"It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
Woodrow Wilson (maybe)
Others far more educated and qualified on this subject than I have already discussed the significance of the 100th Anniversary of The Birth of Nation, but I feel that I must also put in my two cents worth. Let me begin by giving a brief disclaimer. I am no expert on film history or cultural history. For the former, I defer to my college roommate (who needs to start a blog!) and for the latter I defer to my esteemed colleague and friend AJP and his co-author Dr. T. (Though soon it will be Dr. AJP.) I am just a guy who watches movies sometimes. I watch for entertainment only and to be frank, I'm not good at picking up hidden symbolism and finding deeper meanings. I hate modern movies and will typically only watch them if there is a redheaded actresses in it. I prefer older films from Hollywood's Golden Era, but not quite as far back as Birth of a Nation (hereafter called BON). My deepest, most guarded secret actually involves a movie. I cry whenever I watch Love Story. Now onward to the subject of today's post!
I have seen BON twice. Once I watched it when I was in college because it had come up in a class and so the next time I was home I picked it up at Blockbuster and settled in for a fun filled three hours! I thought it was terrible. Not because of the blatant racism or anything like that. I just don't care much for silent films. I have seen it one more time as I decided to work it into my 1302 course. (I don't show the entire film as that wouldn't be a good use of time in a survey course. Instead, I show a clip that has the most racist scenes from the movie in it instead.) My students find it so beyond the pale that it is almost laughable. It generates some good discussion too. Normally I shy away from imposing modern values on people from different time periods. I don't call people in the 19th Century racist, generally, because all of white America was racist by our standards. Abraham Lincoln, for example, is racist by our standards. People today often say "Well if I were alive back then I would have....." The answer to that is no, you probably wouldn't have fought the system and you'll never know because you weren't alive back then. With BON, there is no way to describe it but blatant anti-black propaganda. Period. End of story. Pass the popcorn.
Here we come to save the day!
I am not going to belabor this article with describing the movie and its plot in detail. If you want to suffer through it, you can see the whole thing in HD on You Tube here. For those who have not seen it, I can promise you three hours of nonstop moments in which you will be thinking OMG followed by WTF! One thing I will say though is that in the final scene where the Klan rides in to save the day, I am reminded of other movies about another group of people who the United States did not treat too kindly.....the Native Americans. We've all seen the old westerns from the 40s and 50s. In many of them, the besieged settlers, with wagons circled, desperately fight back against savage hordes. Right when things look the worst, the US Cavalry rides in to save them. In BON, the blacks play the Indians. The whites are the settlers. The Klan plays the cavalry. Really, what were the westerns other than a remake of BON?
One thing that BON also gave "birth" to was the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Time, space, and energy prevent me from delving as much in the history of the Kluxers as may be necessary for this post. There have really been the separate Klans in US History, each with different motives. The first (the one portrayed in this movie) is the Reconstruction Klan. Their goal was to prevent freed slaves from exercising any rights of citizenship and to battle against the Reconstruction government. They actually did not wear white robes and hoods as depicted in the movie. That is a Hollywood thing. They actually looked more like the pictures below. Also, I must point out that Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest DID NOT found the Klan! It was formed by a group of men in Pulaski, TN. Though he was involved and was sympathetic to them, he had nothing to do with starting them. That all comes from the Forrest Gump movie. Academic historians who should know better even talk about him starting the Klan which they never did prior to FG. The original Klan dwindled away after Reconstruction because the Compromise of 1877 gave them everything they wanted. There was no need for them to operate in secret as they could go about an openly oppress black people after that!
Boys under the hoods.
BON led to a renewed interest in the Klan and it was "re-founded" shortly thereafter. This Klan was different than the first. Rather than simply hate on black people, those who joined this Second Klan were more interested in oppressing new groups of people. In reaction to the massive influx of immigrants who arrived between 1865 and 1915 (some 25 million), they decided that anyone who was not "Murican" enough was the enemy. Eastern Europeans, immigrants in general, Jews, Catholics, Communists, and blacks were all on their shit list. By adding to their "hate list", they were able to attract more members. This Klan moved out of the South (which did not have lots of immigrants) and is typically associated with the Midwest. States like Indiana and Ohio became bastions of Klanliness. Even New Jersey elected a pro-Klan governor. I say this simply so people will stop associating all racism with the South. Slavery may have been a Southern problem, but racism is an American problem. For many white Americans, worried about the immigrants changing the makeup of our society, the Klan posed the answer to the problem. The heroic depiction of them, sweeping in to save the day, led many to pay their dues and sign up. And for every organization like this, for every member you also had numerous other sympathizers. I'll be frank. The Klan was using violence to achieve a political goal (restricting the rights of immigrants and foreigners). Last time I checked, violence to achieve a political objective is terrorism.
"May I call on you after the cross burning?"
