Released August 2010:
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group
a Junior Library Guild Selection
a Richie’s Pick “It is, of course, through reading a book like this — and understanding the “Why?” — that we gain the insight necessary to help stop the flames of hatred and fear from spreading in whatever direction they next travel.”
a Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010
a School Library Journal Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010
a Kirkus Best Books for Teens 2010
a Horn Book Magazine 2010 Fanfare List
a Booklist Top of the List Winner for 2010 and Editor’s Choice for 2010
a Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2010
a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best
an ALA Notable title
a CCBC Choices 2011 title
Starred review: Kirkus “Balancing the stories of the Klan and the former slaves’ determination to remake their lives, Bartoletti makes extensive use of congressional testimony, interviews, journals, diaries and slave narratives to allow the players to speak in their own voices as much as possible. Documentation is superb, and even the source notes are fascinating. An exemplar of history writing and a must for libraries and classrooms.”
Starred review: Booklist “[A]nother stand-out contribution to youth history shelves. . . . It’s the numerous first-person quotes, though, that give the book its beating heart, and her searing, expertly selected stories of people on all sides of the violent conflicts will give readers a larger understanding of the conditions that incubated the Klan’s terrorism, how profoundly the freed people and their sympathizers suffered, and how the legacy of that fear, racism, and brutality runs through our own time. . . . [T]his lucid, important title . . . should be required reading for young people, as well as the adults in their lives.”
Starred review: School Library Journal “This richly documented, historically contextualized account traces the origin and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan . . . Bartoletti effectively targets teens with her engaging and informative account that presents a well-structured inside look at the KKK, societal forces that spawn hate/terrorist groups, and the research process.”
Starred review: Publisher’s Weekly ”In this comprehensive, accessible account, Newbery Honor author Bartoletti (Hitler Youth) draws from documentary histories, slave narratives, newspapers, congressional testimony, and other sources to chronicle the origins and proliferation of the Ku Klux Klan against the charged backdrop of Reconstruction politics and legislation . . . Copious photos, engravings, and illustrations provide a hard-hitting graphic component to this illuminating book. And while Bartoletti notes that contemporary “hate groups wield none of the power or prestige that the Ku Klux Klan held in earlier years,” her account of attending a Klan meeting while researching the book is chilling to the core.”
from a reviewer for CapitolChoices.org: “This remarkable book details the history of America’s first and longstanding terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. With Bartoletti’s voice the story reads like a narrative yet provides all the well-researched information about this group that is, shockingly, still with us. . . . To me, this may be the most important book of the year.”
Click here to listen to Dion Graham read from the audio book: They Called Themselves the K.K.K._excerpt
at Chasing Ray
More about the research:
Part 1:My Weekend with the KKK
As part of my research, I like to visit the places I write about. Travel informs my work. I often learn things I can’t learn in books.
In 2006, in the midst of researching this book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., I decided to attend a Klan Congress (they no longer call it a rally), held deep in the Ozark mountains in Arkansas.
Joe didn’t think I’d do it. Not even after I booked my flight and hotel and reserved my rental car. Not even after I paid my reservation fee. Not even after my registration packet arrived in the mail. Now he palm-slaps his forehead and says, “I should have known better.”
The registration packet arrived and contained helpful information: where to stay, where to eat, how to find the Soldiers of the Cross Bible Camp. The packet also said things such as: “Wear insect repellent.” “Wear your uniform if you have one.” “Please no camouflage clothing or ‘Biker’ attire. Look sharp!” “No foul language or conduct. This is a Christian gathering.” “If you smoke PLEASE do not throw cigarette butts on the ground,” and “If you carry a weapon for travel, it must be kept in your vehical (sic). No open display of weapons.”
I arrived on a Friday, rented a car, and drove about seven miles over dirt road into the Ozarks. Once at the camp, I parked my car next to trucks, cars, and minivans. Most sprouted American and Confederate flags from their antennas. I walked up the hill to the community center, where men, women, and children milled about. There began my weekend with the Ku Klux Klan. (For those of you who are wondering: Yes, I traveled alone. But Joe flew down that night and called to tell me to pick him up at the airport.)
