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They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The birth of an American Terrorist Group

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is one of my top picks for new & notable nonfiction this year.

Released in August, 2010, I first read this as an ARC from the ALA conference. One of my teachers picked up a copy as an ARC at the International Reading Association conference. We had been waiting avidly for my budget to be released to purchase copies for our school library. Finally I have a copy of the hardcover edition in my hands to share with you.

There has been big buzz about They Called Themselves the K.K.K. including talk of the Sibert, Newbery, etc. It is definitely on my pick for the Sibert list. It’s received tremendous praise and starred reviews. After reading it myself I believe this book must be in every middle and high school  library collection.

Social studies teachers have chatted with me about the difficulty of teaching U.S. History immediately after the Civil War. The Reconstruction period is a difficult one to explain to middle school students, particularly those who have not grown up in the South. The concept of a terrorist group forming in our country and being allowed to terrorize others with their hoods, violence, intimidation, and murder is difficult to conceive. With our talk of freedom and respect for others, how could anyone have stood by and allowed this to happen?

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. evenly conveys the circumstances and history that allowed the KKK to form. This title focuses the most upon the beginning of the organization through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, better known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. It provides background to the Reconstruction Era and fills in the missing pieces of our history textbooks regarding the transition of slaves to freed people. It explains the background and allows the voices of the past to speak to us through reproductions of photographs and engraved images.

I learned much on the importance of education and why public education for blacks in the south was discouraged during this time. I did not realize there was little public education of whites in the South at this time since most studied at home. This title helped clear the fogginess of history teaching I had encountered.

Details on the economic situation, national leadership by Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, the impeachment trial of Johnson, carpetbaggers, the efforts to rebuild the southern part of our country are intertwined to provide a better feel for history – a feeling lacking in textbooks.

Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti includes images from pictorial newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. She scoured the Slave Narratives of former slaves that were interviewed more than seventy years after the end of the Civil War. She includes detailed, uncensored information from congressional testimony, interviews, and historical journals, diaries, and newspapers. Are the images uncomfortable? Yes. But I wouldn’t want to censor or sugarcoat this dark time in our history.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. is readable nonfiction. How I wish I had a document reader or ELMO so I could share the pages and lead discussion of the illustrations!  The design includes reproductions of primary source material on nearly every page. Quotes from W.E.B. Du Bois, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Gabe Hines, Jefferson Franklin Henry, William Pickens, Milius S. Carroll, and Martin Jackson are highlighted in the design to provide a sense of the conflict in their own words.

Supporting material includes The Civil Rights Time Line which extends beyond the main focus of the early years of the KKK to conclude with the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President.

The Bibliography and Source Notes at the back are VITAL READING. Do not skip these. While the author dispassionately lays out the history of this time period and the KKK throughout the book, in the Bibliography and Source Notes she shares her feelings on the topic and motivation for writing this book. There is a photograph of the tribute statue to Nathan Bedford Forrest which stands in view of Interstate 65 just south of Nashville.

The first time I saw the statue and the tribute to the Confederacy, I was appalled personally. I had to pull over the car so I could wonder where the protesters to this were.  Didn’t they know Forrest had been the Grand Wizard of the KKK? How could they honor him? Perhaps others relied only upon the sketchiness of history textbooks and had never learned more about the Reconstruction period. There are no other information books on the KKK that are so clearly written for a middle and high school audience. The author’s experience as an eighth grade teacher shines through her clear narrative and continual circling back to asking the questions eighth graders wonder. How could this terrorist group have formed in America and what should we do to prevent this in the future?

What’s the Buzz Online beyond the usual suspects (Horn Book, BookList, Kirkus Reviews, SLJ)?:

Richie’s Picks Junior Library Guild pick Good Reads

Julie Driscoll includes this title on her list of “books everyone should read at least once” and middle-high appropriate in her  review:

“Let us be very clear: the KKK was a horrible group who committed terrible atrocities  against other human beings.

That is exactly the point the author makes in this really important, but definitely uncomfortable to read, book. Bartoletti is unflinching in her assessment of the Klan & what they did. She writes, as she states in notes at the end of the book, to memorialize the victims of the Klan violence.

As awful as it is to read about the acts of the KKK, I personally think that understanding this aspect of American history is just as important as understanding the Holocaust in world history. We can never allow ourselves to go there again.

Pair up this book with Marc Aronson’s Race: a History Beyond Black and White for a deeper understanding of how racisism has shaped our country. Powerful reading for adults and middle-high school students.”

Another reviewer on GoodReads wrote:

When I saw a notice that this was coming, I mentioned it to my 8th American History teacher. She replied that kids have a really hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of the KKK, so this book would have a ready-made audience. Now that I have read the book, I know kids will gain insight from this overview of the KKK from its founding to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. They’ll also gain greater understanding of the entire period of Reconstruction, the politics of the Presidency of that period, and generally be able to fit more pieces of the Story of history than before they read this title. I was also fascinated by Susan’s blog posts my link text about her attendance at a Klan Congress in 2006. Every library should own this book.

Capitol Choices has this title on their list in progress. Capitol Choices is a group in Arlington, VA that meet to discuss titles for their list of titles that are “Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens.”

King County Public Library system includes this title on their section “You Choose the Next Newbery at KCLS

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its newsletter Teaching Tolerance provide materials to help teachers.


  1. B Herrera says:

    Every book I’ve read by Susan Bartoletti has been riviting. She takes subjects that could be preachy, boring, or repetitive and makes them interesting for all ages. I’ve seen young people, middle people and older people devouring her books. They ask to borrow mine all the time. I look forward to picking up this book. Another book about how the KKK can take over is a fiction by George Stanley, Night Fires. Although it is fiction, my mother tells me that much of it really happened – just the names have been changed. It presents a situation which we would like to say we would resist, but which we know would scare many of us into allowing. Questions of peer pressure, fear, fitting in and standing up against evil are still extremely relevant today. Both authors present subjects in a thought-provoking way.

    • Lisa Von Drasek Diane Chen says:

      Excellent reminder of Night Fires! I think fiction that puts us into the position of wondering if we would have done the same or if we would have risen to higher standards is vital to our development.