I don't know if it had anything to do with the movie or not, but in Waco, Texas in 1916, a white mob committed an almost unspeakable act of depravity on a black man named Jesse Washington. He was a seventeen year old black youth who was convicted (after four minutes of deliberation) of murdering a white woman who was an English immigrant. After the death sentenced was read, the crowd seized him and dragged him away. Jesse was beaten and tortured, half strangled, had his fingers, toes, and genitals cut off, and only then was he burned to death while a cheering crowd looked on. They even posed for pictures afterwards which you can see below. Lynching was illegal in Texas, but the Sheriff was present for it and, of course, took no action. I do find it interesting that this happened so close in history to the opening of BON. Note in the pictures below that no one is covering their faces as they did not see the need. They were proud of what they were doing.
This is NOT the state I took an oath to protect. Oh wait, it is.
Are there lessons to be learned from BON? Sure there are. Dear Readers, I am a working class kid who grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. My generation in the South, those of us born in the 70s, are really the first to grow up in an integrated society. I attended Robert E. Lee Elementary which, at the time I was there, was mostly made up of black and Vietnamese students. I was one of two white children in the fifth grade. I grew up never really seeing a difference between me and the various students of color that I went to school with. They accepted me and I accepted them. We had two Jehovah's Witnesses in my class. One of them, Shadrich, was my best friend. They did not stand up at the beginning of the day when the school played the National Anthem and we said the pledge (no prayer or moment of silence back then). And guess what? We didn't care! Shadrich and Rachel were our friends. We didn't give two shits about what they believed. We accepted them and they us. Children have to be taught to hate. Adults pass on their prejudices to children and the only way we can break this cycle is to not pass that on to our kids. If you want to hate on minorities, women, gays, Jews, or Catholics, that is your business. Granted, you are an asshole, but that is your business. But for the love of God, don't pass your bigotry on to your children if you have any (and I kind of hope you don't).
Ah yes, "negroes", Jews, and Catholics were all closet Commies according to the Klan.
As a firefighter and then as a police officer I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and my fellow citizens. I worked with firefighters and police officers of all religious faiths, skin colors, and sexual orientations. They were all family, regardless of our differences. I served all people in my area regardless of who they worshiped, where they lived, what color they were, or what language they spoke. Does that make me some kind of Eracist? Probably not. But in all seriousness, we need to realize as a society that it is okay for people to be different. The same Bible that people use to condemn gay people and deny them basic humanity also mentions how to sell your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), not charging interest on loans (Exodus 22:25), and which animals we can and cannot eat (Leviticus 11). For those of you who say "but that's the Old Testament!" So too are the verses in Exodus and Leviticus used to condemn gay people. If the New Testament replaced the Old Testament, then I guess we don't have to follow the Ten Commandments? Remember, the Klan of the 1920s which arose as a result of BON billed itself as a patriotic and Christian organization. They terrible acts they did were done in the name of their God and their Country.
This is not really my idea of what Murica is all about!
For those of you who are Christian, I implore you to remember the words of Jesus as he spoke of not ignoring the plank in your own eye to discuss the speck in your brother's eye. When asked what the greatest commandments were, he did not say it was to discriminate against minorities or to deny gay people the right to marry. Nope. He said the two greatest commandments were to love your God and to love your neighbor. That's it. If we could all do that, then perhaps we could put this terrible legacy left us by BON to rest. I want to live in an America that follows this law given to Moses: "You must not oppress a foreign resident; you yourselves know how it feels to be a foreigner as you were foreigners in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) That is the Murica I want to live in. I love this country, despite its faults. But many claim that talking about our past misconducts (be it slavery or the genocide of the Native Americans) is unpatriotic. No it isn't. It is part of our history. If anything, our history has shown that though we do have our faults we will (eventually) try to rectify them. This is not, thankfully, the same country that is was when BON debuted. We can all thank whoever we worship for that. Is out country perfect? Not by a long shot. But I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather live. (Other than my ancestral home of Ireland, of course, but that goes without saying.)
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who begs all of you to accept your neighbors for who they are. Remember, Thomas Jefferson said "It bothers me not if my neighbor worships one god or twenty. It neither breaks my arm nor picks my pocket." I think we can include our neighbor's color or sexual preference in that too. Though the Klan of today is nowhere near as dangerous as they were back then (fights on Geraldo and Jerry Springer aside), their ideas still are. Just yesterday, I heard the following gem from a college faculty member who, not knowing my faith, said "I don't have a problem with Catholics, but....." and proceeded to say why they had a problem with Catholics. I nearly went all Jesus driving the money lenders out of the temple on them, but instead I just walked away. That is no small miracle given my Irish temper.
P.S.: I'm sure this post will not sit well with some who will want to email me or leave comments calling me a communist, anti-Christian, etc, etc, etc. I am neither. Though I do lean a little left of center, I am, in fact, Catholic, and though I do think that history is the story of class conflict as did Karl Marx, I am not a fan of communism. It didn't work out that well for the Soviets, did it?