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How 'The Birth of a Nation' Revived the Ku Klux Klan

How 'The Birth of a Nation' Revived the Ku Klux Klan


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History is usually written by the winners. But that wasn’t the case when The Birth of a Nation was released on February 8, 1915. In just over three hours, D.W. Griffith’s controversial epic film about the Civil War and Reconstruction depicted the Ku Klux Klan as valiant saviors of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and immoral freed Black people. The film was an instant blockbuster. And with innovative cinematography and a Confederate-skewed point of view, The Birth of a Nation also helped rekindle the KKK.

Until the movie’s debut, the Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865 by Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, was a regional organization in the South that was all but obliterated due to government suppression. But The Birth of a Nation’s racially charged Jim Crow narrative, coupled with America’s heightened anti-immigrant climate, led the Klan to align itself with the movie’s success and use it as a recruiting tool.

“People were primed for the message,” says Paul McEwan, film studies professor at Muhlenberg College and author of The Birth of Nation (BFI Film Classics). “Hard to argue this was a distortion of history when the history books at that time said the same.”

Adapted from the book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., who was a classmate and friend of President Woodrow Wilson, The Birth of a Nation portrayed Reconstruction as catastrophic. It showed Radical Republicans encouraging equality for Black people, who in the film are represented as uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women. And this racist narrative was widely accepted as historical fact.

“Academic histories mostly centered around the Dunning School,” McEwan says of the historiographical school of thought conceived by scholar William Archibald Dunning. It concluded that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake, which helped validate the film’s message, McEwan added.

Shortly after the Los Angeles launch, Thomas Dixon Jr. convinced President Wilson to screen the movie inside the White House, arguably the first time that was ever done. President Wilson reportedly said of the film, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Although the quote’s authenticity has been disputed, there is no debate where Wilson stood on the issue of race. “He re-segregated the civil service,” says McEwan. “It’s not unreasonable to conclude that he thought the film was amazing.” And of course, a movie screened at the White House was going to be perceived as an endorsement of the film; one white supremacist in Georgia understood this implicitly.

William Joseph Simmons is considered to be the founder of the 1915 modern Ku Klux Klan. While recovering from a car accident, the local preacher in Georgia followed the Birth of a Nation’s nationwide success. There were KKK-inspired aprons, costumes and regalia that glorified the defunct organization. Simmons seized on the film’s popularity to bolster the Klan’s appeal again.

It wasn’t just the fraught racial tensions that made the timing of a rebirth feasible. The way the film was made, with innovating editing techniques and close-up action shots, was captivating.

“People were taken to another planet,” says Dick Lehr, author of The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. “The galloping Klan riding to the rescue. The pure spectacle of it all,” says Lehr, romanticized the KKK. The film bolstered the idea that the Klan was there to save the South from savage Black men raping white women, a racist myth that would be propagated for years, Lehr adds.

As described in a journal article by historian Maxim Simcovitch, Simmons put a plan in motion once he learned the film would be released on December 6, 1915 in Atlanta. Just 10 days before the film premiered, Simmons gathered a group and climbed Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, to burn a large cross. He reportedly said, “There was good reason, as I have said, for making Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 1915) the occasion for burning the fiery cross. Something was going to happen in town (Atlanta) the next week (the premiere of The Birth of a Nation) that would give the new order a tremendous popular boost.”

As planned, word spread about the burning cross. Simmons also took out a newspaper ad about the KKK‘s revival that ran right alongside an announcement about The Birth of a Nation premiere.

On opening night, Simmons and fellow Klansmen dressed in white sheets and Confederate uniforms paraded down Peachtree Street with hooded horses, firing rifle salutes in front of the theater. The effect was powerful and screenings in more cities echoed the display, including movie ushers donning white sheets. Klansmen also handed out KKK literature before and after screenings.

The NAACP unsuccessfully protested The Birth of a Nation but the film’s popularity was too strong. With Black troops from WWI returning from France and the migration of Black people to the North, there were new racial tensions in northern cities, like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia. “There was no will in the North to enforce equality,” McEwan says. “It half-heartedly condemned racism.”

As the film continued to be screened and re-screened well into the 1920s, Lehr says more Klan chapters formed and membership reportedly reached into the millions. New Klansmen were shown The Birth of Nation and the film continued to be a recruiting tool for decades to come.


Poster for the American film The Birth of a Nation (1915) for a showing at the Academy of Music by Epoch Producing Co. The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most controversial movies in U.S. history was met with both rousing approval and indignant condemnation. Attempts to block the film were common, but resistance to such efforts during the early part of the twentieth century were not brought under the First Amendment. (public domain).

