Untold History of the United States, Volume 1
1 Writing History with Lightning
The Birth of a Nation
It was 1915, and chairs lined the long Central Hall on the second floor of the White House. The drapes were drawn, the gaslights turned down. A film projector clicked and whirred, its beam of light focused on the far wall like the great eye of a cyclops.
President Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president of the United States, and his cabinet members and their families had gathered together to watch the first movie ever shown in the White House. The movie was called The Birth of a Nation. It was directed by D. W. Griffith.
The three-hour-long movie was a black-and-white silent film; it had no spoken dialogue. Actors used gestures and pantomime to convey what they wanted to say. During key moments, title cards summarized the action. In short, The Birth of a Nation was a story told without words.
Woodrow Wilson and the rest of the moviegoers that night didn’t
need words. They knew the setting, the characters, and the plot. They knew the good guys—and the villains. The movie was based on a popular book called The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, a novel written by a Southern white Baptist minister named Thomas Dixon Jr.
Using the worst racial stereotypes, Dixon tells a story that encompasses the antebellum South, the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The heroic Klansmen gallop in to rescue helpless white Southern women from the clutches of lustful black men.
Dixon claimed that his novel was the “true story of the Ku Klux Klan conspiracy that overturned the Reconstruction government.” But it was the exact opposite of the truth, and the president of the United States was screening it in the nation’s capital.
Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.
The Facts of Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan
The actual record of Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan reveals a different story: The Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee in 1866, one year after the Civil War ended. Soon Klan groups spread across the South. Its members committed themselves to the use of physical
violence in order to maintain white supremacy and violate the civil rights of others.
The Klan attacked—and killed—black Americans who dared to speak out and who exercised their right to earn a living, buy land, attend school, worship as they pleased, and vote (a right granted to black men nationwide in 1870 by the Fifteenth Amendment). They attacked and killed white Americans who supported the rights of black Americans and who didn’t vote the way the Klan wanted.
The Klan’s first wave of violence swept over the South from 1866 through 1871. That year, the federal government sent troops to arrest Klansmen and restore peace. For eight months, a joint committee of US senators and representatives investigated. They gathered testimonies, held trials, and handed down sentences.
Two members of the Ku Klux Klan in their disguises.
But it was too little too late. Most of the arrested Klansmen paid small fines and received minimal sentences. Many received suspended sentences and a warning. Often charges were simply dropped. Some Klansmen went into hiding or fled to avoid punishment. Many were pardoned.
By 1872, the federal government succeeded in breaking up the Klan, but it couldn’t dissolve white supremacists’ commitment to control elections and the lives of African Americans. That commitment
led to the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s in reaction to foreign immigration, and again in 1960 as a reaction to the civil rights movement.
Dixon’s novel and D. W. Griffith’s movie adaptation of it ignored the brutal realities of the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, the Klansmen were portrayed as noble white-robed knights who reluctantly took the law into their own hands in order to rescue white Southerners, especially “helpless” white women, from racial violence and what whites termed “Negro rule.”
This view of history is false. Southern white women were not helpless. They showed physical and emotional strength as they worked and managed businesses and farms while their husbands, fathers, and sons fought in the war.
“Negro rule,” or the notion that the newly freed and enfranchised black Americans would dominate and rule over white Americans, was true only in the wild imaginations of fearful whites—and perhaps in the wistful imaginations of black Americans who yearned to more fundamentally upset American racial hierarchy.
The Birth of a Nation premiered in Los Angeles and opened to a packed house at New York’s Liberty Theater on March 3, 1915. Soon the popular film opened in theaters across the country. African Americans who attended the movie deplored the ugly portrayal of the freed people—those who could have very well been their parents or grandparents—as lawless, ignorant, amoral, lecherous, and violent characters.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested the movie vociferously. It cataloged the film’s numerous falsehoods and attempted to educate the public about the dire circumstance blacks faced in the post–Civil War South.
Despite the protests and educational campaigns—and despite the blatant disregard for the historical record—the film became a phenomenal box-office hit.
In 1915, the film inspired a group of white Southern men to climb to the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia and burn a cross. With this cross
burning, the Ku Klux Klan, disbanded since 1872, rose again. The Klan used the movie to launch a recruiting campaign. Soon the group spread throughout the United States, and membership exploded to more than five million.
The second wave of Klansmen renewed the fight to maintain white supremacy throughout the United States. They portrayed themselves as a pro-Christian, pro-American brotherhood. They added Catholics, Jews, immigrants, liberals, welfare recipients, and labor unions to their list of hated targets.
That same year, 1915, fifty-six blacks and thirteen whites were lynched. Five were women.
The Embellished History
Woodrow Wilson sat in the darkened Central Hall, watching the closing scenes of The Birth of a Nation. In these scenes, Ku Klux Klan members ride in on their horses to rescue a poor white family from corrupt federal soldiers. The Klansmen take guns away from the freedmen and intimidate black voters at the polls. In this way, the Klansmen believe they have restored peace to South Carolina. The movie’s final title card appears: Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever.
After the final credits, the film projector whirred and clicked to the end of the reel. Someone must have asked the president what he thought about the movie, because an enthusiastic Wilson reportedly said, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Except it wasn’t.
It was all so terribly untrue.
How did such a movie, one filled with so much misinformation disguised as fact, make its way to the White House? And, perhaps more disturbing, why did the president of the United States, a man with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University who went on to become president of Princeton University, accept the film’s version of history so easily?
President Wilson screened The Birth of a Nation as a personal favor to his close friend Thomas Dixon Jr. The president was also a historian who wrote many works, including the five-volume A History of the American People, published in 1902, and The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People, published in 1913. This latter work, The New Freedom, served as a cornerstone to his presidential campaign.
There is little doubt that the story told in The Birth of a Nation appealed to Woodrow Wilson, given his strong Southern heritage. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856 and was raised in Georgia and South Carolina. He was old enough to appreciate the horrors of a war that left at least 750,000 soldiers dead on both sides and one million wounded.
Like his Southern forebears, Wilson grew up to regret the war’s outcome and the radical changes it brought—namely, the freedmen’s right to vote and receive equal protections under the law.
During his presidential campaign, Wilson pledged to support justice for black Americans. “Should I become President of the United States they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interests of their race.”
To many African Americans, Wilson betrayed that promise after his inauguration when, in line with Jim Crow laws that had separated blacks from whites since 1876, he too encouraged the separation of races. Although federal agencies were not segregated and black and white employees had worked side by side in the same offices for more than fifty years, Wilson permitted the offices of the Postmaster General, the Treasury, and the US Navy to separate black workers from white workers. The cafeterias and restrooms were segregated too. All federal job applicants had to submit photographs so that it would be easier to tell each applicant’s race.
Angry at the obvious discrimination, African-American leaders pressed Wilson to end discrimination based on a person’s color. Wilson responded,
“It is as far as possible from being a movement against the negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest. [S]egregation is not humiliating but a benefit, and ought to be regarded so by you gentlemen.”
Both the novel The Clansman and the movie The Birth of a Nation distorted the history of race relations and reshaped it into a story that many people, including Wilson, believed. Ultimately, Wilson’s belief in white supremacy may have influenced his domestic policies.
Wilson, his supporters, and many other white Americans believed The Birth of a Nation because it felt true to them. History is storytelling. Usually, it’s the winners who get to write it. In this case, even though the South lost the Civil War, Southerners had a big say in the history that was taught in the United States over the past 150 years. And that history has so often served to empower whites and disenfranchise black Americans.