Birth of a Nation was a landmark in cinema history. Director D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic broke new ground in movie storytelling. It featured innovative techniques like wide shots, closeups and spectacular scenes. The 12-reel film was nearly three hours long in an age when most movies were less than thirty minutes. Its ticket price of $2.00 was nearly ten times that of other movies. When it finally appeared in Terre Haute in January 1916 at the Grand Theater, many local movie fans thought it “worth every cent.” It played to continuous packed houses. In modern terms, the film grossed nearly three billion dollars at the box office. It was much heralded in its time as an absolute masterpiece.
But Birth of a Nation is also among the worst, most damaging films of all time, both for its presentation of a false history (similar to the 1991 execrable film JFK by Oliver Stone) that became true in the minds of many, and its blatant racism that would continue a horrid legacy in American society. D.W. Griffith was the son of a Colonel in the Confederate Army, seemingly nursed from a babe at the bottle of the mythic “Lost Cause” of the “Noble South.” His epic was based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, a Methodist preacher whose boon companion was a bottle of bourbon. Dixon’s book was filled with scenes of black men raping white women and other foul deeds which inevitably led to lynching to satisfy southern honor.
The first half of “Birth” dealt with the Civil War, mainly from a Confederate viewpoint. Its war scenes, the Appomattox surrender, and the assassination of Lincoln (the fact that Booth was a southern sympathizer went unmentioned) thrilled audiences. It was brilliant film-making and generally faithful to the historic truth.
But the second half was a vicious, racist rendering of Reconstruction, in which rapacious northern carpetbaggers and sub-human “darkies” were depicted as carrion feasting upon the last bits of flesh of the fallen South. Black people, many played by white actors in blackface, were portrayed as little more than simple-minded apes, as ravenous beasts with enormous appetites for food and white woman. Scenes depicted black men who were elected to Congress cavorting wildly through the chambers like animals, gorging themselves on food and liquor as if they were the direct heirs of Henry the Eighth.
The NAACP immediately recognized the threat to African Americans that the film incited. It stated that the film “pictures Negroes in the worst possible light.” They knew it would only fuel racial tensions. They were right. Racist attacks on African Americans often increased in areas, particularly in the South, following film showings. The NAACP’s efforts to ban the film, or at least to educate film-goers about its false portrayals of Black Americans did not meet with success.
Thus did a false history become implanted in the minds of those who saw it. In his book, The Fiery Cross (published in 1987, but still the finest overview of Klan history), Wyn Craig Wade noted that the film “united White Americans in a vast national drama, convincing them of a past that had never been.” An article in the Terre Haute Saturday Spectator (later a foe of the Klan) which appeared a few weeks after the film was shown at the Grand was one of the few papers to try to point out the dangers of the film. The “Ku Klux, who were paraded as heroes, were nothing of the kind,” it boldly stated. It went on to say that the Klan was a tool to disenfranchise Black people and allow the passage of heinous Jim Crow laws. Few people seemed to learn from that lesson.
The film’s glorification of the Klan led many to think it was time it came back. After all the country, they said, was being overrun with immigrants, many of them “Catholics, uppity negroes and rabble rousers”. What was needed was a group to fight for “100-percent Americanism.”
William Simmons was an Alabama-born dreamer who aimlessly moved through life “selling garters and teaching history”. He became a Methodist minister and, while well-fortified by good southern bourbon, Simmons sat by his window one solitary night and saw a vision of ghost riders filling the sky. The apparitions continued to haunt his mind. What could they mean? Were they meant to show a purpose for him?
Simmons was living in Atlanta when Birth of a Nation had its premiere. Already a devoted fan of Dixon’s The Clansman, Simmons was swept up by the film and its Klan scenes. There on the screen seemed to be the personification of the ghost riders of his vision. The dreamer saw a chance for his dreams to become all too real. He immediately set about reviving the Klan. On October 15, 1915 the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” was chartered in Georgia as a social organization at his request.
As with any great media success, “Birth” spawned its imitators. Movies like One Clear Call were brazen exploitations of “Birth’s” Klan scenes. There developed a series of low budget “Klan Films” sponsored by the Klan. There were even Klan theaters devoted to showing such films, like the one in Noblesville, Indiana (ironically the town that would later be the site of the Indiana Klan boss D.C. Stephenson’s murder trial in 1925).
But Birth of a Nation was always the king and continually used as a recruiting tool for the Klan, which showed the film to lure in possible recruits. It would also help bring the Klan to Vigo County.
(This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the History of the KKK in Vigo County and Indiana.)