How ‘The Birth of a Na­tion’ re­vived the KKK in 1915

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - MICHAEL S. ROSEN­WALD michael.rosen­wald@wash­post.com

In 1915, more than 40 years af­ter Pres­i­dent Ulysses S. Grant an­ni­hi­lated the Ku Klux Klan, a group of white men in white bed­sheets pa­raded down Peachtree Street in At­lanta to at­tend a movie pre­miere, fir­ing rifles into the air.

Their leader: Wil­liam J. Sim­mons, a the­atri­cal lo­cal preacher who, a month ear­lier, af­ter Thanks­giv­ing sup­per, had bussed 15 racist men up nearby Stone Moun­tain, made sev­eral dec­la­ra­tions about pu­rity and honor, then set flames to a cross, reignit­ing the KKK.

“The rites in­ci­dent to the found­ing of the or­der were most in­ter­est­ing and the oc­ca­sion will be re­mem­bered long by the par­tic­i­pants,” the At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion re­ported in a story head­lined, “KLAN IS ES­TAB­LISHED WITH IMPRESSIVENESS.”

Sim­mons led his men down Peachtree to cel­e­brate the open­ing of D.W. Grif­fith’s “The Birth of a Na­tion,” Hol­ly­wood’s first big-bud­get, block­buster movie that many still con­sider a master­piece de­spite its sub­ject mat­ter. It de­picted life af­ter the Civil War in a way that glo­ri­fied Klans­men who sup­pos­edly saved the South, us­ing vi­o­lence to pro­tect whites from, among other things, packs of black rapists.

Crit­ics hailed Grif­fith’s cine­matic sto­ry­telling. Off screen, the film be­came a pro­pa­ganda tool to re­launch the KKK.

That legacy was on dis­play Satur­day in Char­lottesville, where a North Carolina chap­ter of the KKK held an armed rally to protest the de­ci­sion to re­move a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a pub­lic park.

“Sooner or later just about ev­ery Klans­man wor­thy of his robe sees” the film that ro­man­ti­cizes racial vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing to a his­tory of the KKK pub­lished by the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, which tracks ex­trem­ist groups. “The story it tells fits per­fectly with the ver­sion of his­tory the Klan preaches.” Ex­cept it isn’t his­tory at all. The Klan was orig­i­nally a se­cret so­ci­ety cre­ated in 1866 by a few ex-Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers in Pulaski, Tenn. Their in­ten­tions were nei­ther vi­o­lent nor overtly racist, although they were in­ter­ested in pre­serv­ing South­ern cul­ture as more black faces moved to town. Their lead­er­ship ti­tles were in­ten­tion­ally goofy: grand cy­clops, grand magi, grand turk, grand scribe. Mem­bers were called Ghouls. The name Ku Klux Klan de­rived from the Greek word kuk­los, mean­ing cir­cle.

Af­ter be­com­ing pub­lic, mem­bers and of­fi­cers be­gan dress­ing up in sheets, ap­par­ently for pub­lic­ity. They rode around at night on horses. “Had that been all there was to the Ku Klux Klan, it prob­a­bly would have dis­ap­peared as qui­etly as it was born,” the SPLC wrote, adding:

“But at some point in early 1866, the club added new mem­bers from nearby towns and be­gan to have a chill­ing ef­fect on lo­cal blacks. The in­tim­i­dat­ing night rides were soon the cen­ter­piece of the hooded or­der: Bands of whitesheeted ghouls paid late-night vis­its to black homes, ad­mon­ish­ing the ter­ri­fied oc­cu­pants to be­have them­selves and threat­en­ing more vis­its if they didn’t. It didn’t take long for the threats to be con­verted into vi­o­lence against blacks who in­sisted on ex­er­cis­ing their new rights and free­dom. Be­fore its six founders re­al­ized what had hap­pened, the Ku Klux Klan had be­come some­thing they may not have orig­i­nally in­tended — some­thing deadly se­ri­ous.”

