Birth of a [Racist] Nation

It’s human nature for people to gravitate toward stories and media that line up with their perceptions of themselves, their communities, and their interpretation of history. Those stories then pass into popular consciousness, becoming part of the identity of the people, sending ripples through society, sometimes changing it almost irrevocably. One set of such stories was packaged up in the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent film The Birth of a Nation. The film and its extraordinary 120-piece orchestra accompaniment was celebrated as “astounding for its time.”[1] The film was shown in theaters across the country, including the South, charging $2.00 admission—the price for a typical live performance.[2] President Woodrow Wilson – still in mourning for the late Mrs. Wilson – was invited to view the film in a private screening at the White House and believed the film was an authentic telling of history. Griffith, acclaimed for his innovative use of the closeup, editing shots, and dramatic storytelling, is best known for this three-hour film, which remains as controversial today as it was more than a hundred years ago.

The film follows the ups and downs of two families during the Civil War, the Camerons and the Stonemans, the former aligning with the Confederacy and the latter with the Union. The story is told primarily through the lens of the Southern Confederate narrative, giving far more screentime to events such as the volunteers going off to war, the destruction of Atlanta, and the degradation of Southern society. It’s also evident within the first ten minutes that the aim of the film was to romanticize antebellum society, when Southern aristocracy ruled their communities and the black population was enslaved, but happy and submissive. Federal soldiers are interpreted in the film as being cruel to Southerner civilians, and Confederates are shown as benevolent foes, as in the scene when Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) – the male protagonist of the film – runs to the aid of a fallen Union soldier at Petersburg to give him a drink of water before making a final charge that ended with his wounding and capture at the hands of his old friend, Phil Stoneman (Elmer Clifton).

In terms of production design, The Birth of a Nation stands out for the technological innovations it makes to the film medium. As with most silent movies, the acting is over-the-top to fully convey the emotions experienced by the characters through this period of tumultuous history. Few of the slides contain any kind of dialogue, leaving the audience to imagine the words of the players while the slides only explained the context of the scene. The siege of Petersburg sequence alone is a stunning piece of set coordination, as countless extras charge and skirmish across a smoky, fiery battlefield, all viewed from a great height so the audience may understand the scale of a Civil War battle. The Birth of a Nation might always “be considered the film which gave the motion pictures its stature as an art form.”[3] Griffith’s trademark use of narrative filmmaking enthralled audiences who became invested in the characters and story.  All twelve reels of its original cut featured 1640 separate shots and titles, employing the use of dramatic closeups and editing techniques such as cross-cut sequencing of parallel actions and the use of montages, that were unprecedented.

Ben Cameron played by Henry Walthall at Petersburg in Birth of a Nation (1915)

The original orchestral score, composed by Joseph Carl Briel was carefully synchronized to the film to avoid any melodies that might be incongruous to the scenes. With coordinated sound effects and distinct character themes spaced out between 214 separate cues, the intended music for The Birth of a Nation alone was impressive to moviegoers who were used to a single piano or no sound at all in the theater.[4] The Los Angeles Times heralded it as “the greatest picture that was ever made and the biggest drama ever filmed.”[5] All of these innovative techniques proved to revolutionize the movie-making industry, and any producer that wanted to top Griffith had to continually work at the craft to make the next film bigger, better, and more engaging than The Birth of a Nation. Between 1915 and 1946 over 200 million Americans viewed this film and its impact can never be understated in the movie industry.[6]

If Griffith had ended his film after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Birth of a Nation might have received only as much criticism as Gone With The Wind did two decades later. However, the second part of the film, which covered the Reconstruction Era, outraged the black population, the people who had the most to lose from the shift in society that would come as a result of the film’s showing. Within the first few minutes, the film establishes that blacks were the villains of the story. In the first text slide, it stated that the importation of enslaved Africans sowed the seeds of disunion in America, placing the blame for the war and the societal upheaval on the shoulders of the blacks who were captured and deported against their wills.

