In 1915, more than 40 years after President Ulysses S. Grant annihilated the Ku Klux Klan, a group of white men in white bedsheets paraded down Peachtree Street in Atlanta to attend a movie premiere, firing rifles into the air.
Their leader: William J. Simmons, a theatrical local preacher who a month earlier, after Thanksgiving supper, had bussed 15 racist men up Stone Mountain, made several declarations about purity and honor, then set flames to a cross, reigniting the KKK.
“The rites incident to the founding of the order were most interesting and the occasion will be remembered long by the participants,” the Atlanta Constitution reported in a story headlined, “KLAN IS ESTABLISHED WITH IMPRESSIVENESS.”
Simmons led his men down Peachtree to celebrate the opening of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” Hollywood’s first big-budget, blockbuster movie that many still consider a masterpiece despite its subject matter. It depicted life after the Civil War in a way that glorified Klansmen who supposedly saved the South, using violence to protect whites from, among other things, packs of black rapists.
Ku Klux Klan members march on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Sept. 13, 1926.
Critics hailed Griffith’s cinematic storytelling. Off screen, the film became a propaganda tool to relaunch the KKK.
That legacy continued this weekend in Charlottesville, the site of violent skirmishes between white supremacists and counterprotesters over a Confederate statue. The disturbance follows a similar protest last month.
“Sooner or later just about every Klansman worthy of his robe sees” the film that romanticizes racial violence, according to a history of the KKK published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “The story it tells fits perfectly with the version of history the Klan preaches.”
Except it isn’t history at all.
The Klan was originally a secret society created in 1866 by a few ex-Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tenn. Their intentions were neither violent nor overtly racist, although they were interested in preserving Southern culture as more black faces moved to town. Their leadership titles were intentionally goofy: grand cyclops, grand magi, grand turk, grand scribe. Members were called Ghouls. The name Ku Klux Klan derived from the Greek word kuklos, meaning circle.
After becoming public, members and officers began dressing up in sheets, apparently for publicity. They rode around at night on horses. “Had that been all there was to the Ku Klux Klan, it probably would have disappeared as quietly as it was born,” the SPLC wrote, adding:
But at some point in early 1866, the club added new members from nearby towns and began to have a chilling effect on local blacks. the intimidating night rides were soon the centerpiece of the hooded order: bands of white-sheeted ghouls paid late night visits to black homes, admonishing the terrified occupants to behave themselves and threatening more visits if they didn’t. It didn’t take long for the threats to be converted into violence against blacks who insisted on exercising their new rights and freedom. Before its six founders realized what had happened, the Ku Klux Klan had become something they may not have originally intended — something deadly serious.
The Klan spread rapidly, with Nathan Bedford Forrest, an ex-Confederate general, taking control. The 1868 presidential election was dominated by discussions of the Klan. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory, ran on the slogan, “Let Us Have Peace.” After he won, Grant plotted to take out the Klan, supporting a series of laws to protect the rights of blacks to vote and serve on juries.
In 1871, Grant signed the most important one — the Ku Klux Klan Act, which gave him authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and use federal troops to arrest and prosecute murderous Klansmen. Several thousand people were indicted under the law, crippling the KKK within a year. Although lynchings and violence against blacks continued, the KKK as an organization was quickly wiped out.
That is, until 1915.
Simmons and other Southern whites were increasingly outraged by the arrival of Jews, Roman Catholics and immigrants. Then a 13-year-old Atlanta girl named Mary Phagan was killed.
Phagan worked in a pencil factory. Leo Frank, her Jewish boss, was charged with killing her. The evidence was thin, but Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. After his sentence was reduced to life in prison, two dozen men calling themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan” kidnapped Frank and hung him. Afterward, they burned a cross on Stone Mountain.
“The way Georgians had reacted to the Frank lynching convinced” Simmons that “that reestablishing the Klan was a timely idea,” according to a history of “The Birth of a Nation” and the KKK by Melvyn Stokes. Simmons was bed ridden after a car accident. While convalescing, he devised plans for his new KKK, drawing inspiration from news stories about the release of Griffith’s film. Stokes wrote:
The film and the saturation publicity associated with it had already helped mold both fashion and social life in the North. Manufacturers produced “Ku-Klux hats” modeled after those worn by the riders in Birth and “KK” kitchen aprons. New York society ladies organized K-Klux balls and on Halloween, 2,000 University of Chicago students partied in Klan costumes. By late November 1915, the film had already been shown very successfully in several Southern cities and its first showing in Atlanta was due. Simmons realized that this offered an opportunity too great to be missed to publicize his new organization.
So he marched his men to the theater.
The movie — and the Klan — marched across the South.
“They became locked,” Stokes wrote, “in a marriage of publicity-oriented convenience.”
Klansmen in other cities imitated the Atlanta parade. Theater ushers wore white sheets. In local newspapers, the Klan advertised for recruits alongside movie times.
“By the early 1920s, as the Klan spread beyond its base in the South,” Stokes wrote, “it continued to exploit ‘The Birth of a Nation’ as part of its recruitment and propaganda drive.”
Riots over the movie broke out in major urban areas. There were organized protests by civil rights groups. Eventually, theaters stopped showing the film.
Now in the public domain, the spinning of “The Birth of a Nation” continues, even as the KKK’s organizational hold on hate has been usurped by the alt-right and online networks such as Stormfront, where the movie is frequently discussed.
“Watched it today for the first time,” a poster wrote not long ago. “Classic and prophetic masterpiece.”
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