Carter G. Woodson is the black historian best known for starting Black History Month. He founded the an organization called the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. John Hope Franklin, another great black historian, was born in 1915. So it is sadly coincidental that D.W. Griffith released his groundbreaking and controversial movie “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. The movie’s release sent another leading black intellectual, W.E.B duBois into the streets to lodge his protest.
Griffith’s film spread many stereotypes about black people and the role that freed slaves played during reconstruction. duBois, Woodson and Franklin spent much of their careers combatting this misinformation, and in doing so they built the foundation on which the current discipline of black studies is built.
Propaganda masquerading as history
Woodson founded the association to counter the view that blacks made no contribution to history. Griffith’s movie and the book from which it was adapted, Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s “The Clansman” promoted that racist view to generations of Americans.
“The Clansman” was a love letter to the Ku Klux Klan with the revealing subtitle “An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.” Dixon’s father was a Baptist preacher who reluctantly owned the slaves he inherited. Dixon was born in 1864. His formative years occurred during reconstruction and experience confirmed his views on politics, economics, religion, culture and race.
The family owned slaves, but both Dixon and his father opposed slavery. Yet, Dixon was a white supremacist who believed that reconstruction was one of the great tragedies of western civilization. That view came largely from the indignities that southern white suffered at the hands of its northern conquerers – such as the taking of private property by the Union Army and the corrupt northern politicians known as carpetbaggers.
Dixon held special contempt for reconstruction – the experiment in social equality that called for recently freed slaves to receive the vote and have the opportunity to hold public office. Dixon believed that blacks were mentally and morally inferior to whites and that northern whites used blacks to oppress and steal from white southerners. Dixon’s expressed those views in many of his novels and especially the three early 20th Century works known as The Klan Trilogy.
Klan as Defenders of Southern Virtue
Dixon believed that the reconstruction era Klan protected the southern honor and defended southern white women against the biggest threat posed by social equality of the races – interracial marriage. One instance that took place during reconstruction cemented Dixon’s belief in the reconstruction era Klan. When union soldiers ignored the accusation that a black man raped a white woman. The Klan responded by lynching the supposed culprit.
Dixon makes a distinction between the reconstruction era Klan and the post-resonstruction era KKK. He viewed the former as a gallant organization comprised of men of honor such as his father who successfully resisted northern efforts to persecute white southerners. Dixon disdained the post reconstruction Klan because he viewed the members as a gang of low-class vigilantes.
Yet, the depictions of blacks – and especially black men -as mentally simple sexual predators was used to justifiy the nearly 100 years of racial oppression. “The Clansmen” inspired Griffth’s movie “The Birth of the Nation,” and that movie launched the rebirth of the Klan and start of a particularly violent period in race relations in the south and throughout the nation.
Lynching: The Rule of the Mob
Lynching reflected the level of oppression blacks faced at the time. Of the 4,742 known lynchings that took place between 1882 and 1968, 72 percent of victims were black. The victim was often accused of assaulting a white woman. That was the case in the 1930 lynching in Marion, In.
Lynching became an epidemic in the years after reconstruction. Nearly 3,000 lynchings occurred between 1882 and 1901. There were 55 lynchings in 1914. That number jumped to 69 in 1915, the year that “Birth of a Nation Was Released.”
The First Blockbuster
The Klan likely felt empowered by the movie’s reception. President Woodrow Wilson, who was a classmate of Dixon’s at Johns Hopkins University, screened the film in the White House. That made “The Birth of a Nation” the first movie to been seen there. A quote attributed to Wilson, but denied later, added to the belief that “Birth of a Nation” was historically accurate.
Though “The Birth of a Nation” contained many questionable facts, the film was quite innovative. Griffith employed close ups and split screens, filmmaking techniques still used today. In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked “The Birth of the Nation” 44th in its list of the 100 greatest American movies of the first 100 years of film. The late Roger Ebert called the film’s battle scenes among the best ever filmed even as he echoed criticism of Griffith’s depiction of the reconstruction era as horribly racist.
