Monday, August 9, 2010

They Called Themselves the KKK

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's They Called Themselves the KKK: the birth of an American terrorist group is a remarkable book. It gives readers a clear, compelling history of the origin and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan. This is not an easy thing to do: a chapter on the ending of the war and Reconstruction and its immediate aftermath helps to set the stage for an initial meeting of the six men from Pulaski. For many readers, this will be their first introduction to both the Klan and the men who created it.
The subsequent introduction to the spreading out of the Klan, its development of a set of "principles" and its members' acts are threaded throughout a text that also includes the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. This is a book that can be difficult to read: any time it seems that there is a step forward, as with an increase in public education, there are examples of vicious crimes, such as with William Luke, who was hanged for the crime of teaching (and likely over rumors.) There is an added poignancy in the text from a note he was allowed to leave for his wife and children before he was killed. Bartoletti makes several great points about the amount of violence fostered by fear, whether of change in the social order, retribution, or potential uprisings. An epilogue discusses hate crimes and notes current activities, reflecting that while there are a considerable number of hate groups in the United States today, they have neither "the power or the prestige" that the KKK did.
The copious illustrations and use of period speech add to the authenticity. The source notes indicate where Ms. Bartoletti found her information and add to this story. Indeed, learning that Ms Bartoletti attended a Klan congress will likely keep me up at nights.

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