The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most controversial movies in U.S. history, premiered as The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 to be met with both rousing approval and indignant condemnation. Attempts to block the film were common, but resistance to such efforts during the early part of the twentieth century were not brought under the First Amendment. In fact, one of the first significant free speech cases did not appear until four years after the premiere&mdashSchenck v. United States (1919). And it was not until the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota that the Supreme Court considered the prior restraint concept in its First Amendment jurisprudence.


The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan is a domestic terrorist organization founded shortly after the United States Civil War ended. It has used intimidation, violence, and murder to maintain white supremacy in Southern government and social life.

Social Studies, U.S. History

KKK Gathering

The Ku Klux Klan was founded at the end of the United States Civil War to repress the rights and freedoms of African Americans. Even after 150 years, it is still an active, domestic terrorist organization.

Photograph from Herbert A. French

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Late in 1865, just after the United States Civil War ended, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded. The Klan, a secret organization that used terror tactics to target newly freed African Americans, attracted defeated Confederates who resented the changes of Reconstruction. Under the cloak of darkness and in disguise, the KKK worked to enforce white supremacy as the political and social order of the South.

The end of the Civil War brought freedom to enslaved African Americans in the former Confederacy. The 14 th and 15 th Amendments to the Constitution, as well as federal laws introduced during the years of Reconstruction (1866&ndash1877), were intended to protect the civil rights of freed people. However, when they tried to exercise their new rights, they encountered intimidation and violence, much of it organized by the Klan.

The votes of formerly enslaved men helped give the Republican Party control of the Mississippi state legislature, which made Hiram Rhodes Revels the first African American in the United States Senate.

In 1870, South Carolina directly elected Joseph Rainey, another African American, to the U.S. House of Representatives. The Klan reacted with terrorizing night rides to the homes of black voters.

Throughout the South, lynching and intimidation were prevalent. The KKK used secrecy, intimidation, violence, and murder to prevent formerly enslaved African-American men from voting. Black officeholders and their supporters were especially targeted.

In 1871, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, anti-Klan laws were passed allowing the president to declare martial law. Grant did not use these powers to the full extent of the law, but some state militias did break up Klan chapters. Nine South Carolina counties were placed under martial law and arrests followed.

However, after Reconstruction ended in 1877, state legislatures were able to put in place Jim Crow laws that ensured white superiority and segregation. Black voters were intimidated or simply blocked from registering and voting. The new laws placed almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of voting. The early Klan disbanded in the 1870s, partly because of federal laws but also because its goals had been met. The Klan would be revived in the early 20 th century with its falsely heroic portrayal in The Birth of a Nation film. The influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe offered a new target for the Klan's prejudice.


The Influence of "The Birth of a Nation"

The misconceptions of the Dunning School and the Lost Cause were embodied in some of the most significant works of American popular culture in the twentieth century. Perhaps most influential film of that century’s first half, The Birth of a Nation was steeped in the Dunning School’s interpretation of Reconstruction. Based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (a university classmate of Woodrow Wilson’s), the three-hour silent film glorified the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of the South from freedpeople, portrayed as brutish and bestial. Describing his novel, Dixon wrote:

"My object is to teach the North, the young North, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period. I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering during that time . . . to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme." 1

Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation was a sensation after its release in 1915. Describing the Reconstruction era, the film adapts quotations from a history book written by Woodrow Wilson, an adherent of the Dunning School. One such quotation went, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Wilson praised the movie and made it the first film ever to be screened at the White House. In New York City, The Birth of a Nation promoters sent white-robed horsemen riding through the city to advertise the new film about heroic Klansmen. Civil rights organizations such as the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People challenged the film’s portrayal of African Americans and unsuccessfully attempted to have it banned or censored. 2 The most ambitious film ever made at the time, The Birth of a Nation was a popular success. African American writer James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1915 that The Birth of a Nation did “incalculable harm” 3 to black Americans by creating a justification for prejudice, racism, and discrimination for decades to follow. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan, inactive since the trials of 1872, reemerged across the country to terrorize African Americans and immigrants.


How the Birthplace of the Modern Ku Klux Klan Became the Site of America's Largest Confederate Monument

Just outside of Atlanta, an enormous hunk of rock looms over the countryside. Over 800 feet tall and a mile and a half wide, the site draws some 4 million visitors a year. They come in part to see a huge bas-relief covering the northern face of the mountain that depicts three legendary leaders of the Confederacy &ndash Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis -- all astride horses, each holding a hat over his heart.

This is Stone Mountain, and it&rsquos become part of a heated national debate about Confederate flags and monuments, an issue that flared anew in June 2015 after Dylann Roof, a young man with suspected white supremacist leanings, murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, SC. Authorities later discovered photos of Roof posing with a Confederate flag.

