White Hoods and Burning Crosses: The Portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in American Film

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Ondrej Golis

White Hoods and Burning Crosses: The Portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in American Film

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: doc. PhDr. Tomáš Pospíšil, Dr.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,

using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


I would like to thank to my supervisor doc. PhDr. Tomáš Pospíšil, Dr. for his valuable comments. I would also like to thank to my girlfriend and, especially, to my brother for their ultimate help and moral support.


1. Introduction 6

1.1. Ku Klux Klan: A Brief History 8

2. The Reconstruction Era and the First Klan 12

2.1. The Birth of a Nation 12

2.1.1. Plot Summary 12

2.1.2. Deeper Insight: “Writing History with Lightning” 14

2.1.3. Summary 20

2.2. Gone with the Wind 21

2.2.1. Production Problems 21

2.2.2. The Klan Omitted? 21

2.3. Summary 26

3. The Civil Rights Struggle: Mississippi Burning 27

3.1. Plot Summary 27

3.2. The “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi 28

3.3. Summary 35

4. The Militant Klan of the 1980’s: Betrayed 37

4.1. Plot Summary 37

4.2. At War with ZOG 38

4.3. Summary 40

5. The Klan of Today: A Time to Kill 42

5.1. Plot Summary 42

5.2. Under the Surface 43

5.3. Summary 46

6. Conclusion 47

7. Works Used and Cited 50

8. Resumé 54

8.1. In Slovak 54

8.2. In English 55


The aim of this thesis is to analyze and discuss the way in which the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed in the American cinematography. The selected movies will be analyzed separately in the cultural, and especially in the historical context. There are five movies to be dealt with: David W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939), Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), Costa Gavras’ Betrayed (1988), and Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill (1996). These movies were chosen according to the historical period they cover, their influence on the cinematography and, especially, their relation to the Ku Klux Klan itself.

As a popular film is not a documentary, a certain degree of fictionalization of the history can be expected from every such movie dealing with some historical topic. In my thesis, I will not criticize the movies for their misrepresentation of history. However, I find it necessary to point out certain distortions of historical facts that were made in them, as they are important to the topic of my thesis and, at some points, considered to be very important from a historical point of view. As each of the movies analyzed in this thesis deals with a different period of the Klan’s existence (with the exception of the first two), an individual analysis of each movie will be offered and only in two cases a comparison between them will be done. A conclusion will be drawn as to what image of the Ku Klux Klan these movies offer, whether they have something in common and what cultural impact they had.

With regard to a choice of the topic for my thesis, it is important to mention a few things. Firstly, it is really surprising that although the Ku Klux Klan is the most well-known terrorist organization in the history of the United States, the number of films dealing with this topic is actually quite low. During the research, excluding the movies to be dealt with in the thesis, I have come across only one movie directly related to the Klan – The Klansman, and only a few other movies where the Klan is present (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, The FBI story, Ghosts of Mississippi). Little awareness of this organization among people is yet another striking phenomenon. After hearing what the topic of my thesis is, it was very surprising that many people did not know what the Ku Klux Klan is. I believe that a lack of Klan related movies is closely interconnected with this issue, as films and the internet have been more and more preferred to reading books recently. Because of the fact that popular movies are often more accessible and well-known than any other form of cultural representation, I decided to focus on this form of a Klan portrayal in the thesis. It was also a lack of knowledge on my side about this “country’s oldest terrorist organization” (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History) that played a role in choosing the topic of the thesis. A great deal of mystery, violence and terror surrounding it, and the role of this organization in the history of the United States were the primary factors that convinced me to concentrate on a portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in American film.

Regarding the choice of the movies, the selection was made with the objective of covering the whole period of Klan’s existence from the Reconstruction period (The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind), through the civil rights struggle (Mississippi Burning) and militant era of the 1980’s (Betrayed) to the present Klan (A Time to Kill). Attention was paid to certain historical distortions made in these movies (or accurate depiction of historical facts), and to the significance and cultural impact they had (The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind). Indeed, a degree to which the movies reflect a certain issue or period concerning the Ku Klux Klan, whether the Klan is the main theme of the movie or it is not, was of high importance in deciding what movies to analyze in the thesis.

