On the day America celebrated the memory and legacy of human rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., residents in three Iron Range towns woke up to a different kind of message.
"WHITE PRIDE" screamed the headline in capital letters on fliers distributed in the Range communities. "You can say it — I'm proud to be white! Why are we not allowed to celebrate our culture?"
The fliers were part of a recruiting effort by a North Carolina-based group calling itself the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Hundreds were distributed in the city of Virginia, as well as the nearby towns of Buhl and Embarrass.
Community leaders this week strongly denounced the fliers and said they are trying to find out who distributed them.
"We don't want this kind of crap in our community," Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said Thursday. "It's racism, is what it is. It's despicable. It's a cancer that will eat away the very fabric of your community if you allow this to continue.
"You hate to even address this issue, because all they're looking for is publicity," Cuffe added. "But you can't let it go and ignore it."
The KKK recruitment effort comes at a time when racial tensions have flared over events such as a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer and controversy over the removal of Confederate statues from public places.
The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are recognized as an active hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based organization that monitors such groups.
According to the center's Hatewatch publication, the Loyal White Knights are based in Pelham, N.C., near the North Carolina-Virginia border. Members of the group took part in last summer's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, where a woman protesting against racism was killed after a man with white supremacist ties drove his car into the crowd.
Ryan Lenz, an SPLC spokesman, said his group is seeing an increase nationwide in recruitment efforts by racist groups.
The KKK typically aims its recruitment efforts at predominantly white communities, Lenz said. Virginia, Buhl and Embarrass are located in St. Louis County, which is 92 percent white or non-Hispanic.
The group commonly uses fliers to target recruits, Lenz added, saying, "In the digital age we live in, the Klan has chosen a distinctly analog method of recruitment."
The SPLC hasn't identified any organized Klan groups in Minnesota, he added.
Residents on the Range this week have posted photos of the recruitment fliers on Facebook, drawing angry comments from friends and community members.
"People in this little town I live in and grew up in are handing out KKK pamphlets," wrote Virginia resident Joseph Adams. "Hmmm … I don't know if I want to be here much longer."
"I got one too!" replied Marissa Albright. "Burned it up."
Another KKK flier called King a "Communist pervert" and questioned why he's honored with a national holiday.
The fliers carried phone numbers for two "Klan Hotlines." A recorded message on one of the hot lines urges people to join the KKK. "If you're white and proud, join the crowd," the recording said.
Cuffe said community leaders plan to meet with the city's Human Rights Commission "and formulate a measured response.''
"By distributing this kind of literature on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it was an effort to disparage the Native American population, the African-American population and anyone who's not Anglo-Saxon," Cuffe said.
"That kind of stuff is unacceptable and garbage, obviously. It makes me sick to my stomach."