and started the IKA near Greenville, Ky., around 1997.
Membership grew, and by 1999 the Imperial Klans of America had set up branches as far away as Queensland, Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
That same year, the FBI searched Edwards' Greenville home and seized membership records, computer equipment, videotapes and literature. At the time, Edwards said he was questioned about a possible bomb plot, denying any knowledge. He was never prosecuted following grand jury hearings, and court records about the case remain sealed.
Keeping a low profile
Roughly five years ago, he said, he moved the headquarters to Dawson Springs, which he said had fewer minorities and was remote.
For the town of 3,000 people, the arrival of the Klan was alarming, despite the headquarters' location outside city limits. Klansmen initially created a stir by carrying guns into church, leading some storeowners to put up signs banning weapons, city and county police and officials said.
But in the years since, the Klan has largely proven to be a quiet presence, according to local police and public officials. A criminal records check revealed no significant episodes with the law.
"It's not a great big operation, best I can tell," said Shawn Bean, a Hopkins County sheriff's investigator who keeps tabs on IKA. "A few members live on property, and a few others live in the community. â€¦ I don't think people (in town) pay a lot of attention to them."
Klan member Jim Sheeley, who lives in the area, said some churches have shunned him, and he rarely eats at area restaurants -- fearful that minority cooks might try to poison him.
In 2003, dozens of Ku Klux Klan marchers made news when they paraded around Eddyville to protest what Edwards said was harassment of Klan sympathizers in Lyon County. Nowadays, Edwards said he views marches as being "counter-productive."
Last month, Edwards and several members appeared at an anti-immigration rally in Athens, Ala., with about 30 other Klansmen, according to members and a local paper.
Stacia Peyton, longtime mayor of Dawson Springs, said that the IKA's city P.O. box remains an embarrassment. But the fear of retaliation means "we wouldn't tell them that," she said.
Poverty Law Center
In late July 2006, 16-year-old Jordan Gruver and his family decided to attend a country fair at the Meade County fairgrounds near Brandenburg, Ky.
The teenager, born in the United States after his father emigrated from the coast of Panama and married a U.S. citizen, was enjoying the fair's exhibits and hanging out with friends, according to Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers representing him.
Several Klan members and associates were also at the county fair that day handing out business cards and fliers. They insulted a black carnival worker, then began harassing Gruver without provocation, according to Cohen.
Soon the 5-foot-3 boy was beaten and kicked to the ground, leaving him with broken ribs and a broken arm, Cohen said. Two men -- IKA members Jarred Hensley of Cincinnati and Andrew Watkins of Louisville -- were later sentenced in Meade Circuit Court to three years in prison.
Edwards angrily denies that he ordered or condoned the attack. The two convicted men, he said, were kicked out of the Klan, which he said doesn't allow any illegal activities.
"I had nothing to do with it, and neither did the Klan," he said. "Violence is not going to win nothing."
Nationally, federal hate-crime statistics show that most are committed by people not associated with organized groups. However, Cohen and other experts said groups like Edwards' IKA provide the ideology and justification that fuel those attacks, despite their public denunciations of violence.
Since Edwards was the organization's leader at the time of the assault, the Southern Poverty Law Center initially named the IKA, Edwards, two others present and the two convicted men in a civil lawsuit that seeks unspecified damages. The center said this week they would drop the two convicted men as defendants, saying they were unnecessary to the lawsuit.
The goal is to financially cripple the group and deter future violence, Cohen said.
It's the center's first case to focus on anti-immigration hate crimes, which is increasingly fueling hate movements, he said.
Cohen hopes to repeat the success of similar lawsuits his group has filed. In 2000, a $6.3 million jury verdict forced Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler to give up the organization's 20-acre compound.
In 1987, a $7 million verdict in Mobile, Ala., helped dismantle the United Klans of America. The center says two of its members lynched a black man in 1981. The Klan group was forced to turn over its headquarters to Beulah Mae Donald, the victim's mother, who used the money to buy a home.
Since the IKA suit was filed, the Southern Poverty Center said it has received nearly a dozen threats related to it, including threats to blow up the building. Center co-founder Morris Dees said the case "promises to be as dangerous as anything we've faced."
Edwards dismisses such talk as exaggeration and denies that his group made threats. And he believes the lawsuit won't work.
He said the compound is on land that technically belongs to a trust in the name of one of his sons. He said he has no car in his name and doesn't keep records about the IKA anymore.
"In 1999 (after the FBI raid) we burned everything," he said. "I got like $38 in the bank."
Edwards has drawn attention from experts who track hate groups for his 2006 move to open membership to non-Christian white supremacists, a group formerly unwelcome in a Klan that embraces the Bible, according to Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
That's an attempt to draw in more and younger members to a group that typically draws older men, Mayo said.
Edwards said he doesn't know how long he'll continue leading the group, but for now, he said, "I hate with a passion. But I love my people â€¦ and being with my own kind."