Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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

172 pages
published by Houghton Mifflin

Publisher's description:

Boys, let us get up a club. With those words, six restless young men raided the linens at a friend's mansion, pulled pillowcases over their heads, hopped on horses, and cavorted through the streets of Pulaski, Tennessee. The six friends named their club the Ku Klux Klan, and, all too quickly, their club grew into the self-proclaimed Invisible Empire with secret dens spread across the South.

This is the story of how a secret terrorist group took root in America's democracy. Filled with chilling and vivid personal accounts unearthed from oral histories, congressional documents, and diaries, it is a book to read and remember.

My comments:

My teenage niece and nephew visited a couple of weeks ago, and before they arrived I put a few books out on the coffee table to see if they'd look at them. This is one that my nephew, a high school junior, said that he would read based on the cover alone.

The image of the sweat-stained hood is striking and practically dares you open it up and have a look. The black and white book design is very nice throughout, and is credited to YAY! Design, a company who also claims design credit for The Secret of the Yellow Death and The Frog Scientist, among others.

Bartoletti begins her narrative with the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, and quickly moves to the story of six former Confederate soldiers who hated and feared Union rule and the threat of racial equality. What they began as a sort of fraternity in 1866 quickly morphed into a group that existed to bully freedpeople. Early chapters are devoted to the beginning and early spread of the Klan. In later chapters, the focus shifts to horrible crimes perpetrated by Klansmen, and the personal experiences of their victims. The final chapter and epilogue tell of the federal government's crackdown on Klan activities, made possible by the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and the undoing of that act just a few years later. She also touches briefly on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, perhaps an excellent topic for another book.

Bartoletti makes great use of oral accounts of the Klan's actions, both from former Klan members and their victims. A note at the very beginning explains that some of the language used in these accounts may be offensive, and also explains why the accounts of many former slaves are transcribed in non-standard English. I appreciate that the language has not been edited.

Newspaper illustrations and a few photographs are presented throughout the book, and these are all accompanied by excellent captions that provide context and source credits. I especially enjoyed seeing the political cartoons by Thomas Nast. I remember learning about Nast's skewering of Tammany Hall in high school social studies, but not his interest in civil rights in the South.

The bibliography and source notes are presented in narrative form, complete with photographs from Bartoletti's travels to the South. I found this section to be just as fascinating as the main text. Over the course of seven pages, she recommends scholarly texts as well as trial testimonies, white supremacist perspectives and titles on racism in general. She also recounts her attendance of a Klan Congress, "That night I couldn't get the shower hot enough to scrub away the words," she said. This is one instance where I was glad to read the entire bibliography section from beginning to end. The amount of research that went into this book is stunning. It's clear that Bartoletti threw herself passionately into writing this book, and her excitement for historical research transmitted to me as I read.

Other useful back end materials are a civil rights timeline that begins with the Emancipation Proclamation and ends with President Obama's election, quote attributions grouped by chapter, Acknowledgemnts that direct readers to the Southern Poverty Law Center for more information, and an index that includes references for text and illustrations.

* This is an official nomination for the YALSA nonfiction award. The winner will be announced in January.*

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