Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ku Klux Klan

The White Caps (1905)

An important predecessor to “The Birth of a Nation,” this short movie by Edwin S. Porter was nowhere near as successful, but still offers some insights into the themes of early American Cinema. To understand its meaning today, a good deal of context needs to be filled in.

The movie begins by showing two men in awkward white hoods approaching the front of a house and tacking up a sign at the front door. The men are armed with rifles, and one keep a lookout while the other posts the warning sign. They depart, and shortly thereafter we cut to the inside of the house, where a lone woman glumly reads at a table. Soon, her husband comes home, apparently drunk. He is enraged by the sign and tears it down, then goes in and picks a fight with his wife, escalating to violence. A child runs out of the bedroom and distracts him long enough that she can escape his clutches, and we see them run across fields to elude him and ends up at another house, presumably the home of family or friends who give her shelter. The menfolk of this house become agitated, and several of them jump on horses to raise the alarm.

Soon, a group of men with white hoods like those we saw at the start grab the drunken husband and drag him, resisting, away from his house, into the woods. There, they bring him to a torchlit circle of men, all of whom put on their hoods when the man is brought to them (we see that they are ordinary citizens before their hooding). The man breaks and runs, and there is a lengthy chase through the woods. Finally, the man attacks a lone pursuer from behind a tree, possibly hoping to get his hood and escape in disguise, but he loses the fight and the other hooded men soon arrive and take him into custody. Then, his arms are tied and raised by ropes around a tree branch. Now that he is secured, the hooded men rip off his shirt and paint his upper body black, then throw feathers on him from bags. The final image is a grim procession of hooded men, leading the tarred and feathered victim, his hands tied, on the back of a mule.

Before we get into discussing the obvious parallel, it is important to note that there was no active Ku Klux Klan at the time of the release of this movie. The book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, would also come out in 1905, and this would fire the imagination of men like William Simmons, who would re-found the Klan ten years later, the same year that “Birth of a Nation” was released.  This movie is, as the title makes clear, about “Whitecapping,” which was a form of vigilantism prevalent in the South and the West in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. White Caps were groups of citizens that took the law into their own hands, operating clandestinely with the help of masks, and enforcing community standards through the threat of terror. This form of vigilantism has roots in the mythos of the “holy Vehm” of Westphalia and other European traditions. None of which is to say that it has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. While race was not a central issue for the White Caps in the same sense as for the Klan, it certainly played a role in the standards the White Caps enforced, particularly in the South, where competition for scarce resources between poor whites and freed slaves and their descendants contributed to a culture of lynching.

For us today, the vision of a lone man being pursued by hooded figures with torches is undeniably horrific, although that may not have been the impression the directors were seeking to convey. The victim in this movie begins as a villain, a drunk and a spousal abuser (we don’t see him hit the child, but child abuse would also be a logical extension of this character). The White Caps are therefore posited as a force for decency, even if what they do is unpleasant. It’s also worth noting that this movie is edited along the lines of other chase movies by Porter, such as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife…” that are essentially comedic. On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, scholars Charles Musser and Michelle Wallace offer some of the above context, and also emphasize that the tradition of popular vigilantism in the US led to some of the formative genres of Hollywood, including the Western. I would add that there is also a direct line to comic book superheroes, possibly one of the most profitable genres of the current decade. As we thrill at the current portrayals of extra-legal enforcement on the screen, it may help remember the less-glossy origins of the concept in order to maintain some awareness and critical distance from its more unpleasant implications.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring:Kate Toncray, John R. Cumpson, Arthur V. Johnson

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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November 1915

The news roundup is late this month, because November is always a somewhat hectic month for me. Still, I think it’s nice to take a look at the items from the headlines of 100 years ago as we proceed through the year cinematically. November 1915 may be one of the most important months in the history of film, especially American film, so get ready for some pretty interesting entries.

Songwriter and labor leader Joe Hill, executed Nov 19, 1915

Songwriter and labor leader Joe Hill, executed Nov 19, 1915

World War I:

The Fourth Battle of the Isonzo between Italian and Austrian forces begins November 10 with an attack by the Italian 2nd Army. The Italians gain some ground, but not their ultimate objectives, while the Austrians are forced to request help from their German allies, not officially at war with Italy at this time.

