The Ku Klux Klan in American literature and films: From Thomas Dixon’s "The Clansman" to contemporary KKK novels and movies

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

91 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. History or Fiction: Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in the Context of Reconstruction
2.1. The Development from a Slave into a Political Threat: The Image of African Americans in Dixon’s Novel
2.2. Glorifying the Aryan Race: Dixon’s Idea of White Supremacy
2.2.1. The Rising of the Ku Klux Klan
2.2.2. Dixon’s Version of the Klan as the Saviour of the White South
2.2.3. Dixon’s Idolisation of the Klan and the Study of the ‘Dunning School’
2.3. Women in the Shadow of the Ku Klux Klan
2.3.1. Women’s Struggle during Reconstruction
2.3.2. Devoted Klan Women and the Evil Female Radical

3. The Birth of a Modern Klan: Dixon’s and Griffith’s Propaganda as a “Midwife to the Rebirth of the Klan”

4. Dixon’s The Clansman and Contemporary Klan Literature and Film
4.1. Oppressed or Independent: Different Images of Female Charac-ters and their Husbands in Witness, Fire in the Rock and Miss-issippi Burning
4.2. The Klan’s Function as God’s Right Hand and its Double Standard
4.3. Ignorance as a Small Town Phenomenon: People’s Conscious and Unconscious Support of the Ku Klux Klan
4.3.1. The Ku Klux Klan in Small Towns
4.3.2. Social Structures of a Small Town: Nelson Wikstrom’s Political Analysis
4.3.3. Small Town Characters in Contemporary Klan Literature and Film
4.4. The Klan Takes Over Politics

5. The Ku Klux Klan in Moving Pictures
5.1. The Birth of a Nation
5.2. Klan Power in Contemporary Movies: an Analysis of Mississippi Burning and a Short Look at The Chamber

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“It’s the shadow side of the American character, and it’s not going to go away,” explains Wyn Wade, author of The Fiery Cross, an excellent study of the Klan. “The power is their history. We can never forget their potential to do it again.”[1]

The Ku Klux Klan and its racist doctrine have a long history. In his work, David Chalmers calls the Klan as “America’s only enduring political terrorist movement”.[2]

The following paper will mainly focus on the presentation of the Klan in Thomas Dixon’s Southern Reconstruction novel The Clansman and D. W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation, as well as in contemporary American literature and film. In that context, the Klan’s prejudices against African Americans will be discussed – in connection with Karen Hesse’s children book one also has to take prejudices against Jews into account.

The analysis of Ku Klux Klan literature and films will cover three important Klan-eras beginning in 1887 until the 1960s. Different types of texts and film will be set in context with different cultural aspects of that time.

The study will start with a precise interpretation of Dixon’s The Clansman, which differs greatly from the other Klan novels that will be taken into account, mainly in its political approach. Dixon’s novel will be analysed and some of his motives will be discussed in the historical and political context of Reconstruction. Further on, Dixon’s conviction that he had created a historical report of Reconstruction will be investigated.

The following analysis of the female characters in The Clansman is intended to prove Dixon’s support of male hegemony. Elsie, the heroine of the novel, and her relationship with the young Klan leader Ben Cameron will be studied. Especially, Elsie’s social development is important for this investigation.

After discussing the role of different Kluxer’s wives of Reconstruction, one will come to the second part of the paper, which will start with a close look at the female characters of a cross-section of modern American literature and film: Karen Hesse’s children book Witness, Joe Martin’s Southern novel Fire in the Rock, and Alan Parker’s movie Mississippi Burning. The selection of these special novels and this film is based on the fact that they, on the surface, appear as contrasting works to Dixon’s novel. The interesting point is that studying these stories, one will be able to uncover certain similar motives.

Hesse’s Klan story Witness is set in Vermont of the 1920’s. A whole town is confronted with the local Ku Klux Klan and its increasing power. In free verse, Hesse presents the struggle of different inhabitants, like the black Leanora Sutter, the Jewish family Hirsh, the unmarried Sara Chickering and Iris Weaver, and the Klan characters Harvey Pettibone, Johnny Reeves, and Merlin van Tornhout. The reader of Witness gets an insight into small town values like the maintenance of morality that is heavily supported and secured by the Klan. In that context, a double standard of one of its members will be revealed.

