They Called Themselves the KKK

cover image for They Called Themselves the KKK

Bartoletti, Susan (2010) They Called Themselves the K.K.K. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Plot Synopsis:

Beginning with the end of the Civil War and ending with the start of the Jim Crow laws (with a short epilogue on desegregation and the Civil Rights Acts of the 20th century) They Called Themselves the KKK chronicles the formation and growth of arguably the most notorious group in American history.  Before the book even starts we know that Bartoletti is not going to pull any punches, the subtitle on the cover proclaims the KKK to be a terrorist group.  The pages inside make it quite clear this is not an exaggeration.

Critical Evaluation:

We have a habit, here in the US, of portraying history as inevitable – especially when we talk about it with youth.  The idea that the Civil War might not have turned out the way that it did becomes a sub-genre of science fiction rather than a philosophical discussion or an examination of the choices people made.  One of the main strengths of Bartoletti’s work is that she consistently refuses to buy into this narrative.  Her method of digging deep into the individual lives of ordinary people and of often switching from the simple past tense to the subjunctive helps to ground readers in the idea of history as something that was lived and decided upon, rather than a predetermined road that everyone walked down to lead us to where we are today.  They Called Themselves the KKK could easily have taken on the bewildered and helpless tone of an article on school shootings or psychopaths; instead Bartoletti invites us into the homes and minds of the people who lived in the South during Reconstruction and shows us how so much of what happened was an interplay of individuals choices.  The prejudice and willful ignorance of the politically powerful white Northeners; the arrogance and narcissism of the white Southern landowners who convinced themselves that their former slaves really believed that their sheet draped selves were ghosts from the spirit world (and not simply playing along because it was safer); and the pride and fear that left newly enfranchised black Americans walking a constant tightrope of outward submission and often private defiance.  Bartoletti does not present an exhaustive history of the formation of the KKK, but she selectively provides the kinds of details that make it clear that the their reign of terror was a choice and not a force of nature.

Changes in layout help to fix some of the drawbacks of her earlier works; while the text is still dense in terms of content, it’s appearance is less daunting to younger readers by virtue of being broken up by images and quotes on nearly every page.  As always, Bartoletti’s work here is both appealing and appropriate; she does not shy away from grisly truths, but her descriptions of murder and torture are always grounded in respect for the victims and an unwillingness to dismiss the perpetrators something other than human.  Especially well done is her habit of often starting a chapter with a quote from a former slave accompanied by a twentieth century photograph of the person in question.  Much of the visual documentation from this era is in the form of cartoons and other drawings, making it tempting for younger readers to treat the subject as slightly fantastical.  While still in black and white rather than color, the photographs of former slaves standing in front of ordinary suburban homes near the turn of the last century does much to emphasize the reality of historical events to modern readers.  Linking the photographs with quotes from the person in them, and using those words as a thematic statement for the chapter, also provides the victims of the KKK with the dignity and respect that has been so often denied to them.  The idea that their words are worthy of not only being heard but of, in fact, leading the discussion is a powerful refutation of the dehumanized stereotypes of black Americans – both then and now.

Reader’s Annotation:

“Resolved, That in all cases of incendiariam, ten of the leading colored people and two white sympathizers shall be executed…by order of KKK” January 22nd, 1871

Author Information:



Booktalking Ideas:

I think this is one that I would want to bring props for – most likely copies of the pictures inside – and read off quotes from history that can be found in the book; anything to emphasize that it is a book about people not dates and facts.

Reading Level/Target Age:

9th grade/14-17

Potential Controversy:

History should not be controversial, but it often is.  The Civil War may have ended a century and a half ago, but it’s scars still run deep.  This might be challenged for the violence in particular, but also because frank discussions about this period in history make people uncomfortable.  As a non-fiction title by an award winning author, it should be easier to defend than many others.

Reasons for Choosing this Title:

I was impressed with the other works by Bartoletti that I have read and thought the cover and title were especially intriguing.


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