Also on November 10, the Central Powers initiate the Battle of Kosovo, pushing the Serbians back to Albania.

Labor:

Labor activist and early member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”), Joe Hill is executed on November 19, for a murder he likely didn’t commit. His final letter to fellow organizer Bill Haywood states, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”

KKK:

On Thanksgiving Night, November 24, William J Simmons and fifteen charter members re-found the Ku Klux Klan atop Stone Mountain in Georgia. This tiny group would be the nucleus of a powerful political movement to re-claim control of American society by native-born white, protestant men.

Science:

Albert Einstein first presents his General Theory of Relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on November 25.

Film:

The Triangle Film Corporation built and opened a theater in Massillon, Ohio on November 23. This theater is still standing, and is believed to be the oldest purpose-built movie theater still in operation today.

Several important films were released this month, including:

Carmen” by Raoul Walsh, starring Theda Bara.

Carmen” by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Geraldine Farrar. Both “Carmens” are released Nov 1.

The Lamb” first starring role for Douglas Fairbanks receives its nationwide release Nov 7.

Madame Butterfly” directed by Sidney Olcott and starring Mary Pickford is released Nov 7.

The Raven” starring Henry B. Walthall as Edgar Allen Poe is released Nov 8.

The episodes “The Severed Head” and “The Deadly Ring” of the serial “Les Vampires” by Louis Feuillade are both released Nov 13.

Inspiration” (Nov 18), which included total female nudity (note that “Hypocrites” also did so, much earlier in the year).

A Night in the Show” (Nov 20), this would be the last un-cut movie Charlie Chaplin did at Essanay Studios before leaving for Mutual (“Burlesque on Carmen” was released in a mutilated form by the studio and not restored for many years).

Martyrs of the Alamo” (Nov 21), produced by D.W. Griffith, directed by Christy Cabanne.

Whew! film fans must have had really full calendars this month!

The Birth of a Nation, Part IX

Last month, I felt that I didn’t have a lot more to say about “The Birth of a Nation.” This month I find that I do have a few things to add, but we’re still winding down the series.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

First, Woodrow Wilson: Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently posted a debunking of the dual myth that BoaN was “the first movie screened at the White House” as well as “the first feature film” that is generally very good and covers most of the important ground. I think she goes a little too far in suggesting that the movie was screened to consider censoring its potentially divisive content (the source she referred me to on this didn’t back her up, and there was no precedent giving the President the power to censor movies), but the important points are correct: “Cabiria” had been shown at the White House the previous summer, Wilson agreed somewhat reluctantly to the screening on the condition that there be NO publicity about it (a promise that D.W. Griffith never intended to keep), and he certainly did NOT call it “history writ in lightning” or whatever.

Thomas Dixon

Thomas Dixon

Lest we be accused of being overly fair to Wilson, however, there are a few other points to make here. First of all, he was an old school chum of Thomas Dixon, the author of the play “The Clansman,” and it appears he approved the screening as a favor to his buddy. Dixon, let’s remember, was the driving force behind the racist content of “The Birth of a Nation” (William K. Everson claims the play was even more racist than the movie, if such a thing is imaginable), and was a true believer in the heroism of the KKK and the justifiability of slavery. In his discussion of the correspondence between them, which continued during the Wilson presidency, Dick Lehr mentions no instance of Wilson confronting or even chiding Dixon for his views. Furthermore, it was at Wilson’s instigation that Jim Crow segregation was introduced in the Post Office and other federal agencies, to Dixon’s outspoken approval. All of which is to say that, whatever the conditions and significance of the White House screening, Wilson was every bit as much integrated into the predominant racist culture of his time as others who, unlike him, openly praised the film.

GriffithDWSecond, a bit more on the origin of the Griffith Myth. I’ve been reading Seductive Cinema by James Card, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon about film studies in general, and Griffith-worship is among his peeves. On pages 32-34 of this book, he talks about an ad that Griffith took out in the New York Dramatic Mirror in December, 1913, less than two months after he departed from Biograph. Griffith used this opportunity to proclaim himself “[p]roducer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing Motion Picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.” This is pretty much what his fans still say about him today, but it’s interesting that anyone would have accepted it at the time. Card points out that “[i]n 1913, filmgoers were unaware of the names of any motion picture directors.” In other words, he was the first to proclaim himself a genius, and people went along with it because they didn’t know any better.

