They Called Themselves the KKK
by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010
176 pages, ages 11 up
Behind the Book
Part 1: My Weekend with the KKK
As part of my research, I like to visit the places I write about. Travel informs my work. I often learn things I can’t learn in books.
In 2006, in the midst of researching this book, They Called Themselves the KKK, I decided to attend a Klan Congress (they no longer call it a rally), held deep in the Ozark mountains in Arkansas.
Joe didn’t think I’d do it. Not even after I booked my flight and hotel and reserved my rental car. Not even after I paid my reservation fee. Not even after my registration packet arrived in the mail. Now he palm-slaps his forehead and says, “I should have known better.”
The registration packet arrived and contained helpful information: where to stay, where to eat, how to find the Soldiers of the Cross Bible Camp. The packet also said things such as: “Wear insect repellent.” “Wear your uniform if you have one.” “Please no camouflage clothing or ‘Biker’ attire. Look sharp!” “No foul language or conduct. This is a Christian gathering.” “If you smoke PLEASE do not throw cigarette butts on the ground,” and “If you carry a weapon for travel, it must be kept in your vehical (sic). No open display of weapons.”
I arrived on a Friday, rented a car, and drove about seven miles over dirt road into the Ozarks. Once at the camp, I parked my car next to trucks, cars, and minivans. Most sprouted American and Confederate flags from their antennas. I walked up the hill to the community center, where men, women, and children milled about. There began my weekend with the Ku Klux Klan. (For those of you who are wondering: Yes, I traveled alone. But Joe flew down that night and called to tell me to pick him up at the airport.)
We spent the weekend listening to speakers. We attended a Sunday church service, and watched the pageantry of a cross-lighting as part of the closing ceremony. (They no longer call it a cross-burning.)
Why did I do this? Because I wanted to better understand how today’s group reads against the Reconstruction-era Klan. I wanted to know: In what ways are the two groups alike? How do they differ? What sort of men and women join the KKK today? What are their goals? What compass guides their lives?
I also knew this: If I was too uncomfortable or afraid to do this research, then I had no business writing a book about the subject.
In my other nonfiction work, I’ve explored the lives of the disenfranchised, the exploited, and the victimized, from the pain of child labor, the trauma of famine, to the horrors of the Third Reich. This book, They Called Themselves the KKK, is a continuation of this exploration — and in my interest in the silence that surrounds these subjects.
I’m interested in the gaps: the gaps that exist between our words and our actions, whether it’s the words found in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the words of our leaders, or the words of ordinary citizens. This is how character is revealed, isn’t it? Through those gaps that expose contradictions.