How a Classic Movie Fueled US Racism

A century ago, there was a surge in lynching and other white racist violence against blacks across the American South, combined with a burst in Confederate pride, actions and attitudes fueled by the widely proclaimed movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” as William Loren Katz recalls.

By William Loren Katz

By an odd coincidence the first week of Black History Month this February, Time magazine ran an article on the 100th anniversary of the first public showing of the movie classic The Birth of a Nation. This 22-reel, 3-hour and 10 minute silent film was Hollywood’s first blockbuster, first great historical epic, first full-length film (when most ran for minutes not hours), and first to introduce modern cinematic techniques that still keep audiences enthralled.

Time noted the movie’s problem. From its casting and content to its dramatic conclusion it was unabashedly racist. (Spoiler alert: It ends with its armed KKK heroes riding to save “white civilization” from “black barbarians.”)

A scene from "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's 1915, silent movie classic, depicting the "renegade Negro," Gus, played by white actor Walter Long in blackface, in the hands of the Klan. (Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive.)

A scene from “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s 1915, silent movie classic, depicting the “renegade Negro,” Gus, played by white actor Walter Long in blackface, in the hands of the Klan. (Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive.)

This first major box office hit charged a staggering $2 admission, had a special musical score played by an orchestra of 30 at each showing, and reached 50 million people before sound films appeared in 1927. Its millions in profits built Hollywood and made movies a major U.S. industry. Beyond profits, it aimed to educate the public in the values of white supremacy. Thomas Dixon, author of the book and the movie, stated that his goal “was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every [white] man in the audience into a good Democrat!” [Back then, Democrats in the South represented the interests of white supremacy and segregation, while Republicans were still viewed as the Party of Lincoln.]

In many cities the showing stirred racist violence against African-Americans, and no wonder. White actors put on blackface and played evil African-Americans who were grasping for political power over white people, except when they were intent on raping white women. It projected an air of authenticity by using pictures of Abraham Lincoln and others from the Civil War, and quotes by noted historians such as President Woodrow Wilson.

The Birth of a Nation focused on the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War when formerly enslaved men were allowed to vote and hold office in 11 Southern states. Dixon was a young former Baptist minister in love with gallant Ku Klux Klan stories he heard as a child and decided to write a book, a play, and a movie.

Dixon described Reconstruction as a clash between white good and black evil, when African-American men under the protection of three constitutional amendments and 25,000 federal troops were elected to office in Southern states.

Then his film omits a lot: With white allies, black elected officials helped rewrite the constitutions of Mississippi and South Carolina, elected 22 black congressmen, including two senators from Mississippi, a Supreme Court justice in South Carolina, and a host of state representatives, sheriffs, mayors, and other local officials in 10 states.

This coalition managed to introduce the South’s first public school system, and bring economic, political, and prison reforms to their states, including laws to help the poor of both races and to end racial injustice. Nonetheless, black legislators did not challenge segregation in Southern education, business or personal life.

After about half a dozen years, as the federal government largely sat silent, these governments were overthrown by KKK violence and systematic election fraud. In 1877, the federal government caved in, made a deal with former slaveholders and withdrew all troops. A democratic experiment was overthrown and white supremacy reigned again.

The Birth of a Nation sought to erase any memories of the role of African-Americans and the unity they forged with whites to bring democracy to Southern states. The film’s lesson: Race relations must remain in the hands of those who once owned, “understood,” and controlled black people. And white violence is justified to ensure this noble end.

When the movie was shown at the White House, President Wilson called it “history written in lightning.” When it was shown to members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Edward White proudly confided to author Thomas Dixon, “I rode with the Klan, sir.”

The movie also stirred the first large nationwide NAACP-led protests and boycotts. So many black (and white) people marched on theaters that some mayors ordered the removal of lynching and other scenes, or cancelled showings.

African-American and other historians exposed the movie’s lies, distortions, and omissions. But the most fulsome challenge came in 1935 when W. E. B. Du Bois, the great African-American scholar, wrote Black Reconstruction, a thorough history of that era and a documented refutation of the film’s bigoted premise and distortions.

