American Popular Culture Embraces the Ku Klux Klan, 1877-1939

The ClansmanIllustration from The Clansman. (Photo: DocSouth)

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.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

Author Archive Page

16 Comments

  1. (Dixon tried to get a statue erected to honor his Klansman Uncle in 1916.) Dixon’s portrait of the Klan was also indebted to the Joint Select Committee hearings on the KKK (the Democrats’ version) and Randolph Shotwell’s memoirs. (Shotwell was a Klan leader in western NC who served time in a federal prison for his Klan activities–later pardoned by Grant.) In writing a new bio of Dixon, I have noticed how quickly non-southerners accepted his tainted version of Reconstruction and the Klan’s role in supposedly redeeming the South. And by the way–he told several different tales about when and how he was inspired to write the trilogy. The “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” story was one of at least three origin stories he told.

    1. Lynn: I wonder if there’s a connection between the popularity of Jesse James as the lone individual in the 1870s and the KKK as heroes in the 1890s. Was Dixon mostly a writer or a minister by then? (Or something else?)

  2. Thank you for calling out GWTW. I cannot believe that TCM shows it every year WITHOUT historians or film scholars framing its racism for viewers.

    1. I LOATHE GWTW. I mean, aside from everything else, Scarlett is annoying. Dunno if it plays regularly, Lynn, but if so, would love to publish your piece on it when TCM runs it.

  3. Heather, in the 1890s, Dixon was primarily a Social Gospel minister in New York City. He rarely spoke on race (but I have a chapter that will examine all he said over the decade on race, slavery, and Reconstruction), but throughout the decade, Dixon insisted that Reconstruction was a tragic error inflicted on the South by vindictive Republicans. His stand on Reconstruction was, in short, far more consistent over the many years than his racial views, which were more moderate in the 1890s, when he was preaching in NYC, than in his novels (understatement!).
    Your question on Jesse James is an interesting one. While I don’t think Dixon referred to James anywhere, the sort of books he read (and borrowed techniques and plots from) often featured heroes who were larger than life romantic (in the old sense of the term) leads (though some of them were quite brooding) who had to defy the law (to help save civilization, protect white women, etc).
    GWTW is pernicious in its views of slavery. Heck, it begins with slaves working in the cotton fields while Dixie plays and the screen text bemoans the lost world of the Old South. Mammy is The Stereotype of the plantation Mammy who cares more for her white charges than her own family. And there are two classes of white folks in the movie: poor white trash who are no count, and graceful elegant cavaliers and ladies.
    OMG…see how GWTW just sets me off???

  4. I have tried to watch Gone With the Wind a few times and can never get very far. Maybe I should force myself to do so over some upcoming time off, though I fear that will really put a damper on my holiday spirit. Very interesting article!

  5. As I mentioned in a comment to Prof. Parsons’ article, I suggest also looking at Joel Chandler Harris for a very different depiction of the Klan in Southern literature. Harris was one of the most popular authors of the 1880-1910 decades and his Uncle Remus books were read internationally through at least the 1970s. Check out Harris’s 1899 “The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann” which is an attempt at a comic dramatization of Reconstruction as experienced by a small Georgia town, with focus on the titular character (a stereotypical “mammy”). Harris is just as vehement as Lynch/Dixon in his denunciation of Reconstruction policy (rapacious carpetbaggers manipulating naive blacks, etc.) but instead of portraying the Klan as heroic, Harris downplays the Klan as bumbling (though potentially dangerous) low-class buffoons. “Major Perdue” – Harris’s symbol of Southern patrician chivalry – nobly comes to the aid of his former slaves by easily thwarting the Klan’s lynching plot. You can find “Aunt Minervy Ann” on google books: start with chapter 1: “An Evening with the Ku-Klux”

    1. Wow. I knew nothing about this, Dan. Will check it out (far better use of time than GWTW, Todd!) Would you consider writing this material up (or some of your other Florida or Klan material) as an article?

    2. Thanks, Dan! I appreciated your prior comment on Harris a lot and meant to look into that more for this post; but, well, end of semester grading, and I didn’t get to. So I’m really glad you added it here, and at even more length.

      I wrote on Harris, specifically Uncle Remus and Nights with Uncle Remus, as a significant part of a chapter in my first book, and argued there that he was in some key ways more nuanced in his presentations of African American histories and voices than he tends to get credit for these days. So I’m not surprised that he was similarly a bit different in his portrayals of the KKK, but don’t know that book and would love to hear more in a post like Heather mentioned.

      Thanks again,
      Ben

  6. Harris and Dixon had a dust-up in the press. (No surprise there!)
    I am trying to wrap my head around the political project of portraying the Klan as Keystone cops who are just bungling along…and the reality of the Klan, as domestic terrorists.

    1. I might compare those two images, Lynn, to the two white racists at the heart of Charles Chesnutt’s *The Marrow of Tradition* (full disclosure: one of my favorite American novels). Captain McBane is a no-class virulent racist and chain gang supervisor (and son of an overseer) who consistently argues for lynchings, burnings, full-scale violent destruction of the city’s African American community; Major Carteret is a patrician newspaper editor (and son of a plantation owner) who idealizes a paternalistic image of slavery and argues for returning to that kind of relationship between the races. Chesnutt is equally critical of both men for sure (and indeed it is the upper-class Carteret who most directly causes the novel’s fictionalized version of the Wilmington massacre), but at the same time he’s definitely more nuanced in his creation of Carteret and more cartoonish in his portrayal of McBane.

      Ben

  7. Ben: That Chestnutt novel sounds fascinating. I see that’s it’s on line at gutenberg.org. I briefly discuss Harris and “Aunt Minervy Ann” in my editor’s note to “T. Thomas Fortune’s ‘After War Times'” (Alabama 2014). There’s correspondence in Booker T. Washington’s papers where journalist/editor TT. Fortune complains about Harris’s distortations in “Aunt Minervy Ann.” Fortune is spurred to correct the record by writing his memoir of growing up black in the Deep South during Reconstruction. How do you reconcile these competing Southern narratives about the Klan where both Dixon and Harris acknowledge its existance and violence, but one romanticizes the Klan while the other downplays and dismisses it seriousness? I don’t know which portrayal is more insidious.

    Lynn: what was the Harris-Dixon dust-up about?

  8. Excellent piece, and fascinating comments! I think that n-grams have to be used carefully, but I have always been struck by the fact that they usually show public interest in the Klan higher in the progressive era than it had been during the reconstruction era Klan’s actual first existence. These literary representations were powerfull.

    1. Thanks Elaine! This piece was 100% inspired by yours, and the comment thread on it.

      I totally agree about the lit/cultural representations’ effects–certainly the scholarly and historical narratives about Reconstruction created by folks in the Dunning School and popularized in a work like Claude Bowers’ *The Tragic Era* helped spread these images, but to my mind literature and culture have a far broader reach and (in cases like this) more insidious effect. With GWTW, for example, audiences could feel they were just rooting for Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, yet were imbiding these “histories” of Reconstruction and the Klan so fully while doing so.

      Thanks,
      Ben

Leave a Reply