Striding through the Baton Rouge airport, Bill Wilkinson blends right in with the rest of the crowd of young, New South executives. A little more sunburned, perhaps, but the striped tie is neatly knotted and the summer suit is sharply pressed.

The difference between Wilkinson and the others is tucked away inside his suitcase. Instead of a batch of samples or a sheaf of memos, he carries a hooded robe and a 9 mm Beretta pistol.

As Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire, a Ku Klux Klan klavern (or chapter) based in Denham Springs, La. Wilkinson has been on the road a lot these days. Law enforcement authorities across the South are watching his travels uneasily because the Klan, close to dormancy since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, is on the rise again.

This year hooded Klan members, some of them heavily and openly armed, have marched in places like Decatur, Ala., Birmingham, Ala. and Canton, Miss. Last weekend, Wilkinson led 177 Klan members and followers to jail in Montgomery, Ala., after a "white power" march. Police said it was the biggest mass arrest in the Alabama state capital since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights protests there in 1965.

"I can't even remember all the towns I've been in this year," Wilkinson said in an interview this week.

The Klan has been turning up recently in places such as Barnegat, N.J., where three members were arrested last weekend after a mini rally of 19 Klansmen. In Columbus, Ga., where the Klan is scheduled to march this weekend, the group hasn't appeared openly since the 1940s.

"We're growing at a fantastic rate," Wilkinson says.

Law enforcement officials generally agree that the Klan is growing but just how is not clear. Klan chapters keep membership figures secret, even from each other. The FBI, which stopped monitoring the Klan after the bureau's illegal surveillance measures were made public in the last few years, says it has no idea how big the group is.

"We know they are more active," a federal official said this week. "We don't know if they are getting bigger."

The best figures on Klan growth are probably kept by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which has kept watch on the Klan for years. A spokesman at the league's New York City headquarters estimated the Klan has grown nearly 20 percent in the last year to a membership of about 9,000.

"For every member," said the spokesman, "we estimate they probably have 10 more followers or supporters."

That is still a far cry from a membership of five million the Klan claimed during its peak in the 1920s when it took on the trappings of a full-fledged political movement.

"In the present climate they won't be able to put together any movement like that," said a federal official in Alabama this week. More worrisome, he said, is the latest tendency of Klan members toward violance.

"You don't need many people to shoot a gun," he said.

Potentially the most violent of all the Klan Klaverns, in the view of federal authorities, is Wilkinson's Invisible Empire. Invisible Empire members have also been most visible recently at the Klan's rallies, even wearing Invisible Empire T-shirts under their robes. Police experts say the Denham Springs Klavern is the fastest growing of the competing Klan groups.

What has drawn the keenest attention has been Wilkinson's open invitation to Klan members to carry weapons when they march. Other klaverns have played down violence -- one even took a newspaper ad this month in Birmingham advising members to leave their weapons home before a march -- but Wilkinson seems to relish the provocation a show of arms invites.

"It's part of our civil rights to carry a gun" Wilkinson said. Besides, he added, "you'd be surprised how many people enjoy that sort of thing."

Police took scores of weapons away from Wilkinson's Klan convoy during the Montgomery march, which ended last week. They included semi-automatic rifles, sawed-off shotguns and pistols.

Klan members have also traded shots this year with blacks in Decatur, Ala., wounding four persons. And last month a federal jury convicted 13 persons in what officials said was a series of Klan-inspired incidents that involved the firing of shots into the homes of NAACP leaders and into the house of a racially mixed couple near Sylacauga, Ala.

Wilkinson's gun toting, while it seems to appeal to some, has also alienated other Klan members. Last month, about 100 Klansmen publicly burned their robes and an Invisible Empire charter in New Market, Ala. The head of the Klavern said it was splitting with Wilkinson because the Louisiana group was riddled with "low class people."

In fact there is very little clannish about the Klan these days. In addition to Wilkinson's Klavern at least two others were vying for Klan leadership. They are headed by David Duke, a Louisiana State University graduate who once bossed Wilkinson's group and now heads the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in New Orleans, and Robert Shelton, one of the Klan's leading activists during the 1960s, who heads the United Klans Klavern in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Duke, who led the Barnegat, N.J., rally last week, has scorned Wilkinson's behavior as a publicity stunt. Duke, however, has been as active as Wilkinson in seeking publicity. Both have appeared on television talk shows and invited reporters to Klan cross burnings. Duke has also said he will enter a dozen presidential primaries next year, even though at 28 he is constitutionally too young to run.

There are signs, however, that Wilkinson may also be toning down his image. In interviews during last week's march on Montgomery, he steered reporters' questions away from the topic of guns to such Klan targets as affirmative action and forced busing.

"If there's one thing we've learned lately," Wilkinson reminded the group, "it's flexibility."