Thomas Dixon, Reconstruction, and the KKK

Frontispiece to The Clansman
While browsing at St. Vinnie's, I came across the works of a Baptist preacher/writer named Thomas Dixon (1864-1946) who was best known for three novels about the Reconstruction era following America's Civil War. These books are entitled: The Leopard's Spots; A Romance of the White Man's Burden (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). In 1915, D.W. Griffith made The Clansman into a hugely popular three-hour movie entitled The Birth of a Nation. The movie revived the waning Ku Klux Klan, and despite strenuous objections from the recently formed NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dixon's friend, Woodrow Wilson, made it the first movie to be screened in the White House. I've completed the first two books of the trilogy, and nearly all of what I have to say about Dixon comes from these books, especially the first book in which he details his thoughts about race. 

Dixon depicts black people as inferior based upon their intrinsic immorality, intellectual dullness, and physical appearance. He argues that the black race never advanced culturally, technologically, or governmentally except under the immediate influence of white people, and that American slavery was a boon to black people in that it exposed them to the fruits of "four thousand years of white civilization." He blames blacks for the Civil War and repeatedly asserts that "a drop of nigger blood a nigger makes," by which he meant that, "It kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."

The evil white characters in Dixon's book (carpet baggers and scalawags) manipulate the voting system to install equally evil, but far less intelligent, blacks into office in order to become rich through crooked governance (blacks won the vote in 1870), while the good white characters fight against corruption, and discuss what to do (once they have regained control over their black neighbors) with millions of recently freed illiterate people, hence the term "the white man's burden." The first goal is to disenfranchise black voters, and then to decide whether to keep them in the country or send them someplace where they would have the advantages of such civilization as the white race had been able to impart. Those who favor keeping them in America debate whether to put them to work in the various trades or restrict them to agriculture. Everyone agrees that education for blacks is undesirable because it couldn't alter their inherent inferiority while it would lead them to imagine themselves equal to whites. 

Dixon's position has several fatal flaws as I see it, all of them built upon the common human error of deciding what one wants to believe, and then looking for proof that it is true. To whit: (1) He never clearly defines the concept of innate black inferiority, and such evidence as he offers is self-serving and anecdotal. (2) He acknowledges that there are differences in individual potential within the white race, and he holds that every white person has the right to realize his unique potential to the fullest, but by lumping all black people together as being but a step away from savagery, he goes so far as to feel justified in relegating a genius to a life of manual labor without regard for that person's desires or abilities (I often pictured Neil DeGrasse Tyson while reading Dixon's books). (3) Dixon blames the problems that the black race had with assuming leadership during Reconstruction upon innate inferiority, while completely ignoring their problems with illiteracy, inexperience, and centuries of slavery. (4) Dixon is resigned to the fact that nothing short of terrorism can effectively keep an entire race of people in a condition of eternal subservience. (5) By holding the black race as barely human, Dixon is able to rationalize their oppression and exploitation as coming from a place of superior morality.

Dixon portrays the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era as a idealistic endeavor that was forced into existence in order to protect white Southerners from the combined vengefulness of the freed slaves and the U.S. military occupation. If it is true that the situation during the Reconstruction era was as desperate as Dixon described it, I too would have joined the Klan because I would have seen it as my only source of help and safety. That said, the circumstances that gave birth to the Klan ended when Reconstruction ended, and so it was that Dixon adamantly opposed the reconstituted Klan that his writings inspired. He wrote that it had little resemblance to the original Klan, and that its members tended toward stupidity and corruption. He also complained of its anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.

Dixon's writings are yet another reminder of how woefully unschooled I am in regard to my nation's history despite the fact that the period of which he writes is a fourteen year segment of the much longer period (1865-1929) in which I am the most interested. He has also shown me how ignorant I am of the history of the KKK, a plethora of organizations with similar names which I imagined to have always been composed of sadistic ignoramuses who were proud of their ignorance and contemptuous of the educated. By contrast, the Klan which Dixon describes was a haven for men who were cultured, courageous, and idealistic. Even allowing for hyperbole, I am convinced that what I thought I knew of the Klan--and of America's Reconstruction era--was insignificant even where true.

