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Reel Impact: Movies and TV That Changed History: 'The Birth of a Nation' – Writing Lies with Lightning

Frank Deese explores how the NAACP, only a few years old in 1915 and dealing mostly with local issues in the South, mobilized nationwide protests with other prominent leaders against theaters showing D.W. Griffith's blockbuster film 'The Birth of a Nation' turning it into an efficient and effective national organization.

“Boys, let’s get up a club or society of some description.”

Those words reportedly launched the most widespread and destructive terrorist organization in American history. Six young men had gathered to commiserate after the Civil War in a law office belonging to one of their fathers in the small town of Pulaski, Tennessee. Their military service had just ended in defeat and the world of their adolescence had been upended and destroyed. Restless, resentful, angry, and unemployed, they belonged to the educated elites of their society, but presently lived under Northern occupation and among the formerly enslaved, now their fellow citizens.

A club! Each agreed it should be theatrical and mysterious to entice other white men to join. A good name was important for recruitment so, over successive meetings, they played around with “Kuklos,” the Greek word for “circle,” until it degenerated into “Ku Klux.” A “Klan” was added – most all were of Scottish ancestry – to give the new club an alliteration that “sounded like bones shaking.” Ku Klux Klan.

Next, they handed out other-worldly titles like “Grand Cyclops,” “Magi,” “Lictor,” and “Ghoul,” and made each member responsible for his own self-decorated costume that would cover his face and identity and have a conical hat to create the illusion of intimidating height.

Borrowing initiation rites from the fraternal order “Sons of Malta,” the young men ceremoniously covered the eyes of prospective members, put donkey ears on their heads, then removed the blindfolds in front of a mirror while the initiates recited the Robert Burns poetic couplet: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”

More and more white men joined, riding around at night in their freakish home-made costumes pretending to be ghosts of Confederate war dead. “Ku-Kluxing” soon involved middle-of-the-night visits to the homes of the recently-freed where disguised Klansmen demanded buckets of water – “I haven’t had a drink since I was killed a Chickamauga!” – which they pretended to consume but poured into hidden pouches under their multi-colored robes.

It's not likely many Black citizens on the receiving end of these home invasions believed the prank; but most all went along as a horde of white men riding around at night with their faces covered was much more menacing than anything the spirit world could muster. And it was that menace that soon revealed a political utility in this cruel amusement. Terrorizing people is controlling people; and that was especially useful at a time when freed African Americans had finally gained ownership of their own lives and were exercising something resembling power and agency in the post-war South.

But that progress of Reconstruction was not immediate. The ink had barely dried on Robert E. Lee’s surrender when Southern legislatures scrambled to pass “Black Codes” severely limiting the freedom of the formerly enslaved, mostly with targeted vagrancy laws which, along with other trumped-up criminal charges, were used to quickly acquire unpaid convict labor. This attempt at re-enslavement was fine by new U.S. President Andrew Johnson, but the progressive Republican Congress was having none of it. Over Johnson’s veto, they forced through the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as well as the Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867 which divided up the old Confederacy into five military districts each governed by a former Union war general.

Frederick Douglass -1879

Frederick Douglass -1879

Additionally, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were approved by Congress and then ratified by the states permanently guaranteeing African Americans all the rights of free citizens including the right to vote for men. Historian Eric Foner calls this time after the war, with all its new rights and guarantees, a “second founding” of the United States; and even the normally skeptical Frederick Douglass wrote of these gains: “Henceforth, we live in a new world, breathe a new atmosphere, have a new Earth beneath and a new sky above.”

With male enfranchisement came political representation with more than fifteen hundred Black legislators (many of them former teachers, soldiers, and pastors) bringing progressive reforms to the former Confederate states like public hospitals and free public education for all.

Legally barred from literacy while enslaved, the newly freed filled the new schools while Black colleges (like Fisk in Nashville, Morehouse in Atlanta, and Howard in Washington DC) were established to meet the sudden demand for teachers of color. All over the South, African Americans were also finding success as farmers and small businessmen, undermining the formerly absolute control of commerce by the white majority.