The tragedy has prompted communities across the nation to engage in searching discussions about the role and impact that Confederate symbolism has in public life.

The issue has spread as far as California, where lawmakers are currently debating legislation to ban Confederate names on schools and other public property. If successful, the bill would force at least two Southern California public elementary schools named after Robert E. Lee to change their names (the North Coast city of Fort Bragg, named after Braxton Bragg, a U.S. Army officer who served as a Confederate general, would not be forced to change its name).

The removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina&rsquos statehouse this month, which lawmakers approved after weeks of heated deliberation, was just one step in a broader critical examination of the Confederate emblems and names still on display in other state capitols and cemeteries, and on license plates, roads and schools.

The Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is now demanding that Stone Mountain&rsquos slate be wiped clean -- literally. Calling the image &ldquoa glorification of white supremacy,&rdquo the group wants it scraped from the mountain&rsquos face.

It&rsquos no secret that Confederate leaders during the Civil War explicitly defined their cause as a defense of slavery and white supremacy. A towering carving of the Confederacy&rsquos most powerful political and military leaders would, therefore, seem a clear glorification of that cause. And the same could be said for other Confederate monuments across the country.

But many staunch defenders of the Confederate battle flag argue it&rsquos an important symbol of Southern heritage and culture, and commemorates the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who valiantly fought and died for &ldquothe Lost Cause.&rdquo

Stone Mountain&rsquos role in memorializing this cause, however, is a bit more nuanced. Embedded in this mountain are two stories, only one of which is captured in the bas-relief.

An Atlanta Constitution clipping from Nov. 28, 1915 describing the Klan re-establishment atop Stone Mountain. (Wikimedia)

Lesser known is that Stone Mountain is the symbolic birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. The original Klan, founded in 1865, had been largely stamped out by the mid-1870s after a period of aggressive federal intervention during Reconstruction. In 1915, William J. Simmons, a former Methodist preacher, launched a campaign to reestablish the group. Purportedly inspired by the film "The Birth of a Nation," a blatantly racist &ldquohistorical romance&rdquo glorifying the original Klan, Simmons led a small group up Stone Mountain one November night in advance of the film&rsquos Atlanta debut. At the summit, they set a cross ablaze.

The reestablished Klan's white supremacist ideology -- primarily targeting blacks, but also Jews, Catholics and foreigners -- struck a chord in the South, and the group rapidly expanded. By the mid-1920s, national membership was estimated in the millions, including sizable pockets in some northern states. Minority communities found themselves increasingly terrorized by vigilante gangs of hooded, white-robed men.

This historical footnote is, not surprisingly, omitted from the description on Stone Mountain's corporate website. But the two histories are inextricably linked.

At the time of the Klan&rsquos resurgence, Stone Mountain was owned by aa quarry operator named Samuel Venable. A fan of "The Birth of a Nation," Venable accompanied Simmons on that November night and became an active member of the group, hosting regular Klan ceremonies on the mountain.

Venable later leased a portion of the land to a Georgia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who set out to build a memorial to the Lost Cause. Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor and Klan member designed the massive bas-release, proclaiming it would be the &ldquothe greatest monument ever built,&rdquo comparable to the Egyptian pyramids. Helen Plane, head of the local UDOC chapter, went to great lengths to persuade Borglum to include the Klan in the memorial. She wrote:

&ldquoI feel it is due to the Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?&rdquo

There was strong support for the idea, and it would may have come to pass had the project not run out of funding. Borglum left in a huff, and the effort languished for decades, with only the carving of Lee&rsquos head finished. (Borglum later established his reputation with another monumental project: Mount Rushmore.)

The spark that finally spurred Stone Mountain&rsquos completion came from an unexpected place: the Civil Rights Movement.

In the run-up to the Supreme Court&rsquos 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision prohibiting racial segregation, pro-segregationists breathed new life into Confederate symbolism.

Strom Thurmond&rsquos breakaway Dixiecrats displayed the battle flag prominently at their convention in 1948. By 1951, a newspaper in Gastonia, North Carolina, was commenting on &ldquothe rash of Confederate flags which have broken out on Southern windshields, ties, and other decorative spots.&rdquo The same year, The Nation reported that &ldquonearly one car out of ten now flies the Stars and Bars [sic] defiantly from its radio aerial.&rdquo

Soon, the flag made its way into official symbolism. In 1956, Georgia adopted a new state flag with a design incorporating the Confederate flag. And in 1961, South Carolina raised the Confederate flag over its statehouse to ostensibly commemorate the centennial of the Civil War&rsquos start. Alabama followed suit in 1963, after Gov. George Wallace ordered it raised in advance of a visit by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to address Wallace's resistance to integration of the University of Alabama.

