MOVIES: The Birth Of A Nation

Nowadays it’s called a racist movie, but is it?
It describes the reasons why the KKK originally was created in the south to defend men,women and children from Carpetbaggers and obnoxious freed blacks and post war profiteers.
Calling all hobby and real historians! What are the real origins? Is the movie truthful Or biased?
Discussion please.

Sometime in the mid 70s, the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans underwent a renovation. The great theatre organ from the 20’s was refurbished. Theatre organs had all the “bells and whistles” (i.e. sound effects) to play for a silent movie.

I actually saw “Birth of a Nation” as it was intended to be seen since they used the original “sound track”. The organ rose from the orchestra pit and away we went - sound effects and all.

I have double degrees in anthropology and history. The movie is a reflection of the culture at that time. What we would see as stereotypes today needs to be viewed through the lens of history at that time. This movie was made for veterans of the War of Northern Agression (:smiley: don’t jump down my throat, please. I’m using terminology of the period).

This movie would be racist to us but to them it represented the attitudes and culture of the time. I don’t think we should hold them to the standards of our time. I was a student of Joseph Logsdon at the University of New Orleans so I am more than familiar with judging our ancestors using our feelings/views today.

Anthropologists view a culture within the framework of that culture. I got a tersely worded review of a paper I wrote in grad school (I took Dr. Cooper’s “Antebellum South” course as an elective ). Dr. Cooper said that " I used my anthropology with a vengance" - high praise indeed.

“Birth of a Nation” is the functional equivalent of all those post WWII movies that I grew up with. “Japs?” “Nips?” “Krauts?” You know what I am talking about…

I’d have to disagree: given that this was 50 years after the end of the Civil war, enough time had passed to look at those events with some clarity.

“Birth of a Nation” did not. Rather, it served as justification for the ongoing oppression of blacks and a glorification of the men who lynched them.

I’m not a big Roger Ebert fan in general, but I think his remarks on this film are spot on:
“The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s 'Triumph of the Will”, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."

No the movie was not based in truth. It was propaganda that idealized and romanticized a group of domestic terrorists. It depicted black people as ignorant savages during Reconstruction when in reality the Southerners were angry that any black person had been elected to public office instead of staying under their heels after the war.

The movie was used as a recruiting tool for the real Klan who were also extremely anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti anyone who was not viewed as “white” (which did not include the Irish or Italians) and Protestant. It gained more popularity after the President himself screened it in the White House and commented favorably upon it’s disgusting content.

If you would like to see a movie based on the reality in that time period (of the movie not reconstruction), check out Rosewood. It uses one small community as an example, but there were many other documented cases that were similar. For example, the total destruction of Greenwood, Oklahoma (near Tulsa) that was known as the Black Wall Street for its prosperous middle class black community. There was envy and anger over blacks doing well and being educated, so the entire town was destroyed with people burned alive in their homes over one false accusation against a black man in Tulsa.,_Tulsa,_Oklahoma

The movie Rosewood shows the rampant false accusations that justified the killing of blacks by mobs with the thinnest excuses or no excuse at all. You should have seen the historical special on the history of the KKK that was just on cable last week to get some perspective on their real origins and actions.

The old song, “Strange Fruit” is about the dead black men hanging from trees across the country in the early 20th century… Lynchings were seen as family “entertainment” for whites during the early 20th century with picture postcards for sale showing smiling crowds, including women and children posed in front of the dead (and frequently mutilated) black men, women and children hanging from trees. I don’t understand how anyone could justify killing entire families even if one person had actually committed a crime.

I find Birth of a Nation a disgusting, immoral whitewashing of the truth by a filmmaker who found a way to add glamour and a veneer of legitimacy to pure evil. I believe this movie made the filmmaker morally responsible for violence done by the people who he helped the Klan to woo. I had to watch it as part of my undergraduate studies and it made me ill. Just thinking about it now has made my stomach ache because as a person of color and a Catholic, the Klan is never just an abstract philisophical topic. They continued to kill members of the Body of Christ right into the late 20th century while asserting that they were protecting the Christian way of life (for whites only) and while desecrating the symbol of the cross by burning it at their evil rallies and on people’s lawns as a way to instill fear.

