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, they adapted “kuklos” to “ku klux” and then added “klan,” which also means circle. Bartoletti concludes:
The name Ku Klux Klan was cobbled together, a redundant, alliterative name that meant, simply and ridiculously, “circle circle.”
Fashioning for themselves titles like “Grand Cyclops” and “Grand Magi,” the six men began dressing as ghosts in bed sheets and riding their horses at night.
Before long, the Klansmen began to associate themselves with the Lost Cause. The Klansmen did not dress as simply any ghosts—they were the ghosts of Confederate soldiers. Their early antics moved from crashing parties to patrolling the roads, where they terrorized freedmen. Bartoletti includes testimony from blacks whose houses were invaded by the Klan. Meanwhile, the controversies of the Southern restoration—which included blacks being able to vote in the South but not the North and the South remaining under martial law—fueled Southern resentment against the North and against the freedmen. Within a year, the Ku Klux Klan had become a gathering place for Confederate soldiers. It had also become a place that brought together and mobilized racial prejudice against blacks.
The Klan rapidly became organized with new titles and positions and even a constitution created at a conference. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was given control of the organization. People quickly joined the Klan, though many claimed to have been coerced into it. Before long, Klansmen had begun to see themselves as law enforcers rather than lawbreakers. Their “law enforcement” resulted in their anonymously traveling at night and beating people who opposed the Klan’s aims. Many blacks were beaten for attempting to vote. Bartoletti explains that white Republicans who pushed for equality were beaten as well—one man was even pistol whipped by a group of Klansmen. Bartoletti concludes that most men joined the Ku Klux Klan out of fear, either of the Klan or that the Southern Reconstruction would cause them to lose their jobs.
As the conflict between Klansmen and those they terrorized escalated, so too did the political battle between Congress and President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was impeached, and the following election, which saw Union General Ulysses S. Grant become president, was a divisive and violent time in the South. Freed blacks were forming...
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