Throughout The Birth of a Nation, black—the major roles played by white actors in blackface—and mixed-race characters like Lydia (Mary Alden) and Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) were depicted as heinous, scheming, ignorant, destructive, carnal, and easily beguiled by Northern carpetbaggers and politicians. These traits aligned with the typical white-supremist view of blacks and non-whites as inferior beings that deserved to be subjugated, and that unleashing freemen upon society would only end in the ruin of civilization itself. The only black characters represented in a positive light were Mammy (Jennie Lee)—who is called the “faithful servant” in the opening credits—and her fellow male servant who remained with the Cameron family throughout the film and even assisted in rescuing Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) from imprisonment. By painting this picture of black submission as an admirable virtue, the film portrays the ideal place for freed blacks in society and their relationship with whites.

Gus, played by Walter Long, is captured by the Piedmont Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation (1915)

The fate of Gus (Walter Long), the “renegade negro,” is a case in point. After Congress passed a law that legalized interracial marriage in the movie, Southern whites were appalled and deeply concerned for the fate of its women, now surrounded by lustful freemen. Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) came under the special attention of Gus and, after a lengthy chase through the South Carolina countryside, Flora committed suicide by jumping off a cliff rather than be caught by a black man. Her death drew the ire of the local Ku Klux Klan, which hunted down Gus and exacted vigilante justice to avenge the honor of the Southern woman—the rationale for much of the terrorist actions carried out by the KKK.

At the hour-and-a-half mark, the film featured several panels that might have been intended to assuage audiences from believing that the film was meant as propaganda. He claimed that the film was meant to be a historical presentation of the war and “not meant to reflect on any race of people of today.” However, it follows this with a nod to President Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People, which condemned the Reconstruction Era as a means to “put the white South under the heel of the black South” and that the Ku Klux Klan was intended to “protect the Southern country.”[7] Ben Cameron was painted as the leader of the Piedmont KKK, which “Saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.”[8] By the end of the film, it certainly appeared that way. The riotous black mob in the streets of Piedmont were driven out by an army of white-clad masked Klansmen, and Silas Lynch—who was ready to force Elsie Stoneman into marriage—was killed along with countless other blacks who antagonized the Cameron family. The KKK appeared as the heroes who triumphed over Southern Reconstruction and induced the birth of a white supremist nation.

D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the masterminds behind both the book and movie adaptation, were Southerners who grew up listening to the stories told by their Confederate veteran relatives. Griffith’s father, Jacob, served as a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, the same unit that escorted the fleeing Confederate government in April of 1865. Dixon’s maternal uncle, Leroy McAfee, ended his military career as a colonel for the 49th North Carolina Infantry and was the inspiration for the protagonist in his nephew’s 1905 play and novel, The Clansman. In addition to stories from the war, Dixon’s father and uncle were members of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan, allowing Dixon to witness the Klan’s vigilante efforts first-hand throughout his childhood.[9] These stories shaped their world view and colored their telling of this crucial period of American history. Griffith denied being racist, but firmly believed that he was telling the truth about the Southern experience in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When one learns about the principles of early Reconstruction historian William Dunning (that blacks were ignorant and unworthy of social advancement, Southerners were victimized during the Congressional Reconstruction period, and all whites suffered under black suffrage until the rise of the “home rule” movement), the film’s interpretation of history makes sense for the time in which it was made. Modern scholars and historians have since acknowledged the flaws in Dunning’s interpretation, but far too late to be of any benefit to those who had to live through the acceptance of this school of thought.[10]

“The Ride of the KKK” in Birth of a Nation (1915), driving the blacks from the town.

The KKK, which had all but died out toward the close of Reconstruction, resurged around the release of The Birth of a Nation, leading many to believe that the two events were linked or at least influenced one another. Klan leaders admitted to using shots from the film, such as the massive ride of the Klansman to the aid of Piedmont, as a recruitment tool.[11]

The release of the film met with wide acclaimed, despite – or because of – its blatant white supremist agenda. Those who opposed the film, primarily the black rights activists like W.E.B. Dubois and William Monroe Trotter, were silenced or disregarded. Their predictions that the film would stunt the progress of black rights were validated by a later Harvard University study that evaluated the reception of the film as it was viewed in various counties across the nation, “on average, lynchings… rose fivefold in a month after [the film] arrived.”[12] To this criticism, Griffith wrote, “the public should not be afraid to accept the truth, even though it might not like it” and discredited the black voices that spoke against his film.[13]