DW_Griiffith2But, I think there’s even more going on. In July 1915, while “The Birth of a Nation” was on top of the world, setting new standards for monetary and critical success, Maurice Tourneur gave an interview to the New York Clipper in which he was asked who was the greatest director of the time, and he quickly and unequivocally named Griffith. When I read it, it broke my heart a little. Here was the director of “Alias Jimmy Valentine” and “The Wishing Ring” praising a man whose talent was clearly inferior! It’s as if Ridley Scott said that Joel Schumacher was his favorite director. I think there’s a kind of strategy at work, however. By taking out that ad, Griffith had put directors into the public spotlight. A director who wanted to be taken “seriously” had to affirm his genius, because that was the best way to affirm by proxy that directors were important figures in filmmaking. Between the ad and the runaway success of “Birth of a Nation,” it was career suicide to say anything else at that time. Griffith’s supremacy was now an entrenched myth, which would last a century or more.

August 1915

House wrecked in the 1915 Galveston Hurricane

House wrecked in the 1915 Galveston Hurricane

The First World War continues to rage…if you think I sound like a broken record saying that every month in my news roundups, imagine what it was like reading the papers in 1915 (of course, no one called it the ”first” anything at the time). Worse, imagine being in the trenches or battlefields of the war itself. Casualties in the first year were high because both sides were learning about defensive measures in the new forms of warfare created by industrial technology, and soldiers who had served for this entire year had probably seen the majority of the comrades they entered with killed or wounded by now. Outside of the battle zones, however, life went on…

World War: The Battle of Sari Bair rages from August 6th to the 21st. This is an effort by the Allies to link up their forces in Gallipolli, which ultimately fails, leaving the front lines static. The Allies lose approximately 20,000 soldiers, the Turks 12,000 in the fighting.

Diplomacy: On August 16, the Allies promise territorial gains to the Kingdom of Serbia in case of victory. These promises will ultimately conflict with Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the concepts of national sovereignty under which the League of Nations is founded.

Hate Crimes: Leo Frank is lynched in Georgia on August 17th for the alleged murder of a 13-year-old girl. Frank is Jewish and the case draws attention both to anti-Semitism and the prevalence of mob justice in the United States. Possibly inspired by D.W. Griffth’s “The Birth of a Nation,” prominent businessman Tom Watson writes to local papers that “a new Ku Klux Klan may have to be organized” to seek justice. Three months later, William J Simmons does revive the Klan in Atlanta.

Disasters: On August 5, Galveston Texas, still in recovery from having been wiped off the map by a powerful hurricane in 1900, is once again devastated by a storm. The new seawall does prevent local deaths and damage, but across the seaboard damages are assessed at $50 million and 275 dead.

Sports: Jimmy Lavender pitches a no-hitter, August 31, for the Chicago Cubs against the New York Giants.

Born: Gary Merrill, August 2 (acted in “A Blueprint for Murder” and “All About Eve”), Signe Hasso, August 15 (appeared in “Heaven Can Wait” and “The House on 92nd Street”), Ingrid Bergman, August 29 (star of “Gaslight” and “Casablanca”).

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

 Birth of a Nation1

The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

 Birth of a Nation2

In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

 Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

Birth of a Nation3

Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

Birth of a Nation4

Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

 Birth of a Nation5

The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

 Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

 Birth of a Nation7

The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”

The Birth of a Nation, Part V

For this entry in my series on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, I want to speak about the contemporary reception to the movie. Up to now, I’ve been arguing that the importance of the movie has been over-rated, often at the expense of an honest assessment of its content and what it says about the history of cinema. It wasn’t as big a technical breakthrough as has often been claimed, nor was it the “first feature film” (it wasn’t even Griffith’s first feature film), nor the “first blockbuster” or really much of the first anything. So, why do so many historians and filmmakers seem to regard it as such a big deal?