But old racial lies have a high survival rate. In 1950, I was a senior at Syracuse University taking a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction when I read Du Bois’s book as an assignment and wrote a highly favorable report. My professor returned it to me with one word on top: “Nuts.” One of the final exam questions for the course asked students: “Justify the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.” Thomas Dixon, Woodrow Wilson and Chief Justice White would have done well.

A hundred years after the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, the promise of Reconstruction remains unfulfilled. But this has been a century of antiracist struggle, and it has yielded important results. Sometimes we glimpse these symbolically.

In 1915, President Wilson was screening and praising a film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and was filled with images of grotesque racist stereotypes. In 2015, President Obama invited the black director Ava DuVernay to the White House to screen Selma, a film that shows how African-Americans fought for the right to vote through courageous activism, facing down murderous white violence.

No doubt, voting rights are under attack once again. This time not by robed Klansmen, but by well-dressed, well-educated members of Congress, the Supreme Court, Northern and Southern state legislatures, and their fabulously wealthy backers.

So it’s worth remembering that racism comes in different guises. But it’s unthinkable that a film with the racial politics of Selma could have been shown in the White House 100 years ago. And that progress is something to celebrate.

William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on AfricanAmerican history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history. He wrote this column for the Zinn Education Project,

13 comments for “How a Classic Movie Fueled US Racism

  1. George
    February 21, 2015 at 23:50

    A better analogy would have been with Harry Truman. Had Johnson done to the confederate traitors what Truman had done to the Nazis, the white confederate thugs would not be waving their confederate flags today and there will not be any thugs and low life white trash at the League of South getting ready to celebrate the Lincoln assasination.

  2. Evangelista
    February 17, 2015 at 22:20

    “Republicans were still viewed as the Party of Lincoln”

    Mr. Katz needs to read some of the books he cites apparently from hear-say from listening to and parroting others. Among others, he should read Dixon’ s books.

    Mr. Katz should also read some history of the civil war and so-called Reconstruction.
    Among other historical errors Katz makes is the quote at the top of this post, regarding Republicans being ” still viewed” as connected to Lincoln. Republicans were represented by Grant. Lincoln’s assassination was viewed as an ” intervention by Providence” by Reconstruction ” Radical Republicans” , among the best of whom was Thaddeus Stevens, whose virtue was his honesty in his vicious radicalism.
    Among other things Reconstruction Republican Radicalism led to was the first instance of corruption stealing an election by electoral counting manipulation, in 1876. The second was the Bush Jr. Florida/Supreme Court fiasco.
    The Lincoln policies were reflected in the Johnson policies, who tried to carry them through to heal the nation instead of rip it further in two. Had Lincoln lived he might have pushed a real reconstruction through, but it would have been a fight for him, too.

    As for Birth Of A Nation, it is justly famous and deserves to be honored for being the first historical documentary effort. It was designed to depict history, not to be radicalizing propaganda. It was produced in the context of its times, not the contexts of today. The effects that it had were in context in its time, and were, when it was made, new and before unknown, because no like depiction of history had previously been made or seen. The nearest before was “panorama” , which was paintings of scenes on canvas unrolled, often to narration, sort of like a tepestry on scroll rollers.

    People who are going to blatherr history need to study history, not just their own pet religious beliefs of what history ought have been, if they like it, or was and was wrong, if they want to rail against it. This goes for Bob Parry’s hyperventilations about slavery and historical personages of American history, neither of which he has a balanced perspective in regard to.

    And, for the record, No, I am not a southerner, nor am I a southern apologist.