The Birth of a Nation became one of the most successful silent films of the age and set a precedent for movies to follow, such as Gone With The Wind, underpinning not only the Lost Cause spawned out of the Civil War, but the racial prejudice that America continues to struggle with today. Though technologically impressive in 1915, the mark this film has left upon pop culture and the media industry is far from a positive one. The harmful themes and ideas presented in the film gave consent to other writers and filmmakers to continue the trend in their own projects, receiving their own level of acclaim for their presentation of life during and following the Civil War. This only helped to reinforce racism and false conceptions of Civil War history to a national audience. The racist ideas presented in the film are beyond dispute and will continue to be deeply problematic for viewers in the following decades, but put within the proper historical context and film historiography, much can still be learned from The Birth of a Nation about society and the movie industry in the early twentieth century.

 

Endnotes

[1] Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By…. University of California Press, 1968, p. 78

[2] Arthur Lennig, “Myth and Fact: The Reception of ‘The Birth of a Nation’,” Film History, Vol 16, No. 2, Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting, 2004, p. 119

[3] Raymond A. Cook, “The Man Behind ‘The Birth of a Nation’,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1962, p. 519

[4] Lennig, “Myth and Fact: The Reception of ‘The Birth of a Nation’,” p 118

[5] Lost Angeles Times, February 9, 1915

[6] Conrad Pitcher, “D.W. Griffith’s Controversial Film, The Birth of a Nation,” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 13, No. 3, The Progressive Era, 1999, p. 50

[7] Birth of a Nation, 1:30:02-37

[8] Ibid, 2:03:05

[9] Maxwell Bloomfield, “Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots: A Study in Popular Racism,” American Quarterly. Vol 16, No. 3, 1964, pp. 387–401

[10] Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction: Updated Edition, Harper Perennial, pp. xi-xii

[11]The best overview of the influences of the film on the KKK is Maxim Simcovitch’s “The Impact of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation on the Modern Ku Klux Klan,” originally published in the first issue of the Journal of Popular Film and Television (Vol 1, No. 1, 1972), pp. 56-54

[12] “A Tarnished Silver Screen: How a racist film helped the Ku Klux Klan grow for generations”. The Economist, March 27, 2021.

[13] David Rylance, “Breech Birth: The Receptions To D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation” pp. 1-20 from Australasian Journal of American Studies, Volume 24, No. 2, December 2005, p. 15.

 

About Sheritta Bitikofer

Sheritta Bitikofer is a lifelong student of history with a specific interest in the Civil War era. Along with being a wife, historical fiction author, and fur-mama of two, she is an active member of the Mobile and Pensacola Civil War Roundtables and currently pursuing a bachelors degree in US History at American Public University.
This entry was posted in Civil War in Pop Culture, Reconstruction and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Birth of a [Racist] Nation

  1. You said the film is as controversial now as it was back then. I hope not! I would think there is no controversy today, no range of opinions, about how deeply racist and harmful this film is and has been throughout its history.

    • Sheritta Bitikofer says:

      Hey Ronald,
      I think it’s controversial in today’s world in the sense that it was so important to the advancement of filmmaking and can still be considered a revolutionary piece of movie art, even though it is so racist. It’s the question “Should we still teach this movie in our schools?” that creates the argument. If it wasn’t made so well or if it wasn’t racist, the argument would be very different. I would sincerely hope that no one would view the movie today and think it historically accurate or politically correct in today’s world.

  2. Charles Herbek says:

    You’ve made assumptions about human nature that may not be valid.
    And your title creates even more confusion by furthering the current, insidious, propaganda line aimed at demeaning this good nation. And it is a practiced and time honored propaganda line designed to create dissension by using partial truths and exploiting them. This Nation, as every nation does, has people who are racist as well as those seeking justice for all. Your untruthful use of the term “racist nation” is antagonist and untrue. The furtherance of justice within our government and the continued growth of opportunity for all peoples reveals your claims as untrue There has been one, singular, nation worthy of the racist mantle because of its self proclaimed and practiced destruction of other peoples on a industrial scale and that was the Third Reich. And that nation was destroyed by this justice seeking nation and others. Nations contain people who are racist. There is only one nation worthy of the title of “racist nation,” and that entity is gone, Do not further the propaganda line of those who seek the destruction and demise of this Nation, founded on and practicing, “liberty and justice for all,” every day.

