Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Reconstruction Era

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.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part III


Before I get into the main part of my discussion for this post, I want to talk about a newer movie I watched recently, called “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies.” This was a documentary Scorcese produced with the British Film Institute in the late 1990s. He mostly focuses on the movies he grew up with, so the period of the 1940s ad 50s is strongly represented, but not that many Century Films show up. He does talk a bit about the early years of cinema, however, and he does something very interesting when he does. Like a lot of twentieth century film historians, he waxes poetic about the significance and importance of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and he uses a number of clips from the movie to demonstrate its technical achievements. However, he says nothing about its controversial content. That’s fairly standard, but I had to watch the segment twice or three times to realize just how far he (or the BFI editor) had gone to “whitewash” the film. Not only are there no close-ups of Klansmen in sheets, nor do we see the lustful “Gus” chasing Mae Marsh off a cliff, but there are no images shown which give any insight into the racial content of the movie at all! No white men in blackface, no celebrations of harmonious slavery, nothing. We do get a glimpse of the Reconstruction-era Congress, with black men sitting at the Representatives desks, but it doesn’t hold long enough for us to see them drinking, taking off their shoes, eating fried chicken, etc. A person would come out of this documentary thinking that “The Birth of a Nation” was just another version of “Lincoln,” in that the longest sequence is the John Wilkes Booth assassination at the Ford theater. This is just one more example of how the racist nature of the movie is downplayed (or in this case suppressed) in order to play up the narrative of its originality and importance to film history, a narrative I find increasingly dubious, the more research I do.

 Birth of a Nation book

All that’s by way of a digression, what I really wanted to talk about this month is D.W. Griffith the man, who he was and how he came to make “The Birth of a Nation.” I recently read and reviewed the book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. I was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t really a work of film history, more of a dual biography and journalistic account of the clash between Griffith and Monroe Trotter, an African American journalist in Boston. But, in that sense, I learned a lot about Griffith, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky, a slave state which never joined the Confederacy, whose citizens were divided among Pro-Union and Pro-Confederate sympathizers. His father was Jacob “roaring Jake” Griffith, a somewhat intemperate adventurer who volunteered for the South at a somewhat advanced age (he had been a forty-niner, searching for gold in the California Gold Rush). He became a colonel and was retired with honors. After the war, he was given to drinking late into the night and regaling listeners with tales of his exploits, liberally mixing fact with fiction. Apparently these drunken rants were basically the first “theater” his son experienced, and young David Wark Griffith drank it all in as a way of connecting with his otherwise distant father.


Let’s step back a bit more and talk about Kentucky. It was a strategically vital state in the war. Lincoln went so far as to say that if Kentucky was lost, the war would be also. But it was a state where slavery was a big part of the economy and way of life. Kentucky was formally neutral at the outbreak of the war, but eventually requested Union protection, after bloody battles and Confederate guerilla activities had begun to threaten stability. White pro-Union Kentuckians presumably hoped that their loyalty to the Union would mean that they would be permitted to retain their lifestyle, and they felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As the military situation shifted toward Union supremacy, Kentucky sympathies shifted toward the Confederacy, but at that point Union troops controlled most of the state. The military commander ordered reprisals of four men shot for every Union soldier killed by guerilla action. Men like Jake Griffith came home defeated, more or less able to tell their neighbors, “I told you so” as the Reconstruction took place throughout the South. A branch of the KKK opened in Kentucky to join in solidarity with the movement against Reconstruction, even though Kentucky was never formally a Reconstruction state, never having been in the Confederacy. In fact, Kentuckians had it comparably good in this period, the military occupation was lifted and their congress was able to reinstate the citizenship of former Confederate soldiers. But, a sense of bitterness remained and grew.


So far as I know, Jake Griffith never joined the original Klan, and David quite probably lived his whole life without meeting anyone who had been involved in it. He was born in 1875, one year after the disbandment of the movement, and the stories he heard about the Reconstruction period in Kentucky were distorted by his father’s emotions, sympathies, and propensity for exaggeration. The story of the “lost cause” spread among the old South and began to find acceptance in the North as well. The dominant myth that the nation came to use for reconciliation was that the Civil War had been a great tragedy for the whole nation, and what both North and South had in common was their white heritage, whether with or without slavery. The legacy of emancipation became less important than preserving white supremacy in the reunified nation.

Back to young D.W. Griffith. His father died while he was ten years old, making it impossible for the boyhood adulation to be checked by adolescent conflicts. After his death, the family entered a period of difficulty, and had to move from its rural homestead to the “big city” of Louisville, where Griffith stood out as a country bumpkin. He had all the usual problems adjusting to the pace of life there, but no doubt also associated it all with the multiculturalism and liberalism of modern society, as against the pastoral dream of his childhood. Meanwhile, he also discovered the theater, and finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. By his mid-teens, he started working in theaters, taking any job he could get, all the while trying to start a career either as a writer or an actor.


He never found great success at either, although he made a living, sometimes precariously, working for touring shows as an extra or a stage hand, moving about the country freely and never settling for long in one place. He was over thirty when he finally signed to Biograph Studios as an actor, finally starting him on the path that would lead to his greatest successes. According to Billy Bitzer, his future cameraman, Griffith was a terrible actor, given to waving his arms around dramatically and hamming in every scene. Bitzer could not believe that such a performer had much potential as an director, but in fact Griffith had an excellent eye and ability to get what he wanted – so long as he didn’t have to do it himself. He picked talented actors and gave them the right amount of direction. He would leave the confident, experienced actors alone, giving them just simple directions as the camera rolled, while he would rehearse and give attention to those who needed the guidance.


The story of Griffith’s film work has been told many times, and I don’t want to extend this post unnecessarily, but all the elements giving rise to “The Birth of a Nation” were in place before he even started. He believed in his father’s distorted Kentucky-centric view of the Civil War. He had been raised in a culture that celebrated white supremacy, and nothing in his adult experience had challenged this. He had an epic vision of recent history before his birth, and he honed the talents and skills to create a vision he could share with others of his time and place. He was a skillful showman, and had learned from his father how to hold an audience and how to exaggerate, something he did in nearly every interview and press release he ever gave. And Griffith was connected to the dominant cultural perceptions of his time – “The Birth of a Nation” was a powerful experience for so many because Griffith, and his white audiences, really did believe what he had to say about Reconstruction and the KKK.

For the earlier posts in this essay series, see links below:

In Part One, I discussed the racist content of “Birth of a Nation.”

In Part Two, I talked about its technical accomplishments.