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THE RETURN OF THE KLAN

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) that had terrorized blacks and their Reconstruction allies in the post-Civil-War South re-emerged during the 1920s. This time, the Klan was much larger than it had been after the Civil War, and it had more than blacks to hate: The new Klan was also against booze, international cooperation, Jews, Catholics, evolution, gambling, immigrants, and sex.

The Birth of a Nation

The pioneering 1915 film The Birth of a Nation follows the family of Northern abolitionist Congressman Stoneman (based on real life abolitionist leader Congressman Stevens.). Before the Civil War, the Northern Stoneman family visits their Southern friends the Camerons, who live on the perfect South Carolina plantation, complete with happy slaves.

When the Civil War breaks out, the children of the two families support their respective sides, but young Northern soldier Phil Stoneman can't forget his love for Southerner Margaret Cameron. The only surviving Cameron son is Ben. Wounded while fighting bravely for the Confederates, Ben is recovering in a Northern hospital when a lovely young nurse comes by. To their mutual delight, she is his childhood love, Elsie Stoneman.

After the war, Ben creates the Ku Klux Klan, inspired when he sees white children dressing up like ghosts to scare black children. The Klan is born just in time, because black ex-slaves are menacing white women, including Ben's sister Flora, who jumps off a cliff to escape. When Elsie is also threatened, Ben and the Klan arrive in the nick of time to save her. Phil Stoneman and his Union army friends realize they must work together with the Klan to save what the movie calls their "Aryan birthright."

A title slide has an authentic quote from Woodrow Wilson about "the great Ku Klux Klan." The movie ends with a double Cameron/Stoneman wedding as the world lives happily together under a picture of Christ.

Because it used lies to sell tickets and inflame hatred, The Birth of a Nation was boycotted in many cities and states. Unfortunately, for millions who did see it, many of whom had never known a black person, the movie solidified the evil stereotype of lazy, happy slaves who turn into dangerous animals unless kept in their place by white vigilantes.

Change always brings out reaction, and the 1920s version of the Klan had millions of aggressive and frightening hood-wearing members that included senators, mayors, and perhaps even a president. Although the original Klan died out some 20 years after the Civil War ended, the new Klan sprung out of the popularity of one of the first story movies, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Showing the power of popular culture, the movie, which made up Klan traditions different from those actually started by the original KKK, inspired the new Klan organization. The KKK of the 1920s, in other words, basically learned it at the movies.

The reconstituted Klan fizzled out in the late 1920s when the corruption of their leaders and the shamefulness of their tactics became obvious even to people with sheets over their heads. Although the new Klan made lots of temporary converts among people frightened by change, the KKK also faced something it never had in the old South: stand-up opposition from ordinary people who wouldn't let hate win.

 
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