All in all, the Grand Dragon of Maryland is well pleased.

Samuel Royer, a big, shaggy man with a red mustache, sits in a friend's home in rural Frederick County, exulting in the recent activities of the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

"We were out on the streets all summer long," said Royer, 48, a former building contractor. "We had rallies. We passed out our literature. Whites are the most discriminated against, and nobody's speaking out for the whites but the Ku Klux Klan. People are beginning to understand."

In nearby Frederick, Lord Dunsmore Nickens, the bespectacled grandfather of five and president of the Frederick County chapter of the NAACP, is disturbed by the Klan's impact on the image of the area and on the state of race relations in general.

"The Klan needs to be exposed," said Nickens, 73, a retired bacteriologist whose father was born into slavery in Culpeper, Va., in 1856. "The Klan has been hidden for 115 years. We talk about people over in other countries committing atrocities against us, and there are things going on in our own country, against our own people . . . . "

Nickens, who says he has carried a handgun since a "card-carrying Klan member" threatened his life four years ago, is the force behind an NAACP suit against Frederick County. The suit charges that county officials wrongly granted public rally permits last summer for Klan gatherings obviously intended for white-only crowds. The case is to be heard Friday before U.S. District Judge Frank Kauffman in Baltimore.

Lord Nickens and Sam Royer: Two men who are watching each other.

Groups monitoring the Klan report that membership within the white-supremacist organization is not on the rise -- despite the contradictory but vague boasts of Klan leaders. Nationwide, there are about 8,000 "hard-core" members, said Pat Clark of Klan Watch, part of the Birmingham-based Southern Poverty Law Center that is aimed at bettering race relations.

In Maryland, state police estimate that the two strongest factions -- Royer's group, the Invisible Empire, and a group centered in Baltimore County, the Maryland Independent Knights of the Ku Klux Klan -- have fewer than 50 members between them. In Virginia, police estimates are even smaller.

But what is striking now, Klan watchers agree, is an increase in open Klan activity. There is also an increase in fears that what some regard as a growing conservative movement may foster sympathy for the Klan as well as for other extremist groups.

In the so-called Klan "season" just passed, Klan members donned white robes at gatherings in Bristol and Gate City, Va., in Washington County, Md., and twice, under Royer's direction, in Frederick County -- all to moderately heavy media attention.

They scattered leaflets through a St. Mary's County neighborhood where interracial couples live, and, according to the Maryland state police, they tried to launch a membership drive in several state correctional institutions.

They stood on street corners in the small Frederick County communities of Taneytown, Brunswick and Thurmont, passing out flyers touting "God, white womanhood, and the future of the USA," until Nickens asked community officials to discourage the practice.

And, in a burst of confidence, Royer announced that his group has an option to buy land on Md. Rte. 77 in Frederick County -- just the spot, he said, for a state headquarters for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Of all the states, the Klan in Maryland has been especially active this year," said Clark. "Royer has been very busy."

"There is a residual fear of black people in this country anyway," said Emmett Burns, regional director for the NAACP in Virginia, Maryland and the District. "But with the federal deficit what it is, with the conservative climate in our government what it is, some people are going to be looking for reasons why things are the way they are. They're going to be looking for scapegoats and I feel I am a scapegoat. I can't wash away my blackness."

Since 1979, the U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted 84 Klan members for crimes involving racial violence, said department spokesman John Wilson. In September, nine Ku Klux Klan members in North Carolina were indicted on federal charges of conspiring to violate the rights of interracial families in a series of cross burnings and shootings, Wilson said.

Royer, who as Grand Dragon likens himself to Klan governor of Maryland, is proud of his clean record. "I'm not saying all Klansmen are choir boys -- they aren't -- but most of us are nice guys," he said. "We're nonviolent, per se. We're not going to go out and start any trouble, but we protect our own. We've all had paramilitary training."

The Frederick County NAACP suit is directed not against the Klan, but against county officials. Deputy County Attorney Joseph Emerson said that the county had no choice but to grant the permit to the Klan. He added that the suit is ironic since Nickens and other NAACP members served on a committee that developed the permit policy in 1980.

"When you hear the word 'permit,' it sounds like the county allowed the rally and the county didn't. The U.S. Constitution did," Emerson said. "A group, regardless of whether you like it or hate it, has the right to public assembly."

In Frederick County, the Klan's recent outspoken presence has led to fears that the area will be labeled unfairly as a Klan bastion. The county, which has about 115,000 residents, is the second-fastest growing county in Maryland and, with its picturesque rolling hills and country atmosphere, is gaining favor as a Washington bedroom community. About 8 percent of the county residents are black.

"In a way, [the Klan's presence] does hurt the county's image and that's the sad part," Emerson said. "It just so happens that somebody with a little property let the Klan hold a rally on it, and it happened to be in Frederick County, but it doesn't reflect how the majority of Frederick County residents feel."

Concerned residents held anti-Klan rallies last summer to coincide with the two Klan gatherings. More than 100 people, including Del. Thomas H. Hattery (D-Frederick) and Frederick Mayor Ronald Young, attended the services.

At one of the gatherings, Nickens asked the participants to hold hands and "pray for those who would burn a cross."

Royer, who retired after a heart attack four years ago, said he is not intimidated by the NAACP suit or its chief proponent.

"He's a clown," Royer said about Nickens. "He's a bumpkin . . . . I've never bothered him."

Royer said his interest in the Klan grew after he became outraged about blacks during the 17 years he worked construction jobs in the District.

"I just had it, seeing where my tax dollar was being spent," he said. "All those V.D. clinics . . . . I'd watch every morning at 10 o'clock, when the liquor stores opened. All those drunks would line up to spend my money."

Five years ago, he became the grand dragon.

Royer's four grown sons quickly adopted his philosophy, first joining the Klan Youth Corps and then becoming full Klansmen after their graduation from private Christian schools. The Royer home, in a rural area of Washington County, is decorated with Confederate banners and the official Klan flag that features a white cross splattered with droplets of blood.

"I feel if a black is qualified, then that black should be given the job, but not because of his skin," Royer said.

"I'm a helluva nice guy, really, seriously, I am," he said with a laugh. "I'm a real easy-going person. I'm not a troublemaker. But I'll always be a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan."

Nickens envisions a debate between himself and Royer.

"I'd ask him who has the authority to judge another person because of the color of his skin or the texture of his hair," Nickens said recently in a deliberate voice. "And I'd ask him what he thinks the Ten Commandments are all about."