    • Sheritta Bitikofer says:

      Hey Charles,
      The title and the article itself is not meant to imply that America is as racist as it used to be. Compared to just 60 years ago, we have come a long way – though there is still room for improvement. However, the focus of the article and the implied point was to show how the film used a false interpretation of Civil War and Reconstruction Era history to further reinforce racist stereotypes and ideologies, and proved damaging for the black population and the cause of civil rights in the first half of the 20th century. It’s a blatant abuse of history in the form of popular entertainment, which we should be wary against even today. We should seek to educate ourselves with primary sources rather than a movie script. There are still lingering traces of systematic racism in today’s society, which hopefully will be destroyed within the next few decades – if not sooner – as the American people become more aware of the truth behind their nation’s cultural history. The fact that some Americans choose to ignore the darker or more unseemly parts of their history because it doesn’t jive with their sense of nationalism is evidence to my claim about human nature and their need to seek validation in what they believe it correct, rather than looking at the facts. Those who hailed this film as complete fact and ignored the black voices contradicting the movie are part of this group. I apologize that these points were not made fully clear, but I hope they’re clear now 🙂

  3. nygiant1952 says:

    Racism was embedded in the US Constitution.

    The gerrymandering of Congressional districts to deny Afro-Americans representation, is racist.

    So yes, The United States continues to be a racist Nation.

    • And continues to not be racist in so many ways.

      • nygiant1952 says:

        Systemically, we know that Black people compared to whites are more likely to attend schools with less funding per student, less likely to obtain a job because of our “Black-sounding” name or even when attending an Ivy League university, less likely to obtain a home loan (even when having the same credit score), have their homes appraised for equitable value, more likely to experience pregnancy complications and maternal mortality, and more likely to have contact with police and the criminal justice system.

        Systemic racism inhibits (rather than prohibits like in the past) people’s ability to actualize all aspects of the American Dream. This occurs?even for highly-educated Black people with high incomes and no criminal record. In fact, research documents that white people with a criminal record are more likely to get called back for a job than Black people without one.

        https://www.brookings.edu/blog/how-we-rise/2021/05/04/is-the-united-states-a-racist-country/

      • We still have a long way to go. But, having room for improvement does not alone make ours a “racist” nation. That is quite a stretch of the current reality. I could list a dozen ways we have improved on the racism in our country, just within the past 10 years.
        Tom

      • nygiant1952 says:

        Thanks for acknowledging that we remain a racist country.

        Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that are an average of 20% longer, controlling for a variety of factors, including prior criminal history and weapon possession. Also, federal prosecutors are 75% more likely to charge a black man with a crime carrying a mandatory minimum prison sentence than a white offender. Those disparities sure look like racism to me.

      • “have their homes appraised for equitable value, more likely to experience pregnancy complications and maternal mortality, and more likely to have contact with police and the criminal justice system. ”

        You realize, NY Giant, that showing statistical problems alone does not demonstrate racism? It takes more than statistical evidence to show racist intent. Racism requires some level of intent. A person must take action with intent to affect a particular race. It is not enough to simply show a severe impact on a racial minority. There needs to be some overt act in the part of some entity with intent to cause that harm At least according to Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you are suggesting a street definition of racism, then really all you have demonstrated is a basis for more questions.
        Tom

      • nygiant1952 says:

        You realize that the statistics are not made up, and they do reveal the institutional racism that pervades our society, and its intent. Black employment still lags too far behind White employment. THAT, is intent enough.

        The racism that Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd experienced proved fatal, didn’t it? More intent. In fact, both murders have been judged to be hate crimes.

        I’m most concerned about the high level of maternal mortality in the Black population.

      • Sheritta Bitikofer says:

        I’ll begin by saying that I’m by no means an expert in this subject or know the statistics backward and forward like some. However, the statistics can be a starting point. I’ve found that to get to the reason behind something, we should ask “Why?” at least 5-6 times. So, for example, why is maternal mortality higher for black women compared to white women? Maybe it’s because they don’t have the same access to proper medical care. Why is that? Is it because they can’t afford a OBGYN or proper prenatal care? If so, why? Is it because they can’t get a job that provides health insurance? If so, then why? Is there some sort of discrimination on the part of employers that prohibit them from getting a good job? You can go down the rabbit hole with this process with multiple branches of theory, and if it leads back to even a hint of racism, then that’s a problem. It’s the story behind the statistics, not the numbers themselves.

