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They Called Themselves the KKK


They Called Themselves the KKK

"Boys, let us get up a club." These words coined in May of 1866 by John Lester, one of six Confederate officers in Pulaski, Tennessee, marked the beginning of a secret society. Dedicated to "preserv[ing] a government and way of life that they considered superior and a covenant with God," the group came up with an alliterated name, the Ku Klux Klan (K.K.K), that means "simply and ridiculously 'circle circle.'" Yet what they practiced was far from ridiculous --- they terrorized the newly-freed Southern black slaves who were given rights to own land and to vote like the white man.

There are a number of books written on the K.K.K, although very few are targeted for young adult readers. To better understand why this group came into existence, multi-award winning author Susan Campbell Bartoletti draws from a plethora of primary resources to recreate the tumultuous atmosphere that occurred when Reconstruction was imposed upon the Southern states at the close of the Civil War. What began as a small assembly of men who "leaped astride their horses and swooped through the town streets, whopping and moaning and shrieking like ghosts" in the middle of the night, turned into an opportunity to incite fear among free blacks. This assembly then developed into "a secret empire powerful enough to overthrow Republican rule and battle Reconstruction policies." Growing in popularity, the Klan adhered to principles maintaining that "America was founded by the white race and for the white race only" and that it "considered any laws that granted citizenship and the rights and privileges of citizenship to nonwhites unconstitutional and against God's plan." By 1868, three years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States, K.K.K. dens had formed in every former Confederate state.

A fascinating and gripping read

Those who became members of the  K.K.K. dens did so for reasons that went beyond preserving white rule. Bartoletti clearly indicates from first-hand accounts that while there were members who were forced and others who knew their lives would be threatened if they attempted to leave, what is known is that "large numbers of white Southerners willingly joined the Ku Klux Klan" out of insecurity and needing "to belong to something that made them feel powerful or superior." Regardless of reasons behind membership, members were bound to carry out their duties against black people as well as those who supported them. Whether sharecroppers, educators or political figures, there was no stopping the K.K.K. from spreading their reign of terror. "When the chief or anybody else wanted anybody whipped or killed, the council was to sit on it and decide what to do with him – whether to whip him, or kill him, or hang him, or gut him, or cut his throat, or drown him, or anything."

Though Bartoletti's principal research on the K.K.K. centers on the Reconstruction Era, she provides a brief historic overview of their activity post-Reconstruction up to the present. Bartoletti includes an extensive Civil Rights timeline and quote attributions. Of primary interest, though, is the section on bibliography and source notes, which not only includes information on Pulaski, Tennessee and a well-rounded list of books and articles for those who want to do further research, but also Bartoletti's chilling account of a Klan Congress (they no longer call it a rally) that she attended for the purpose of wanting "to understand how the present-day Klan read against the Reconstruction Era order."

Absolutely regarded as both a fascinating and gripping read, THEY CALL THEMSELVES THE K.K.K. is not be limited to just youth. The K.K.K. has evolved over the years, but they are still active today, and adults would do well to take time out by reflecting on Bartoletti's deeply profound presentation on a disconcerting aspect of America history.

Reviewed by Anita Lock on June 11, 2014

They Called Themselves the KKK
by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

  • Publication Date: August 23, 2010
  • Genres: History
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 061844033X
  • ISBN-13: 9780618440337