Before attempting to analyze the selected movies, I deem it necessary a brief historical background be drawn for the reader’s better orientation in the Klan’s history and the timeline of its existence.

1.1. Ku Klux Klan: A Brief History
“The Klan’s here because we’ve been here for a hundred and thirty-one years. The legacy is that we’ve had a lot of hangings, lot of bombings, lot of shootings…That don’t bother me at all. If somebody wants to go out here and kill niggers […] they’re not our equal. They have no right to breathe free air in America.”

(C. Edward Foster, Grand Dragon of American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1997)

“Why don’t we start a club of some kind?”

(John Lester, spring 1866)

Founded in a little town of Pulaski, Tennessee by six young Confederate soldiers, the First Ku Klux Klan was, according to one of its founders, James Crowe, “purely social and for our amusement […] to have fun, make mischief, and play pranks on the public” (Wade 34). When choosing the name for their club, the founders “picked the Greek word ‘kyklos’ (circle) and added ‘Klan’” (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History), as they all were of Scottish ancestry. They draped themselves in sheets, put pillow cases over their heads and began making night rides into the town to scare people. Soon their actions took a more violent turn and, as a reaction to the events of the Reconstruction period, they began whipping and killing freed blacks and their white sympathizers during their night rides. Because of the increased violence and the fact that the Klan got out of control, General Forrest ordered its disbandment in 1869. (Wade 59) However, many local groups remained active. In response, the Congress passed the Force Act in 1870 and the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871 that brought heavy penalties on the terrorist groups. After the Federal prosecution and the official end of the Reconstruction in 1876, the First Klan came out of existence. (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History)

The premiere of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which inflamed racial hatred in the South, created great conditions for William J. Simmons to resurrect the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta. The Second Klan came into existence with Simmons as its Imperial Wizard. Claiming to be champions of the Christian morals and the protectors of the white womanhood, the Klansmen took the holiest Christian symbol of the cross for the purpose of emphasising the group’s values. Based on the slogan “One hundred percent Americanism,” “the new Klan would be a patriotic organization for American born white Protestants only” (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History). In the early 1920’s its popularity peaked, with membership exceeding 4 million nationwide. (KKK: Inside American Terror) Roman Catholics, Jews, immigrants, Communists and organized labour were added to blacks in the Klan’s list of enemies. Members of the Klan controlled high political offices and in 1924 all of the elected officials in the state of Indiana were either Klansmen or their sympathizers. After the violence and political scandals came to light, and the Klan became prosecuted by Federal Government, its membership decreased dramatically. The Great Depression of the 1930’s accelerated the decline, and after the Federal suit for income tax delinquency in 1944, the Second Klan went officially bankrupt. (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History)

It was revived again in 1946, by Doc. Samuel Green and his Association of Georgia Klans. The Klan “was now a local affair” (Wade 277) with individual states having their own Klandoms that continued in their violent actions. “The nation itself had grown weary of Klan violence, however. A number of Southern states enacted their own laws against the Klan.” (Wade 297) The Klan sprang into action “with the Negro lunch-counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and massed demonstrations” (Chalmers 366) – the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Violent fight for the preservation of the racial segregation in the South started. The most infamous and violent of the Klan fractions of the time were the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. After numerous brutal murders of the civil rights workers, President Lyndon Johnson officially denounced the Klan: “…let it be both an appeal and a warning, to get out of the Ku Klux Klan now, and to return to a decent society before it is too late!” (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History) FBI intervention, arresting and the Federal prosecution of the Klansmen increased. The violence of the Klan also started to horrify the nation: “Americans rated the Klan worse than the Viet Cong.” (Wade 367) In the early 1970’s the number of Klansmen reached its “all-time minimum of fifteen hundred, and it seemed as if the Klan was dying out completely” (KKK: Inside American Terror).

