Sunday, October 30, 2011


Teachers of history often go to great lengths to locate resources that are balanced and offer a well-documented historical account of race relations of any sort.   Imagine how much more difficult it would be for teachers to piece together a chronological account gleaned from primary documents from a past that is quickly slipping away.  Author Susan Campell Bartoletti proves she is up for the task.  Her book, They Called Themselves the KKK: the Birth of an American Terrorist Group is an unapologetic and enlightening read covering the formation of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction-era America.

This book is more than just an account of the beginnings of the KKK, however. Bartoletti’s retelling sheds light onto the history of America after the Civil War and before Jim Crow. What is crucial to her retelling is the notion of balance. Using primary accounts from veteran Confederate soldiers as well as Freedmen, the name for emancipated slaves, Bartoletti highlights the concerns and fears on parties of both sides, never telling the reader where her sympathies should lie. Augmenting her text, images from pictorial newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depict viewpoints from all walks of life of the time.

Of particular interest were the stories of northern teachers who travelled south to establish schools for the Freedmen, especially the story of Canadian William Luke, who was eventually hanged for his efforts in Patona, Alabama. Another chapter, “Forced by Force, to Use Force” shares the concerns of whites in York County, Virginia, at having armed Freedmen in their midst. Bartoletti’s first-hand account of her travels and her attendance at a KKK meeting prove the extent to which she is willing to go to understand her subject. She has a knack for letting history speak for itself, even down to the chapter titles which are not her words, but phrases excerpted from historical sources. She also shares quote attributions and her bibliography and source notes for those who would like to advance their studies.

Augmenting the balanced text, the book is graphically balanced, with no two pages going without an illustration or a text block to break up the monotony of the regular text. Slave narratives are shared using photographs and pullouts, which draw attention to their importance. The pictures of the early KKK costumes were fascinating, as well as her description of early rituals and the meanings of titles within the Klan.

The only element I found that wasn’t balanced throughout the entire history was the subtitle of the book itself, They Called Themselves the KKK: the Birth of an American Terrorist Group. There just wasn’t enough evidence or conversation in the book to merit the use of the extreme word, “terrorist.” It seems to me that this book is a history of a defined period in America rather than a discussion of the modern notion of terrorism. It would be better subtitled, “the Birth of an American Hate Group.” Perhaps editors didn’t feel that title would sell.

Truly complex issues worth consideration will never be resolved. Really good books do not answer all of our questions. They make us ask better, deeper questions, and help us examine ourselves in a new light. This is precisely what this book does. My final criticism is that I wish she had kept going up through the entire history of Civil Rights. I want to know more.

Awards and Reviews

YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist
Junior Library Guild Selection
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2010
School Library Journal Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2010
Kirkus Best Books for Teens, 2010
Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List, 2010
Booklist Top of the List Winner, 2010
Booklist Editor’s Choice, 2010
Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2010
Chicago Public Library, Best of the Best
ALA Notable Title
CCBC Choices, 2011

“Bartoletti effectively targets teens with her engaging and informative account that presents a well-structured inside look at the KKK, societal forces that spawn hate/terrorist groups, and the research process.”—Gerry Larson, School Library Journal (August 1, 2010)

“Bartoletti…writes in admirably clear, accessible language about one of the most complex periods in U.S. history, and she deftly places the powerfully unsettling events into cultural and political context without oversimplifying.”—Gillian Engberg, Booklist Starred Review (August 1, 2010)

“Both libraries and classrooms should acquire this outstanding reference book that deals with such a difficult subject so well.”—Mary Ann Darby, Voice of Youth Advocates (October 1, 2010)


Note: Having taught high school journalism for six years, I would highly caution teachers to be aware that there are some well-meaning but risk-taking students who might find it exciting to emulate Bartoletti’s visit to a KKK rally. Misunderstandings and mob mentality have killed and will never stop killing, and I would hate for students to get involved in serious adult matters which are out of their control. Legally protesting KKK rallies which are held in daylight when police protection is highly visible is one thing, but going to an undisclosed location at night in hilly territory when you are a stranger is entirely different. At the beginning of the book, Bartoletti has included a quote by WEB DuBois: “The method of force which hides itself in secrecy…dares things at which open method hesitates…. It shields itself in the mob mind and then throws over all a veil of darkness which becomes glamour.” This is still true.

The book includes a “Civil Rights Timeline.” Students could choose an event on the timeline to research in depth. Collaborative groups could present their findings in order of the timeline in order to piece together some Civil Rights history, creating a class timeline. PBS has a fabulous interactive timeline on the website “African American World” to use as a starting point for research. The part of the timeline directly related to Reconstruction years can be found here.

This book does an excellent job of highlighting the psychological reasons that someone might become a member of a hate group. Students could compare the social and historical settings surrounding the formation of the KKK to social and historical settings today to see if Americans are still susceptible to forming these groups and why. “Roots of Hate,” published by the Southern Poverty Law Center may help get the discussion started.

Mike Hollis has posted a simple, yet significant activity, entitled “The Resurgence of Hate” on Teaching Tolerance that examines why its members believe the way they do and learn what can be done to stop hate groups from returning to their historic levels of power and influence. The lesson includes links to a National Geographic video clip about the KKK as well as a magazine article.

Bartoletti describes the origins of the KKK’s infamous white hoods. Mother Jones Magazine has published a photo essay by Anthony Karen, a former Marine who has spent several years photographing members of the Ku Klux Klan. The essay includes audio of interviews with Karen and Ms. Ruth, a seamstress who makes KKK robes and hoods. Mature students can compare KKK regalia of past and present to see what, if anything has changed, and examine how the costumes, and the anonymity they provide, have shaped the identity of the Klan.

For more Klan pictures to use as an entry point for writing, see the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Vital Stats
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. (2010). They Called Themselves the KKK: the Birth of an American Terrorist Group. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0618440337.

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