    • Susan Sunflower
      February 18, 2015 at 23:09

      Articles on the recent release of Center for Equal Justice on 4000 lynching (700 of which were previously not recorded) have left out a great deal — First the reason why the survey starts in 1877 is because that was AFTER large scale congressional hearings into lynchings …“”

      “”Congressional testimony estimated that anywhere from 20,000 to as many as 50,000 people, mostly black, died in violence between 1866 and 1872, he said. As a result of the congressional investigation, federal grand juries issued about 3,000 indictments in connection with the killings. Hundreds of defendants pleaded guilty in return for suspended sentences, and the Justice Department dropped charges against nearly 2,000 others in order to keep the court system from being clogged. Of those who did face trials, about 600 were convicted and 250 were acquitted. Only 65 individuals were imprisoned, said Alexander, who also directs the Langston Hughes Center at KU. “”
      I personally think the Klan is better analogized to a multistate militia movement which conducted these recognized illegal acts — murder and arson and more generally terrorism) — with impunity DESPITE the presence of a “functioning” civil government, police force, etc. Was it a “blind eye” or was is “hand in glove”? IMHO, comparisons ISIS/Daesh are distraction and a mistake (since they are operating in war zone where there is no established governance besides themselves as conquerors, and it’s only been about 6 months). YMMV.
      The “up tick” in this sort of “vigilante” violence related to BOAN is frightening and I fear occur again.

    • Zachary Smith
      February 20, 2015 at 00:15

      The Lincoln policies were reflected in the Johnson policies, who tried to carry them through to heal the nation instead of rip it further in two. Had Lincoln lived he might have pushed a real reconstruction through, but it would have been a fight for him, too.


      If Lincoln had planned to surrender to the South, he had plenty of opportunities during the War.

      Fact is, the North won the Civil War fighting, and the South won the peace. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Black Americans began to get a chance to be actual citizens with real rights. And as of early 2015, it’s still an uphill fight for them.

      I hope you can locate some real history books and gradually ‘unlearn’ the very odd views you’ve acquired.

      • Evangelista
        February 23, 2015 at 22:13


        I don’t know of anyone who has ever hypothesized that Lincoln might have ever thought to surrender to the South. Making stuff up with no basis whatsoever is how alternative mytho-histories are cooked up.

        If you check the real history of Lincoln and the Civil War you will find that the basis Lincoln conducted the war on was a premise that states could not leave the Union. That the Southern seccession was illegal and unconstitutional. Lincoln was, therefore, not attempting to conquer the Confederacy, he was preventing the Confederacy. This kept the conflict a civil conflict, Lincoln’s actions police actions, “preventing insurrection”, within the Constitutional powers of a President. and prevented (or would have complicated) the war being assigned an aggressive war that other nations could jump into.
        Winning the war under these policies meant Lincoln preserved the Union and the Confederate states had never left the Union, they had just been taught they could not, even if they thought they could. The seceded states could not be punished, they could not be treated as conquered territories, they could not be put under military or civil occupation governments, territory and property could not be confiscated. The Amendment 5 business Bob Parry dismisses without giving consideration, that his neighbors asign importance to, could not have become the business it has.
        In order to impose occupation government and “sufficiently punish” the non-seceded seccessionist states, the Radical Republican congress changed the Lincoln policy and assigned, after the war, that the southern states had seceded and could be treated as conquered territories, property could be confiscated, military rule imposed and, in short, the so-called Reconstruction occupation and abuse could be carried on.
        The abuse created the animosities that live today, and that give the Confederate battle flag meaning today, that put the negro in the middle of a conflict he was only property in to begin, victim of then, and then ammunition in.
        And, another result is that it is now, has been since the Radical Republicans redefined the Southern states secceded states, legal for states of the United States to secede from the United States. They only need be able to defend their decision with arms, or have the remnant United States too weak to object. For the precedent Lincoln sought to avoid allowing, the present United States is going to break up when the present illegal government collapses.

        History is not what you want to make it, or even what anyone intended to make it, it is what consequences make it become.

      • Zachary Smith
        February 24, 2015 at 13:56

        The abuse created the animosities that live today, and that give the Confederate battle flag meaning today, that put the negro in the middle of a conflict he was only property in to begin, victim of then, and then ammunition in.

        Fantasies are often lovely things, and this writer seems to have bought into the one crafted by the Southern Apologists.

        For those more interested in what really happened, there is plenty of material available.,%20Taulby_2013_Thesis.pdf

        On page 37 is a mention of Birth of a Nation, and that’s followed by discussion of Gone With the Wind.

        The South was really good at building the Lost Cause BS, but the fact remains it WAS BS.

