American Civil War, history, Ku Klux Klan, Non-fiction, Reconstruction Era, They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Young Adult Literature
I am a big lover of history and reading is my favorite activity. When these two things are combined to form a captivating piece of writing, I cannot put a book down. This was the case with They Called Themselves the KKK, as I found myself picking up the text about every paragraph or so to tell my husband about something significant I had read. The way that Bartoletti retraces the history of the end of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era to coincide with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South makes for a fascinating and disturbing read. Although the broad nature of some of her statements gave me pause, the text addresses historical, political, and social concerns from the past which are still relevant today. For the young reader, every aspect of this book is worth considering, even the general statements, which may be in need of correction.
During my reading of They Called Themselves the KKK, one of the first things I noticed about Bartoletti’s descriptions of the state of the country in terms of people’s political leanings and their notions regarding race was that she sometimes utilizes broad generalizations to depict public opinion. She says that, “Most Southern white families did not own slaves.” This is commonly known, so it is to be believed. Yet. when she states that, “Most Southerners believed that God created black people for the special purpose of working and serving white people,” one wonders how she knows this is true. As is true of all history books, the writer sets the tone and influences the reader’s opinion.
It isn’t difficult to determine the point of view of the author in this text. Despite the fact that this is meant to be a non-fiction book, her opinions are often very clear and her influence on the reader is strong. Bartoletti sites several examples of Klan violence in the text. In the middle of one of her longer stories about a Memphis riot, the reader notices the author has inserted an out of place paragraph which reads,
“During times of crisis and uncertainty, people often resort to rumors, or stories circulated without facts to confirm the truth, to help them cope with anxieties and fears. Of all the rumors, racial and hate rumors are considered to be the most dangerous because they are divisive and create hostility that can lead to violence.”
It is clear to the reader the author has been unable to remain objective. She has taken the side of the victims. Does Bartoletti mean to sway her reader throughout the text? It is a very possible.
If the author intends to persuade the reader into believing the KKK, their leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, and President Andrew Johnson the Democratic President were bad, she succeeds admirably. Still, not many people need to be persuaded on this account. Bartoletti uses the facts and illustrations from the Reconstruction Era to piece together a story which makes black Americans, who were beaten, lynched, mobbed, had their property burned and stolen, and were denied the right to vote after it had been granted to them by law, appear to be the victims. While she does mention the grievances of white Southerners in comparison and points out that Northern corruption took place as well, it is easy for a reader to skim over these ideas when presented with the atrocities faced by black Americans.
It is bittersweet to think deeply about the pain which has occurred in this country and still occurs due to hatred and racism. Conditions may have improved since the 1800’s, but equality may still be just a dream. While she sends a clear message that the KKK was and is wrong in their actions, the very fact that Bartoletti offers perspectives of all those involved in the history of the story allows for open and honest discourse.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
More from Campbell Bartoletti: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow
Newberry Honor Book 2006