In 1915, the film Birth of Nation wowed audiences with its groundbreaking cinematic techniques. Critics today regard the movie as the first blockbuster, and even President Woodrow Wilson hosted a screening at the White House. The film’s three-hour run time depicts a fantasy version of the Civil War and Reconstruction that persists in the imaginations of many white people to this day.
The tale casts southern whites as the true victims of the war, and the decades that followed were chaotic due to northern aggression. The first mention of the Civil War in Birth of a Nation comes from President Abraham Lincoln as he calls for troops to attack the south. The Confederate attack of Fort Sumter, which was the first act of violence in the conflict and the impetus for Lincoln’s actions, is omitted. After the war, black men overtook the government and violated white southern women on a mass scale. The US government’s project of “Reconstruction,” the social reforms to promote reconciliation between north and south, had failed. Fortunately, a militia of white Christian men rose up to successfully restore order: The Ku Klux Klan.
The film is based on a novel and stage play called The Clansman by North Carolinian Rev. Thomas Dixon. He was one of many white Christians who supported the Ku Klux Klan in its original incarnation immediately after the Civil War. In fact, his work is often credited for inspiring the resurgence of the KKK in the early 1990s. It was during this time period that the Klan adopted the cross as its symbol.
Although many Americans today are repulsed by white actors in blackface and white hoods, the narrative of Birth of a Nation prevails in some circles. Art can shape people’s perception of history, and white supremacists saw the movie as justification for their views. Woodrow Wilson, who re-instituted racial segregation in government, is even quoted in the movie. Supposedly, director D. W. Griffith was appalled that his work was perceived as racist. That’s difficult to believe considering the film’s content, but Griffith was so dismayed that he later made another movie decrying prejudice. In that regard, Birth of a Nation offers a case study in how white people can unintentionally perpetuate racism.
The time after the Civil War was indeed chaotic. White supremacists drew upon the symbolism of the Confederacy to inflict terror on African Americans and anyone else who opposed them. Many of the Confederate statues people are arguing over now were erected shortly after Birth of a Nation premiered. Jim Crow laws, which codified segregation, also proliferated during this time. The film’s romanticized version of the Confederacy continues to justify white supremacy to this day, but it presents a distorted view of history. I”ll talk more about Reconstruction in future entries.
Speaking of which, I have some clarifications to make about my previous pieces on the Confederacy. My first grade teacher, who participates in Civil War cosplay, brought a few facts to my attention worth addressing:
First, I failed to make an important distinction in my previous article about the Confederate flag: The flag we associate with the CSA today was not the actual flag of the CSA. The “stars and bars” was flown in battle along with other various designs, and it remains the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy. The design of the flag is less important than what it stands for, but it’s worth mentioning another case of historical revisionism.
Secondly, black men did indeed fight on the Confederate side of the Civil War. In my first posts, I discussed the disconnect between Confederate soldiers’ personal motivations and the objectives of the CSA government. For free blacks, money was a major motivating factor since economic opportunities were hard to come by. Enslaved blacks didn’t have a choice. Those black soldiers were still fighting to defend slavery, but again, they had little say in the matter. I was, however, surprised to recently learn that there are African American members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or SCV, today who participates in Civil War reenactments.
Finally, it should be noted that slavery persisted in the north during and after the war. Nonetheless, CSA leaders saw Lincoln as a threat to slavery, which sparked the secession. Lincoln’s views on the issue evolved slowly over time, which will be the topic of my next post.