By 1958, the state of Georgia had bought Stone Mountain and pushed ahead with plans for a revised bas-relief design featuring Lee, Jackson, and Davis, sans Klansmen. Work surged forward, and piece by piece the image of the Confederacy was hammered into stone. As the Civil Rights Movement roiled across the country, workers used thermo-jet torches to finalize the details of Jefferson Davis&rsquo eyebrows.

Bas-relief close up (Wikimedia)

In the eyes of state leaders, writes historian Grace Hale, &ldquothe carving would demonstrate to the rest of the nation that 'progress' meant not black rights but the maintenance of white supremacy.&rdquo

After decades of work, the monument was formally dedicated in 1970. Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew, flanked by segregationist Democrats, addressed thousands of attendees who came to witness the unveiling.

Today, millions of visitors each year flock to Stone Mountain, now Georgia&rsquos most visited attraction. The park offers hiking, fishing, golf and rides. There's even a laser light show.

It also offers visitors a cunningly crafted view of the past, eulogizing the leaders of the Confederacy and celebrating their cause as valiant and noble.

It's a mythology that's seeped more deeply into American culture than many realize.

This is evident in some history textbooks claiming that thousands of black Southerners fought for the Confederacy. It's evident in Tennessee&rsquos 2015 commemoration of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, whose namesake, a Confederate Army general, was also a former slave trader. It's evident in the vitriolic manifesto of alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, who claims to have read hundreds of slave narratives, &ldquoalmost all of [which] were positive.&rdquo It's even evident in Calhoun Street where the church shooting happened: John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson's vice president, was perhaps best known for his vehement defense of slavery as a positive good.

Roof didn't have go digging through the archives to assemble the white supremacist worldview for motivated. It was all around him, continually repurposed and made visible in monuments and flags.

Ironically, it&rsquos the relative restraint of Stone Mountain&rsquos design that&rsquos made it such an effective vector for this line of thinking. While the Klan&rsquos decades of terrorism ultimately relegated it to the proverbial shadows of white America, Stone Mountain never faced such a backlash. One hundred years after the monument was first imagined, most Americans have no idea how closely its history is entangled with the birth of the 20th century Ku Klux Klan.

As a result, Stone Mountain endures, its message carved into the American landscape.


Contents

  • Austin Stoneman – Northern political leader who advocates and implements Reconstruction in the conquered Southern States introduces bill to impeach President Andrew Johnson
  • Elsie Stoneman – daughter of the above defies father's wishes by falling in love with young Southern patriot Ben Cameron
  • Phil Stoneman – son and brother of the above falls in love with Southerner Margaret Cameron
  • Lydia Brown – Austin Stoneman's mulatto housekeeper
  • Silas Lynch – mulatto assistant to Austin Stoneman aids him in forcing Reconstruction on the defiant Southerners
  • Marion Lenoir – Fifteen-year-old white girl who was Ben Cameron's childhood sweetheart after being brutally raped by Gus, she commits suicide by jumping off a cliff
  • Jeannie Lenoir – mother of the above joins her daughter in fatal cliff leap
  • Gus – a former slave of the Camerons rapes Marion and is then captured and executed by the Ku Klux Klan, under the supervision of the "Grand Dragon" Ben Cameron
  • Dr. Richard Cameron – a Southern doctor, falsely charged with complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln
  • Mrs. Gloria Cameron – wife of Dr. Richard Cameron
  • Benjamin ("Ben") Cameron – son of the above and the hero of the novel falls in love with Northerner Elsie Stoneman fought for the South in the Civil War and later joins the Ku Klux Klan in order to resist Northern occupation forces
  • Margaret Cameron – sister of the above
  • Mammy
  • Jake
  • President Abraham Lincoln – portrayed as a sympathetic character who sought to restore normalcy by shipping former slaves back to Africa
  • President Andrew Johnson – Lincoln's successor, who was impeached (but not convicted) in Congress for opposing Reconstruction

In The Clansman, Reconstruction was an attempt by Augustus Stoneman, a thinly-veiled reference to Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, to ensure that the Republican Party would stay in power by securing the Southern black vote. Stoneman's hatred for President Johnson stems from Johnson's refusal to disenfranchise Southern whites. His anger towards former slaveholders is intensified after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when he vows revenge on the South. His programs strip away the land owned by whites, giving it to former slaves. (See Forty acres and a mule.) Men claiming to represent the government confiscate the material wealth of the South, destroying plantation-owning families. Finally, the former slaves are taught that they are superior to their former owners and should rise up against them. These injustices are the impetuses for the creation of the Klan.