Dixon has also reminded me of a personal deficit which lies increasingly heavy on my mind, namely that there are so very many things that interest me greatly, but that I hitherto ignored (thinking I would pick them up later) and now don't have time to learn. I had imagined that, by limiting my reading to a few decades of the largely forgotten literature of a single nation, I could at least become a passable scholar in regard to that period, place, and literature, but my mistake was akin to that of a person who looks at a slide of microscopic pond life and imagines it possible to learn everything that is known about something that is, after all, so small. If I could do my life over, I would probably strive for scholarship in the fields of American history and American literature, but where does that leave me now that my time is so short and my ignorance so vast? The walls are closing in upon me, and they find me as desperate to learn as I am paralyzed by the thought of how little time I have to learn. As Mme du Barry (mistress of Louis XV) expressed it as she stood on the scaffold, "Life, life, leave me my life. I will give all my wealth to the nation. Another minute, hangman!"


kylie said...

People complete an undergraduate degree in three years and I am pretty sure you have three years. I'm not saying you should do a degree but I'm saying that some well directed study and dedication can see a person learn a lot in a relatively short time.
I wish you well in your efforts and will of course follow your progress!

Tom Sightings said...

I'm taking a course on the Civil War at our senor center, taught by an historian from West Point. I'm learning a lot not just about the battles, but also the background of what was happening political, socially and economically in both the north and south. Anyway, it seems that Dixon's views were quite common at the time, even among Abolitionists, and even among most people in the South up into the 20th century. We still have a long way to go when it comes to race; but never let it be said that we haven't already come a long way from those uncivil times. Anyway, I'll have to look up Dixon and give him a read. And good luck in your further studies.

Elephant's Child said...

So much to learn, so little time.
Kylie is right though.
A concentrated effort could expand your knowledge immensely - and like her, I hope you will share what you learn.
It seems that my 'knowledge' such as it is about the KKK is sadly flawed.

Emma Springfield said...

Even during the time of the Revolution leaders were worried about uprisings from their slaves. They also worried that if given their freedom they were attack white people. Many proposed to ship them either back to Africa or to the Islands in the Atlantic. Others thought to give them their own lands in what is now the western United States. Unfortuntely it is human nature to fear what we do not know. The best way to conqquer those fears is to educate. You are educating yourself with your desire to learn about this particular time in our history. I am doing somewhat the same about the Revolutionary period. Good luck in your endeavors.

Snowbrush said...

"People complete an undergraduate degree in three years and I am pretty sure you have three years."

I have nineteen years of formal education during which I picked up various degrees and certificates, so it wasn't degrees that I was talking about (or that interest me) but erudition. I sometimes tease Peggy about my good fortune in having married a woman who is better educated than I and can teach me things. My rationale for this is that she has two BS degrees and I only have one. She and I differ greatly about what we find interesting to study, her interests being primarily in science and math (subjects that are typically associated with maleness), and mine being in liberal arts' subjects that are typically associated with femininity. My sister spent most of her life going to school until she was in her fifties and got a doctorate, after which she taught college. After she got her doctorate, when she snail-mailed me, she would put "Dr." in front of her name on the outside of the envelope. I wouldn't do that because I don't like the idea of titles. For instance, it's customary here to call medical doctors "Dr. ___," but if I call them anything at all, I call them by their first names because I think that when you call some people by a title, it implies that they are superior to people who are not so called. An interesting thing about doctors here is that they're the only people around a hospital who are called "Dr." although pharmacists and many physical therapists have doctorates. I very much try to treat such doctors as I respect as if they are worthy of honor, but then I do the same with store clerks. We all have our jobs to do, and we should all be honored, not based upon the highest degree we earned, but upon how well we do our work.

"I'm learning a lot not just about the battles"

I envy you this course. I heard an interview of a historian/author this week who said that school destroyed his interest in history, and that he had to regain it on his own. He said this because school history is mostly about kings, presidents, battles, forms of government, and other things that are largely on the periphery of the lives and concerns of most people. No one in school is told what people in olden times used for toilet paper (this just being one example of the kind of homely knowledge that would draw a lot of kids into the study of history), the implication being that daily life is unimportant, and that out of all the millions of people who ever lived, only a handful are worth studying, yet the major "contribution" of that handful was that they sent a lot of other people out to get killed.


Snowbrush said...

"Anyway, it seems that Dixon's views were quite common at the time, even among Abolitionists, and even among most people in the South up into the 20th century."

