If you are looking for a terrific resource on a difficult subject--racism, Reconstruction, and the history of American hate groups--I wholeheartedly recommend Susan Campbell Bartoletti's new book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. Bartoletti is no stranger to substantive non-fiction books for adolescents; she won a Newbery Honor for her 2005 publication of Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. But she has done such a great job on this book, it is no wonder that it is also on many people's short list for another potential Newbery Award.
According to the author, the inspiration for the book came when she saw a statue of the renowned Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was also supposedly the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and wondered to herself, "Where are the memorials for the victims of KKK violence?" After finding out from the Southern Poverty Law Center that there were no such memorials, Bertoletti knew that she had to write this book.
However, what is great about this book is that Bertoletti tries to understand the complex history of this paramilitary white suprematist group from both sides. Her book explores how common, ordinary, usually decent people could get involved in such a violent group, and even believe that they were doing God's work. It also demonstrates the strength and courage of common, ordinary people, both black and white, who stood up against the Klan. Her work contains much more information about the politics behind Reconstruction than is usually available for middle school or high school history. And the work is all the more effective by the even-handed way she approaches the topic, allowing young people to draw their own conclusions rather than preaching to them.
One way Bertoletti achieves this is by relying heavily on first-hand accounts and primary source materials. She uses quotes from both proponents and victims of the Klan in a masterful way. And while she doesn't gloss over the violence and death of this terrible time in our history, she also doesn't focus on it so much that it becomes too intense for a middle school audience.
Bertoletti's book is a much-needed addition to the middle school or high school history curriculum about the aftermath of the Civil War. But it is also a valuable resource for talking about current events. I love that she identifies the KKK as "an American terrorist group"--a great wake-up call for our post 9/11 youth who think all terrorists come from outside our borders. The book also contains a Civil Rights Timeline and a comprehensive Bibliography and Notes section that is also useful in extending the dialogue.
So this may not seem like the kind of book you want to be reading during our holly, jolly holidays. But the author, who besides writing about the Klan and Hitler's youth has also tackled such difficult topics as famine, youth labor rights, and working in a coal mine, says that the only way she knows to deal with the dark is to try to shine a light on it. As we approach the winter solstice, it's great to know that we have this outstanding reference to help shine some light on some of our nation's darkest hours.