  4. Neil P. Chatelain says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the movie Sheritta! Every year this film comes up in my US history classes. I make it a point to show my students the intro text quoting Woodrow Wilson about a “Great Ku Klux Klan” that works to save Anglo-Southern dominance. Several of them usually find the whole film online pretty quickly (and they are aghast at the scene where black congressmen (white men in black-face) are debating laws while barefoot and literally eating buckets of chicken. I couple the film with lots of imagery of the KKK’s early 20th century resurgence, including photos of KKK marches through Washington DC. The idea is to explain why the KKK gained so much popularity in the first few decades of the 20th century. The film is a useful teaching tool that I have introduced at the middle school, high school, and college levels for helping explain and contextualize race issues from 1875-1930.

    • Sheritta Bitikofer says:

      Wow. I never saw it in school, nor knew it existed until I was well into adulthood. Good on you for showing this to students and using it as a teaching moment!

  5. wdonohue1 says:

    I have long believed BON was a racist film, but had no grasp of its influence on American society to this day. I helped make our culture what it is now and culture trumps all. It seeps into the mindset of all of us and our institutions including our churches without consciousness of its effects. Many thanks Sheritta for a brilliant essay.

  6. carsonfoardsbcglobalnet says:

    It’s interesting that a movie can be blamed for creating racism! This article has astute observations about advancements in the art of movie making found in BON, but is a trope of Northern propaganda re the South, continuing in the tradition established long before the Civil War and continuing unabated ever since. There has never been a more racist society than that of the North and it wasn’t created by BON or the Civil War; it existed long before, when the much vaunted emancipation in Northern States resulted in situations described very accurately in “Disowning Slavery”, J. M. Pope (recommended reading). Re the resurgence of the KKK, keep in mind that the KKK saw its greatest growth and resulting presence in the North (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, etc.) post WWI as some African Americans began to migrate from the South, which had been designated post Civil War as their containment area. In the 1920s, these Northern KKK marched in DC carrying the US flag. There was no doubt some events were portrayed for dramatic effect, but as usual the lived experience of the South has been damned by Ms. Bitikofer, without significant analysis or study, as part of the still ongoing effort to exonerate the North from any complicity in slavery and racism and a devastating Civil War that left scars that persist today. Our supposed era of tolerance and peace takes a hit everytime someone comes up with an uninformed and prejudiced article like this. I don’t know Mr. Griffith’s social motives in making the film; perhaps he has described them but the South’s experience post-Civil War was a direct result of actions taken by Northern political figures with a significant agenda which had nothing to do with true liberation for African Americans. Kudoes to Charles Herbek for calling you out on this.

    • nygiant1952 says:

      WRONG!

      The South incorporated the continuation of racism in the US Constitution, with the 3/5ths clause, which affected all 3 branches of the Government.

      It was in the southern part of Ohio Indian and Illinois, where the KKK saw its greatest growth. These areas were populated by people leaving the Deep South.

      Northern KKK???…a-historical. The facts are…The KKK attacked the social and political rights of African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, and Jews. First founded in 1865, the power of the Klan peaked during the 1920s when urbanization, industrialization, and immigration frightened many Americans.

      There, I fixed your comment for you!
      You’re welcome!

    • Sheritta Bitikofer says:

      I never implied that the film created racism, only that it used a false interpretation of Civil War and Reconstruction Era history to further racist ideologies. Racism has – unfortunately – been part of the American society since before it gained its independence from Britain. North AND South were guilty of racism, the use of slavery aside. No where in this article did I make the distinction that the North was absolved of harboring racist sentiment, so I’m not sure where that might have been implied, nor do I get into the anatomy of Reconstruction or its actual affects on Southern society (I would recommend Eric Foner’s books on Reconstruction as a trustworthy reference) or that the KKK was exclusive to the states within the former Confederacy. The point of the article was that the film used ideas from a widely accepted racist school of thought on this era of history (William Dunning’s) to perpetuate racist sentiment in the early decades of the 20th century, whether intentionally or not. I’m sorry you didn’t grasp the point of the piece.