MPP Birth Sale

Well, part of that answer starts with the media campaign and critical response in 1915. To confirm just how big a deal it was at the time, I went and looked at the Moving Picture World issues for the end of 1915 and searched for its name. The movie actually had its first screenings in January, and officially premiered in LA in February, and movies at this time usually ran for a week or two at most, so just finding mentions of it being held over in New York week after week in October, November, and December was already an indicator of just how big a smash it was. There were still cities where it was opening for the first time as well, and these would list prices from 50 cents to $2 for seats (a lot of money in 1915) and packed houses of 2000 people or more. Many of these people, it was presumed, had already seen the picture in neighboring cities, or when traveling to larger urban centers. It broke records for screenings and attendance in various places during this time. In October, a story broke about a distributor paying $250,000 for the rights to it in 16 states, which was reported as “the largest transaction ever conducted for the rights to a traveling attraction in the history of the American theater” (later stories suggest that this may have been exaggerated).

MPP Simplex ad

Beyond the box office, I found that “The Birth of a Nation” was also treated as a major artistic achievement. Even passing mentions of the film frequently referred to it as “the big Griffith spectacle,” “this wonderful feature,” a “masterpiece,” or “an immense picture creation.” Studios compared their new releases to it, claiming them as “second only to The Birth of a Nation” or a movie with action that “outdoes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in thrills.” One film was released as “a Birth of a Nation among children’s films,” and a new Mutual comedy was touted as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The Simplex projector company proudly stated that its machines were “used exclusively” for screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” which were referred to as “the greatest production in the world.” The movie appealed to people who didn’t usually praise film at the time: the Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools is quoted as saying that “all children should see such pictures” and a Wisconsin pastor “thanks God” he lives in an age when he can see it.

MPP Thank God

All of this despite the fact that the movie met with resistance from the NAACP everywhere it opened, and that African Americans tried to get it banned anywhere they had a voice. The Moving Picture World, of course, was strongly opposed to censorship, and it’s even possible that to some degree their support of the film was a statement in favor of freedom of expression. But, the word “censorship” didn’t have the stigma then that it does today, a great many people did feel that there should be some kind of state control over what could be presented to audiences in theaters. Yet, again and again, and in spite of some strident arguments for the potential harm that could be caused by the racist material in the movie, white city counselors, official censor boards, and higher government officials passed the film, allowing its performance despite the objections of a part of their constituency.

MPP Mirth

The other aspect of all this that seems puzzling is that, when I look at the film now, it really isn’t all that impressive; least of all by comparison to other movies coming out in the US at the end of 1915. Maybe in February and March of that year there wasn’t much to beat it, but by the last months you’ve got “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” “The Italian,” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” all much more technically advanced, visually sophisticated, and narratively complex movies. Yet people at the time were still holding it up as the measure of cinematic greatness, and apparently being taken seriously, to judge again by box office success.

I may need several more essays to discuss usefully why this should be the case, but it begins with two points: white middle class audiences at the time lived in an environment where there was “nothing wrong” with the racial views the movie espoused, and Griffith successfully exploited the desire of white Americans everywhere to celebrate their national and racial pride. Reports of the record-breaking screenings in Portland, Oregon make much of “a score of horsemen clad in Ku Klux regalia [who] were a common sight on the streets” during the run (it will be recalled that Oregon had the highest per capital Klan membership in the nation only a few years later). The movie was shown at elaborate “movie palaces” or high-class dramatic theaters, with a full orchestra and uniformed ushers, not in second-rate nickelodeons. Moreover, it was one of the most explicitly nationalist features to come out of the US in that year. Other nations, especially Italy and Russia, had gotten in ahead in terms of making nationalist epics, and the Italian ones, at least, had been released in the US to the amazement of viewers. But they were the stories of foreigners, and I think Americans wanted to feel that their history was as important as the Punic Wars. Griffith gave them that, and whether his telling of it was true or not, it did conform with the historical myths that many believed, or wanted to believe, about their country. That this meant trampling on the dignity of a minority was far less important at a time in American history when African American enfranchisement was still tenuous, at best.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part IV

The Rise of the Second KKK

Ku_Klux_Klan_members_march_down_Pennsylvania_Avenue_in_Washington,_D.C._in_1928

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.

Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

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.

Ku_Klux_Klan_Virgina_1922_Parade

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.

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

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.