This is something else that people don't tend to learn in school, but that Dixon gives a lot of attention to. Another author who wrote about the pre-Civil War (and post Civil War) era was F. Hopkinson Smith (the engineer responsible for the base for the Statue of Liberty). In one of his novels (I'll look up the title if you wish), he went to great pains to portray the attitudes of Northerners toward Southerners, and vice versa, it being his observation that they heartily disliked one another quite aside from the issue of slavery. The Northerners (in his book) regarded the Southerners as lazy people who lay around sipping mint juleps in the shade while their slaves collapsed from heat strokes in the fields. They furthermore regarded Southerners as trivial partiers who valued manners highly and cared not a fig for truth. By contrast, his Southerners regarded Northerners as unlikable drudges who had no appreciation for beauty or any other manifestation of culture, valued money above all else, refused to listen to anyone who disagreed with them, and who would bluntly blurt out any unkind and poorly considered opinion under the guise "just being honest." Both Smith and Dixon spent time in the North and in the South (the book that I'm not reading by Dixon was set in Manhattan's Washington Park), but unlike Smith, Dixon liked Yankees very well indeed (he was even an admirer of Grant), and the Yankees in his books returned the compliment. I have no idea how to reconcile these men's completely opposing impressions. Growing up in the South, I got the idea that Yankees were antsy people who were untrustworthy and prone to acting without thinking. When I moved to Oregon, I often found myself despised as soon as I opened my mouth (by which I mean to say based upon my accent alone) as someone who was ignorant, bigoted, and bore watching,so I'm sure the unflattering interpretations ran both ways. I say "ran" because it seems to me that politics has become far more important than regionalism.


Snowbrush said...

"...even among most people in the South up into the 20th century." With kindly and respectful regards, my friend, I must say that your "even" rankled a little because it suggests an openness on the part of Northerners that I don't think the North deserves, but let me go back a way. The Southerners of my growing up years regarded Northerners as hypocritical in regard to what we called "the Negro question." As we saw it, few Northerners knew more than one or two black people because the relatively few black people who lived in the North were largely confined to black neighborhoods in large cities (most Mississippi blacks who moved North could hop on the "City of New Orleans" and get out the next day in Chicago), while, aside from skin color, those who lived in other parts of the North bore no resemblance to Southern blacks, but instead talked and behaved like white people. Such thoughts led Southern whites to conclude that they were being condemned by Northerners for a problem that Northern whites didn't have and couldn't appreciate, that is the forced combining of two very different peoples who had a very long and extremely unhappy history complete with lynchings (the last one that occurred in my town was the public shooting of Lamar Smith, and it happened during my lifetime. The one before that happened during my father's adolescence, and was among the most gruesome that I have ever come across, and in it, two people were murdered: Aside from Mississippi and the West Coast, I have only lived in one Northern state--I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota for two years--and my Southern impression of the North was certainly correct there in regard to the areas black citizens not being dispersed. I also felt a degree of racial animosity in Minnesota that was unknown to me in the South. The house that I now occupy in Eugene, Oregon (Oregon came into the Union in 1860, which was just in time to be a Union state during the Civil War), was built in 1955, and according to the original housing covenant (which I have), could not be resold to a black person or even a Jew. Oregon had also been known for its exclusion laws that forbade black ownership of land, and for its municipal "sundown laws" that forbade black people from remaining in one of the towns that had these laws after sunset. Even when black people moved to Eugene in sufficient numbers to form a community, they were confined to a part of town that was adjacent to the Willamette River and prone to seasonal flooding. Everything that Oregon could do to keep black people out, and to make them miserable when it could no longer keep them out, Oregon did. Although the percentage of black people in Oregon has gone up somewhat since I moved here, I can still run errands for hours without even seeing a black person. Few white people here know any of what I have just told you, and their appalling ignorance of their own history, some of it fairly recent, allows them to feel immeasurably superior to the South and even to lump all Southerners into the same boat of racist rednecks. Meanwhile, Mississippi is probably the most successfully integrated state in the Union, although I would guess that Atlanta is the most integrated city. I haven't run the numbers, but I strongly suspect that any given black person is more likely to be the victim of a racially motivated assault here in Oregon than in Mississippi if only because there are so few black people available to be targeted.

continued yet again

Snowbrush said...

"Anyway, I'll have to look up Dixon and give him a read. And good luck in your further studies."