Joe Martin’s Southern novel Fire in the Rock tells of unusual friendships in the 1960’s between the preacher’s son Bo Fisher, a cheeky Southern girl named Mae Maude, and the creative Pollo, who is of African American origin. In his story, Martin reflects the meaning of true friendship in the context of a discriminating Southern society. The relationship of the three friends gets terribly disturbed by the intolerance of other town people, who are not even members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Fire in the Rock shows how Klan power has been taken to another level. The reader recognises the Klan’s involvement in the judicative body and the executive authority, which will be one main point of the analysis of Martin’s work.

The aim of the second part will be a clear interpretation of different motives in contemporary novels and films that have been chosen. A comparison of those motives with the ones of The Clansman will lead to following thesis which has to be proved through the analysis:

Not only in Dixon’s novel the reader recognises the presence of a proud and extremely powerful Ku Klux Klan. But the Klan also appears to be very influential in contemporary literature and film. It will be the intent to take a look behind the scenes and to find out why the Klan is such a successful organisation, in fiction as in reality.

All Klan stories which will be discussed are set in American small towns (except The Chamber). This will induced one to focus on different political and social structures of small towns. They will be analysed and projected on this study of Klan literature and film to strengthen the argumentation.

The last part of the paper will be an interpretation of D. W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation, which is based on Dixon’s novel The Clansman, and Alan Parker’s film Mississippi Burning, a Southern states drama. (In that context, we will also briefly refer to James Foley’s movie The Chamber, a drama about a young lawyer who tries to save his grandfather, a Kluxer, from the gas chamber.)

Paying attention to Griffith’s movie is therefore essential for the whole context, because the film had a huge influence on America’s society. In fact, Griffith has succeeded in turning Dixon’s propaganda into a spectacular masterpiece which still serves the Klan’s interest. Parker’s Mississippi Burning turned out to be a good counterpart for the film analysis.

Parker’s drama relates to the true story of three young Civil Rights workers who went missing in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. The FBI sends two agents to investigate the case. Soon, Agent Ward and Agent Anderson are caught in a whirl of events. They receive threats by the Klan, and have to realise that they do not get any support from the local sheriff and his deputy, nor any from other small town inhabitants.

Within the framework of this analysis, a close look at cinematic instruments both directors, Griffith and Parker, have used is necessary. It is remarkable that one finds an aestheticism of Klan brutality that is presented in both movies, although we analyse a pro-Klan movie and a political neutral or even anti-Klan movie.

All together, one cannot directly speak of an influence of Dixon’s work on later Klan literature and films. But the presence of some similar motives in all novels and films which will be taken into account, shows an important aspect that will be the main point of this paper: Regardless of a pro-Klan or a political neutral work of fiction, one can recognise either a conscious or an unconscious hero worship of the Klan, or, at least a representation of the Klan’s immense political and social power. One has to assume that different books and films indeed help to create a Klan myth. Throughout the paper, different motives will be compared to strengthen this thesis.

2. History or Fiction: Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in the Context of Reconstruction

2.1. The Development from a Slave into a Political Threat: The Image of African Americans in Dixon’s Novel

By the beginning of the Reconstruction era, many white Southerners had lost their property. Bad investments and the loss of their slaves often meant a personal ruin of former wealthy Southern families, whereas the black population was trying to find a way to cope with their newly gained freedom.

For African Americans, this freedom did not only mean the end of slavery, but some rights and protection guaranteed by the law. Some Radical blacks were convinced that these rights could only be saved by dispossessing white farmers and giving land to former slaves. But others only fought for the “legal equality”[3] of the races.[4]

Dixon’s novel The Clansman focuses especially on the Radical Republicans and their African Americans supporters. Moreover, he describes two different types of African Americans: the naïve and devoted person, for example the black characters “John Stapler” and “Jake”[5], and, on the other hand, the opponents, the scheming and radical characters like the mulattos Lydia Brown and Silas Lynch[6], as well as the blacks Gus and Aleck, two former slaves involved in the Radical movement[7].

In the following quote, Dixon declares a friendship he feels for the “Negro”. Within the term friendship, Dixon combines the white Americans’ duty to watch and control the actions of African Americans, as well as the social support for those dependent creatures. In The Clansman and other novels, Dixon will not allow African Americans to develop a consciousness:

I have for the Negro race only pity and sympathy, though every large convention of Negroes since the appearance of my first historical novel on the race problem has gone out of its way to denounce me and declare my books caricatures and libels on their people. Their mistake is a natural one. My books are hard reading for a Negro, and yet the Negroes, in denouncing them, are unwittingly denouncing one of their best friends.[8]

Every single chapter in The Clansman reveals the whole idea behind Dixon’s intention: He tries to deny African Americans social and political equality. In his opinion, blacks simply have to be kept in their place, probably in the position of a servant or a low worker.

