Illustration using an image from flickr.com
The Ku Klux Klan began in 1866, founded by former officers of the Confederate army, and remained active in one form or another until 1871. It was revived in 1915, mostly due to the very popular film, The Birth of a Nation,
by D.W. Griffith. The film rewrote post-Civil War history, and as it was shown across the country to large audiences, it helped validate and legitimize racism and discrimination which were already prevalent in the U.S.
The Birth of a Nation
is a cinematic masterpiece, the finest film made in the U.S. to that point. It took the various cinematic techniques available at the time and used them to enhance the visual and emotional impact in a way no one had seen before. I watched it years ago in a film history class. Though it's a silent film, its power is unmistakeable.
The film, based on a 1905 book, The Clansman
, begins with the Civil War, then portrays a defeated south where the freed slaves have taken over. Black legislators are seen sitting in the state house drinking liquor and eating fried chicken with their bare feet up on their tables, ogling white women. Black soldiers push white citizens aside on the sidewalks, and whites are kept from voting while black officials stuff the ballot boxes. The film's shocked and dismayed white hero sees black children being frightened by white children pretending to be ghosts, and the idea for the white-robed Klan is born. The KKK rides to the rescue and saves the day.
Inspired by the film, "Colonel" William Joseph Simmons, revived the Klan in 1915
In its second incarnation, the Klan moved beyond just targeting blacks, and broadened its message of hate to include Catholics, Jews and foreigners. The Klan promoted fundamentalism and devout patriotism along with advocating white supremacy. They blasted bootleggers, motion pictures and espoused a return to "clean" living. Appealing to folks uncomfortable with the shifting nature of America from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial nation, the Klan attacked the elite, urbanites and intellectuals.
An Especially Shameful Note.
Their message struck a cord, and membership in the Klan ballooned in the 1920s. By the middle of the decade, estimates for national membership in this secret organization ranged from three million to as high as eight million Klansmen. And membership was not limited to the poor and uneducated on society's fringes. Mainstream, middle-class Americans donned the white robes of the Klan too. Doctors, lawyers and ministers became loyal supporters of the KKK. In Ohio alone their ranks surged to 300,000. Even northeastern states were not immune. In Pennsylvania, membership reached 200,000. The Klan remained a clandestine society, but it was by no means isolated or marginalized.
Thomas Dixon, the author of the novel, The Clansman
, was a college friend of President Woodrow Wilson. Hoping to get Wilson's seal of approval for the film, Dixon arranged for a showing at the White House. Wilson praised the film, reportedly saying, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The statement was in character for Wilson, who supported Jim Crow segregation in Washington, D.C.
The NAACP, which was founded in 1909, went to court to get an injunction to stop the showing of the film
in Los Angeles but failed. It tried again before the New York premier and failed again though it managed to get a few scenes edited from the film, which played to about 825,000 New Yorkers during its 10 month run.
Black leader W.E.B. Dubois entered the fray, writing a series of scathing attacks against Birth’s unvarnished racism, and the NAACP published a 47-page pamphlet entitled Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation.
One of the major confrontations happened in Boston.
Black activist and newspaper publisher William Monroe Trotter led some 200 African Americans to a place just outside the Tremont Theater, where The Birth of a Nation was playing to packed houses. The theater had hired Pinkerton detectives in anticipation of trouble, and they were soon joined by uniformed Boston police.
Trotter and a few followers entered the lobby, but when they tried to buy some tickets they were bluntly told, Sold out! It wasn’t true, and Trotter knew it, so he repeated his request for a ticket. Again he was refused, but this time he was told to leave the theater. When he loudly protested against this blatant discrimination, the police acted to forcibly remove him. A scuffle broke out, and in the melee Trotter was hit by a policeman’s billy club. Trotter and 10 other blacks were arrested and led away.
But other blacks and a few sympathetic whites had managed to sneak into the theater, where they caused an uproar by jeering during racist scenes and pelting the screen with eggs. Some of the protesters went a step further by detonating stink bombs that filled the auditorium with an acrid stench. After the movie ended, violence flared in the streets, with groups of blacks and whites battling it out until arrested by the police.
I guess about now I'm supposed to tie this piece of early 20th century history to Donald Trump's rise and his message a century later. However, that would be redundant.