I started Dixon's 1911 book, "The Root of Evil" last night, and right away found myself in the midst of a struggle between an idealistic pharmaceutical manufacturer who regards the making of medicine as a way to do good, and who is being run out of business by the "trusts" of the day, firms whose shareholders couldn't have cared less how many ailing people died (due to a lack of money to pay the exorbitant cost of their medicine), just so long as it meant more millions for men who were already multi-millionaires. Dixon tends to be a bit on the preachy side, but he comes up with so many profound quotes that I'm just glad I don't have to choose from among them. He was a fascinating man, being an extreme racist (by today's standards) and a proponent of extralegal "justice" on the one hand, and a lover of birds, flowers, and all things virtuous on the other. I would have liked to have known him. I heard an interesting interview of late, the subject being a researcher who holds that the greater a person's ability to feel empathy, the greater the possibility that that person will favor harsh punishments in the name of justice. Perhaps, this was the case with Dixon.

Enough for now.

Snowbrush said...

"It seems that my 'knowledge' such as it is about the KKK is sadly flawed."

Mine too, but given that you live in Australia, why should it be otherwise? My point is that most of us learn nearly all of the history we will ever know while still in school, and I shouldn't think that your schooling would have taught you about the KKK, unless of course, the KKK also exists in Australia. My memory of my own education in this regard is that my teachers stayed far far away from even mentioning the KKK, either in high school or college.

"They also worried that if given their freedom they were attack white people."

Especially after Nat Turner and his followers murdered 55 white people in the state of Virginia. I used to work as a handyman at Laurel Hill, an old plantation twelve miles south of Natchez, Mississippi, and it occurred to me that its pre-Civil War owners would have lived amid hundreds of slaves who could have easily murdered them at anytime. The question then becomes one of whether they would have been justified in doing so.

"Many proposed to ship them either back to Africa or to the Islands in the Atlantic."

Down through history, many people (both black and white) have supported this idea, and the nation of Liberia was founded for that purpose. The following is from Wikipedia: "The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America...was established in 1816 [to support] the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa. It helped to found...independent Liberia in 1848." The next push in that direction was popular among black people themselves (again from Wikipedia): "The Back to Africa Movement, also known as the Colonization movement or Black Zionism, originated in the United States in the 19th century. It encouraged those of African descent to return to the African homelands of their ancestors. This movement would eventually inspire other movements ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement and proved to be popular among African-Americans."

"Unfortunately it is human nature to fear what we do not know."

It can also be true that "ignorance is bliss," and that the more we know, the more we have reason to fear.

Charles Gramlich said...

a lot of history happens behind and beneath the scenes.

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

I have no interest in learning the history of such a vile, terrorist organization such as the KKK. I am afraid that they are getting more and more powerful emboldened by Trump. I look at my sweet grandbaby, who has much more than a drop of the N word blood, and fear for her future. Yes I realize the South doesn't have the monopoly on racist views. I've lived in the North all my life and have heard plenty. One of my father's good friends was the Orange County chair of the American Independent Party. Although I was only 13 at the time, my blood chilled listening to his schemes for keeping America white.

Snowbrush said...

"I have no interest in learning the history of such a vile, terrorist organization such as the KKK."

I would say that I have SOME interest, and that I would never NOT READ an author solely because I disagreed with him or her. That said, would I read Dixon's books if I were black? I really don't know, but I must confess that they might set me off to the point that I couldn't hang in there because they certainly don't dance around the issue. Ten years ago, I read several books by or about neo-Nazis (mostly former neo-Nazis), and I'm still glad I did because I feel that I benefit from knowing how different people think (the old saying about "walking a mile in the other person's shoes" comes to mind). Yet, I suspect that the people who would condemn me for reading such things (and I don't mean you because I really don't know how you feel) are the very people who are falsely proud of their openness to diversity, it being my observation (based upon who such people spent their time with) that they are no more open than anyone else but have fooled themselves into thinking they are.