From the beginning, Dixon reflects the idea of the worse scenario of former slaves gaining more and more political power through torturing white Southerners and raping Southern women. However, for him, the greatest danger is still the Radical politician who helps African Americans to build up certain self-esteem, and to fight for freedom and equality.

With this reflection, Dixon refers to his father’s theory on politics of Reconstruction: Not African Americans were starting the riots, but unscrupulous Radicals who used former slaves as political pawns.[9]

To underline his negative opinion, he does not only compare the appearances of African Americans but also that of Radicals to the ones of animals:

[…] his housekeeper, Lydia Brown, was a mulatto, a woman of extraordinary animal beauty and the fiery temper of a leopardess.[10]

A flash of his eyes “with catlike humour” accompanies Brown’s encounter with Silas Lynch, a mulatto preacher. Brown at this point appears as a fabulous creature, a “sphinx”.[11]

Both images convey a certain secret that has to be kept. Usually, a cat is a deceitful and devious animal, and behind the mask of a sphinx, there seems to hide an enigmatic person.

In this case, Dixon refers to an important conspiracy planned by the couple. With connotations like this, Dixon pushes the characterisation of the black and mulatto protagonists into only one possible direction. Therefore, the reader of The Clansman receives a very negative image of African Americans of that time.

Also, Dixon’s description of a painting of a leopard at Hall & Pemberton’s gambling place refers to his created image of African Americans: Hanging on the wall, the leopard with “furtive”, “wild”, and “restless eyes” has a good view over the entire room. Without them recognising, he is able to watch every action of the political leaders sitting at the green table.[12]

The leopard leads us again to the relationship between the betraying couple, Lynch and Brown, who seem to influence Commoner Austin Stoneman to realise their plot. This is only one example of linking together the images of animals and human beings.

Another one is used quite often in The Clansman. It is the comparison of the physical appearance of African Americans with the one of apes or gorillas[13], which strengthens the idea that African Americans do not belong to a human species at all:

Phil watched him with disgust. He had the short, heavy-set neck of the lower order of animals. […] The sinister bead eyes, with brown splotches in their whites, were set wide apart and gleamed ape-liked under his scant brows.[14]

On one hand, as it was already revealed, Dixon creates a ‘leopard image’ of a few strong characters who plan a conspiracy, on the other hand, he pictures the naïve African American who was lead by his master and, therefore, would not have a chance to survive in his social independence.[15]

For Dixon, the social equality of the two races seems to be a threat to white Americans. The desire for a life in freedom and equality is, in Dixon’s opinion, mainly caused by Radical politicians who seem to be able to influence the majority of African Americans.

The degradation of the black protagonists is one major point of Dixon’s work. Some anecdotes of how a black person is betrayed by white men appear, like this one: The former slave Aleck believes, that he had bought a document that declares him the owner of forty acres of land. Two young, white women, Margaret and Marion, reveal the betrayal, by simply reading the paper.[16]

Although it was common, during Reconstruction, that many African Americans were illiterates, this passage is truly discriminating. Not the fact that Aleck has never learned to read or write is humiliating, but the way in which Dixon turns this situation into an amusing story.

At this point, the two white women are able to unravel criminal intentions, whereas the naïve black can be tricked easily. The interesting point of this anecdote is that it makes white Americans appear as members of a superior race. This theory will be discussed in one of the following chapters.

Aleck’s political ambitions are not taken seriously. He received the stereotypical image of a ‘chicken-thief’[17], and even after he has turned into a talented orator, his actions are still watched by white people with amusement.[18] Especially, Aleck’s lack of culture is expressed by Dixon. Aleck prefers to walk barefooted, because his shoes hurt him. And his drinking slowly turns him into a ridiculous person.

Throughout the novel, Dixon tries to demonstrate that the African American is not civilised at all. In doing so, he often refers to the drinking habit of black people. The meeting in the Master’s Hall is described as an immoral scenario:

As he passed inside the doors of the House of Representatives, the rush of foul air staggered him. The reek of vile cigars and stale whiskey, mingled with the odour of perspiring negroes, was overwhelming. He paused and gasped for breath. [...] The hall was packed with negroes, smoking, chewing, jabbering, pushing, perspiring.[19]

Dixon’s description does not only seem to be exaggerated, it is also a proof of his racist opinion. He pictures African Americans as a drunk, violent, immoral, and disrespectful mob, who tries to dishonour the memory of “honourable members”[20]. Passages like this are meant to show an immense lack of culture, as we could already recognise in the description of Aleck.