Similar to his statements about The Leopard's Spots, Dixon insists in a "To the reader" prologue that the novel is historical:

I have sought to preserve in this romance both the letter and the spirit of this remarkable period. The men who enact the drama of fierce revenge into which I have woven a double love-story are historical figures. I have merely changed their names without taking a liberty with any essential historic fact. [5]

The publication of The Clansman caused significant uproar not only in the North, but throughout the South. Thomas Dixon was denounced for renewing old conflicts and glorifying what many thought was an unfortunate part of American history.

When offered membership in the KKK, Dixon reportedly turned it down because, he claimed, he did not agree with the Klan's methods. [6] The Klokard of the Klan, Rev. Dr. Oscar Haywood, at one point challenged Dixon to a debate over the nature of the Ku Klux Klan. [7]

Despite Dixon's reported claims that he rejected violence except in self-defense, in the book previous to The Clansman in Dixon's trilogy, The Leopard's Spots, the Klan dealt thusly with a black man who had asked a white woman to kiss him: [8]

When the sun rose next morning the lifeless body of Tim Shelby was dangling from a rope tied to the iron rail of the balcony of the court house. His neck was broken and his body was hanging low--scarcely three feet from the ground. His thick lips had been split with a sharp knife and from his teeth hung this placard: "The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to Negro lips that dare pollute with words the womanhood of the South. K. K. K."

Dixon's novel is often contraposed with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin [9] Dixon himself described it as a sequel. [10] The character of Gus in The Clansman, who is shown as the worst kind of former slave, going as far as to rape a white woman, is the opposite of the benevolent Uncle Tom, who is portrayed as angelic. The books are also similar for the reactions they stirred up among their readers. Uncle Tom's Cabin was detested and banned throughout the South, while The Clansman was ranted against in Northern papers. Also like Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Clansman reached its greatest audience not through its book form, which sold over 100,000 copies, but through the subsequent play, that had an audience of millions. [11]

In the introduction to a university press edition of the book in 1970, an era of high interest in civil rights, historian Thomas D. Clark wrote:

The first thing to be said in discussing Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s novel, The Clansman is that no person of critical judgment thinks of it as having artistic conception or literary craftsmanship. The novel opened a wider a vein of racial hatred which was to poison further in age already in a social and political upheaval. [12]

In 1915, when Birth of a Nation appeared, The Clansman was best known as a play. Much of the movie is taken from the play, rather than directly from the novel.

Dixon rewrote the novel as a play In order to further publicize his views. "In most cases, Dixon's adaptation of a novel for the stage was merely intended to present his message to a larger audience, for his avowed purpose as a writer was to reach as many people as possible." [13] : 107 [14] : 15 [15] : 280 He enrolled in a correspondence course given by the one-man American School of Playwriting, of William Thompson Price. Price was "the greatest critic of the theater since Aristotle" Dixon also compares him with Daniel Boone and Henry Clay, adding "The State of Kentucky has given the nation no greater man." [15] : 281 Apparently as an advertisement for the school, he reproduced in the program his handwritten thank-you note. (At the time, reproducing handwriting was expensive, and to send a handwritten, as opposed to typed, letter was an indication of special esteem.)

November 11, 1905
My dear Mr. Price,
Thanks for your letter of congratulations. It is for me to thank you for invaluable aid as my instructor in the technique of playwriting.
I learned more from your course in one year than I could have gotten in ten years unaided. It is new, not found in books, thorough and practical. The student who neglects this course is missing the opportunity of a life [sic]. I could never have written "The Clansman" without the grasp of its principles. Our association has been an inspiration to me from the first.
Sincerely,
Thomas Dixon Jr. [16]

The contract for the production specified, at Dixon's request, that Dixon would pay half the cost of the production, and have half ownership. He chose the cast and had a "secret power in the. management of the company". [15] : 280–282 "The production of the play became the most fascinating adventure on which I had ever embarked. I lived in a dream world with dream people. I never worked so hard or so happily in my life. Work was play, thrilling, glorious, inspiring play." [15] : 282

Four horses in Klan costumes "raced across the stage in a climax. The horses were ridden in the streets as advertising." [15] : 285

Reception Edit

In Montgomery, Alabama, and Macon, Georgia, the play was banned. [17] The next day the Washington Post, in an editorial, called for the same to be done in Washington, saying the play was abominable, stupid, and misleading:

