Woodrow Wilson's Embrace of the KKK's "Aryan Birthright" in the Film "Birth of a Nation" Foreshadowed Trump More Than a Hundred Years Ago
August 12, 2019
MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH
Blatant racism and the notion of inherent white superiority have often been justified by their proponents as divinely mandated in the name of Christ.
Take, for instance, how the justification of white supremacy plays itself out in one of the first-ever box office smashes, the explicitly racist silent film, The Birth of a Nation.
The domestic melodrama/epic originally premiered with the title The Clansman in February, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, but three months later was retitled with the present title at its world premiere in New York, to emphasize the birthing process of the US. The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s anti-black, 1905 bigoted melodramatic staged play [and novel], The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy:
The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-1900
The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan
Evidencing the reverence paid to the KKK - even by many Northerners - it should be noted that The Birth of a Nation was the first film screened inside the White House. In this case, it was shown for the "pleasure" of President Woodrow Wilson.
As PBS reports on its website, Wilson was ecstatic after the screening:
On the evening of March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson attended a special screening at the White House of The Birth of a Nation, a film directed by D.W. Griffith and based on The Clansman, a novel written by Wilson's good friend Thomas Dixon. The film presented a distorted portrait of the South after the Civil War, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and denigrating blacks. It falsified the period of Reconstruction by presenting blacks as dominating Southern whites (almost all of whom are noble in the film) and sexually forcing themselves upon white women. The Klan was portrayed as the South's savior from this alleged tyranny. Not only was this portrayal untrue, it was the opposite of what actually happened. During Reconstruction, whites dominated blacks and assaulted black women. The Klan was primarily a white terrorist organization that carried out hundreds of murders. After seeing the film, an enthusiastic Wilson reportedly remarked: "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
Note that the Baptist reverend who authored the novel that the film was based on was "a good friend" of President Wilson.
Expanding upon The Birth of a Nation's extraordinary success as a popular silent film among whites throughout the nation during the World War I years, the AMC Filmsite comments:
In its explicitly caricaturist presentation of the KKK as heroes and Southern Blacks as villains and violent rapists and threats to the social order, it appealed to white Americans who subscribed to the mythic, romantic view (similar to Sir Walter Scott historical romances) of the Old Plantation South... Ironically, although the film was advertised as authentic and accurate, the film's major Black roles in the film … were stereotypically played and filled by white actors - in blackface. [The real Blacks in the film only played in minor roles.]
Its climactic finale, the suppression of “the black threat to white society” by the glorified Ku Klux Klan, helped to assuage some of America's sexual fears about the rise of defiant, strong (and sexual) Black men and the repeal of laws forbidding intermarriage.
The source material for The Birth of a Nation, remember, was written by a supposed "man of God," who glorified the KKK as Christian saviors, and basely promoted the most denigrating and debased stereotypes of Black people. Although the cross was not the original symbol of the KKK, it was adopted as such in time.
No Black person since the Reconstruction needs to be reminded of the terrorizing power of a burning cross. The symbol of Christ's crucifixion as a tool of intimidation and fear was meant to sear the message of alleged white Christian superiority into people's minds.
A 2002 article in Slate explains how the Klan came to burn crosses:
The Ku Klux Klan, the organization most closely associated with burning crosses, identifies itself as Christian. Why do they incinerate their faith's most sacred symbol?
The practice dates back to Medieval Europe, an era the Klan idealizes as morally pure and racially homogenous ...
Modern Klan groups are careful to refer to their ritual as "cross lighting" rather than cross-burning and insist that their fires symbolize faith in Christ.
And what inspired the KKK to begin the widespread burning of crosses? Why, the movie The Birth of a Nation fostered the idea, according to Slate.
The website US History provides some historical context to the relationship between slavery, racism and a distorted view of Christianity:
Defenders of slavery argued that the institution was divine, and that it brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, "Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."
Meanwhile, enslaved Black people were frequently kept from forming their own churches, out of fear that mass assemblies would lead to rebellion. This repression was often enacted violently, as in the burning down in 1822 of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (the predecessor to the site of the recent racist massacre), and subsequent burning and bombing of Black churches.
Slaveholders and post-Civil War white supremacists disseminated the idea that the treatment of Black people as sub-human was somehow sanctioned by the Bible, and that Black people could not become equal in Christianity to whites.
The Christian Century website analyzes the use of Christianity to ennoble slavery and refers to
...the fundamental use of Christian rhetoric and scriptures to justify a system of chattel bondage. When economic arguments failed, pro-slavery advocates turned to religion, insisting that God had ordained slavery for the current age....
Some slaveholders continued to rely on the "myth of Ham," the belief that the descendants of Ham were cursed to eternal bondage, as evidenced by their dark skin. Others relied on New Testament readings.
These are notions that infuse the romanticized image of the Ku Klux Klan as Christian saviors - and particularly, saviors of white female "virtue" - in The Birth of a Nation.
Notably, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States, heralded the racist epic as an extraordinary film exactly 50 years after the Civil War ended. Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Wilson was also an intellectual, who had served as president of Princeton University. His enthusiastic endorsement of The Birth of a Nation was a small but significant sign that the war between the states didn't end blatant, official anti-Black racism; it reinvented how it was applied after the end of slavery (with the heartfelt backing of the highest elected official in the land).
Some historians believe that The Birth of a Nation marked the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, launching a reinvigorated reign of terror and lynchings against Black people. With the boffo box-office reception (with the notable exception of some NAACP-led protests) and praise from the president of the United States, this form of racist "entertainment" was officially sanctioned - coast to coast, from Hollywood to Washington DC.
There is a pivotal title that appears toward the end of the film, when some former Union soldiers help out a few southerners fleeing what is depicted as the alleged horrors of the Reconstruction period. "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright," the subtitle states.
Today, more than 100 years after Woodrow Wilson viewed and embraced The Birth of a Nation, the river of racism still runs with a strong current through US society.
This commentary was adapted from a BuzzFlash editor’s post in July of 2015