Not Universally Loved
Griffith’s master work faced similar criticism in 1915. The head of the Los Angeles NAACP wanted the movie censored. Jane Addams founder of Hull House and a NAACP board member criticized the movie. NAACP members picketed in front of the theater where the film had its New York premier. Black filmmakers responded by making a series of movies to counter the depictions of African-Americans seen in Griffith’s film.
Surprisingly, these efforts bore some fruit. Griffith reedited the movie and removed references to the KKK in deference to the NAACP. Eight states banned the movie. Griffth’s next movie, “Intolerance,” was a sweeping drama that told four stories that took place over hundreds of years with the connecting theme of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. “Intolerance” was viewed as a Griffith’s response and atonement for making “The Birth of a Nation” even though the later film didn’t address racial issues.
First Draft of History
Still the damage was done. Dixon’s book and Griffith’s movie became the first draft of history and set the cultural and political agenda in America for generations. Movie goers in the north and south flocked to the film, paying $2 – the equivalent of $45.97 today. The Klan used the film and the poster of a hooded man on horseback to initiate an explosive growth in its membership, which jumped to 4.5 million by 1920. Of the 144 people lynched in 1919 and 1920, 129 are black.
The film reinforced the racism that seeped from the pores of American society in the early 20th Century and was reflected in the era’s art and scholarship. Academics such as Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning championed the Dixonian view that reconstruction was a failure and blacks ill-prepared for self government.
Crafting a Historical Revision
No short term revisions such as reediting “The Birth of a Nation” or making “Intolerance” could undo the entrenched racism manifested through white supremacist groups such as the Klan. This was especially true since those racist views had academic legitimacy. Academics such as Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning championed the view that reconstruction was a failure and that the black Freedman were ill-prepared for self-government and the vote.
Reversing the damage done by the historical fiction of Dixon and Griffith, as well as Dunning’s advocacy research required a generation of scholars devoting years of research to making a counter argument. DuBois, Franklin and Woodson played major roles in providing that narrative.
DuBois offered one of the earliest critiques with his academic paper “Reconstruction and its Benefits,” published in 1909. He expanded on that earlier research with the book “Black Reconstruction,” published in 1935. DuBois book detailed how reconstruction legislatures in southern states established universal public education and public health agencies. The post reconstruction legislatures undid many of the reconstruction era reforms but left those intact, DuBois wrote. Franklin added to scholarship providing an accurate view of reconstruction in his book “Reconstruction After the Civil War,” published in 1961
Historians such as DuBois and Franklin provided the historical scholarship that countered the white supremacist view of the era. Woodson provided the institutional leadership and structure that legitimized researching black history through the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History
However, when Woodson started the association, the belief in black inferiority had a home in a highest level of politics, business and academia.
In his 1933 book “The Miseducation of the Negro,, the historian wrote:
“If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as
any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard
That was not the education that blacks received in 1933. As Woodson writes in “The MIseducation of the Negro,” the blacks who went to school were taught that they were intellectually and culturally inferior. Black students received this message at every level of education. Woodson responded by launching Negro History Week in February 1926 in honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
A Sea Change
Every February articles such as this one question whether Black History Month is relevant or necessary. Regardless of an individual’s feeling on that issue, take time to marvel at what scholars such as Woodson, DuBois and Franklin accomplished. In 1926, critics not only mocked Woodson and DuBois for questioning the prevailing academic research on topics like reconstruction, most mocked the very idea of black scholarship.
Yet in the 87 years since Woodson established the observance, the scholarship conducted by historians such as DuBois and Franklin moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Historians accept the conclusions made by both as correct. Universities such as Dunning’s Columbia and Wilson’s Princeton now have highly regarded departments of African and African-American studies. Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1976 and studying black history a part of curriculum at most schools. Today, none but the most obstinate racist would attempt to deny that blacks have contributed greatly to the nation. Next, we will examine how deeply engrained the changes ushered by duBois, Woodson and Franklin have reached.