In his article, Andreas Müller-Hartmann discusses a “racist discourse” in The Clansman that forces Dixon’s

readers away from any attenuating characteristics those stereotypes may imply, finally leaving open only one possible solution: that of absolute separation of the races or deportation.[21]

Müller-Hartmann also reflects the development of African Americans from “chicken thieves to politicians who threaten destruction and death to the white South”[22]. However, he is convinced that, in this novel, behind every image of a black person “hides the black beast”[23].

In his opinion, most of Dixon’s black characters turn into aggressive rulers who oppress white Southerners until the Ku Klux Klan gets involved. He clearly recognises the development from a typical minstrel image to that of a dumb but dangerous opponent. That is, because the African American can be easily influenced by Radicals. In Müller-Hartmann’s opinion, the rapist Gus mainly does personify this.[24]

Many white Southerners were indeed disturbed by the black movement, but a “Negro rule” was never established. Although some African Americans were involved in local politics, none of them held an important office in one of the Southern states.[25] Therefore, Dixon’s ‘reflection’ of the political situation during Reconstruction is incorrect in many points.

Brinkley argues that, over all, Reconstruction was not

as disastrous an experience for Southern white elites as most believed at the time. Within little more than a decade [...], the white South had regained control of its own institutions and, to a great extent, restored its traditional ruling class to power.[26]

In The Clansman, the power of the white Southern elite is severely secured by the Ku Klux Klan. In the following chapter, one will focus on its political influence and how the Klan itself and its Southern supporters are idolised in Dixon’s novel.

2.2. Glorifying the Aryan Race: Dixon’s Idea of White Supremacy

2.2.1. The Rising of the Ku Klux Klan

The very beginning of the Ku Klux Klan in 1865 was not exactly born out of a political reason. Apparently, six young Southerners who fought in the civil war organised their own special “fraternity” to secure a certain bond between themselves. The idea behind founding the Klan was the establishment of a secret and mystic society:

Former Confederate officers, the six young men organized as a social club or fraternity and spent their time in horseplay of various types, including wearing disguises and galloping about town after dark. They were surprised to learn that their nightly appearances were causing fear, particularly among former slaves in the area.[27]

In general, one can say that the Ku Klux Klan was brought to life out of boredom of its founders. For the young Klan members, everyday life in a small town meant a disappointment after such a thrilling and exhausting time in the war.[28]

The first attacks on blacks were meant to be jokes, but they already marked the Klan’s plan to gain power over African Americans during the first phase of their tyranny.[29]

The original Klan spread very fast and its newly found members soon started, besides their punishment of Catholics, to focus on former slaves due to the “new social order”. Also Northerners, who supported this order and fought for more rights and the possibility of education for blacks, were terrorised by Klan power.[30]

Allen W. Trelease clearly judges the Ku Klux Klan a “terrorist organization”, whose only aim was to “preserve white supremacy”.[31]

Over all, with its nightly attacks, the Ku Klux Klan also tried to prevent African Americans from taking part in the voting process. Besides the local involvement of the Klan, some Southern white nationalists

worked to force all white males to join the Democratic Party and to exclude all blacks from meaningful political activity. Strongest of all, however, was the simple weapon of economic pressure. Some planters refused to rent land to Republican blacks; storekeepers refused to extend them credit; employers refused to give them work.[32]

Reading Dixon’s novel, one soon recognises that one receives a totally different picture of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. Here, the Klan appears to have only noble and heroic motives. The surpressing and terrifying power of the Kluxers is simply brushed aside.

Dixon’s Klan is lead by Ben Cameron. Its first ride, besides those that were intended only to scare blacks, was organised to catch the former slave Gus, who is suspected of driving Marion and her mother into their death.[33]

The rising of the Klan is here presented as a necessary consequence, due to Dixon’s pictured increasing brutality of the black population, which takes part under Radical leadership. Whereas this attack is motivated by Cameron’s personal loss, the Klan uses the lynching of Gus to proclaim political resistance against the Radicals.[34]

Dixon expects the reader to adopt his opinion that the Klan was only organised to guarantee national security. He tries to underline the danger of African Americans, who are influenced by scheming Radicals.

