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What a 100-year-old racist movie tells us about civil rights then and now

- March 8, 2015
A scene from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
As the debate about the historical accuracy of “Selma” reminds us, historical movies about the black freedom struggle can generate a national argument about what kind of country we are — and about what view of it should prevail. No movie did this with greater impact, unfortunately, than the white supremacist film “The Birth of A Nation.”
It premiered 100 years ago this past week in New York City, after having been screened at the White House. It then toured the nation, triggering African American protests even as white audiences stood up and cheered during the scenes of Klan riders redeeming the South from “Negro rule.”
As the movie went on to become one of the most profitable films ever made, millions of Americans became partisans in a culture war over the meaning of the Reconstruction. That culture war is still with us, despite the great progress we have made as a country in the past century – and we are about to enter into a new phase of it as the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction unfolds over the coming decade.
“Birth of a Nation” had official approval, as it were, because President Woodrow Wilson lent his prestige to the launch of what was an artistically revolutionary film. Wilson was an acquaintance of Thomas Dixon, a writer of white supremacist novels — one of which, “The Clansman,” was the basis of the film.  Wilson and Dixon had been fellow graduate students at Johns Hopkins University.
It is widely believed that upon viewing the movie, Wilson issued a statement praising it for its historical accuracy. That is a myth. But the fact that the president held a screening of the movie at the White House on Feb. 18, 1915, and that shortly afterward the chief justice of the Supreme Court and nearly 100 members of Congress also saw the movie at a private screening arranged by the National Press Club, lifted the movie’s fortunes. To Wilson’s credit, he quickly grasped that he had been used by his old acquaintance, and he issued a statement distancing himself from the movie within weeks of the White House screening.
By then, though, he had helped to set a whirlwind in motion. As the movie spread across America, it helped to trigger the launch of the second Ku Klux Klan.  It also led to the rapid spread of the NAACP and of a rise in the NAACP’s membership and prestige, as the young organization sought to have the movie censored.
Despite the many protests, “The Birth of a Nation” may have helped to permanently shape the views of the majority of those white moviegoers who could afford to see the film (the ticket price in Manhattan, for instance, was $2 — equivalent to about $50 today), confirming any predisposition they might have had to support white supremacy. Recent research by the cognitive psychologist Jeffrey Zacks has shown that “historical” movies can strongly persuade viewers with only vague ideas about what the historical record actually is.
To the extent that the movie was persuasive, it helped to popularize and entrench a view of Reconstruction that held sway well into the 1960s — namely, that it was a tragic era of terribly misguided (indeed vengeful) reform that resulted in corrupt “Negro rule” until justifiable white lawlessness restored and redeemed the South (and America).
Wilson, who had a PhD in political science, was himself part of a school of political science and history that took this view of Reconstruction, although in far more nuanced form.  A little known fact about the birth of political science in America is that it was obsessed with Reconstruction as a dreadful policy mistake. Wilson thought of it that way, and so did two other early presidents of the American Political Science Association, John Burgess and William Archibald Dunning. D.W. Griffith used quotes from Wilson’s own work as intertitles for the movie, thus suggesting to viewers that the movie was based on findings that the president himself had come to in his professional career in political science.
Although now regarded as a period piece, “The Birth of A Nation” was in an important sense true to its title. Dixon ardently hoped that the movie would in fact create a new “nation” — and he succeeded to a considerable extent.  Seldom has an enterprising writer been so successful in using the cultural and psychological materials which he had at hand, and an opening provided by the emergence of a new artistic and commercial medium, to define the very culture — and political system — in which he worked as an artist. It was to be the first of the 20th century’s great propaganda campaigns.
With the sesquicentennial of the Reconstruction upon us, all of this is well worth remembering. America will hardly have the vast, popular (and mostly one-sided) discussion about Reconstruction that “The Birth of A Nation” set in motion. The white supremacist view of that era is, fortunately, dead. The democracy we have become was on view this weekend, as President Obama — along with dozens of members of Congress — attended the ‘Bloody Sunday’ commemoration in Selma, Ala.
Still, in place of Woodrow Wilson’s view of Reconstruction is a deeply pessimistic, even cynical understanding of Reconstruction — that it was futile, even a case of northern Republicans falsely playing with the hopes of millions of African Americans. But Reconstruction – as W.E.B Du Bois rightly claimed in his 1935 masterpiece, “Black Reconstruction” – was actually a great democratic revolution.
Although like many transitions to democracy, it faltered and eventually failed — and did not include women and Native and Asian Americans — it made our country much more democratic than it had been just a few years earlier, indeed well beyond the imaginations of the Founders or even Abraham Lincoln. No other 19th-century post-emancipation society, either in Europe or in the New World, saw such a rapid and large-scale transition to political democracy.
In that sense Reconstruction truly was the birth of a nation.
Rick Valelly is professor of political science at Swarthmore College and author of “The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement.”