I am a Southern girl, born and bred. With the exception of four years of college spent in New York City, I have lived my entire life in middle Tennessee. As such, there is a certain shared history that I have experienced with regards to the Civil War, what preceded it and what followed. I have known from an early age that the "Lost Cause" is alive and well, and the longing for "the way things were" still survives. Most of what I have experienced of this has been relatively harmless, but the specter of harmful things looms large as well. Off of interstate I-65, on a route I traveled often in high school, is a large, grandiose statue honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, and never once did I pass this (aesthetically hideous) display without a shiver going down my spine. I have never knowingly encountered a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but odds are I strong I have walked in their midst (of a sympathizer at least) at one point in my life without being aware. This is why I was particularly drawn to Susan Campbell Bartoletti's They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. This was part of my cultural history, and I wanted to know more about it.
To start with, Bartoletti's text is meticulously researched. Whenever possible she has cited firsthand accounts and made no effort to censor them. This makes for some very uncomfortable reading at times (though I often thought it could have been much worse), but the book is all the better for it. Bartoletti starts with the ending of the war and quickly moves into the group of six Confederate officers in Pulaski, Tennessee who took to meeting together and one day decided, "Boys, let us get up a club or society". From these words, the K.K.K. was born. The book then follows the evolution of the Klan from the one den in Tennessee to the out of control renegade force that swept across the South. Tales of intimidation, violence and murder against freed men and women as well as teachers, preachers, and Republicans take up much of the text. There was the story of William Luke, a white man who taught black railroad workers and their families. Luke, recognizing the terror that was spreading, bought pistols and sold them to freedmen. He was later abducted by Klansmen and hanged. There is also the story of Elias Hill, a black preacher who suffered years of abuse and intimidation before boarding a ship bound for Liberia in 1871. Bartoletti also uses accounts from the Slave Narratives, collected in the 1930s to punctuate her stories, offering more firsthand accounts of the lives of former slaves.
I've studied enough of American history to know a few details of the Klan's 20th century dealings. I know all about Thomas Dixon's novel, The Clansmen, and how it was praised by President Truman and made into the groundbreaking and staggeringly racist film Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. I know about Jim Crow laws, "separate but equal" and the violence that grew throughout the nation. But my historical education was lacking when it came to the birth of the organization that inspired so much terror. My history books often had only a few passing sentences to spare in their treatment of Reconstruction, but I do believe it is important to know where and how such things begin. Bartoletti includes a picture of the statue dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest (which stands on private land) in her source notes, a reminder that the past is present with us always. Even now there is debate over a proposed license plate honoring the man who was an early Klan leader in Mississippi. Bartoletti has done us all a great service in giving us this well researched, gripping book. It is not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
2010, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children