It was at this time of progress and great hope for non-white citizens that the Pulaski men’s costumed society spread across the South as an “invisible empire,” no longer a group of pranksters, but an extensive network of white community leaders acting as hooded night terrorists led by former Confederate generals. “Ku-Kluxing” night raids were now in nearly every part of the South and regularly ended in torture and murder of both freed Black men exercising their rights as citizens and local white Republicans who supported those rights.

The original Klan’s ghoulish theatricality enhanced the effectiveness of the terror sparking sensational headlines in northern newspapers, which spread more terror, further raising the profile of the Klan. The U.S. Congress struck back by documenting Klan violence in extensive hearings leading to the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 which was rigorously enforced and ultimately very effective in mothballing the wizard hats, cloth masks, and multi-colored robes. Through Federal intervention, the Klan was gradually defeated and dissolved. Unfortunately, so was northern enthusiasm for occupying the South. In 1877, the new Republican Hayes Administration bowed to public sentiment and withdrew the remaining U.S. troops, essentially telling the South’s outnumbered Black citizenry living in a swamp of white hatred: “You’re on your own.”

About five years after the North’s abandonment of Reconstruction, a young David Wark Griffith snuck out of bed in his parents’ farm house near Louisville, Kentucky, and hid under a parlor table to hear his father, “Roarin’” Jake Griffith, recount battle heroics in the “War Between the States.” The Colonel’s exploits were real, but were still exaggerated to make for better stories and were also imbued with the recently-formulated “Lost Cause” mythology that romanticized the chivalrous white social order before the great war that was nobly fought to preserve a gallant way of life (not, of course, to keep four million human beings enslaved).

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Young Griffith revered his aging father – 56 years his senior – and was destroyed when the old man died suddenly before David’s eleventh birthday. His death revealed debts and the family lost everything and had to find refuge and gainful employment in the city of Louisville.

Teenage David Wark had a passion for books and theatrical performances and found them plentiful in the big city allowing him to pursue his dream of becoming a famous stage actor. The expansion of railroads after the war made possible his joining traveling companies to perform in theaters scattered around the country. Griffith dreamed of high art, but ended up as a strike-breaking performer in the Vaudeville circuit, a turn-of-the-century form of low-brow entertainment. Now writing skits in addition to acting, Griffith was developing a skill, week after week, that would serve him well in the next decade: condensing well-known epics into short playlets.

Griffith did this work for several years, but upon returning to New York City, after one of his more high-reaching theatrical plays had bombed in Washington D.C., several of his friends suggested he perform in the new acting medium of “motion pictures” screened in small Nickelodeon theaters throughout the city and the nation. Considered even lower than Vaudeville entertainment, “movies,” a word Griffith hated (he preferred “photoplays”), had become very popular with immigrants as, being silent, they did not require proficiency in English to be enjoyed. Broke and embarrassed in 1907, Griffith quietly began acting for Thomas Edison’s studio in the Bronx and Biograph in lower Manhattan, soon working exclusively for Biograph and adding scenario-writing to his film contributions. The work was fast-paced and demanding, and Biograph quickly employed Griffith as a film director, completing two finished one-reel films per week that were proving to be the company’s most financially successful.

D.W. Griffith, as he now called himself, later claimed to have invented the “close-up” in cinema. This is demonstrably false – e.g., the final shot of The Great Train Robbery (1903) – but he did perfect the close-up as well as a whole range of camera, performance, and editing techniques. His personal striving to do great art, first as a failed stage actor, then as a failed playwright, helped him transform the art of “movies” into something much greater than it had ever been before.

D.W. Griffith Directs The Escape - 1914

D.W. Griffith Directs The Escape - 1914

The tremendous volume of one-reel films he conceived, directed, and edited over the course of five years not only primed him to want something more and greater, but also gave him the skills to achieve it. He moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1910 and set his sights on longer films and bigger subjects. This ultimately led to a break with Biograph, but his success and fame now as American cinema’s premier film director gave him more options for finance and production. His desire blossomed into an obsession when in 1913 he saw the new 6-reel, two-hour Italian epic Quo Vadis?, written and directed by Enrico Guazzoni, about Emperor Nero and the burning of Rome. He wanted to make his own Quo Vadis?, only bigger and better.