The play does not possess even the merit of historic truth. It is as false as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and a hundred times more wicked, for it excites the passions and prejudices of the dominant class at the expense of the defenseless minority. We can imagine no circumstances under which its production would be useful or wholesome, since it disgusts the judicious and the well-informed, and exerts an influence only upon the ignorant, the credulous, and the ill disposed. But in the present condition of the public mind at [sic] the South it is a firebrand, a counsel of barbarity, in fact, a crime. [18]

In an effort to prevent a performance in Washington, D.C., a group of pastors appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt to intercede on their behalf. [19]

In Philadelphia, the play was banned after it opened by Mayor Weaver, who said that "the tendency of the play is to produce racial hatred". [20] At the opening rotten eggs were thrown at the actors. [21]

The play, despite these protests, was extremely popular in the South. It opened with a huge premiere in Norfolk, Virginia, and drew record-breaking audiences in Columbia, South Carolina, and [22] [23] In fact, the vast majority of news stories about The Clansman have to do with the play, not the novel. [ citation needed ]

In Bainbridge, Georgia, a black man was lynched shortly after presentation of the play in October, 1905. A newspaper article reported it under the title: "Lynching Laid to 'The Clansman'. Georgia Mob, Wrought Up by Dixon's Story, Hangs Negro Murderer." "The feeling against negroes, never kindly, has been embittered by the Dixon play, following which stories of negroes' depredations during the reconstruction period have been revived, and whites have been wrought up to a high tension." [24]

According to news stories, the "mob" which lynched three negroes in Springfield, Missouri in April, 1906, "seemed filled with the spirit of 'The Clansman', which created such a strong anti-negro feeling here six weeks ago." [25] Dixon called this attribution "the acme of absurdity", claiming that the play had reduced lynchings. The lynching in Springfield, he opined, "was caused by the commission of a crime by negroes—a crime so horrible and revolting to every instinct of white manhood that a whole community went mad with rage for justice, swift and terrible. Such things have happened in the south before and they will happen again so long as such crimes are committed by negroes." [26]

The play had an opulent 60-page program, with pictures, sold at the high price of 50¢ when a newspaper cost 5¢. It included "A Portrait and Sketch of the Author", and "Mr. Dixon's Famous Articles on 'The Future of the Negro', 'The Story of the Ku Klux Klan', and 'What Our Nation owes to the Klan ' ". [27]

A four-page program of a traveling production, held by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, tells us that "Hundreds [were] turned away at every performance since the memorable opening in Norfolk, VA., Sept, 22, 1905". [28]

The play was not published until 2007. [29] A scholar says it was not only not published, it was not printed, [14] : 16 but with so many involved in the production — two companies were touring simultaneously [14] : 22 — copies had to be printed for internal use. Two such copies are known, one in the Library of Congress, the other in the Cortland Free Library. [30]

Thomas Dixon's novel did not have the immediate effect of causing the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan. Neither did the subsequent play. The release of the movie The Birth of a Nation in 1915 finally let Dixon's work reach an audience large enough to start the resurrection of the Klan.

One of the images most commonly associated with the Klan, that of a burning Latin cross, was actually taken from The Clansman, but was not used by the original Klan. Dixon, who had Scottish ancestry, drew upon the Scottish tradition of the Crann Tara, a burning cross used to call clan members to arms, as inspiration for the depiction of cross burning. [31] The Klan's white robes are also an invention of Dixon, and he protested their appropriation of the "livery" he created. [6]


Thank you!

In the early 1920s, the two states with the highest per capita Klan membership were Indiana and Oregon. Though Portland, Ore., has a reputation for liberal inclusiveness today, that was one of the cities where the KKK was most powerful. One major focus of Klan resentment in Oregon was on parochial schools, which were painted as part of the Pope’s plot to take over America. (Modern progressives may also be surprised to learn that the Klan called for a federal department of education at this time, because they wanted to be able to control curricula, Gordon points out.)

It’s worth noting that despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric that attracted Oregonians of the 1920s to the KKK, the state was overwhelmingly white and Protestant and 87% native-born in the early 1920s. The few Catholics and Japanese people that did live in the area were framed as threatening populations that could potentially grow bigger and take over the labor market if their presence wasn’t curbed quickly. “There were very, very few Catholics in Oregon, very few Jews and almost no African Americans,” says Gordon. “You can rev up hostility and fear even when there isn&rsquot local evidence for that fear. My hunch is that many people in the Klan had really never met a Catholic.”

World War II dramatically changed Portland’s demographics, as it became a major commercial port and center for defense shipbuilding. With so many of the states’ residents shipping out with the Army, “defense industries became desperate for labor and paid to bring people in from other parts of the country,” says Gordon. “That&rsquos what bought African Americans to Oregon. Then Portland became for the first time a diverse place, which it hadn&rsquot been at all.”