I think my late father mentioned DW.Griffith,the director,
based his film on the book Lepard Spots,by Thomas Dixon.
Some time back in the 1980s or early 90s there was a tv movie about Madge Oberholzer and a man named Stephens, who kidnapped her and raped her back in the 1920s in Indiana.He was head of the clan in Indiana.i had never heard of the case until it was on tv.back then they also did the story of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan,and also about forced sterlization of people who were supposed to be morally or genetically low,this took place in either South or North Carlonia in the 1900s.Now all we get is garbage tv like Big Brother.

The KKK weren’t no noble knights running to anybody’s rescue.
It was horrible to be ablack in the south in those days.They had signs telling blacks don’t let the sun set on you in Garland County or whatever county you lived in.My dad remembered seeing such signs when he lived in Hot Springs back in the 1920s and 30s.One time he said they saw a crowd gathered around a dead black hanging from a pole.Grandpa was told supposedly the black man had raped a white woman or girl.grandpa got the family away as quick as he could from there.
As Catholics, i don’t recall daddy saying the Klan bothering the local Catholics.There were two churches in town, and many of the students at St.John where he went to school were wealthy protestant kids.
Everything you say about the film is true jc-servant.

Thank you so much for your responses. I always believed as well that the real history was a lot more gruesome than portrayed in the film.
I have never lived in the South, so i have no first or second hand knowledge. Please keep the stories coming. It is highly enlightening.

Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” brought many whites into the fight for civil rights.

*Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.*

It made me cry the first few times I listened to it.

I find it very difficult to pray for the KKK. Somehow it’s easier to pray for the Muslim terrorists. Perhaps it’s because the KKK members I’m familiar with are so contented with themselves…


Ahhh, Lady Day: one of the greats.

Here’s a link to her singing ‘Strange Fruit’ on Youtube:

Worth remembering that she was a Jazz/Blues singer, which many people beleived was ‘the devils music’ until Rock was invented. But this song performed the painful but needed task of making the nation look at itself a little more honestly, and great good came of it. It didn’t just change minds, it changed hearts.

Also worth remembering that after Blacks, the Klan hated Jews and Catholics most.

What a heartbreaking song! i watched the youtube video and listened. It is incredible.
Thanks for posting.

It’s by Lewis Allan (whose real name was Abel Meeropol) who was a Jewish writer - incidentally and interestingly enough he adopted the kids of the Rosenbergs after they were executed.

Billie Holiday’s performance of this must have been jaw-dropping in an era when at best black performers might obliquely touch on the subjects of racism in the deep South and America as a whole.

The KKK are not defensible as ‘defenders’ of anything, any more than say the Orange Order in my home country could be countenanced as ‘defenders’ of the Protestant faith. Both were more about uphodling an exsisting social order which benefit a certain section of the community,. inevitably time, momentum of external events and sheer frustration and unwillingness to be vicitimised by those they controlled (or thought they did…) led to the downfall of both institutions power.

I don’t normally like to use Wikipedia. I located another source for those interested in reading up on this. WARNING, the link is long but I think worth a read.

The Tulsa Race Riots.

Woodrow Wilson, born and raised in the South (he was first a professor, then college president at Princeton NJ, so we dont think of him as a Southerner, though he was) was rreared in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow minded mindset of his homeland, and it tainted his historical outlook–his history of the United States was used as a “source” for the author of The Clansmen which was the primary source for Birth of a Nation

So we have a rabidly pro-segregationist southerner ending up as President, giving an accolade (“history writ with fire”) to a movie based on a racist novel in turn based off of a faulty history written by that same President

so where are the real historians among us.
Yes, there was and probably still is racism in the South as well as the rest of the country. But somehow I can also believe that a conquered South suffered a lot of abuse from post war profiteers and even from vengeful freed slaves. I’m almost certain that the whites suffered in the post war years down there as well.
Don’t completely discount that.
I wish there was more info out on that subject.

Part of Birth of a Nation is viewable at the link above - the caption card telling us about soldiers from North and South reuniting to defend their common Aryan birthright makes it’s own point. Sure this was years before a certain Austrian came to power and made the word Aryan one we all know (hilarious to think the real Aryans were not white in any case but that’s a topic for another day) but it was used in a sense conveying racial superiorty then also.

A great deal has been written on the reconstruction era, but it receives little attention in school. I’m often surprised at how few people are aware that the civil war did NOT make black men citizens, or give them the right to vote or own property.

