Civil War Myths: “The Noble Racist”

Years ago, I actually tried reading Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. I had just answered a Quora question about the formation of the first KKK, and in the process I was powerfully reminded of the way a lot of American media has downplayed the Klan’s genocidal tendencies, painting them as anything ranging from noble knights to outright defenders of white people’s civil rights.

The latter is how The Clansman, which Birth of a Nation is based on, tells it. Dixon, by the way, sounds like a real nice guy. Just look at the lovely little foreword he included in his novel (strong warning for APPALLINGLY overt racist language):

I think Thomas Dixon and I might have different definitions of “essential historical fact”, because the only fact Dixon actually gets correct is that there was, in fact, a Civil War between the years of 1861 and 1865. Beyond that? Utter, utter rubbish. The KKK are the heroes of the novel, saving poor oppressed white women from being attacked by evil Black people. To phrase it kindly, Dixon’s novel is the most revoltingly racist trash I have ever set my eyes upon.

Many other scholars have unpacked this book and its impact, but in this time of turmoil, during this great reckoning we are having with all the nastiness we tried burying and ignoring for so long, I’d like to give it a go. There’s so much anti-Blackness embedded into our popular culture, and I want to do my best to help remove it.

Also, this guy is… irresistibly awful. He’s a terrible person and a terrible writer, and I take glaringly volcanic savage pleasure in ripping him apart.

This sort of maudlin romantic portrayal of brave young boys in grey was the soap opera du jour of most of the 20th century. Dixon pulled out every hackneyed trope about knightly Southern men in order to convince his readership that the Confederacy and the KKK were packed with valiant soldiers who just wanted to charge at cannons and defend ladies from Yankee advances.

What’s interesting is that, unlike many modern “Heritage, not Hate!” adherents, Dixon does not hesitate to directly connect the Confederacy and the KKK. Where the Confederacy prematurely failed, or so he says, the KKK picked up the reins. He’s pretty explicit about showing racial equality as a problem and the KKK as its stringest solution:

The first speaker, who is supposed to be the villainous Secretary of State William Seward but sounds more like an anthropomorphic dictionary vomiting on itself, correctly points out that the Confederacy is treasonous and violent by nature.

The President, who speaks like a fifty-year-old woman named Birdie Lee who re-enacts Confederate death scenes on weekends, claims that “radicalism” (aka racial equality and punishment for Confederate ex-soldiers) will anger a lot of white Southerners and therefore must be avoided regardless of the cost to Black people. Dixon, of course, wholeheartedly agrees with his fantasy Abraham Lincoln, depicting a South made dystopian by equality.

The Ku Klux Klan, with its singleminded goal of terrorising Black lives, comes to the “rescue” (again, warning for STRONG racist language):

I actually gagged the first time I read this passage, because what Dixon paints as heroic was a cruel, genocidal reality for many. America is peppered with current and former all-white counties, as well as numerous “sundown towns”: places where non-white people are driven out at night under threat of death. One of the most infamous examples is Forsyth County, Georgia, which expelled every one of its Black inhabitants in 1912 – just 7 years after Dixon published his book. The catalyst was when young Black men were falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white girl. One was lynched, the other two teenagers were hanged after an unfair trial, and a blindly angry white mob, spurred by visions of Dixon’s false Southern hell, chased every Black person from the area at gunpoint. Forsyth County stayed all white until the 1990s, with multiple lynchings occurring in the area. This is the so-called utopia Dixon called on the KKK to create. This land of brutality and murder, ruled by racial hierarchy, is what Dixon believed the South should become.

As Forsyth showed, so many white people agreed with him. The Clansman was wildly popular at the turn of the 20th century. Popular enough to be made into a smash-hit Hollywood blockbuster: Birth of a Nation, which received the glowing commendation of then-President Woodrow Wilson, who apparently described it as “writing history with lightning” (it cannot conclusively be proven, but Wilson has a long and illustrious record of being America’s racist grandpa, so I believe it). Birth of a Nation and the literary toilet paper upon which it was based succeeded so well in romanticising those institutions that one Georgian, an odious troll named William Simmons, was moved enough to restart the KKK’s bloody reign of terror in 1915.

In 2021, Birth of a Nation may not be widely watched or respected anymore, but Gone With the Wind – which treats the Confederacy and the KKK in the same manner as the former movie – is still beloved across the nation. True, the Ku Klux Klan is much smaller than it was a hundred years ago. But the fact that it still exists, with thousands of members enrolled, shows that the battle against Dixon and his slavering Lost Cause fanaticism is far from over.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.