We spent the weekend listening to speakers. We attended a Sunday church service, and watched the pageantry of a cross-lighting as part of the closing ceremony. (They no longer call it a cross-burning.)
Why did I do this? Because I wanted to better understand how today’s group reads against the Reconstruction-era Klan. I wanted to know: In what ways are the two groups alike? How do they differ? What sort of men and women join the KKK today? What are their goals? What compass guides their lives?
I also knew this: If I was too uncomfortable or afraid to do this research, then I had no business writing a book about the subject.
In my other nonfiction work, I’ve explored the lives of the disenfranchised, the exploited, and the victimized, from the pain of child labor, the trauma of famine, to the horrors of the Third Reich. This book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., is a continuation of this exploration – and in my interest in the silence that surrounds these subjects.
I’m interested in the gaps: the gaps that exist between our words and our actions, whether it’s the words found in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the words of our leaders, or the words of ordinary citizens. This is how character is revealed, isn’t it? Through those gaps that expose contradictions.
Part 2:Nationalists vs Universalists
The idea for this book began several years ago during a visit to Tennessee when I spotted a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
At the time, I knew several things about the famous Confederate general: How the former slave trader and plantation owner enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose to the rank of general. How his daring exploits earned him the reputation as a brilliant cavalryman who was both insubordinate and ruthless. How, under his command at Fort Pillow in Tennessee, Confederate soldiers committed one of the worst atrocities of the war. And how, after the war, he was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.
I also knew this: In 1867 the Confederate general reportedly became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a secret paramilitary organization that had formed in Tennessee one year earlier. The group was dedicated to the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy throughout the South.
Over the coming years, Ku Klux Klan dens sprang up throughout the South, brutally attacking defenseless freed men, women, and children and white people sympathetic to the freed people’s condition. Forrest was granted immunity for testifying during the great Ku Klux Klan trials of 1871-72.
That day, as I considered that statue, I found myself wondering about the thousands of victims of Klan violence and wondering: Where are their memorials?
With that question in mind, I called the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, an organization internationally recognized for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists, and its tracking of hate groups.
I asked if anyone at the center could tell me if any statues commemorate the lives of the victims of Klan violence during the Reconstruction years. I was told there are none.
That’s the moment I decided to learn more about the reasons why tens of thousands of white men joined the Ku Klux Klan in the years that followed the Civil War.
As I researched, I was grabbed by the stories of ordinary white Americans who feared that they would suffer personal loss if the rights and privileges of citizenship were extended to the newly freed slaves and who feared black Americans would compete for land and for work.
I was grabbed by the stories of ordinary black Americans who wanted a simple justice and a fair chance to exercise their rights to vote, to make a living, to attend school, and to worship as they pleased – and were attacked by the KKK.
I was grabbed by the stories of white Americans who sympathized with the plight of the freedpeople – and were also attacked by the KKK.
Whenever I study history, I ask myself: why should I care about this subject today? Do I see any parallels today? In what ways is the past present in our lives – and our future?
Those questions drove me to attend the Klan Congress. I did not have to join the Klan in order to attend. I simply had to fill out a registration form and pay a small fee for the three-day event, which was open to “all white Christian nationalists.” According to the Klan, a “nationalist” is a person who believes America was founded by white people for white people. A “universalist” believes any member of any race can be an American and enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship.
The Klansmen and women I met were very ordinary people who came from all walks of life. They claimed that their organization was not about hate, but about “love” and “love for their white heritage” and “love for their God and their country.” They said it’s not hate that they feel, but anger at what America has become. Some had traveled from far parts of the United States to attend, as far away as Alaska. For most, this was a family event, and some brought their children.
The Congress opened with a tour of the National Office, where I saw the membership room; the recruiting room; the souvenir room; the publishing room, where they print their pamphlets; and the media room, where the Klan leaders broadcast an internet television show and air shortwave radio programs.