White southerners, even those who fought for evil, didn’t loose either their citezenship or voting rights.

The south didn’t ‘receive much abuse’ from the profiteers. The great crime of the carpet bagger was that he hired freedmen, allowed them to vote, and paid him actual wages.

Likewise, there’s little evidence for ‘vengeful former slaves’, though there were many masacres of ‘uppity’ blacks who actually wished to participate fully in American life.

Did the poor whites suffer? Yes: the socio-economic structure was broken. But instead of blaming the fools who tried to secceed, they blamed the blacks for having caused the war, and competeing for jobs in an economically depressed region.

After the withdrawl of troops in 1877, this prejudice was codified into law until the middle of the next century.

Where are all you Southerners when we need you?
Share the stories of ancestors.
The war between the States as it is called south of the Mason/Dixon line was about States’ rights vs. Federal governmental rights . Abolitionism vs Pro Slavery was only a by product. I am not judging here whether slavery was right or wrong. I’m just tired of historical revisionists placing the focus solely on slavery/abolitionism.
The people secceeding weren’t fools, the believed that States’ rights superceeded Federal rights and that’s why they went to war.
Why do you think there is little evidence of attacks of blacks visited upon whites, because our pc historians don’t look for those events. They want to perpetuate the “POOR OPPRESSED DISENFRANCHISED BLACKS” stereotype even to this day…

Here, I’ll say it. Slavery is wrong. Man is meant to be free and under God’s laws.
But believe you me racism goes both ways! Blacks are guilty of it just as whites. and the more politically correct stuff gets forced down peoples’ throat, the worse it will get.
Political correctness is our worst enemy out there.

Indeed but I think the extract of Birth of a Nation I posted to a link earlier proves it is manifestly an unpleasant and odious movie even when juding by the standards of it’s time when it starts talking about Confederate and Union troops soldiers uniting to protect their aryran birthright. Which in the context of the scene means who dare that boy dream of talking to white women or putting himself on an equality with a white man.

That the south was more complex than it is portrayed is true enough -after all American history would show the northeners had a peculiar kind of racism that was at times more hypocritical than the southerners insomuch as people would argue for abolition but wouldn’t want to shake a black man’s hand or be seen talking to them too much.

But one cannot argue even using the hoary old ‘judge them by the context of their times’ line that Birth of a Nation is not racist. It obviously is and Catholics are meant to judge no race as betteror worse or having special birthrights just by been a member of an ethnic group so the movie in that repsect alone is against Catholic teaching.

One of the better stories I remember about the KKK was then going to beat up a Jewish store owner in a small town and him asking how they were all doing by name as he had sold them all the cloth they used to make their hoods. It’s probably apocryphal but it represent the idiocy of groups like the KKK quite well.

Interesting to note btw that Woodrow Wilson who loved this move was a strong proponent of compulsory sterilisation and has some er, interesting views on race…

I don’t know where you learned your history, but the Civil War was primarily about slavery. The seceding states may have tried to hide behind the veil of “staes rights,” but slavery was at the core. If slavery was not an issue, then why the fight over the Missouri Compromise? The fact of the matter is that there were more free states than slave states, giving free states the majority in the Senate. Also, free states had much larger populations, mostly du to the fact that the north was industrial and the south was agrarian. As a result, the intersts of the free states were more apt to be seen to in both houses in Congress. This was compounded by the fact that the free states had more electoral votes than the south. In fact, In no slave state did Lincoln even appear on the ballot, yet he won an electoral landslide. To get back to may argument, that slavery was at the core, is simple. An industrialized society has little to gain from slaves. It was more economically sound to hire workers and pay them by scrip than to purchase slaves. Slave labor waas only economically advantageous to the agrarian south. So even if slavery was not why the first shots were fired, it remains at the root of the differnces between the north and south.

Even if everything above is true, did the South need a KKK to save it from “obnoxious freed blacks???” Can a statement be more racist. While the origins of the KKK may have been less hateful than what it quickly became, we can’t forget what it quickly became – a homegrown terrorist organization.

I happen to be a bit of a Civil War buff. It’s first priority was to restore “white supremcy.” It used violence to intimidate. So much violence that many who were sympathetic to its goals opposed the KKK, because they felt it was giving the federal government the excuse to extend the “occupation” of federal troops.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first elected clan leader. His goal was clearly to keep blacks in their place.

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