Nevertheless, the most important point of Dixon’s propaganda is the worshipping of the Aryan race. He does not only seem to recognise a severe danger in the political activity of some African Americans - he also denies any social and political competence of blacks at all. He compares African Americans with animals which shows that he simply does not pay any respect to them at all.

Dixon’s opinion is that a political chaos was caused by the Radicals and their instruments, the black Americans. His version of the Klan is asked to restore law and order in the South and to save the Southern Protestant culture.

In the following chapter one will go into detail and focus on Dixon’s attempt to create a myth of the Klan. After that, a critical look at his idolisation of the Klan is necessary.

2.2.2. Dixon’s Version of the Klan as the Saviour of the White South

Although Dixon partly refers to the political background of Reconstruction, he mainly, after the assassination of President Lincoln, concentrates on the Stoneman and the Cameron family, and their involvement in politics. The most powerful characters are Austin Stoneman, who obviously is a portray of the Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens, and his opponent, Ben Cameron, the heroic Klan leader.

Whereas the old Radical seems to be a cynical, embittered tyrant with an abnormal physical appearance[35], the beautiful young Southerner, due to his smartness and courage, is first able to free himself[36] and later, with the support of his Klan, to save Stoneman’s son Phil from the brutality of the Radicals. At this point, the young Stoneman stands for the complete Aryan race. Now, even Phil’s father seems to be convinced that the Klan is the one and only saviour who was sent by God.[37]

Before Dixon’s idolisation of the Klan as the guardian of the white race will be analysed, one first has to take a look at his basic arguments. He clearly sees the white Southerners as members of a well-developed race. In comparison to the African Americans, the white characters in The Clansman do not only have a very different physical appearance; they are also well educated and well mannered. The thought of a superior race is very often reflected, like in the following passage:

Black hordes of former slaves, with the intelligence of children and the instincts of savages, armed with modern rifles, parade daily in front of their unarmed former masters. A white man has no right a negro need respect. [...], but for a thick-lipped, flat-nosed, spindle-shanked negro, exuding his nauseating animal odour, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief.[38]

Dixon’s motive is very simple: The good white characters are presented in a positive way, the bad Radical and the black characters inhabit all the negative aspects one can imagine, either in their physical or characteristic attributes.

But Silas Lynch is an exception. Being a mulatto, he actually has all the positive marks of the Aryan race, as long as we analyse his looks. Only his flashing eyes reflect the jungle: They seem to reveal his true nature.[39]

With the duality of this character, Dixon tries to convince the reader how dangerous Lynch is. His good education and his talent as an orator give him enough power to be a successful politician. If one refers to Dixon’s humiliating separation of the two races, it has to be stated that Lynch uses the advantages of his white origin against the white Southerners. It absolutely fits into the context: It would be impossible to have a black leader of the Radicals, because Dixon would have never allowed a black character to establish such intelligence and competence at all.

Nevertheless, to be a member or even a leader of the Ku Klux Klan does demand more of a Southerner than just intelligence and competence. The origin of the true founders of the Klan is well described by Dixon:

It (Piedmont) was settled by the Scotch folk who came from the North of Ireland in the great migrations which gave America three hundred thousand people of Covenanter martyr blood [...]; and far more important than either (the Puritans or the Cavaliers of Virginia and Eastern Carolina), in the growth of American nationality. [...] They grew to the soil wherever they stopped, always home-lovers and home-builders, loyal to their own people, instinctive clan leaders and clan followers. A sturdy honest, convenant-keeping, God-fearing, fighting people, above all things they hated sham and pretence.[40]

The reader of The Clansman is confronted with a heroic vision of a Southern society. Like many former rich Southern families, the Camerons lose all of their capital, and the state is stirred by riots. Dixon here desperately needs a saviour. Therefore, it comes to the point where he reflects his dreamy memory of his first real encounter with the Ku Klux Klan while he was child[41]: Ghostly figures gallop through the night and punish everybody who apparently disturbs the peace of Piedmont.[42]

In the novel, the growing power of the Klan, and, at the same time, the end of Radical politics is described in a huge nature spectacle:

The black clouds and the rain, which appear after the first sunshine, symbolise the terror the white people and even the devoted former slaves of the South had to go through. The “twilight” shows the founding of the Klan, and the “furious downpour of rain” stands for the battle between the Klan and its opponents. The “sunshine” after the rain is the liberation of the South by the Klan.[43]

Especially the following sentence strengthens this interpretation:

[...] the negroes rose from their knees, shouting with joy to find the end of the world had after all been postponed.[44]

The sudden sunshine here means a relief. There is not a doubt that the heavy rain in the beginning describes the Radical government that Dixon holds responsible for the fall of the South. The fact that the African Americans first get down on their knees and then rise again demonstrates their new loyalty for the white South. At this point, Dixon tries to prove that the blacks free themselves from the ideology of Radical politics.

