Birth of a Nation (1915) Part IV
The Rise of the Second KKK
One thing that is often mentioned, but rarely examined, in discussion of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” is the coincidence that it was released in the same year that an enterprising Southerner, William Joseph Simmons, re-established the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. While it got off to a shaky start, this “second Klan” (often referred to by historians as “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s”), rose to become a powerful political lobby, able to muster thousands of hooded marchers for a demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1928. It is estimated that as many as five million Americans joined during the decade, although most of them were fairly short-term members. I would really like to see a proper historical study documenting the links between the new Klan and the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” but for now this essay (derived from secondary sources) will have to do.
The original Ku Klux Klan had been a resistance organization for white Southerners during the period of Reconstruction. It consisted of loosely allied vigilante bands, who used terror against Northerners, Radical Republicans, freed African Americans and their Southern allies to re-establish an order of white supremacy and the control of traditional elites in the South. It was ultimately suppressed by order of the Federal Government, and this led to its abandonment by its most powerful supporters, who sought more above-ground, legal means to accomplish the same ends. Southern Democrats turned to two different means to accomplish this: the popularization of the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the South and the establishment of “Jim Crow” laws that were designed to keep African Americans in a position of separation and subjugation vis-à-vis whites. Since it was pretended that Jim Crow was based on “separate but equal” (it wasn’t), these laws had some success spreading to non-Confederate areas and even began to be introduced by Woodrow Wilson at the Federal Government level by the time of the early teens.
Meanwhile, the “Lost Cause” had been successful in changing the narrative about the war. It wasn’t about slavery, but about a noble, if anachronistic, “way of life” that the South maintained while the North progressed into capitalism and industrialization. The South had only wanted to preserve its honorable and decent lifestyle when it was forced to secede. This is the narrative that Thomas Dixon’s book and play The Clansman repeated, and it was read and accepted widely by white people all over the country. Another believer was Simmons, who had been a failure at most of what he had put his hand to in life: medical student, minister, soldier, yet he had retained a sense of destiny in himself. Simmons was also a member of several fraternal organizations, and when he decided in 1915 to “revive” the KKK, this was the model he chose, as opposed to a secret terror group.
Nowadays, men who join fraternal societies like the Masons or the Oddfellows are increasingly rare and rather marginal figures. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these kinds of groups were dominant. Men associated, outside of their homes, with other men for professional and social reasons, usually under the auspices of an “Order” of some kind with ritual trappings, sometimes with costumes and secret signals. It’s been estimated that at the high point there were some 2000 separate lodge organizations in the USA, with a membership that may have extended to 40% of the population. In addition to networking and social activities, lodges organized charitable work and provided religious and secular educational events. While fraternal organizations were declining by the beginning of World War One, this tradition was still far stronger than it is today.
All which gives the Second Klan a rather different flavor than the First, and I think has led some historians to mis-read its nature. Writers at the time and soon afterward often confused the two Klans, and assumed that the membership of Simmons’s organization was poor, uneducated, Southern, and rural. Examination of membership rosters and other information challenged this idea, beginning in the 1960s. It turned out that many members were middle class, urban, and educated. The largest numerical membership was in Indiana and the highest per capita was in Oregon – definitely not the South. A new school of “Klan revisionists” arose who started taking this into account and doing regional studies of unlikely Klan strongholds like Buffalo, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Salt Lake City. They found that Klan concerns often lined up with Progressive issues like temperance and educational reform.
I personally think the revisionists wound up going a little too far in starting to see the Second Klan as “nice” people. They started to argue that white supremacy was only one of several interests of the organization, and that most of its methods were above-ground and legal. Well, it depends where you look. Nancy MacLean (who is sometimes called a “re-revisionsist”) studied the KKK in Georgia and found that they were engaged in lynching and terror operations after all. They just did it with the collusion of powerful middle class lawyers and judges and police officials who conveniently looked the other way. Illegal actions like cross burnings on other people’s property, public tarring and feathering, or vandalism were consistently a part of its activities even outside the South. At the high point of the Klan’s power, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, a law explicitly written to limit the number of “non-white” (including Southern and Eastern European) entrants into the country. This was a triumph for their racist position on immigration. And that “educational reform” the KKK was so good about supporting usually meant closing down Catholic schools, because Catholicism was an enemy of “democracy” as the Klan defined it.
But, getting back to Simmons and 1915: he had gathered a few friends to his new organization, but he waited until December to announce its formation in local papers. Specifically, he waited until “The Birth of a Nation” was scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters. According to several historians, the Klan consistently timed its recruitment drives to coincide with screenings of the movie. Nancy MacLean found that the KKK had a hard time getting up to speed in Athens, Georgia, until “a much-touted return engagement” of the movie in 1921. The Klan and its successor organizations continued using it as a recruiting device, right up to the video revolution of the 80s and 90s, according to Dick Lehr and Thomas Martinez. It may still be used, for all I know. Apart from that, Simmons adopted much of the imagery of the movie, without worrying over whether it was historically accurate. The original Klan had not used the burning cross as a symbol, that was an invention of Dixon in The Clansman, based on his idea of Scottish clans burning St. Andrews’ crosses. D.W. Griffith was the one who invented the symbol of a burning Latin cross, which remains a powerful symbol of hatred today.
I’m sure this was an unintended consequence, so far as D.W. Griffith was concerned. So far as I know, neither he nor Thomas Dixon condoned the new Klan or its use of their art to foster hate. I’m not trying to present a simple argument of causality here, either: blaming D.W. Griffith for lynchings in the South in the 1920s is equivalent to blaming violent video games for school shootings, and I don’t mean to go that route. What I do think is that modern film fans, critics, and historians have to make an effort to get the easy stuff right. A movie that propagandizes for the KKK is not a “neutral” work of art that can be removed from its place in history. It was wildly popular for some of the same reasons that the Second Klan was popular. That isn’t pretty, but it is our past, and the more “important” we judge “The Birth of a Nation” to be in film history, the more we need to confront what that importance says about all the movies that followed it. Film historians and classic film fans often tend to romanticize their subject matter, but it’s bound up in all the same problems we see in society as a whole. That’s what looking at the past through the lens of its visual representation means to me.
I don’t usually give sources for my posts, but since this was one of the most heavily researched ones I’ve done, here are the references:
Greer, John Michael. Inside a Magical Lodge: Group Ritual in the Western Tradition. St Paul: Llewellyn, 1998.
Horowitz, David A, ed. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
Kirschenbaum, Robert. “Klan and Commonwealth: The Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, 1921-1928.” Master’s thesis, University of Kentucky, 2005.
Lay, Shawn. Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York. New York and London: NYU Press, 1995.
_____, ed. The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.
MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Martinez, Thomas & John Gunther. Brotherhood of Murder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Moore, Leonard. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991.