It's not every day that one talks to the Ku Klux Klan, but that's exactly what I found myself doing when I wrote Little Sacrifices.
I knew when I thought up the story, a coming-of-age tale about being caught between two sets of beliefs in the 1940s segregated American South, that I wanted it to be historically accurate. I'm a researcher by training, which makes me a stickler for detail. It was also important to be accurate because I was writing about a painful time in US history. The main characters are white civil rights advocates before the civil rights movement really gets going. This makes them unpopular, to say the least, in their new hometown. Even though the story is fictional, I needed to represent events as they'd have happened, without understating or overstating them. So I did a lot of research.
First, I had to have a way to "see" what Savannah was like in the late 1940s. A lovely woman called Jewell Anderson Dalrymple at the Georgia Historical Society worked with me for over a year, patiently answering my (many!) questions and researching every little detail I put into the book. But she didn't have much information about one shameful aspect of the region's history. I needed to know about the Ku Klux Klan, since they played a part in my story. There was only one way to know, and that was to go to the source.
My belly flip-flopped as I dialled the number, which surprisingly I found on one of the KKK websites (yes, they have websites). A polite man answered and I explained who I was and why I was calling. He put me on hold and after a minute or so, another man answered, saying he was their head of communications. I imagined him sitting in his office with a sheet over his head.
He answered my questions without embarrassment. I couldn't say the same about my questioning! But, I kept reminding myself, I needed to get this information, unpalatable as it was. Yes, he admitted, there were lynchings at that time. He said this was mainly because the laws didn't protect blacks, implying that racist attacks happened because they were allowed to rather than because the perpetrators were horrid bigots. There was no remorse in his voice. When I asked whether the Klan was active in Savannah he replied, "No, ma'am, but they were right over in Statesboro and more than happy to travel." That quote will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I felt sick when I got off the phone. I still feel sick when I think about it. That call spurred me on to finish the book, to write what I hope is an ultimately uplifting story set in an uncomfortable time in Southern US history.
This post first appeared in a guest post for ataleofmanyreviews.com