Some former slaves apparently never questioned the supremacy of the white race, like the character “Jake” we mentioned before.[45]

Again, Dixon here probably relates to his life story. He remembers one incident in a house of a relative, Mrs. Webber: An agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau showed up to declare slave Nelse’s freeing. The slave’s violent response to this visit should obviously demonstrate Nelse’s loyalty towards his master (in this case, Mrs. Webber), as well as his insecurity about the social and political situation caused by the Radicals.[46]

In The Clansman, Radical rulers oppress the loyal African Americans. Especially the scene at the voting day proves Dixon’s intention to picture the Radicals as tyrants: They try to bar non-Radical blacks from the voting process who are not members of the Union League.[47]

Dixon here attempts to convince the reader that the liberation of the black South by Radicals is just another way to secure their political power. However, although they followed a “harsh course”, the Radicals – at least – tried to save civil rights for African Americans.[48]

Those efforts are mentioned in The Clansman, but they are negatively marked. Dixon’s one-sided description of the Radical Reconstruction reveals only an uprising of an oppressive government, which does not have any interest for the individuals of the nation.

Furthermore, the Radicals receive the image of a terrorising party who do not only fight their opponents but also those blacks who do not support their political ideology.

The point is that the heroic and decent white Southerners defeat the ‘bad guy’, the Radicals, after Dixon has succeeded to build up such a negative image. Only the brutality and the lack of civilisation of the – mainly black - Radical soldiers seem to turn the white Southerners into victims. The pride and anger of the white race is represented in the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan.[49]

Therefore, one can say that Dixon’s saviour, the Klan, was born because the white people of the South were convinced they needed to find a way to defend their homes and families.

Further on, Dixon’s idolisation of the Klan will be examined. In that context, the studies of the ‘Dunning School’ will be taken into account, because one can recognise certain similarities in the argumentation of both authors.

2.2.3. Dixon’s Idolisation of the Klan and the Study of the ‘Dunning School’

For a critical reader, it is obvious that Dixon’s heroic picture of the Klan is way over the top. In reality, the Klan’s only intention was (and still is) to secure a white supremacy which should guarantee the white South power over African Americans and other minorities.

As it was already stated in the introduction, it will be only briefly refered to the Klan’s or any Klan-related groups’ violence against other ethnic or religious minorities, although this would be very important for a proper analysis of the Ku Klux Klan history.

Dixon’s romantic view of the early Klan does not completely relate to historical facts of Reconstruction. Again, it is an one-sided reflection of Klan history and its effects on the Southern society:

[...] Dixon overlooked or brushed aside the ugly realities of Ku Klux activity. His Knights were white-robed Galahads who rode in silent procession, burned crosses, and descended to physical violence only under extreme provocation with the noblest motives. [...] [The old Klansmen’s] view of the Klan was accepted by scholars as well as the general public. It made such a rapid progress, of course, because it harmonized so well with the contemporary views on race and Reconstruction.[50]

What Dixon conceals throughout the whole novel are the attacks on ‘harmless’ blacks and the killings of many Northerners who arrived in the South to educate and support African Americans.[51]

His version of the Klan only starts to act because of the state’s desperate need of a social order. In the novel, the reader will not find a single hint of the Klan’s unscrupulous killings of Northern civil law workers and the wipe out of complete African American families.

But still, during Reconstruction, many white Christians shared Dixon’s opinion about the Klan as the saviour of the South:

[…] the Klan acted to overthrow the Reconstruction Republican state governments and enforce the subordination of the newly freed black people. Led by elites and drawing on a cross section of of white male society, it did this through murders and assaults that totaled in the thousands. In white southern legend, the Klan is remembered as the savior of a downtrodden people from what they saw as the fearful disorder of black equality.[52]

In Dixon’s opinion, black Americans, under Radical leadership, meant danger to the democracy of the white South. His characterisation of the black protagonists was already analysed. Therefore, one can state that the Radical blacks in The Clansman only function as an instrument for their leaders. Dixon clearly conveys that, without the support and pressure from Northern Radicals, the former slaves would have never been able to gain such a political influence.