        Immediately after the war ended a young man named John Richard Dennett toured the South. An example of what he found there:

        The people were sorry for nothing but their ill-success, and they had more curses for the men who led them badly during the war than for the men who led them into the war. If their feelings and opinions in 1863 were such as the country then condemned, it seemed to me that the country could not help condemning them to-day. In 1863, to be sure, they backed their opinions by bayonets, and there is little danger that they would again choose to make war upon the North. They seem to be thoroughly convinced that the North is an overmatch for them. But what was worth fighting for through so many years must have been dear to them, and what remains of it is worth voting for. What harm they can do the Union by political action I do not know; but whatever harm they can do will, I think, be done.


        From the single review:

        What Dennett discovered was a land that was beaten almost to the ground. Infrastructure was destroyed, croplands uncultivated, forests decimated. Whites seemed almost paralyzed by indolence, which in hindsight seems to be at least in part generated by the shock and despair of defeat and the consequent collapse of the southern feudal system. The pervasive attitude seems to be one of either hopelessness or fatalism.

        Except when it comes to blacks. Regardless of their social class, the whites Dennett interviewed positively quiver with enraged hatred of blacks.

        Dennett mentions how in one little town an old man was shot at 4 times for the crime of trying to educate local Negro children.

        The South had a scum-bag “civilization” before the Civil War, and it had one afterwards. The instant the war was over, they started enacting Black Codes which were merely slavery by another name. They started their terror campaign even before the KKK started. But propaganda is a wonderful thing, and unfortunately it has been quite successful – even to the present day.

        • Evangelista
          February 24, 2015 at 21:13


          If you like reading books written in the era, you might like James Shepard Pike’s “The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government”. Pike was a northern abolitionist, so it’s not ‘Southern Apologist’. It is better history than Dennett for being written more neutrally than Dennet seemed able to rein himself toward.

          Warning: Pike’s book does sort of kick your assertion that, “It wasn’t until the 1960s that Black Americans began to get a chance to be actual citizens with real rights.” in the teeth. But if you read the first part carefully you might be able to recognize the Negro’s 1860s “chance” was mucked by the Carpetbaggers and Scallawags taking advantage of their trust, naiveté and agreeability to teach them all the wrong things and lead them into actions that left them holding the bag, since they lived there and the carpetbaggers, who didn’t, could grab their money and run back wherever they came from.

          The whole situation and civilization was a whole lot more complicated and involved than most so-called and self-styled “historians” want to deal with. You have a disadvantage more, yourself, it appears, for a bigotry apparent in your assignment that, “The South had a scum-bag “civilization” before the Civil War, and it had one afterwards”. It’s hard to more than massage your pet hates when you start with a jump like that.

          Incidentally, in regard to the KKK, do you know there were three distinct and different ones, and probably four, different, really? It’s kind of the same as the way Christianity went, dividing away from the originally mild beginning in ways that better suited ones more aggressive who wanted to use the framework and put their prejudices in it. To get a square picture of the one of the 1920s you need to read United States labor history and WW1 civil and civilian front history, the stuff by the people participating at the time.

          Another thing you have to watch out for is writers out of their element, lighting their own ways with their own torches, like W.E.B.DuBois, who was a social reformer, not a historian, and an idealist, wherefore he gave his blacks more education and social training than any but a privileged few had had opportunity to have. The few did well and showed well, but they were few, and as often had to struggle as hard against their starry-eyed well-wishers as their antagonists.

          One of the best histories of the pre-war South is Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, which is never read as history, but was written as, so there is all kinds of Howard Zinn style historical information in it that goes over regular reader’s heads.

        • Zachary Smith
          February 24, 2015 at 22:49

          The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government

          James Shepard Pike – quite a minor figure so far as the internet is concerned. But I was surprised to learn that the man’s propaganda was a major factor in discouraging the North from continuing with Reconstruction. He even has a WIKI. From that:

          In 1873 Pike toured South Carolina and wrote a series of newspaper articles, reprinted in newspapers across the country and republished in book form in 1874 as The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government. It was a widely read and highly influential first hand account of the details of Reconstruction government in South Carolina, that systematically exposed what Pike considered to be corruption, incompetence, bribery, financial misdeeds and misbehavior in the state legislature. His critics argue the tone and emphasis is distorted and hostile toward African Americans and Grant Republicans.