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  8. Henry Fleming says:

    No doubt in the ability of movies to influence people and bring about social change. Looking at the paid product placement in movies and youtube videos. Do you think Aston Martin would be cool today if not for Mr. Bond, James Bond. No doubt in my mind the correlation of the impact of this movie (1915) and the Tulsa massacre (1921). Check Daniel A. Lord’s autobiography, “Played by Ear,” for the impressions of someone who saw this movie in 1915 when it came out.

  9. Rod says:

    For what good it will do let me first proclaim that I am NOT a racist and I abhor such evil. But I also abhor those who spin history in such a manner to serve their own misguided agenda. Sheritta Bitikofer fits this fashionable mold so prevalent among modern academia since the beginning of the civil rights movement. Bitikofer has obviously bought in to the modern “pious cause myth.”

    While a civil rights movement was certainly justified, what is ignored is a Marxist element that was introduced into it by the likes of WEB Dubois. The bathwater became tainted and soiled the baby before it was ever thrown out. And the movement became infused with a Marxist style analysis of history that created even more division and animosity (by design) especially in the South.

    It was and is a spin on history that labeled any Southern view of secession, war, and reconstruction as “lost cause myth.” It is a PC out-of-hand dismissal meant to avoid having to critically consider the Southern view. Both sides of the political spectrum use the pious cause myth to promote their political agendas. The myth has its roots in the spin politicians began to use, even before the war was over, to sanitize what was an “awful crime” as Lord Acton called it. A war for political and economic exploitation of the country became somehow “about slavery.” The political Right has, since the war, used it to promote “American Exceptionalism.” The political Left uses it as a poster event for viewing history through the narrow lens of an oppressor vs oppressed paradigm. Unfortunately historical truth is sacrificed by both since the Southern view of the war fits neither agenda.

    Bitikofer, so indoctrinated by the pious cause myth, never stops to consider that it is possible that the perceptions people have of themselves is largely formed by their experience of history, and by listening to those who lived it. According to Bitikofer, even if it be those people who listened to their dad’s and grandad’s historical take on the war, and retold those stories by word or in media, the end result had to be a myth because the source was myth, and that sent inaccurate “ripples through society changing it almost irrevocably.” Even historians of that time such as Dunning bought in to the myth. Never mind that they could actually interview those who lived the event, those interviewed were all telling a lost cause myth. It never crosses Bitikofer’s mind that those who lived the war and reconstruction just might know more about those events than do the politically influenced crop of history professors that are her source of truth.

    When she criticizes the text slide in the movie that says, “the importation of enslaved Africans sowed the seeds of disunion in America,” does she not know that Abraham Lincoln made that same observation. It is a mere observation and not a “laying of blame” at the feet of black people.
    She criticizes the characterization of blacks who “were depicted as heinous, scheming, ignorant, destructive, carnal, and easily beguiled by Northern carpetbaggers and politicians.” The first black Senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels, made this exact same claim:

    “Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been . . enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything, no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves and perpetuate it… A great portion of them (my people) have learned that they were being used as mere tools… My people have been told by these schemers when men were placed upon the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them… This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people… The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this State, except, perhaps, in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office and its emoluments to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.”

    Booker T. Washington also confirmed the claims made in the movie:

    “I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end.”

    I could go on confirming the claims made in the movie against the critique of Bitikofer. But this is already running long. I’ll just end with a quote by historian Phillip Thomas Tucker, a Ph.D., in American History, who served for over twenty years as a Professional historian for the Department of Defense. He correctly states, “…too many of today’s historians have been wrong about our past by looking at history through a modern lens and making moral judgements about a time and people for which they have relatively little true understanding, denouncing undeniable facts as nothing more than conservative revisionism and neo-Confederate propaganda.”

    • nygiant1952 says:

      Talk about a “spin” on history.

      Du Bois was a socialist. Though for most Americans, socialism and Marxism is a distinction without a difference, socialism in Du Bois’ mind meant alleviating the worst effects of market capitalism, not necessarily doing away with capitalism all together.

      And I think that we can agree that the slave economy of the South was not really capitalism.