It became even more diverse and cosmopolitan after the war, especially after Japan became a major manufacturer and began to ship more of its products into the U.S. through Portland, attracting a global business class.

The Klan’s biggest victory was its successful lobbying for immigration quotas, which were made law in 1924. The group got 16 members elected to the U.S. Senate, claimed it elected 75 to the U.S. House of Representatives and at least 11 Democratic and Republican governors to state houses. (Gordon notes that no one has been able to count all of the Klan candidates elected to state and local offices, as many non-members may have shared some points of Klan ideology.) But its newfound momentum was short-lived. In 1925, Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted for kidnapping, raping and murdering his secretary, and the national press had a field day over the hypocrisy in a group that claimed to represent a Christian ideology. Membership fell from several million in the early 1920s to about 350,000 in 1927, and power struggles among leaders led some to split off and start rival groups.

After the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, hate groups in the Pacific Northwest have gotten renewed attention, as the Southern Poverty Law Center counts what it considers to be 21 hate groups in the state of Washington alone, concentrated especially in the Seattle area.

“The Klan has been flexible about who [its resentment] was directed at,” says Gordon. “In a sense, all bigotry is of a piece, all comes from the same sources of fear and anger.”


‘The Birth of a Nation’: The most racist movie ever made

A century ago, on March 3, 1915, the most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history opened in New York. “The Birth of a Nation” had premiered in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, and on Feb. 18 it became the first feature film to be screened at the White House. But the premiere at New York’s Liberty Theater was much more of a scene, as a massive publicity effort orchestrated by director D.W. Griffith converged with a massive protest led by the NAACP.

The approximately three-hour-long drama follows two white families – one Northern, one Southern — through the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Griffith, the son of a Kentucky colonel in the Confederate cavalry, perpetuated the demeaning caricatures of blacks typical of minstrel shows and “coon” songs. White actors wearing blackface play buffoons.

But Griffith amped up the racism. As Leon Litwack wrote in “Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies,” the film depicts African American men as “subhuman, possessing “vicious bestiality” and “primitive sexuality.” Walter Long (another white actor playing a black man) portrays the former plantation hand Gus, who lusts after the virginal Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), causing her to leap to her death to avoid being raped. The Klan rides to the rescue of Southern whites in general and, in particular, silent screen superstar Lillian Gish’s character, another blonde beauty who is menaced by the “mulatto” Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch (played by George Sigmann).

The film also notably hypes the threat of black power. Beyond the lieutenant governor, African Americans are depicted as state legislators, judges, juries, voters and — most dramatically — armed soldiers enforcing equality. Black South Carolina lawmakers appear shoeless, drinking whiskey and eating chicken in the state legislature when they pass a law allowing blacks and whites to intermarry. During his Oscar acceptance speech for Selma’s song “Glory,” John Legend warned last month “that the voting rights act that [Civil Rights activists] fought for 50 years ago is being compromised,” but in “The Birth of a Nation” it is blacks who are shown disenfranchising white would-be voters. Uppity free slaves push white southerners off sidewalks.

“The Birth of a Nation was hardly the last racist accomplishment to come out of Hollywood. But it far surpasses in viciousness the cartoonish servile servant roles epitomized by Stepin Fetchit in movies such as John Ford’s 1934 “Judge Priest. And while there are allusions to the Klan in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind, those are mild compared to the graphic and laudatory portrayal in Griffith’s film.


Resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan

The original Ku Klux Klan had died out in the late 1870s as post-Civil War Reconstruction was drawing to a close. A myth persisted, however, that the organization had been largely responsible for saving the South from corrupt outside influences. In 1915, a new klan was started in Stone Mountain, Georgia, by William Simmons, a Methodist minister who had taken inspiration from the favorable portrayal of the klan in D.W. Griffith`s epic film, The Birth of a Nation. Emphasizing costumes, rallies and secret rituals, the klan grew rapidly in the South. The initial targets were blacks, whom many whites felt had been warped by wartime experiences. Black workers on the home front had earned respectable wages and expected the same after the war, and black veterans, who had witnessed a racially tolerant society in France, longed for a more accepting America. Perturbed whites believed the blacks had to be put back in their place. The appeal of the Klan spread to the North and West, and at its peak in the mid-1920s achieved a total membership of four million or more. Members served in state legislatures and Congress, and were elected to the governorship in several states. Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon saw significantKlan influence. The central Klan offices marketed regalia and literature to local units, but agendas were molded by community conditions and concerns. Blacks were the subject of Klan activity in both the North and South, as were Jews, Catholics and immigrants. The Klan also organized to oppose the teaching of evolution in the schools, dissemination of birth control devices and information, and efforts to repeal Prohibition. Hiram Wesley Evans was a Dallas dentist who became the Klan`s Imperial Wizard in November 1922. Writing in North American Review in 1926, Evans expressed the core sentiment of the Klan:

Probably the majority of klan members confined their opposition tactics to parading and burning crosses, the latter an innovation of the new Klan. However, violence was not uncommon — public whippings, tarring and feathering, and Lynching occurred in many sections of the country. Serious concern about Klan activity was raised early in its history, especially by a series of exposés in the Baltimore Sun and the New York World. It was, however, the conduct of a number of Klan leaders that finally led to the group`s decline. In particular, Indiana Klan leader David Stephenson was convicted in 1925 of kidnapping and second degree murder. To get his sentence lightened, he implicated other Indiana officials whose corrupt activities were widely reported. By 1930, membership nationwide had plummeted to around 10,000. In the West and South, the second Ku Klux Klan comprised largely poor, rural and fundamentalist Protestant members who believed that evil came from the cities, non-Northern European immigrants and a postwar tolerance for loose morality. A more urban character was evident in the North. The klan would make a third appearance in the United States in the post-World War II period — another time of rapid social change.


The Birth of a Nation

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The Birth of a Nation, landmark silent film, released in 1915, that was the first blockbuster Hollywood hit. It was the longest and most-profitable film then produced and the most artistically advanced film of its day. It secured both the future of feature-length films and the reception of film as a serious medium. An epic about the American Civil War (1861–65) and the Reconstruction era that followed, it has long been hailed for its technical and dramatic innovations but condemned for the racism inherent in the script and its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Based on the novel The Clansman (1905) by Thomas Dixon, the two-part epic traces the impact of the Civil War on two families: the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South, each on separate sides of the conflict. The first half of the film is set from the outbreak of the war through the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, and the concluding section deals with the chaos of the Reconstruction period.

Director D.W. Griffith revolutionized the young art of moviemaking with his big-budget ($110,000) and artistically ambitious re-creation of the Civil War years. Shooting on the film began in secrecy in July 1914. Although a script existed, Griffith kept most of the continuity in his head—a remarkable feat considering that the completed film contained 1,544 separate shots at a time when the most-elaborate spectacles, Italian epics such as Cabiria (1914), boasted fewer than 100. Running nearly three hours, The Birth of a Nation was the then longest movie ever released, and its sweeping battle re-creations and large-scale action thrilled audiences. It was also innovative in technique, using special effects, deep-focus photography, jump cuts, and facial close-ups.

However, the movie’s overt racism outraged African Americans and civil rights advocates. Blacks, particularly in the film’s second part dramatizing Reconstruction, are portrayed as the root of all evil and unworthy of freedom and voting rights. In addition, male African Americans are depicted as always lusting after white women. In contrast, the KKK is portrayed in a heroic light as a healing force restoring order to the chaos and lawlessness of Reconstruction.

Protests against the film accompanied its premiere in Los Angeles in February 1915 and continued when the movie debuted in New York City the following month. But it was in Boston, where the film opened in April, that Griffith faced the most intense and protracted opposition. William Monroe Trotter—a civil rights leader and editor of a radical Boston weekly newspaper, The Guardian—teamed up with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in a bid to ban the film. Throughout the spring of 1915, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard and the college’s first black member of Phi Beta Kappa, was at the forefront of the protests, which included mass rallies at which thousands of demonstrators were confronted by a small army of Boston police. Foreshadowing the direct-action civil rights strategies of the 1960s, the demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent, played out in every venue imaginable: city hall, the streets, the courts, and the Massachusetts state legislature. The effort failed to stop Griffith’s movie, but it succeeded in galvanizing the civil rights movement in Boston and around the country, and it exposed in no uncertain terms the movie’s bigoted treatment of historic events.

Still, Griffith’s movie proved a boon for the KKK, which had practically disappeared by the 1870s, with the end of Reconstruction. However, in December 1915 it was revived in Georgia following the opening of the movie in Atlanta. Inspired by The Birth of a Nation, Col. William J. Simmons, a preacher and promoter of fraternal orders, led a cross burning on Stone Mountain that marked the beginning of a new era of KKK activity.

Demonstrations, mainly organized by the NAACP, continued in other cities where the film was shown. Ultimately, the filmmakers’ civil liberties claims prevailed against protesters’ bid to suppress the film. Showings of The Birth of a Nation were stopped in only a few states and a handful of municipalities.

Such opposition, however, did not prevent The Birth of a Nation from becoming one of the most-popular films of the silent era. It achieved national distribution in the year of its release and was seen by nearly three million people.


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