          The Prostrate State painted a lurid picture of corruption. Historian Eric Foner writes:

          The book depicted a state engulfed by political corruption, drained by governmental extravagance, and under the control of “a mass of black barbarism.” The South’s problems, he insisted, arose from “Negro government.” The solution was to restore leading whites to political power.[8]

          Historian John Hope Franklin said “James S. Pike, the Maine journalist, wrote an account of misrule in South Carolina, appropriately called The Prostrate State, and painted a lurid picture of the conduct of Negro legislators and the general lack of decorum in the management of public affairs. Written so close to the period and first published as a series of newspaper pieces, The Prostrate State should perhaps not be classified as history at all. But for many years the book was regarded as authoritative—contemporary history at its best. Thanks to Robert Franklin Durden, we now know that Pike did not really attempt to tell what he saw or even what happened in South Carolina during Reconstruction. By picking and choosing from his notes those events and incidents that supported his argument, he sought to place responsibility for the failure of Reconstruction on the Grant administration and on the freedmen, whom he despised with equal passion.[9]

          Durden wrote that the fundamental clue to Pike’s hostile position to African Americans in his book The Prostrate State was that “in the 1850s no less than in the 1870s, is to be found in his constant antipathy toward the Negro race.”

          So Pike eventually had his own biographer. One who learned he’d been a racist all his life!

          Hard to imagine that the North had racists too. And the proposition that the highly cultured South ever had “corruption, incompetence, bribery, financial misdeeds and misbehavior” except for the period when the ignorant n****** ran the state is unthinkable as well.

          After Reconstruction ended the brutality returned as the highly enlightened whites to office. I wonder if the poster Evangelista is old enough to remember that black people requesting the right to vote were quite recently attacked by gangs of white police goons and their huge dogs. How white northerners trying to assist them were casually murdered while being vilified as “outside agitators”. How southern terrorists blew up Black churches and anybody who happened to be inside them.


          The blacks are being disenfranchised yet again and nobody gives a damn. Back in 2002 a miracle happened in Georgia. A state which had been Democratic since the Civil War instantly flipped to solid Republican. The coalition of large-city whites and the state’s Blacks just didn’t work anymore. The black folks (and urban white liberals) can vote all they want, but Good Republicans are going to win most all the elections that matter.

          That miracle was caused by Diebold touch screen no-verification voting machines.

          Just another example of (a white) God working in mysterious ways.

          • Evangelista
            February 25, 2015 at 19:46


            Don’t form your opinion on a couple of goof-ball revues, read Pike’s book. Especially after reading those reviews. Durden is a hyperventilating nit-wit. Read him to form a view of him, best after reading Pike’s book. You will recognize right away Durden didn’ read it himself. He might have started, but he quit to write NewYork Times Ukrain-coverage caliber slag. If you know “Historian” John Hope Franklin, recommend to him to read the book, himself, too. “Historian” Foner appears to also have not really read the book, but he looks to have at least skimmed to the ‘boring’ second part, which is all quotation from government hearings. It needs be noted, apparently, that the corruptions reviewed in the hearings were in only very small part Negro sponsored. Most were carpetbag and scalawag works.
            I do have to admit that I grew up amongst Black Americans and I like their boistrous and broad-flaut style, so when I read descriptions like Pike’s of the SC legislature with a black majority raising a ruccus, putting feet on desk to wiggle shoe-soles at the speaker and so on, while a small enclave of dour whites sits tight-jawed on the side, I laugh out loud. As Pike notes, despite all the noise and seeming cacaphony, the black legislature got as much done as any other (they just had more fun dong it). The problem was that what was got done was the pattern of corruption and “legalized” theft that the carpetbaggers had established. Reading Pike carefully you will not find the “antagonism” the idiots and second-hand-source believers assert. Pike put the responsibility on the people who created the corruption and taught that that was the way to do government, and he recognized capable blacks, heeded them and took advice from them. His vocabulary is the vocabulary of the times, so you have to learn to read outside your 20th C. sensitivities.

