by Alicia W. Stewart, CNN
(CNN) –“All we wanna do is adopt a highway,” said April Chambers, secretary of the North Georgia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. “We're not doing it for publicity. We're doing it to keep the mountains beautiful. People throwing trash out on the side of the road ... that ain't right."
For many Americans, the Ku Klux Klan has been a symbol for terrorism, racism and evil in America, synonymous with burning crosses, lynchings and hooded men.
But is the latest effort to adopt a highway an introduction of a new era of a kinder, gentler Klan or merely an effort to gain attention? After more than a century and a half, what is the Ku Klux Klan today?
"We're not racists," Chambers told CNN Monday. "We just want to be with white people. If that's a crime, then I don't know. It's all right to be black and Latino and proud, but you can't be white and proud. I don't understand it."
Harley Hanson, who filed the application to adopt the highway for the International Keystone Knights Realm of Georgia, concurred: “I love my race. Does that make me wrong? I’m proud to be white,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Today, when speaking to leaders of the Klan, you won't hear racial epithets or a denunciation of any ethnic groups.
"We do not hate anyone,” said Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “The true Ku Klux Klan is an organization that is looking out for the interests of the white race. It is a fraternal organization, and we do good works.”
Ancona's words are a contrast to criminal acts historically associated with the Klan - a divergence from intimidating images of hooded figures with lit crosses cutting through a dark night.
"We look out for the interest of our family first, I feel that other races feel the same way - it's a natural instinct, " he adds.
After all, who can argue with anyone about taking care of one's loved ones or cleaning up a national highway?
"These groups are interested in the press they know they are going to get off this – it doesn’t have anything to do with improving the world," said Mark Potok, editor in chief of the Intelligence Report, which tracks hate groups and extremists for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Potok concludes that it is not a kinder, gentler Ku Klux Klan but merely a sign of the times.
“Even the Klan recognizes there is no way that they can recreate America as an all-white country,” he said.
The group began as a fraternal organization, founded by Confederate veterans after the Civil War. At its height, Ku Klux Klan members were politicians, advertising gurus, journalists, businessmen and women with powerful political and social influence. In the 1920s, membership swelled to 4 million to 5 million, fueled in part by the popularity of "A Birth of a Nation," a 1915 silent film that extolled the virtues of the Klan. The civil rights era witnessed a resurgence of the group, and it still exists today with 4,000 to 5,000 members nationally.
"I wonder why they characterize us as a hate group? Who do we hate?" Ancona said. "I know what the perception is; people come up to us and they hate us."
When speaking to him via phone, Ancona insists that there is a not a "rebranding" of the KKK. Instead, there is a focus on the original values of the Klan that have been distorted by "rogue" members and a mischaracterization by media.
"We are doing all we can to dispel the negative images," said Ancona. "If we find out one of our members was charged with a crime, or immoral behavior, we might give them a warning first, but we try to keep a tight eye on that. We have a thorough screening process to weed out troublemakers. I can only speak for the Traditional Knights, but none of our members are criminals."
Ancona sends out Twitter messages, has a modest following and speaks earnestly about the traditions of the Klan. He speaks with special conviction when talking about the standard by which he strives to live.
"Jesus Christ is our criteria of character. If you look at Romans 12:1-2, that is how Klans are supposed to live, that is the standard, " he explained. "We do not burn the cross, we light the cross to show that Christ is the light of the world."
When pressed for how historical killings intersect with with Christian teachings of loving one another, he answers that the criticism the group faces is similar to the contempt directed at his example.
"We do this even though we know we will be hated and scorned, we sacrifice and serve for what's right - to uphold the principle that were taught by Jesus Christ of Nazareth and ensure that we give our children and their grandchildren America we had."
An independent contractor, Ancona says he is not paid for his work leading the Midwest chapter. He does the work "because I feel that I am doing something good for my fellow man."
He believes there is nothing hateful in the Klan bylaws and contends that while the organization has had "a dark past," it is not dissimilar to that of the action of some priests actions in the Catholic Church or a producer cutting misleading clips in on a story about George Zimmerman: you don't judge the whole for a few bad parts.
"I would want people to know that we are here, and we are not to be feared. The Klan is looking out for the white race, to preserve our rights and our history. The Klan looks out for America as our forefathers did."
Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, characterizes Ancona's group as "sort of the big dog" of the Ku Klux Klan now.
Pitcavage is a former military historian who began researching militia minutemen and later right-wing extremism. He characterizes the Klan as "group of hard-core white supremacists that are motivated by a belief that the white race is in danger of extinction."
He says white supremacy is composed of five main movements: Neo-Nazis, traditional white supremacist groups, racist skinheads, racist prison gangs and Christian Identity, whose religious adherents believe they are descended from lost tribes of Israel.
The current Klan is not one cohesive group, and is considered one of the traditional white supremacist groups, which emerged in the the civil rights era.
"The situation that existed in the 1950s and '60s simply does not exist. The white supremacists are no longer in charge. They are now fighting for the very survival of the white race, and they have to fight to protect," said Pitcavage. "This is a fundamental difference of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and today in the 21st century.”
In the past 60 years, several chapters of the Klan have made efforts to be involved in more civic-minded projects, such as adopting highways.
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – the Arkansas group that David Duke once led - tried doing it. There was also a group in Missouri that won a lawsuit to adopt a highway, and most recently, the North Georgia group that was denied the permit.