Review: They Called Themselves The K.K.K.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti,  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010).  Copy from a friend. Nominated for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

It’s About: “Boys, let us get up a club.” In May, 1866, six Confederate soldiers started a “social club.” Bartoletti explores how and why the K.K.K. originated, how and why it spread, and the steps taken to stop it. 

The Good: Putting actions within a context, giving an explanation for why and how something happens, can help us understand and, perhaps, help us prevent future actions and inactions.

It does not excuse.

Bartoletti explores the reason why the post Civil War South became the breeding ground for the hate and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. As the title says, the K.K.K. was a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less, though at times those involved did believe that what they were doing was indeed “more.” One of the founders (who insisted it began as just a club) says that “the Klan gradually realized the most powerful devices ever constructed for controlling the ignorant and superstitious were in their hands.” The Klan was “transformed [from a] social club into a group of bogeyman who controlled the behaviour of the former slaves.” Bartoletti makes clear that “most freed people, however, weren’t fooled. They knew that the disguised Kukluxers weren’t dead masters or Confederate soldiers arisen from the grave. What frightened them were the well-armed, disguised white men who burst into their cabins, outnumbering their victims.”

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. proceeds to examine the multiple factors influencing the development of the Klan, from religious to education, from fear to power. It also related the stories of  those who stood up against fear and violence. Bartoletti expertly weaves together original sources, testimony, newspaper accounts, with plenty of photographs and illustrations. to paint a portrait of terrorism. It’s a nice mix of primary sources to tell a story, but also of judgment. For example, Bartoletti notes that the Klan founders insisted it began as just a social club, but then goes on to paint the climate of the times in such a way to make a convincing case that it wasn’t just grown men who liked to wear costumes, use passwords and codes, and play practical jokes that somehow became something more.

Bartoletti includes plenty of references at the end of the book, including a “bibliography and source notes” that delves into Bartoletti’s research process, including attending a Klan Congress.


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