The Klan spread rapidly, with Nathan Bed­ford For­rest, an ex-Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral, tak­ing con­trol. The 1868 pres­i­den­tial election was dom­i­nated by dis­cus­sions of the Klan. Grant, who led the Union Army to vic­tory, ran on the slo­gan, “Let Us Have Peace.” Af­ter he won, Grant plot­ted to take out the Klan, sup­port­ing a se­ries of laws to pro­tect the rights of blacks to vote and serve on ju­ries.

In 1871, Grant signed the most im­por­tant statute — the Ku Klux Klan Act, which gave him author­ity to sus­pend the writ of habeas cor­pus and use fed­eral troops to ar­rest and pros­e­cute mur­der­ous Klans­men. Sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple were in­dicted un­der the law, crip­pling the KKK within a year. Although lynch­ings and vi­o­lence against blacks con­tin­ued, the KKK as an or­ga­ni­za­tion was quickly wiped out. That is, un­til 1915. Sim­mons and other South­ern whites were in­creas­ingly out­raged by the ar­rival of Jews, Ro­man Catholics and im­mi­grants to the South. Then a 13-year-old At­lanta girl named Mary Pha­gan was killed in 1913.

Pha­gan worked in a pen­cil fac­tory. Leo Frank, her Jewish boss, was charged with killing her. The ev­i­dence was thin, but Frank was con­victed and sen­tenced to death. Af­ter his sen­tence was re­duced to life in prison, two dozen men call­ing them­selves the “Knights of Mary Pha­gan” kid­napped Frank and hanged him. Af­ter­ward, they burned a cross on Stone Moun­tain.

“The way Ge­or­gians had re­acted to the Frank lynch­ing con­vinced” Sim­mons “that reestab­lish­ing the Klan was a timely idea,” ac­cord­ing to a his­tory of “The Birth of a Na­tion” and the KKK by Melvyn Stokes. Sim­mons was bedrid­den af­ter a car ac­ci­dent in 1915. While con­va­lesc­ing, he de­vised plans for his new KKK, draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from news sto­ries about the re­lease of Grif­fith’s film. Stokes wrote:

“The film and the sat­u­ra­tion pub­lic­ity associated with it had al­ready helped mold both fash­ion and so­cial life in the North. Man­u­fac­tur­ers pro­duced ‘Ku-Klux hats’ mod­eled af­ter those worn by the rid­ers in Birth and ‘KK’ kitchen aprons. New York so­ci­ety ladies or­ga­nized K-Klux balls and on Hal­loween, 2,000 Univer­sity of Chicago stu­dents par­tied in Klan cos­tumes. By late Novem­ber 1915, the film had al­ready been shown very suc­cess­fully in sev­eral South­ern cities and its first show­ing in At­lanta was due. Sim­mons re­al­ized that this of­fered an op­por­tu­nity too great to be missed to pub­li­cize his new or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

So he marched his men to the the­ater.

The movie — and the Klan — marched across the South.

“They be­came locked,” Stokes wrote, “in a mar­riage of pub­lic­ity-ori­ented con­ve­nience.”

Klans­men in other cities im­i­tated the At­lanta pa­rade. The­ater ush­ers wore white sheets. In lo­cal news­pa­pers, the Klan ad­ver­tised for re­cruits along­side movie times.

“By the early 1920s, as the Klan spread be­yond its base in the South,” Stokes wrote, “it con­tin­ued to ex­ploit ‘The Birth of a Na­tion’ as part of its re­cruit­ment and pro­pa­ganda drive.”

Ri­ots over the movie broke out in ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas. There were or­ga­nized protests by civil rights groups. Even­tu­ally, the­aters stopped show­ing the film.

Now in the pub­lic do­main, the spin­ning of “The Birth of a Na­tion” con­tin­ues, even as the KKK’s or­ga­ni­za­tional hold on hate has been usurped by the al­tright and on­line net­works such as Storm­front, where the movie is fre­quently dis­cussed.

“Watched it to­day for the first time,” a poster wrote not long ago. “Clas­sic and prophetic master­piece.”

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