Another revival of the Klan came in the 1970’s with David Duke who tried to clean-up the Klan’s image through the media, claiming the Klan to be “not anti-black but more pro-white […] simply an organization that’s working for the interests and the ideals and the culture of the white people” (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History). But violent actions of the numerous militant Klan fractions and Duke’s fixation to Nazi ideology were counter-productive to this original intention. In the early 1980’s many Klan groups transferred to paramilitary organizations. Texas Klan leader Louis Beam started opening paramilitary training camps, where children were taught white Gospel of the Klan and trained with men in using weapons. Opposition of the civil rights organizations against the Klan increased, which resulted in the first case of a member of the Ku Klux Klan being sentenced to death for killing a black man in 1987.

“With national membership just over five thousand the Ku Klux Klan today is but a shadow of its former self. […] The Ku Klux Klan is America’s first society of hate. Although diminished […] their bigotry lies bubbling under the surface eager to rise at any moment to battle against racial equality.” (Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History)


2.1. The Birth of a Nation

2.1.1. Plot Summary

Divided into two parts separated by an intermission, this silent movie represents pre-Civil War America together with happenings of the Civil War (Part 1) and the Reconstruction period following the Civil War (Part 2). In the first part, two families are introduced: Northern family of the Stonemans, which consists of a radical Congressman Austin Stoneman and his children – daughter Elsie and two sons, and the Southern Camerons, Southern Carolinian family consisting of the parents and their children – daughters Margaret and Flora, and three sons, the eldest of who is Ben.

In the beginning of the movie the Stoneman boys visit the Camerons in their estate (representing an Old South way of life). The eldest Stoneman boy, Phil Stoneman, falls in love with Margaret Cameron while Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman. Their friendship is violently smothered by outbreak of the Civil War and sons have to join their respective armies. During the War, the youngest Stoneman and two Cameron boys are killed. Making the horrors of the War even worse for Camerons, their estate is pillaged by a black militia; fortunately Confederate soldiers come and rescue them. Ben Cameron is wounded in a heroic battle, in which he gains a nickname “the Little Colonel,” and is rescued by a leader of an enemy troop, his friend, Phil Stoneman. In the hospital, Ben falls in love with Elsie Stoneman who is working there as a nurse. After the war, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and Austin Stoneman together with other radical Congressmen begins punishing the South for its secession.

In Part 2, the South is being tortured by the radical Reconstruction unleashed by Stoneman and his mullato protegé Silas Lynch. In South Carolina (representing the whole South), black soldiers are parading through the streets, while white Southerners have no right to vote and are being turned away from the ballot boxes. The all-black Government passes laws forcing whites to salute black officers and allowing mixed-race marriages. Sitting on a rock and watching children play (white children pretend to be a ghost and scare off black children), desperate Ben Cameron has a vision. He forms the Ku Klux Klan, which is put to an outlaw position immediately. Elsie dislikes his membership in this organization and calls off the engagement.

The turning point comes when a former slave, now educated and recognized through the army – Gus – proposes to marry Flora Cameron. His lascivious advances scare her off and she runs away to the forest, chased by him. She rather leaps to death then having her innocence violated. Ku Klux Klan chases Gus, then tries him, finds him guilty and sentences him to death. Gus’s death body is left on Silas Lynch’s doorstep. Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan and its helpers. The Camerons must flee away from the black militia and find their refuge in a small hut tenanted by two old Union soldiers, who agree to help them in the name of protection of their common Aryan birthright.

Meanwhile, Silas Lynch tries to force Elsie Stoneman to marry him. The city is turned upside-down because of riots of the black mob. The Klansmen unite and in the full power they ride to rescue Elsie and to disperse the rioting blacks. They also manage to rescue the Camerons and Union soldiers surrounded by black soldiers. The Klansmen are successful and celebrate in the streets. In the next election, blacks have no right to vote and are disarmed. The movie concludes with a double honeymoon of Ben and Elsie, and Phil and Margaret.