It was around this time that he learned a project based on a very popular historical novel had fallen out of production with another studio and was once again available for film adaptation. It was called The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and was written as the second book in a trilogy by Thomas Dixon Jr. celebrating the triumph of white supremacy and destruction of Black progress after the Civil War.

Griffith was enthralled at the opportunity to adapt this hateful and bigoted “Lost Cause” novel. At last, he said, he could be the one to “tell the truth about the War between the States.”

“It hadn’t been told accurately in history books,” he expanded, repeating the old trope he would soon put the lie to: “Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.”

Author Thomas Dixon Jr., a Baptist minister from North Carolina, was not on the winning side of the Civil War, but told the losing side’s story with fervent religiosity. Himself the son of a Klansman, he became enraged in the late 1890s after seeing a staged version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, famously sympathetic to the enslaved, and set out to answer what he felt was a vicious slander against the South by writing a white supremist book trilogy that included the 1905 novel D.W. Griffith would adapt for the screen.

All this came at a time when African Americans had been fighting against an all-out assault on their lives and rights as citizens after Reconstruction. Carefully-worded Southern state laws and constitutions made it all but impossible for them to exercise their right to vote and a Supreme Court ruling in 1896 made racial segregation legal throughout the nation. Additionally, Klan-type violence did not end with the Invisible Empire in the 1870s as lynching continued to increase leading into the turn of the century.

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To justify the continuous violence and incessant racial brutality, the late 19th century saw a proliferation of “Sambo” art in newspapers, posters, books, magazines, and advertisements – made possible by new techniques of chromolithography – depicting Black people as lazy, violent, lascivious, beastly, and ape-like. This was also the message of the still popular minstrel shows which used mostly white actors in blackface playing foolish and frightened caricatures of free Black men and women. It was a relentless and sustained attack of false imagery and dehumanizing story meant to subjugate on racial lines an entire population of American citizens.

Famed abolitionist and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass, pushed back against the onslaught by frequently sitting for photographs and encouraging other Black leaders to do the same until his death in 1895. His heir apparent in the fight, famed civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, also used the inherent clarity and realism of photography to put together an extensive display for the 1900 Paris Exhibition showing African Americans leading successful lives of dignity and pride. But Du Bois, and other contemporary defenders of the Black image, were about to meet a powerful new foe: the epic motion picture in the hands of a skilled and racist film artist.

Elected Black Congressmen in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States

Elected Black Congressmen in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States

D.W. Griffith began shooting The Clansman in and around Los Angeles in the summer of 1914 and officially premiered the three-hour film in downtown L.A. on February 8th, 1915 with a full orchestra and original score along with Clansman souvenir programs.

What the audience saw that evening was expansive, expensive, and expertly made – an epic unprecedented in the new Motion Picture medium. The story followed two middle-class white American families (one Northern, one Southern) as they struggle through the catastrophe of civil war. In addition to the family characters, major historical figures are depicted, including a kindly President Lincoln whom we witness assassinated in Ford’s theater just before the film’s intermission. If The Clansman had ended there, it might have only been deemed a mildly offensive history with a very offensive title. But it didn’t end there.

It is after the halfway point that the Dixon book adaption actually begins with the depiction of the savage formerly enslaved, played mostly by white actors in blackface, running roughshod over the defeated white majority with the help of the occupying Union Army. Lines of Black men voting are caricatured as unfit for that right – “If I doan’ get ‘nuf franchise to fill mah bucket, I doan’ want it nohow,” says an intertitle – which leads to majority Black representation in the South Carolina legislature where barefooted legislators eat chicken off the bone while they legalize interracial marriage and leer lasciviously at white women in the gallery. The beastly Union soldier “Gus” – played by Walter Long in blackface – chases a young white woman up a rocky hill (with Southern California’s famed Big Bear Lake in the background) where she jumps to her death to avoid the grasp of his painted black hands.

