Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group is an overview of the Ku Klux Klan’s early history written for a young adult audience. Bartoletti explains that the Ku Klux Klan’s origins can best be understood within the context of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The Civil War led to Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” as well as the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in America. However, the South’s plantation economy relied on slavery. Furthermore, Southerners believed that God had created blacks to serve whites. When the Northern armies defeated the South, they united the country and nominally freed the slaves, but they also disrupted the economic and social customs of the South.
President Abraham Lincoln famously intended that Reconstruction take place with “malice toward none, with charity toward all.” However, President Lincoln was assassinated before that vision could be made a reality. His successor, Andrew Johnson, quickly set out to rebuild the South. Bartoletti explains that he encouraged the Southern states to create the Black Codes, a set of laws that cruelly undermined the freedom of Southern blacks. Johnson’s actions were later put in check by the American Congress, which passed the Civil Rights Act to counter the Black Codes. Unfortunately, the passing of an ideal could not instantly overcome the reality of racial prejudice. For many Southern whites, the Civil War was now lamented as the Lost Cause. Many feared that the freed blacks would overturn traditions of racial stratification, and worse.
Against this background, six Tennessee men—John Lester, Calvin Jones, Richard Reed, James Crowe, Frank McCord, and John Kennedy—decided to form a club. Bartoletti explains that the group’s creation was inspired by Kuklos Adelphon, a Southern college fraternity that disbanded during the war. The group was originally to be named “Kuklos,” which is Greek for “circle.” However, in the hope of adding mystique,...
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