I wonder if your father's views were the same as the Orange County racist since, as you say, they were good friends. Could it be that your father simply didn't talk about his views as much? When I look at the sources of friction in the world, race, ethnicity, religion, educational level, and economic circumstances, seem to be the main ones. Here in liberal Eugene, it's popular to say that "our strength is in our diversity," but this is not a diverse area, and, anyway, where is the evidence that the benefits of diversity are greater than the friction that comes from diversity? I think that, liberal or conservative, most people are going to hold anyone who is not like themselves at arm's length, that it has always been that way, that it will always be that way, that society is incapable of an honest discussion of the fact, that we would all be better off if we were separated into relatively homogeneous societies, and that a main difference between liberals and conservatives in regard to diversity is that conservative are more likely to be honest in saying they don't like it. That said, we DO live in a diverse society, and, short of genocide, that's not going to change, so it behooves us to be as open toward others as we can because nothing but misery can come from fascistic groups like the Klan. One of the interesting things about Dixon's Klan books (he wrote non-Klan books too, and in them he showed himself to be a remarkably sensitive and insightful man) is that he failed utterly to foresee the ethnic and religious diversity that was coming. I would love to be able to bring him back from the dead, show him around, and ask him what he thinks we should do now that his Plan A (separating the races) is no longer workable. Would he still entertain some fantasy about shipping black people off to the Caribbean?

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

I am not condemning you for reading the history of a group that I find abhorrent. I realize that you are fascinated by the backgrounds of how different people think. Sadly my father's views were not so different from the American Independent Party person but he would not have joined an organization to 'do something about them'. And my father extended his racist views to other groups. He refused to have anything to do with his grandchildren as they were 'half breeds' as I had married a 'kike' and my brother married someone from Taiwan. Our (my brother and mine) in-laws weren't thrilled about us either. My father didn't live to see what an ethnic mix his great-grandchildren turned out to be. My father disowned me years before.

The company I worked for took great pride on paper extolling the virtues of diversity. Its de facto motto though was "People of different colors thinking alike'.

Strayer said...

You educate me in areas where I have no knowledge whatsoever in your summaries. Thank you for that. There is so much to learn I too lament not understanding the limits of time and the vastness of knowledge out there. So much interests me.

Snowbrush said...

"My father disowned me years before."

I am saddened and horrified to learn this. You didn't mention your mother, so I hope you were at least able to maintain a good relationship with her. And to think that your inlaws held you at a distance too! I don't mean to trivialize your situation in the least, but when I look at my own family for a comparison, the only thing that comes to mind is my last two dogs. For many years, we had a heeler and a schnauzer, and the heeler never accepted the schnauzer, the only concession she was willing to make was to not harm him, which she could have easily done. We now have three cats, and they love one to pieces, as the saying goes (in fact, they're closer to one another than they are to us). Because we have no close family (Peggy's family being on the other side of the country, and my parents being dead, and me never have been close to my siblings--two of whom I never even lived with) our pets are our family, and there really was a lot of strain in having one dog that rejected the other, although the other very much wanted to be close to her. As I think about your situation, I can also relate to it in that I had a friend (my best friend) with whom I am no longer friends because he won't talk to me about what it is that came between us. I had come to accept his unacknowledged distance until I had my knee surgery. I was in the hospital for most of three days, and he was there every moment he could be. I took this to mean that we were going to again be friends, but when I came home, he ignored me totally. I found this crazymaking, and emailed him that we really needed to talk. His response was to dismiss me from his life. I've thought for hours about what could explain this, and all I can come up with is that he wants to be married to Peggy, and I have her, that being the only thing I can imagine that might be going on that he won't talk about. I knew he loved her, but I hadn't realized (duh) that she was the reason he had withdrawn from me. The two of them still see one another, but I'm not a part of the friendship, and it hurts a great deal because I can't take joy in what they share the way I take joy in her other friendships, and, of course, I want to have fun with them--I want to be a part of what they share. It also sticks in my mind that he's willing to hurt not just me but her by refusing to talk to either of us about the problem because for the two men she loves most to not be talking is a constant strain. I don't know what to do though. I feel like our schnauzer must have felt when he did his best to have a loving relationship with our heeler, and the heeler rejected him through no fault of his own. It feels silly to be mad at one dog for rejecting another dog, but it hurt the whole family just as your father's actions hurt far people than you. I blame him entirely for what he did because he had a choice to love you, and he refused because you wouldn't let him control you. It's not like you lived unethically, something that would have been reason for rejection.

"You educate me in areas where I have no knowledge whatsoever in your summaries."

I think you mean in the posts, although I say so very much in the comments. Anyway, thank you.