That first night, the tone and theme were set for the weekend. The National Director called for a revival in America. A recruiter from Arkansas spoke, saying, among other things, that Protestant Christian churches have changed their message and have changed God. “God is a God of Segregation,” he said. “The God that made the races made them to stay separate.”
Throughout the weekend, other members spoke. Most of their speeches were variations of the same themes. Some told how the Klan gave meaning and direction to their life. Others spoke about the dangers of illegal immigrants, the number of nonwhites in America, homosexuality, Jews, Hollywood movies, television, public schools, and taxes. They claimed that America was founded by white people, for white people only.
On Saturday afternoon, I watched as men and boys wrapped a tall cross in kerosene-soaked rags and then covered it in burlap, and then carefully stood the cross on end. They were preparing for the Sunday’s closing cross-lighting ceremony. Stay tuned tomorrow for that ceremony – and a church service during which the National Director (who was also a pastor) called the work of the Klan a “holy mission.”
Part 3: Children of the KKK
Throughout the weekend, the children attended special Bible classes, called “The Kids’ Corner.” One speaker lauded the Kids’ Corner, saying, “What was going on in the Kids’ Corner was the most important meeting of the weekend.”
At the book table, I bought a “White Heritage Coloring and Storybook.” On page 2, there is a picture of Noah’s ark. Above the picture, it says, “God saved Noah and his family because they were not of mixed race.” Below the picture, the text reads: “God saved Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives from the flood. In the land where Noah lived the people had mixed races and men had boyfriends and girls had girlfriends. Noah, [sic] was perfect in his generations (a pure white man) and so was his family. The family of Noah was saved from the anger of God.”
On Sunday, a church service was held on site. In his sermon, the pastor – also the National Director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – called the invasion of America by nonwhites a “national calamity.”
Here are some quotes from the sermon:
“You and I are in a war for the survival of our people.”
“Only 50% of children under five are white [in the United States]. If that doesn’t cause torment in your heart, something’s wrong.”
“God doesn’t curse a nation because people smoke. God doesn’t curse a nation because people drink. He doesn’t care if you go to church or not. He is going to curse a nation because they have sinned against their heritage.”
“Ask your preacher if he believes whether it’s a sin to race-mix.”
“We are on a holy mission. . . . God is calling now. . . . He’s looking for shepherds.”
“You cannot stop a man or woman who is being led by God or believes he is being led by God.”
At the end of the service, National Director implored the congregants to reach down into their heart and find the true believer. He asked them to come forward and speak out for the deliverance of their race, their faith, and their homeland, come what may.
And they did. As Celtic music played in the background., one by one or in family groups, the Klansmen and women stood in front of the altar. They faced the congregation, stretched out a right arm in a straight-armed salute, and dedicated themselves to their race, their God, and their country. Then they and the congregants shouted, “White Power.”
That night, the Congress ended with the pageantry of fully robed Klansmen and at least two Klanswomen and a tall cross burning against the night sky. At least one child wore a child-sized costume to match his father’s. A woman who appeared to be his grandmother took his picture.
Part 4: A Silent Majority
I had researched the Klan’s history and creed, and yet I was unprepared for what I saw and what I heard — from the opening speech to the pageantry of the closing cross-lighting ceremony.
Most of all, I was unprepared for the ordinariness of the people who attended the Congress. They played with their children. They talked about their gardens and their families. They sang the same hymns I grew up singing.
I also wasn’t prepared for the relatively small number in attendance. I don’t know the exact number, but I estimate that fewer than 100 people were there, even though the registration packet and other information promised huge crowds.
For the benefit of the short-wave radio listeners, the audience was told to clap as if there were hundreds and hundreds of people present.
On one hand, I find comfort in that small number and the fact that the today’s KKK wants to create the illusion that it is bigger than it really is. Isn’t that what fear-mongering is about? Smoke and mirrors?
On the other hand, one speech haunts me more than the others: “We are planting thousands of seeds among high school students,” said a Klanswoman. “We don’t need robes . . . a silent majority in America agrees with us.”
Perhaps W.E.B. Du Bois explained such fear best: “[T]hese human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime.”