2.1.2. Deeper Insight: “Writing History with Lightning”
“It is like writing history with lightning,

and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

(Woodrow Wilson after he saw the movie)
Based on Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation offers its audience a Southern version of the history – the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction. Griffith did not come up with anything new but what he had heard while growing up in the heart of the South. He “could recall the bitterness of the Reconstruction through the tales told by his father and others” (Niderost). As far as my work deals with the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, I will not analyze this movie in its entirety. It is its second part that is crucial for my thesis and I will use the first part only for suggesting briefly a historical context of the Reconstruction period.

In the confrontation of Abraham Lincoln and Austin Stoneman,1 Griffith shows Lincoln as a last bastion standing between the devastated South and Northern Radicals wanting a hard persecution of the South for its secession: “Their leaders must be hanged and their states treated as conquered provinces.” – “I shall deal with them as though they had never been away.” (The Birth of a Nation) Lincoln’s assassination in the Ford’s Theatre is thus a great turning point and nothing keeps Stoneman away from realizing his plans anymore.

A short digression must be made here to mention another historical fact necessary for further analysis of the movie. Soon after the Civil War, Northern abolitionists began badgering Congress to do something for newly freed blacks who were now without a master. Yet, on the other hand, without a shelter and any property, they were wandering around practically homeless. As a response, on March 3, 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedman’s Bureau,2 administered in the South by carpetbaggers.3 Its establishment is not mentioned in the movie, but Griffith shows everything that the white Southerners hated about it: “The South particularly hated the thought that carpetbaggers were putting new ideas into the heads of their former slaves.” (Wade 12) These ideas corresponded with the idea of equality of blacks and whites in all aspects of living. Griffith then draws his own interpretation of the historical events. Carpetbaggers and blacks disfranchise all leading whites and give the ballot to all blacks, manipulate the election and create a “negro magistrate and negro jury.” The “helpless white minority” is oppressed by the majority of blacks controlling the State House of Representatives. They even pass the law allowing intermarriage between blacks and whites. Movie captions support the Griffith’s portrayal of the dreadful situation the South was in. According to this interpretation it is inevitable that something needs to be done. Then the Ku Klux Klan finally comes into existence.

Through the allowing of intermarriage, Griffith shows the biggest fear of all the white Southerners which becomes real – the “Negro” does finally have access to a white woman. Chalmers explains the status of a woman in the Southern culture in his Hooded Americanism:

The woman not only stood at the core of his sense of property and chivalry, she represented the heart of his culture. By the fact that she was not accessible to the Negro, she marked the ultimate line of difference between white and black. Not only was any attack on white woman a blow against the whole idea of the South, but any change in the status of the Negro in the South thereby also became an attack on the cultural symbol: the white woman. (21)

In The Birth of a Nation Griffith offers a portrayal of violence and a threat the black man represents in relation to the white womanhood. It is not a coincidence that Ben Cameron’s idea of establishing the Ku Klux Klan comes into his mind a while after his young sister Flora’s (an idealistic portrait of a virgin clear Southern white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes) innocence is threatened by Gus (a black man) – “the renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers” (The Birth of a Nation). Although this depiction of establishment of the Ku Klux Klan is from the historic point of view completely incorrect,4 it had a very powerful impact on the audience, because the majority of the common white Southerners believed in the threat of attacking the white womanhood, and thus the whole white society, by blacks. Flora rather chooses to die than having her innocence ravished by Gus, and Elsie Stoneman is fortunately saved from the vicious attacks of Silas Lynch. Saving Elsie corresponds to saving the whole white womanhood in this case.

