Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review: 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
2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcout Children's Book Group
Softcover Edition: 176 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-618-44033-7
Release Date: August 23, 2010
Genre: Non-Fiction / Young Adult
Source: ARC from Houghton Mifflin Canada

5 / 5 Stars

After culling primary sources from two thousand Slave Narratives and eight thousand testimonies given during the KKK Congressional Hearings, Bartoletti shoes with a raw immediacy how the Ku Klux Klan grew from a circle of six restless men who, in looking for entertainment, began cavorting on horseback through the streets of Pulaski, Tennessee, to a self-proclaimed "Invisible Empire" with dens spread across the South.  Bartoletti illustrates this absorbing account with archival photographs and drawings to reveal just how this crushing evil was allowed to develop and thrive.

My Thoughts
I am a huge fan of Susan Campbell Bartoletti's work and this latest installment in her non-fiction series is equal, if not better, than her previous work.  Considering that Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow is both a Newberry Honor Book and a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book and Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine was the Winner of the Robert F. Sibert Medal, this is certainly high praise indeed.

I have been aware of the KKK and interested in the KKK since I first discovered them when I was about twelve years old.  I went through a phase in my life where I read everything I could about them, but I really wish there had been a book like Bartoletti's around that would have explained a lot more about the history behind the history.  What I really like about Bartoletti's book is that she explains the end of the Civil War, the conditions that existed for both the black man and the white man, and the political raminifications of the after-effects of the Civil War.  And it was done in, and I hesitate to say simplistic, but in such a way that makes it easier to understand all of the political and social implications of states that were destroyed during a terrible war, and the chaos that existed afterwards. 

I will caution some parents of younger readers, that there are some things in here that are hard to take.  Bartoletti discusses some very violent acts and does not hide the fact that the KKK was a very violent group, one of the first hate-groups in the United States, and she does describe very openly some of the things the KKK does to its victims.  I found myself cringing on many an occasion, even knowing that these events happened.   I felt a lot of sympathy towards the many victims of the KKK, and I will mention the victims were both black and white people; basically anyone with black sympathies was a target.   I also felt angry and helpless, as did the victims, because they received little help for dealing with these atrocities.    At the same time, my awe and amazement for the people who lived during these dangerous and difficult times just grew and grew as I read, for they displayed such courage in times of strife that I couldn't help but admire them.  I don't know if I would have shown such strength of character as these people; I probably would have hid in the woods and cried. 

I absolutely loved the archival pictures and quotes used in this book.  I found myself poring over them and going back to look them over again.  They added that extra element that is needed to explain things in a non-fiction book such as this one.  I especially enjoyed the 'cartoons' that were originally published in Harper's Weekly or in newspapers paroding political events or political leaders, much as we do today. 

One of the things that really astounded me, especially as we are so used to taking equal rights for granted, is the timeline for when many of these acts were passed.  There is a Civil Rights Time Line included at the back of the book that I found very engrossing, but at the same time, shocked me back to reality as I looked at it.  In the U.S., The Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1964 and a Federal Hate Crimes Law was passed in 1969, with ethnicity and gender included in 1994 and disability and sexual orientation in 2008.  In Canada, we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, with many amendments in forthcoming years.  As one former slave mentions in Bartoletti's fabulous book, Freedom takes a long time to come. 

They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group is another fantastic book from an author who is known for her meticulous research and compelling reads.  She has introduced us to absorbing real-life accounts of people who stood up for their beliefs, who despite their hardships and terror, demonstrated courage and passion for what they believed in, and helped to change a country's future course, standing defiant against a group of men who would terrorize and murder their friends and family members for years.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history and/or is interested in reading about people who stood up for freedom. 


  1. WOW! Your review just blew me out of the water. Thank You! I absolutely have to get my library to purchase this one. It's so important for us to not forget the ugly things of our history. Maybe it can help us be a different future.

  2. There is such a need for more great YA non-fiction! PS: I love the organization of your site and how you make it so easy to find things by genre. Now a new follower :)