  10. Barry says:

    I’m a grown man and have never see BON and I’ll wager not one in a hundred ever has either. For a film one hundred years old, I’m sure it’s been parsed and analyzed every way possible. Why dredge this up now? I certainly hope it’s not more white shaming.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Sheritta wrote this article at my invitation. We’re working on an ECW essay collection about the Civil War in Pop Culture, and one of the holes I thought we needed to fill was the impact BOAN made in its day, as both a work of filmmaking and as cultural commentary. So that’s the “why now.” I thought she did a fair and balanced job on the piece and avoided “white shaming.” Mentioning its impact doesn’t mean anyone has to feel ashamed that people back them reacted as they did.

  11. grandadpookers says:

    Thank you Sheritta for the summary. I don’t think I could have watched it

  12. Abdullah O’Mulliganstein says:

    There is indeed some “white shaming” by the author of this article. Not a lot, but enough to signal obligatory woke credentials for like-minded (albeit half-smart) readers. Other than this small annoyance, a well-written and informative piece.

  13. John B. Sinclair says:

    Wonderful article, Sheritta. Those objecting to it are overthinking and overreacting, causing them to throw out the usual trite criticisms of anyone daring to raise the issue of race. Don’t let them cancel you. Illegitimi Non Carborundum.

  14. Patrick Kelly-Fischer says:

    I really enjoyed this article, thank you for writing it. I remember studying this in school, but never with the context of how the film potentially fanned the flames of KKK recruitment.

  15. At the risk of being seen as somehow supportive of the film, this reminds me of a story in Charles Nordhoff’s book about his tour through the South during Reconstruction. He reported a black member of the Louisiana legislature who insisted on receiving a bribe, because if he had been present for the vote on an act supported by a corrupt levee company, then the black legislator would have voted for it. He wanted the same bribe other legislators received, because if he had been present, he would have voted for a corrupt statute. Certainly, there really were instances of black voters and politicians being manipulated by clever Republicans – and at least in this one instance, a black legislator doing the abuse himself during Reconstruction. BON’s stereotype was remarkably racist. But, that does not mean it did not convey some measure of truth.
    Tom

  16. mark harnitchek says:

    Great essay … i’ve only seen snippets of the film which is more than enough … thanks for watching it so we didn’t have to … and i appreciated the technical discussion — very interesting

    the big takeaway, of course, is the timeless power of film … in 1915 it was Birth of a Nation … and in 2003 it was the equally “lost cause friendly” Gods and Generals … watching the later film you’d never know the war had anything to do with slavery other than a ridiculous, ahistorical conversation between Stonewall Jackson and his African American cook (and i assume slave) Jim.

    Ride with the Devil sends a similar oddball message in which a loyal slave fights on the southern side for his enlightened master … for those adherents to the ‘there were Black Confederates mythology” this film is right up their alley.

    And then there’s the perenial favorite — Gone with the Wind — which colored my early impressions of the Civil War … and as long i am throwing stones, i’d include the clunker Gettysburg in the “not so great” Civil War film category … like Gods, the movie has little to no mention of Union or slavery … and there are too many fat Confederates!!!

    Unfortunately, many more thousands of people will see these films then all works written by historians put together … the good news is that historians, and most film critics, these days recognize these movies for what they are — heavily flavored, one sided historical fiction.

    But the challenge to get it right is a big one … but our collegeaue — nygiant1952 — got it exactly right as he commends us to get our history from books, not movies.

    thanks again.

    PS — Clever hook in the essay’s title.

    • nygiant1952 says:

      Mark,

      Thank you very much for the kind words! My Mom was a school-teacher who always said that the student who reads, is the student who succeeds. It didn’t matter what you read, but as long as you do read!

      Plus I had English teacher in the 8th and 9th grade who gave us some great works to read!

      • Mark Harnitchek says:

        My pleasure … your was the best comment/recommendation in the string … I am often amazed at the strongly held opinions of people who don’t read things … on the other hand it’s quite liberating … when you don’t read anything, you can think whatever you want … the Lost Cause mavens a good example 🙂

  17. Pat Young says:

    Interesting article. Contrary to the claim made in a comment that disparate intention must be shown to violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that act also looks at “disparate impact” in discrimination. Most modern racism takes a facially neutral form in the United States, or at least it did for the first half-century after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

  18. Pingback: Around the Web July 2022: Best of Civil War & Reconstruction Blogs and Social Media - The Reconstruction Era

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