            As far as black people being disenfranchised by Diebold Dark_Box Voting machines (made by the same people who provide casinos programable slot-machines), to paraphrase JFK, “Ich bin auch nigger” and you are, too, right along with everyone else the Diebold-Deployers want to own.

            And as for people shot and blown up for being on, or in the way of, the frontlines in a conflict, that has been going on forever. It was going on right up to days ago in Eastern Ukraine, it is going on now in Libya, in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, etc. etc. etc., even in Paris and Denmark, and once happened in Waco, Texas, you might recall, under Janet Reno and Bill Clinton. If you have managed to live to your age, whatever it is, without being in someone’s bombsights or gunsights, you are plain lucky, and I hope your luck holds.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    February 16, 2015 at 21:59

    To add to this fine article, the early 20th century American media had a racist market that artist catered to. One sensation was a baritone singer named Arthur Collins. I won’t provide links to Arthur Collin’s music, but trust me his popular songs were very racist. I will just say that even Hank Williams Jr. doesn’t have anything over on Collins. If you are really up for it you can google Arthur Collins name, and read about him, or maybe hear his vile recordings which are out there. What you will discover is a very sad history of American pop music.

    • Joe Tedesky
      February 17, 2015 at 00:23

      Remember Elvis did a cover version of Big Mama Thornton’s (who was a black artist) song ‘Hound Dog’. When the Elvis version was released, because he was white, DJ’s on white radio stations were able to play this terrific tune. I would recommend you go on I-tunes and purchase both versions…as much as I like Elvis, I like Big Mama Thornton’s version better. Take a listen they are both great singers.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    February 16, 2015 at 20:48

    Today we have Hank Williams Jr. back in 1902 the recording industry had Arthur Collins. I have provided a couple of links where you may listen to Arthur Collins sing.
    I warn you that Collins song here is very offensive.

    You may read about Collons here;

    • Joe Tedesky
      February 17, 2015 at 00:13

      Apparently my post got through the moderation review…since it has, let me add a disclaimer once again. I posted Arthur Collin’s song for historical reference. I found his early pop tune disgusting, but as this article about DW Griffiths movie ‘Birth of a Nation’ stated early 20th century America’s entertainment industry played to a very prejudice society at that time.

  5. Zachary Smith
    February 16, 2015 at 15:35

    When the movie was shown at the White House, President Wilson called it “history written in lightning.” When it was shown to members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Edward White proudly confided to author Thomas Dixon, “I rode with the Klan, sir.”

    I’ve never liked the racist Wilson, but I hadn’t known till now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was a low-life racist ***** too.

    The KKK was a domestic terrorist outfit, and one which has been largely rehabilitated because of all the lies told (and believed!) about Reconstruction. As the War Nerd explains, it was a simple matter.

    In fact, if people like Chauncey de Vega or Bill Moyers were capable of making serious historical analogies, they’d realize that the true analogy between Iraq’s Sunni-Arab militias and the American South is actually a group founded by the Prince of Darkness himself, Nathan Bedford Forrest. A little clot of thugs called the KKK.

    Like Iraq’s Sunni Arabs after 2003, Bedford’s Confederate vets had always ruled through extreme violence. After the great defeat of 1865, which drove the weaker minds among the Confederates right round the bend, so deep was their conviction of their own superiority, Forrest started a terror network, the KKK, which used officers from the beaten army as its nucleus.

    Same motive: Former masters, accustomed to ruling through sheer terror, defeated on the battlefield, resorting to what they do best: ultra-violence and exemplary torture-murder, to reassert control of a newly uppity population they’re used to ordering around.

    That’s in the middle of a War Nerd rant against the two American writers – DeVega and Moyers. IMO he isn’t really fair to these two. They probably mean well, though I’ll admit I’ve never been able to tolerate Bill Moyers. Anyhow, evil is evil is evil. Admitting the US has done horrible things and is still doing them doesn’t diminish what ISIS has been doing.

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