This partly corresponds with the arguments of some scholars of the early twentieth century. They referred to the study of William A. Dunning who pictures the South as a state of emergency: The Southern society is stirred by corruption and violence caused by “unscrupulous carpetbaggers” and political powerful African Americans who inhabit offices which requirements they cannot fulfil.[53]

The study of the so-called ‘Dunning School’ provided an academic investigation that was mainly based on the idea of “negro incapacity”:

Blacks [...] were ‘children’ utterly incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them. The North did a ‘monstrous thing’ in granting them suffrage, for ‘a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind’.[54]

Therefore, it is not a surprise that The Clansman was not only a big success, but that it also strengthened the argumentation of the ‘Dunning-scholars’ who probably referred to the novel as a historical document of the dramatic social and political situation during Reconstruction.

Although the theories of the ‘Dunning School’ have influenced some historians, later studies of the topic revealed that the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction cannot be “interpreted [...] as a wholly legitimate response to the post-war depredations” caused by Radicals and their African American supporters.

Moreover, the Klan can be seen as a terrorist organisation that carried out devious attacks and killings only to secure the position of the Southern Democratic Party, and to guarantee supremacy of the white people of the South.[55]

At least, one of the alternative studies of Reconstruction gained a lot of importance in later years: W. E. B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) takes a look at former slaves and their supporters who tried “to create a more democratic society in the South”. This can be seen as the first step in building up a proper theory that contradicts Dunning’s idea.

DuBois’ work has paved the way for other interpretations. The publications of John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp indeed state the problematic situation of Reconstruction, but furthermore they focus on the Radical’s attempt to strengthen a progress of civil rights for blacks. Their critical view on Reconstruction is not based on the suffrage of Southern whites at all. Moreover, they reveal the fact that the protection of rights of African Americans could not be guaranteed for a long time.[56]

In the second part of the paper, Joe Martin’s novel Fire in the Rock – among others – has be analysed to prove its connection to Dixon’s Clansman. One aspect will support our analysis: The black character ‘DuBois’ in Fire in the Rock can be linked to the conflict between Dixon and DuBois.

In Dixon’s The Flaming Sword, the Southern “hero” Dr. Cameron, who already appeared in The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation, “denounces” the African American activist in a speech. It is obvious that Dixon here criticises DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America. He even picked his title The Flaming Sword from a sentence of DuBois’ manifest.[57]

The Clansman and Black Reconstruction are two contradictory reports of that time. At least for Dixon’s novel one can say that it little corresponds with the facts of Reconstruction, whereas DuBois’ theory is still well adapted by scholars all over the world.

Referring again to Dixon’s idolisation of the Klan, one now has to focus on the female characters in The Clansman. In the following chapter, the novel will be again compared to historical studies on the Klan.

2.3. Women in the Shadow of the Ku Klux Klan

2.3.1. Women’s Struggle during Reconstruction

With the black rights movement, self-confident women of the Reconstruction era as well hoped to achieve another social status. Some of them fought successful for the equality of the sexes, they even occupied positions that had been reserved for men for decades:

After the war against slavery was won, woman leaders hailed the Reconstruction Era as the setting for the establishment of equal rights for all humanity, men and women. The women had taken the places of men in industry and farming; they fabricated medical supplies and ministered to the wounded; they harbored escaped slaves and emancipated freedmen. One can imagine the depths of their bitter disappointment when more and political pragmatism limited the franchise to men.[58]

During and shortly after Civil War, nurses were needed in military and town hospitals. Working as nurses did not only mean that women were able to participate in a social matter of the state, it also strengthened their individual self-esteem. Finally, these women were not longer reduced to their role as wives (or soon-to-be wives).

