The Civil War may have been one of the darkest periods in American history, but its aftermath often provoked worse violence. In her probing nonfiction book for young adults, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., Newbery Honor winner Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Hitler Youth, 2005) explores the birth of and inspirations behind one of America’s earliest homegrown terrorist groups—the Ku Klux Klan. In the end, Bartoletti finds that it’s a very American story, with all the darkness and hope that only a young country can muster.
Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of They Called Themselves the K.K.K.?
When I began writing this book, I thought it was a story about ordinary white Americans who joined the Ku Klux Klan because they feared they would suffer personal loss if the rights and privileges of citizenship were extended to newly freed slaves. I also thought this book was about the victims of Ku Klux Klan violence who only wanted simple justice and a fair chance to exercise their basic rights and to vote, make a living, go to school and worship as they pleased.
But as I began to dig deeper, I realized that this book is as much about the character of our nation as it is about the individuals who make up our country. After our country tore itself apart, we had to figure out how to mend and how to reconstruct our nation. It was a time of great tension and of great risk—and yet, a time of great opportunity.
Your book features men and women of tremendous courage. Whose stories made the biggest impression on you?
I hope my book shows that the lives of victims are greater than the humiliation and violence and the injustice that they suffer and that they did not suffer passively. And for this reason, each victim’s story moved me for a different reason.
Take, for instance, Hannah Tutson, who refused to give up her land to her white neighbors and was brutally whipped by the Klan; Henry Lipscomb, who voted in the 1868 election, saying “A man can kill me, but he can’t scare me”; Elias Hill, a crippled preacher who was whipped for preaching the word of God and universal love and writing a letter to his congressman; Jim Williams, an outspoken black man and former Union soldier who was murdered because he was determined to protect his community; Luke Williams, a white schoolteacher whose last words were “I have only sought to educate the Negro.”
Who cannot read about these people and not be moved by the vital and pivotal role they played in American history? Who cannot measure one’s own strength and courage against theirs and not be awed?
What have you learned from your experiences in the American South?
I traveled to nearly every Southern state as I researched and wrote this book. I met amazing, helpful, generous people along the way. I met people who went out of their way to help me; people who don’t ignore the past, but repudiate it; people who thanked me for my research; and one Northern woman who added, “And my ancestors thank you.”
In my travels, I also met young people who understand that the issues of racism, bullying, stereotyping, intellectual superiority and arrogance, and prejudice are still with us today. I met young people who are willing to continue to fight and confront these issues—and need the tools to do so.
You’ve called this the hardest book you’ve ever written. What inspired you to stay with the subject, even when processing it became difficult?
American history, like the history of other countries, reveals deep contradictions—times when our actions haven’t lived up to the words of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Our history is replete with stories that reveal a darker side to the character of our nation—as well as stories that instill pride, courage and hope.
I felt driven to pass these stories on, in the hope that this book might, in its own way, stand in memorial to the victims of Klan violence.
What would you like for this book to say to young adult readers?
Readers might ask, “What do we do about the dark side?” And I say this—we shine a light on it. That’s how we release its power. I hope this book provides such a light for young readers.
For the complete list of all great nonfiction books for teens featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group
Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / August / 9780618440337 / $19.00