The remedy for all this pretend abuse is the white-robed Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue with burning crosses in their hands – this was never an element of the original terror group – on white-robed horses to restore civility and white rule. They quickly murder Gus, save other white women from more Black savagery, then save the entire South by triumphantly and permanently keeping Black men away from the ballot box. The End.

1 The Birth of a Nation - 1915

The film sold out its initial screenings and D.W. Griffith decided to release it gradually as a traveling show with reserved seating. But with the premiere, there came immediate objection from the newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. At this time, writer Thomas Dixon Jr. suggested to Griffith the film be retitled to the less incendiary The Birth of a Nation – the nation being born, of course, where white people reign supreme.

Dixon also sought validation for the film by convincing his friend and fellow southerner (and classmate from Johns Hopkins University) President Woodrow Wilson, who had just racially segregated the Executive Branch of government, to screen the film in the White House; which he did, reportedly, but perhaps apocryphally, calling it “like writing history with lightning.”

The Birth of a Nation - Intertitle

The Birth of a Nation - Intertitle

With the Presidential stamp of approval – Wilson must have been gratified to see quotes from his own “Lost Cause” writings on the intertitles – Griffith set out to premiere his film in New York City while the NAACP made getting it banned a top priority. The fledgling organization had been primarily focused on local issues of racial injustice; but the local became the national in early 1915 with a concerted letter and telegram writing effort to states and municipalities ahead of The Birth of a Nation’s arrival. As censorship was an accepted tool for protecting the public from destructive art, the NAACP was attempting to have the film banned for its ugly depiction of Black people and the possibility its exhibition may lead to racial rioting – which it did in Philadelphia – and physical harm to Black communities. Coincidentally, on February 23rd, 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that motion pictures were not entitled to First Amendment protections as they were essentially considered a business. In spite of this ruling, and successes in banning the film in Ohio and in various cities, the all-white New York City Censorship Board approved the film and it premiered March 3rd at the Liberty Theater off Times Square to a whites-only audience.

The NAACP fell well short of its goal of banning The Birth of a Nation, but the intense and concerted effort against the film transformed the young organization, raising its profile and doubling its membership. The NAACP soon became the premier civil rights organization in America and its efforts in subsequent years led to Brown v Board of Education, Rosa Parks (an employee of the NAACP), and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

At its founding in 1909, the organization had mostly white leadership, but its primary voice was W.E.B. Du Bois who edited and wrote for its widely-distributed publication The Crisis. Du Bois was also an original co-founder of the NAACP, but his good friend and classmate from Harvard, William Monroe Trotter, was not interested in joining.

W.E.B. Du Bois with wife Nina and daughter Yolande

W.E.B. Du Bois with wife Nina and daughter Yolande

Trotter believed an organization fighting for Black rights should be run by Black Americans. In Boston, Trotter published The Guardian, a newspaper with the stated mission: “For every right, with all thy might.” And he applied that mission to his own battle against the Klan-celebrating film which was coming to Boston in April.

Boston Globe Headline - April 18, 1915. Credit Boston Globe.

Boston Globe Headline - April 18, 1915. Credit Boston Globe.

Trotter was hoping to do in Boston what the NAACP had failed to do in the rest of the country: stop the film. Having helped Mayor James Curley get elected, Trotter tried to call in that favor to have The Birth of a Nation banned outright as had been done in Boston for Dixon’s racist stage play. But Mayor Curley said “no” to Trotter. Not giving up, Trotter organized a rally of thousands of Black citizens on the Boston Common across from the Tremont Theater where the film was set to screen. To avoid disruption of the show, Black people were barred from entry to the theater. But William Trotter himself led the demand to be admitted; and when a fight broke out in the lobby, Trotter was arrested along with several of his followers. A few Black protesters, however, were able to get into the theater and responded to the ugly depiction of Black soldiers and freed Black citizens with boos, hisses, and eggs on the screen.

