They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Cindy and I were lucky enough to hear Susan Campbell Bartoletti talk about her research for They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group (Houghton 2010) at ALA Midwinter. Every person in that room walked out yearning to get their hands on the book. This is definitely a case where the advance PR was accurate. There aren’t enough superlatives in my thesaurus to do justice to this outstanding book. It is brilliantly researched, documented and written and completely accessible to its young audience. From its unforgettable cover to the fascinating bibliography and source notes, this is nonfiction at its best: compelling, thought-provoking and meticulously supported by evidence.
There is so much to talk about with this book and Booklist’s Gillian Engberg has done an outstanding job with her review and The Story Behind the Story feature in the August issue and I want to point you especially to those.
Bartoletti builds the history of the Klan carefully, never leaping ahead of her documentation, with primary sources that use the language of the time. That language, shocking and cruel, underscores the attitudes of the period – an important consideration for students. It is a shameful and sobering piece of our history and critical to a complete understanding of the forces that shaped this country and Bartoletti takes us there step by step.
In a time when terrorists are the subjects of nightly news, students need to also understand that this is indeed an American terrorist group. From the moment in 1866 when John Lester said, “Boys, let us get up a club,” the Klan used violence, abuse and the careful cultivation of fear just as surely as any extremist group operating today. In her source notes Bartoletti also talks about “how I thought about silence and the many ways it implies agreement, whether it’s a failure to speak out against a racist or hateful remark or joke or a failure to confront the bullying, stereotyping, and scapegoating and other injustices.”
If I were in charge of American schools, I’d make this required reading for every high school in the country!
Cindy: This was the book I was most eager for all spring and yet once I had it in my hands I kept finding reasons not to pick it up. It’s written by a favorite author, has a haunting cover with a striking photo of a sweat-stained Klan hood, and is about a group that has received little coverage in books for youth. Still. I knew the subject matter would be sobering and I never found myself in the mood to want to “go there.” But, as Bartoletti implies with her comments about silence, to pretend this violence and hatred doesn’t exist only reinforces it, and so I finally cracked open the cover. As Lynn describes, the book is as good as the early promotion indicated. The supplementary photographs and engravings and other illustrative matter add to the understanding for youth today. The KKK might not be as strong today as it was in its reconstruction era days, but The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2008 estimated there were 926 active hate groups in the United States. A year or so ago, a cross was set afire in the yard of a Jamaican family in our town. The response against the act of hatred was swift and visible, including a full page ad signed by all of us who opposed such horrific treatment, but it was sad none the less that we haven’t come as far as we should have as a society. The justification that acceptance of differences (like that of homosexual lifestyles) is against God’s plan is being used in the same manner that the early Klan members used it to fight against African Americans’ freedom. Add to that the post 9/11 attention on terrorism and there is plenty here for current events classes to discuss as well as U.S. History classes.
When you are booktalking this riveting book to your students, be sure to point out the section in the Bibliography and Sources pages in which the author describes her chilling weekend attending a modern Klan Congress. Readers who don’t pour over back matter might miss it. It doesn’t matter how many copies of this book you buy, it won’t be enough to meet demand. While there are hundreds of memorials in our country to honor the war and historical leaders who were also proud Klansmen, Bartoletti discovered there were none for the victims of Klan violence. She wrote this book to create one. I’m grateful to her for that. I’d also like to see us add a few more in bronze or marble or granite. What do you say?