In the seven decades after the 1871-1872 trials of Ku Klux Klan leaders, mainstream American popular culture would reflect, extend, and greatly amplify sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan as a series of southern artists created successful works that featured increasingly idealized depictions of heroic Klan members and their actions.
Perhaps the first such pro-Klan literary work was James D. Lynch’s epic poem Redpath, or, the Ku Klux Tribunal (1877). Lynch was a Mississippi lawyer who had become a prominent and vocal opponent of Reconstruction, and as Democrats retook the South he turned his attention to literary efforts, first in the epic poem Robert E. Lee, or, Heroes of the South (1876) and then in Redpath. What is most striking about Redpath is its titular hero, a northern political aide who travels to the South on a fact-finding mission for a prosecution of the KKK and who converts to the cause when he learns instead of what the poem insists are the organization’s necessary and heroic activities. To aid in similar national conversions, Lynch went on to write a prominent anti-Reconstruction, pro-KKK history of his home state, Kemper County Vindicated, and a Peep at Radical Rule in Mississippi (1879). And by the early 1890s, the nation had indeed seemingly converted, as illustrated by the choice of Lynch to compose the official welcoming poem for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
In the same decade, Thomas W. Dixon Jr., himself a North Carolina lawyer as well as an ordained Baptist minister and the son and nephew of prominent former KKK leaders, developed a plan to create his own literary depictions of the Klan and the Reconstruction South. Inspired in part, he later claimed, by the “misrepresentations” of southerners in a dramatic production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dixon wrote The Leopard’s Spots (1902), the first in a trilogy of historical novels about Reconstruction that would also include The Clansman (1905) and The Traitor (1907). The novels became national bestsellers. Dixon became a celebrity, starring on stage in a dramatic production of his book The Sins of the Father: A Romance of the South (1910-1911) and writing the screenplay for one of the first blockbuster motion pictures, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).
At the time of its release and in the century since, Griffith’s film has been celebrated and critiqued in equal measure. It is recognized for its ground-breaking cinematography and analyzed for its propagandistic portrayals of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and, especially, the Reconstruction era. Yet the latter qualities are often treated simply as a reflection of their era and its prejudices. But by basing his film on Dixon’s novels and screenplay, and especially by featuring as the film’s climax a heroic Klan ride to save the heroes from brutal African American villains, Griffith did far more than reflect discriminatory attitudes or historical narratives of the period: he created one of the most potent and enduring idealized images of the KKK. It is unclear whether President Woodrow Wilson, after screening the film at the White House, actually uttered the famous line, “It’s like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” – but whether apocryphal or not, the line’s existence indicates just how pervasive were the effects of Griffith’s film.
Birth of a Nation was not the most successful or influential pro-KKK cultural text, however. That dubious honor goes to Margaret Mitchell’s historical novel Gone with the Wind (1936), one of the best-selling and most enduring literary works in American history. Mitchell would later write to Dixon that she was “practically raised” on his novels, and in the depiction of Reconstruction in the second half of her book the through-line is clearly visible. That half opens with Rhett Butler, the novel’s romanticized hero, in jail for the shooting of an African American man who “was uppity to a white woman.” And in one of the novel’s most striking sequences, Butler follows through on that individual action in a more communal way, joining Ashley Wilkes and many other men on a Ku Klux Klan ride to avenge the assault and near-rape of heroine Scarlett O’Hara by an African American brute and his white accomplice. While the 1939 film version of Mitchell’s novel does not put Butler and his comrades in KKK robes quite as openly as did Griffith’s film, the sequence and heroic ride are indeed included in the movie.
Together, the novel and film made one of American culture’s most famous romantic leading men a Ku Klux Klan member. And as such, he and both texts represent the culmination of seven decades of pro-KKK images and stories in American popular culture.