Susan Bartoletti Campbell has written a well-researched exploration of the origins of the Ku Klux Klan and the depth of their cruelty and control in They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Organization. After a brief overview of the end of the Civil War, the book provides great detail about the Reconstruction period. Through primary source documents such as letters, photographs and KKK bylaws, we hear from Klan members (both voluntary and coerced), politicians, Klan victims (both black and white) and too-silent bystanders. The first explanation of the KKK’s beginnings comes from the six men that founded the organization. They recollect its beginnings as a social club for self-proclaimed bored men that developed into a citizens’ justice organization out of need. After presenting the KKK’s story of their origins, however, Bartoletti turns to the broader body of evidence of their power and crimes in the Reconstruction Era. The victims’ stories are heart-breaking and leave the most lasting impression. Overall this an excellent work for learning about both the Ku Klux Klan and the Reconstruction.
This history must be taught and remembered. While the heyday of the KKK is over, 1002 hate groups operated in the United States in 2010 (including 6 in Iowa). For that reason, while she is upfront that the book is about the KKK’s origins, I was hoping for more information on its twentieth century reshaping as a wide-ranging hate group that targetted not just African-Americans, but also Jews, Catholics, union members, and immigrants.
For more information read Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s interview at Chasing Ray or visit her website with details of the challenge to They Called Themselves the KKK (rejected by the Nashville school board) and her visit to a Klan Congress. For more information about hate groups in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center is at the forefront of fight against hate groups.