Monday, September 13, 2010

Terrorists Among Us

It’s been a long sad weekend remembering the tragedy of 9/11. Discussions continue to spring up about terrorists, who they are and where they are. We’re reminded of the danger every time we pass through a security point in a courthouse, airport, and even some schools. Enter the term “home grown terrorist.” It’s not just “those” who are “over there.” Actually, this is not new. Home grown terrorists have lived among us for decades.

THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE K.K.K.: The birth of an American terrorist group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin, 2010

The Ku Klux Klan dates from 1866 when six men decided to form a club. They raided the linen closet of a friend’s mansion and, hooded and draped, paraded through the streets of Pulaski, TN. Many current-day residents wish to disavow themselves from this history.

Why? The six grew from a fraternity-like organization with initiations, handshakes and passwords into the “Invisible Empire” with secret dens spread across the South. The group evolved into sinister night riders who intimidated, terrified, brutalized, and murdered former slaves who dared exercise their freedom as American citizens to vote, own land, go to school, or worship as they pleased.

Author Bartoletti has won numerous awards for her meticulously researched nonfiction. She wrote Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, winner of Newbery, Robert F. Sibert, and NCTE Orbis Pictus honors, so young people could understand the vulnerability of youth to dangerous manipulation. She traveled to Germany and taught herself to read the language well enough to save precious time. Her current achievement casts light closer to home.

For this book, the author worked her way through 2300 slave narratives and 8000 pages of congressional testimony called the Ku Klux Klan report. Add to this diaries, memoirs, and newspapers of that time.

Bartoletti followed her research into the field and attended a Klan Congress. In her source notes she describes that meeting. The setting was rural and at a gate marked by a large American flag, she entered the Soldiers of the Cross Bible Camp, attended by families with children. To conclude a weekend of fiery rhetoric condemning public schools and taxes and stirring up fear of other races and religions, a 25 foot cross was burned in the midst of men and women in white robes. What struck the author was how ordinary these people were. “If I had met them at another time, in another place, if I didn’t know their beliefs and their politics, I could see myself swapping recipes and stories about our children.”

Chilling.

When Bartoletti began her research, she asked where she could find plaques, statues, or any other markers recognizing or remembering the victims of Klan violence. She didn’t find any. But she has given those victims a voice.

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