Tuesday, October 8, 2013

History Lesson, Part I: from The Birth of a Nation to a Federal Income Tax

Odd tangents, moments of strange intersections, events seemingly unrelated but with a thread pulling them together: this is the theme of this post (Part I) and two more to follow (Part II and Part III).
D. W. Griffith's landmark film, The Birth of a Nation, premiered nearly one hundred years ago on February 8th, 1915. At the time, it was a huge film, both with regard to the cost to make it and with regard to the money it made in the box office. In fact, it would hold the title of highest grossing motion picture for decades, until eventually supplanted by Gone with the Wind in 1940. Not unsurprisingly, both films dealt with events during or related to the Civil War (before and after), a critical period for the American zeitgeist.

But despite the importance of The Birth of a Nation in the history of filmmaking, despite its success, it is not a very well received film today because of the themes in the story. And that's completely fair, really. The story is chock-full of racism, it idealizes the Ku Klux Klan (which used it as a recruitment film almost immediately after it was released), and the "history" in it is questionable to say the least. Nonetheless, President Woodrow Wilson saw fit to show the film at the White House.

I say "nonetheless" with a heavy dose of sarcasm, for the film's themes were quite consistent with President Wilson's own racist views and fantasies, with the revisionist history of the nation he both accepted and helped to create.

But here's the thing, D. W. Griffith never meant for the film to be so received (it is, of course, his fault that it was, for he made it the way he made it). The central theme of the movie was supposed to be about how there was no actual nation before the Civil War, how a singular nation was forged in blood in that war and in its aftermath. He portrays the assassination of Lincoln as critical in this regard, for Lincoln--in Griffith's view--was a key to the idea of unity because he was sympathetic to the South. His death prolonged the struggle unnecessarily, a struggle that somehow--in Griffith's (and President Wilson's apparently) warped vision--required the Ku Klux Klan to be there to save the day, to bring an end to the violence. Indeed, the film closes with an appeal for peace in the new nation:
Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace...
Though to drive home the racist aspects of the film, the original version also supposedly included a reference to "Lincoln's Solution," the deportation of all blacks back to Africa.

The significance of the film--apart from filmmaking issues--is its role that I noted above: as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan, or more specifically, for a new kind of organization that would take over where the original Ku Klux Klan left off. The Klan, as it initially existed, was a creature of the post-War South, where its terroristic kinds of activities could be undertaken more easily and when the South had a large population of disgruntled Confederate veterans as a source to fill the ranks of the Klan.

But by the later 1870's, there was nothing left of the Klan. And really, the early Klan did more to advance civil rights issues than any other group, insofar as is its heinous activities were used as evidence for why the government--federal, state, and local--needed to involve itself in civil rights causes across the board.

Still, the racial animosity at the core of the Klan--and all that accompanied it--continued to exist in the United States, not only in the South but in the North as well. The rebirth of the Klan in 1915 depended on this animosity, capitalized on it, but via a less militant and more fraternal structure. The white robes of the Klan, it's Kleagles, Grand Dragons, and secret handshakes were created to this very end: to make it a sort of social fraternity not unlike the Free Masons, the Elks Club, or the Shriners. And these ideas were drawn directly from Griffith's film.

As such, the new Klan infiltrated life in many small towns and even larger cities. The various chapters joined the Prohibition Movement and became a significant base of support for many politicians. In the Twenties, Klansmen successfully ran for seats on city councils, in state legislatures, and--in the case of Indiana--even the office of governor.

As the visibility of the once-Invisible Empire increased, so to did the opposition to its existence. The "good works" of various chapters (which included public works projects and improvements to education) ceased to be sufficient cover for an organization anchored in a philosophy of hate. At the 1924 Democratic National Convention--often referred to as the "Klanbake--the Ku Klux Klan was front and center, as its members worked to get William Gibbs McAdoo the Presidential nomination (McAdoo was not, himself, a Klansman but willingly accepted and cultivated the Klan's support). Northern groups of Democrats tried to disengage the Klan at every turn, but essentially succeeded only in infuriating most of the Southern delegates.

There was even an attempt to add a specific condemnation of the Klan to the Party's platform for the upcoming elections, led by several Southern delegates actively opposed to the Klan, including one of the Senators from Alabama, Oscar Wilder Underwood. This measure failed and led to a huge rally near the actual convention attended by thousands of Klansmen who celebrated by burning crosses and effigies of political opponents. McAdoo continued to lead ballot after ballot, but could not gain a majority.

In the end however, after a record-setting 103 ballots, the delegates finally chose John Davis as their candidate, a compromise between McAdoo and Al Smith, the current Governor of New York, McAdoo's most persistent challenger, and outspoken critic of both the Klan and prohibition.

Despite this apparent victory for the anti-Klan forces within the Democratic Party, the shenanigans of the Convention virtually guaranteed a loss in the General Election. Coolidge defeated Davis with absolute ease, garnering 54% of the vote to Davis' 29%. The Republicans also increased their margins of control in both the House and the Senate. The Democrats looked foolish because of their follies with the Klan and the nation let them hear it in no uncertain terms.

This was very much the beginning of the end for the 2.0 version of the Klan, as well. The public displays of racism at the 1924 Convention were followed by a number of other events detrimental to the Klan's image and within a few years, it's membership had dwindled to almost nothing, apart from in some specific areas of the South, were it would hold on--in minimal form--for several decades until awakened once more by the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties.

Within the context of Griffith's epic, the Klan was exactly not what it was portrayed to be: it was always divisive, rarely helpful, and certainly a cause of violence not a cure for it. True enough, this was not the Klan of the actual story, it was the new version. But it was based on that story, that fabricated history of the original Griffith put on film. Griffith unwittingly provided a mythos for a hate group whose existence would span decades, who would damage the credibility of the Democratic Party and of the new nation, itself, the nation whose existence Griffith's film was intended to celebrate.

It took strong men (and women) with strong character to stand up to the Klan in both private and public. Many who did so suffered, some quite literally and others politically/professionally. One of these latter sorts was Senator Oscar Wilder Underwood, mentioned above. After leading the charge against the Klan, his political career in Alabama faltered; he did not seek reelection in 1926 because it was almost a foregone conclusion he would lose due to his anti-Klan stance. His seat was taken by future Supreme Court Justice (and then a member of the Klan) Hugo Black. But there is more to say about Underwood, about his role in other significant events, prior to the 1924 Democratic Convention. We'll take that up in Part II...

Cheers, all.

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