The large and well-organized protest made national news – no one had seen anything like it before – and when Trotter was released from jail, he organized even larger marches and protests against Boston City Hall, hoping to have a new censorship board find in his favor. But it did not, and the film was allowed to continue its run in Boston.

William Monroe Trotter

William Monroe Trotter

Trotter also failed to stop the racist film, but his victory was in the fight. The Black community in America had never organized in sustained mass protests like this before. The success and popularity of The Birth of a Nation eventually motivated an artistic counter argument. In 1920, Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux made Within Our Gates as a direct rebuttal to The Birth of a Nation. Micheaux’s film positively and sympathetically depicted contemporary Black characters fighting against the depredations of white supremacy. (Ironically, this film was censored and banned in many locations across the country.)

Renowned Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux

Renowned Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux

Micheaux later had a long career directing scores of silent and sound films primarily for African American audiences. His success inspired other artists desiring to fight back against the slanders of The Birth of a Nation, and all other perversions of the Black image. This desire flourished in the 1920s as the “New Negro Movement,” as described by writer Alain Locke, and the explosion of Black literature, music, fashion, and fine art known as the Harlem Renaissance.

But the lies of The Birth of a Nation were ultimately unstoppable and had an effect that Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman” novel and play could never achieve on the page and stage. Through his innovative skill as a filmmaker, D.W. Griffith demonstrated the power and reach of motion pictures; and his decision to release the film gradually across the country as a special event, kept it in the theaters and alive in the mind of the American public for many years.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a Methodist preacher named William Joseph Simmons saw the film in 1915 and became consumed with an idea. On Thanksgiving night, he climbed Stone Mountain east of the city with fifteen other white men and burned a cross – a symbol taken directly from the movie – while announcing the birth of a new Ku Klux Klan. (Also taken from the movie were the white robes with the Greek cross emblem.) But this new Klan set out to attract a much larger membership. Using the film as a recruiting tool, Simmons helped establish Ku Klux Klan branches from coast to coast, throughout the United States. He also did not reserve his hatred exclusively for Black Americans, but now included Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. With the ground made fertile by the popularity of The Birth of a Nation, the new terror organization quickly spread to millions of members, gained an enormous amount of political power while murdering thousands. Its pernicious influence peaked in the 1920s, but revived again in the 1950s to counter the successes of the Civil Rights movement.

Perhaps the biggest cheerleader of the new Ku Klux Klan was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). It was formed in 1894 by female descendants of Confederate soldiers with the purpose of rewriting history to promote the heroism and gallantry of the southern “Lost Cause.” It achieved this by sponsoring hundreds of Confederate statues and memorials all over the modern South. The Daughters also engineered southern school textbooks to teach the bigoted mythology that romanticized human enslavement, celebrated its defenders like Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and waxed nostalgic for the oppressive white social order before the war.

In 1917, the UDC donated a plaque to the citizens of Pulaski, Tennessee to put on the wall outside the small old building at 205 West Madison Street where the six restless and resentful young men met after the war to “get up a club, or a society of some description.” The white citizens of Pulaski were a bit miffed their town’s role in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan had been left out of the celebrated movie, and the gift was a salve for that slight.

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The Klan-founding plaque soon became a pilgrimage site for modern racists all the way into the 1980s when, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday, Klan members and sympathizers visited the plaque every year on the January holiday, kissing the metal words “KU KLUX KLAN – ORGANIZED IN THIS – THE LAW OFFICE OF…” and kneeling before it as a holy object – that is, until 1989, when the building’s new owner removed the plaque, turned it around, then welded it backwards onto the bricks leaving only its blank side visible.

This is how it remains, perhaps a symbol of how the town, the modern South, and even the nation have finally turned away from the vile racial hatred of our distant and recent past.

Or, perhaps more accurately, it means that even when hidden, it never goes away.

Selected Sources:

Foner, Eric. The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. New York, NY: W.W. Norton et Company, 2019.

Gates, Henry Louis. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2019.

Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War. New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2014.

Parsons, Elaine Frantz. Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 

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