Kugler states that with the help of the “Sanitary Commission” which was mainly lead by women, important improvements concerning hospitals, ships, and battlefield could be realised. Because of the success of their leading role, these women established a certain “self-confidence” which forbade them to accept their life as a housewife.[59]

Also Elsie, one of the main characters in The Clansman appears as an emancipated woman, but only in the beginning of the novel. The daughter of the Northern Radical Stoneman works in a hospital and is suddenly confronted with the wounded Southerner Ben Cameron.[60]

Although she is attracted to the young soldier, she first shows an aversion to the role of a devoted wife and clearly defends her independence.[61] The fact, that she later accepts her situation of a dependent wife shows, in Müller-Hartmann’s opinion, the “male power over women” that is severely secured by the Klan:

Through the crusades against the black ‘Other’, women [...] are brought back to the restrictions of the lady’s role. His female protagonists, who have been independent and strong of will at first, succumb to Southern men after those have saved the South through their Klan activities. The heroine in The Clansman [...] who at first has rejected “heaven-born male kingship,” turns into an “impassioned, serious, self-disciplined, bewildered woman,” [...].[62]


[1] Janesville, Michael Riley : “White & Wrong. New Klan, Old Hatred”, Time Archive, Jul. 06, 1992, available

[2] Chalmers, David: Backfire. How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement, Lanham, Maryland,

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003, p. 163

[3] Brinkley, Alan: “Reconstruction and the New South”, from The Unfinished Nation. A Concise History of the

American People, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2nd Edition, 1997, p. 422

[4] Brinkley, p. 419-423

[5] Dixon, Thomas, jr.: The Clansman. An historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, Lexington, Kentucky, The

University Press of Kentucky, 1970, p. 219-222, p. 249-251

[6] Dixon, p. 99-100

[7] Dixon, p. 190-191

[8] Cook, Raymond Allen: Fire from the Flint. The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon, John F. Blair (pb), Winston-

Salem, Charlotte, North Carolina, Heritage Printers, Inc., 1968, p. 120-121

[9] Cook, p. 149

[10] Dixon, p. 57

[11] Dixon, p. 100

[12] Dixon, p. 158

[13] Dixon, p. 323

[14] Dixon, p. 216

[15] compare: Dixon, p. 292-293

[16] Dixon, p. 239-243

[17] Dixon, p. 190

[18] Dixon, p. 247-249

[19] Dixon, p. 263-264

[20] Dixon, p. 265

[21] Müller-Hartmann, Andreas: The discourse of race and Southern literature 1890-1940. From consensus and

accomodation to subversion and resistance, Frankfurt (a. M.), Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, Peter

Lang GmbH, 2000, p. 55

[22] loc. cit.

[23] loc. cit.

[24] compare: Dixon, p. 303-304

[25] Brinkley, p. 432

[26] Brinkley, p. 443

[27] ADL, Law Enforcement Agency Resource Network, “Extremism in America. Ku Klux Klan”,

available (18.05.2005)

[28] Randel, William Peirce: The Ku Klux Klan. A Century of Infamy, London, United Kingdom, Hamish Hamilton, 1965, p. 5-6

[29] Wade, Wyn C.: The Fiery Cross. The Ku Klux Klan in America, New York, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1987, p. 36

[30] ADL, Law Enforcement Agency Resource Network

[31] Trelease, Allen W.: White Terror. The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, Westport, Connecticut,

Greenwood Press, 1971, p. xi

[32] Brinkley, p. 440

[33] Dixon, p. 315

[34] Dixon, p. 327-328

[35] Dixon, p. 132-135

[36] Dixon, p. 224-225

[37] Dixon, p. 373

[38] Dixon, p. 289-290

[39] Dixon, p. 93

[40] Dixon, p. 187-188

[41] Cook, p. 13

[42] Dixon, p. 342

[43] Dixon, p. 344

[44] loc. cit.

[45] Dixon, p. 250

[46] Cook, p. 30-31

[47] Dixon, p. 251

[48] Brinkley, p. 423

[49] Dixon, p. 325-326

[50] Trelease, p. 421

[51] Alabama Department of Archives & History, “The Ku Klux Klan During Reconstruction”,

available (18.05.2005)

[52] Chalmers, p. 1

[53] Brinkley, p. 452

[54] Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, “Discredited histories of the Ku Klux Klan”,

available (18.05.2005)

[55] Alabama Department of Archives & History

[56] Brinkley, p. 452-453

[57] Cook, p. 224

[58] Kugler, Israel: From Ladies to Women. The Organized Struggle for Woman’s Rights in the Reconstruction Era,

Westport, Connecticut., Greenwood Press, 1987, p. xii

[59] Kugler, p. 24-25

[60] Dixon, p. 6-12

[61] Dixon, p. 127

[62] Müller-Hartmann, p. 56

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The Ku Klux Klan in American literature and films: From Thomas Dixon’s "The Clansman" to contemporary KKK novels and movies
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