Joe Mulligan gathered with about a dozen friends for a cookout last weekend in Mountain Top. After the cookout, the friends dressed in their robes and hoods to light on fire a 24-foot high cross fashioned from a few chopped trees wrapped in kerosene-soaked burlap.
The flames consumed the cross in about 20 minutes as Mulligan and other members of the East Coast Knights of the True Invisible Empire circled around them and posed for photos with the conflagration in the background.
Tom Larson, the Imperial Wizard of the group, made the trip from Delaware.
“It’s a traditional ceremony. We hadn’t had one up there in years,” said Larson. “We light the cross to show us our way in the dark.”
Rather than prepare for midnight marauding, they stayed put to celebrate their white race and Christian principles as members of a new-era Ku Klux Klan, distancing themselves from the violence of the past while longing for a return to traditions anchored in family, country and God.
In his address to the group members, Larson said, he told them to remember their oath, the constitution and bylaws of the Klan and impressed upon them they are family.
“We’re going to do whatever we have to do without violence to protect our race. If somebody interferes, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” Larson said.
As one of the highest-ranking members, Larson does not wear a hood or cover his face, though the others did that night.
Mulligan and three Klansmen met for an interview on Oct. 5 in Ashley. They wore the same basic black dress uniform shirt adorned with patches identifying them as East Coast Knights and the cross symbol of the group. None of them made any attempt to conceal their faces but, except for Mulligan, they did not provide their full names for fear of job loss or retaliation.
They have been with the group for less than a year.
A married father of three children, Mulligan, 28, joined to find like-minded Christian, white men and women. Guarded against disclosing too much about himself, Mulligan said he lives and works in the Wilkes-Barre area and serves as the Imperial Kladd, organizing and recruiting others in the area.
The group’s recent recruitment efforts drew media attention and a response from the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other religious and community organizations. The organizations held a march on Sept. 15 to send a message to the Klan that it is neither welcomed nor wanted here.
“And that NAACP parade, we had people there,” Mulligan said.
“It seemed like they were the only ones that wanted problems,” he said of the march organizers. They called out members of the East Coast Knights who kept mum, he said.
“We weren’t going to say anything,” Mulligan said. “We don’t want a problem.”
“We’re not looking for a fight,” added Joe O., a 36-year-old worker in the restaurant industry.
“We’re fraternal brotherhood. We’re just a haven for,” Mulligan continued.
“Just a haven for white Christians,” Joe O. finished.
The men voiced their displeasure with the lack of manners they said they see daily, gay marriage and illegal immigrants.
“I was raised, my morals, my logistics on my lifestyle, how I and my wife treat other people, that doesn’t exist anymore in this world,” said Joe O.
Tom, 27, who said he works as a subcontractor for a multi-national company, spoke about the aims of the group.
“One thing we need to do and we may not be able to do it on a national level, but at least we can do it in our community here where we live, where we grew up and where we’re rearing our families is to bring back some of the values, morals and ethics of years past,” he said.
Larson explained why the nationwide recruitment currently underway is in places likes Wilkes-Barre.
“We figure if we start in a small town, we have a better chance of change in a small town than a major city,” Larson said.
For Tom, change can start with a conversation about what’s wrong with the world.
“We do things individually, day by day on our own. We do things collectively as a group, nothing illegal, nothing immoral,” he said.
The group conducts criminal background checks on potential members and anyone with a felony or misdemeanor conviction is not allowed to join, they said.
“We’re not a hate group,” said Mike, 27, who is self-employed in the Mountain Top area.
“That’s the stigma that people still have. They still have the stigma of the Civil Rights-era Klan,” said Tom.
“We’re not going to get positive recognition by bombing a church like they did in Birmingham (Alabama),” said Tom.
He said he works with several black and Hispanic people and has good working relationships with them. “It’s like I said, it’s a pro-white organization. It’s not a racist organization. It’s not a hateful one,” said Tom.
Joe O., described his relationship with a black co-worker as well, saying “he’s like minded in the sense being he works, he loves his country, he loves God and that’s that.” They’ve never discussed his Klan membership, Joe O. said. “Actually I believe he knows,” he said. “The conversation has never come up in passing because we respect each other. I’m not going to go and pry into his past or his future or his family.”
Setting a cross on fire such as they did in private gets misinterpreted, Tom said.
“If we do it at our personal ceremony, it’s the light of Christ. You can look at it as a racial negativity if we’re putting it in a minority’s front yard. We’re not doing that,” he added.
He stressed the group is not aligned with neo-Nazi or skinheads because our nation’s military fought the Nazis in World War II.
The fact that they blend in with the public works to their advantage, they said.
“We’re plain clothed, regular Americans just as you are. We can be anybody, you know what I mean, no idea. But people that know us, know us for our morals and how we are and how we act and how we behave toward other individuals,” said Joe O.
“We’re called the Invisible Empire because nobody knows who we are. We could be your neighbor. We could be your co-worker,” said Mulligan.
They are not yet ready to go public, but may someday.
“I would personally love to see us get to the point where we have enough to go out and actually do something different,” said Joe O. “Maybe something that people don’t do, clean up a park.
Larson envisioned a march, possibly next year, if the membership continues to grow. As it stands now, the local group would be outnumbered by protesters, he said.
“When I’ve got a thousand up there, I’ll go out and march in the street and that could be next spring,” he said.