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Monday, May 23, 2011

They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

They Called Themselves the KKK: the Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

Bartoletti has created an extremely well written book about a terrible subject. She is the author of many excellent nonfiction titles for young adults such as Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow and Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 . Most of the information presented here about the KKK is historical, from its creation by six confederate officers in Tennessee in 1866 to the Ku Klux Klan trials in 1871 and up to Rutherford B. Hayes’ election and the Reconstruction’s end in 1877. The final chapter discusses more recent KKK activity and gives the terrifying statistic that in 2008 the Southern Poverty Law center counted 926 active hate groups in the U.S.

This is a difficult and infuriating book to read, but Bartoletti professionally addresses the Klan’s violence toward and abuse and murder of African American freed people after the Civil War. She begins by explaining the environment and attitudes in the South at the time and talks about the struggle that ensued after Lincoln was killed. Southerner Andrew Johnson became president and began Reconstruction when Congress was not in session, which caused hard feelings and further stress in the wounded country. The Klan began as an alleged social club for one group of men, and it developed into an organization with estimated tens of thousands of men who used any means to prevent freed people from voting, receiving schooling, worshipping in their own churches, farming or just living peacefully. The Klan also threatened, punished and murdered any white person who stood against the KKK or even aided freed people in any way.

Bartoletti’s text is accompanied by documents, photographs and archival drawings, such as photos of four of the KKK's creators, political cartoons by Thomas Nast and a ticket to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. Chapters frequently conclude with quotes and photos from the Slave Narratives of men and women recalling the terror of the Klan. Readers can reflect on 99 year old Gabe Hines’ first impression of the Klansmen in their costumes, 87 year old Susan Merritt’s memories of praying in secret so white people didn’t know, and more. A timeline from 1863 to Obama’s election in 2008 is included.

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