Knowing all these facts, let us now have a closer look at the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan itself in the movie. There are some things about the Klan’s portrayal that correspond with the interpretation offered by the historians. In Ben Cameron’s inspiration, where the white sheet scares off the black children, it is shown why founders of the Klan kept using this form of disguise: “The Klansmen’s posture as real ghosts took advantage of the supposed gullibility and superstitiousness of the freedmen…” (Wade 35) Griffith’s portrayal of the Klan as only scaring blacks to a certain extent corresponds with real actions of the first Klan which at the beginning tried to scare blacks and show some sort of a mental superiority of the white race. In some cases it worked for sure but “there is no evidence, however, that these scare tactics exerted any control of blacks whatsoever” (Wade 36). In one scene of the movie, Griffith uses a well-known story of scaring a black man by a trick consisting of a Klansman drinking a bucket of water completed with a story saying “he had not had a drink of water since the battle of Shiloh and lived in hell and had ridden twice around the world since suppertime” (Chalmers 9). But Griffith stays at this level and does not show the next level of the Klan actions – the level of the extended violence. The Klan is not violent unless it is provoked by actions of the blacks. On the contrary, he depicts blacks as the violent ones, who shed the first blood, and for the rest of the movie the Ku Klux Klan is showed as a noble patriotic group of heroes fighting for the freedom of the white South.

After the worst possible nightmare of every white Southerner of those times becomes real and the black man tries to steal an innocence of the white woman (Gus and Flora), Klan’s actions take more violent course and Ben Cameron and his fellow Knights chase Gus and lynch him. In this case, the most common practice of the Ku Klux Klan against blacks – lynching5 – is shown as a legal and righteous form of vengeance. Griffith, however, does not use this, quite a strong term. He refers to the lynching of Gus as “he may be given a fair trial in the dim halls of the Invisible Empire” (The Birth of a Nation). Gus is found guilty and killed.6 The lynching of Gus served in the movie as an exemplary punishment and the “answer to the blacks and carpetbaggers.” The Klan is shown in a defensive position, using violence only because it had to, provoked by actions of blacks. However, historians say something different from this interpretation. Local administrators appointed by Union League throughout the whole South reported of violent actions the Klan committed against blacks and carpetbaggers: “Local dens seemed hellbent on using any degree of violence necessary to ‘restore’ the black man to his condition before the war.” (Wade 47)

In the scene displaying some of the Klan rituals, that also includes burning of the cross,7 the Klan’s portrayal as a patriotic Southern Christian organization is confirmed by Ben Cameron’s declamation: “…this flag bears the red stain of the life of a Southern woman, a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization” and “Here I raise the ancient symbol of an unconquered race of men, the fiery cross of old Scotland’s hills…” (The Birth of a Nation) The first sentence refers to the Confederate flag and a Southern woman. These were the two symbols of the Southern patriotism (the woman representing some sort of a heart of the South, as already mentioned above). In the second sentence, “the fiery cross of Scotland’s hills” represents the Klan’s Christianity, its claimed Scottish ancestry (that is why its founders chose the word ‘Klan’ to be a part of the group’s name), and, given by the Scottish ancestry and American citizenship, Protestant beliefs.

“The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright.” (The Birth of a Nation) Although historians agree that actions of the first Klan were oriented towards white Northerners living in the South (most notably teachers and others who helped ‘Negroes’) almost as much as towards blacks, Griffith shows his vision of the white race in its entirety which is endangered by blacks. In this case, it could be seen as the danger that still persists in the time the movie was shot, not only in the time it tells the audience about. His intention was clearly to create a memento for the white people: “Do not allow this to happen again!”

The ecstatic ending of the movie shows the atrocious behaviour of blacks controlling the town. In this twisted view they are committing actions associated with the behaviour of the first Klan of that time: “the victims of the black mobs” (The Birth of a Nation) are humiliated, tarred and feathered,8 scared whites afraid of lynching are awaiting their end in jail. All are saved by the United Klan riding on their horsebacks to rescue the fate of the white race. Although outnumbered, they scatter the black mob, showing their courage in the fight.9 This portrayal of the Klan corresponds to its image in the view of the white South in two historical timelines. On the one side there is the view of the Southerners living through the Reconstruction period in 1860/70’s who directly witnessed the actions of the Klan, on the other hand there is a new generation of the Southerners living in the 1910/20’s witnessing the Klan actions watching The Birth of a Nation in the cinema: “The Klansmen were aristocrats, they were heroes, and they were a hell of a bunch of fellows… The resulting view of the Klan as a regulating force for protection in lawless times captured the hearts of those who rode and of future generations of Southerners.” (Chalmers 20) A view of the Klan as a protecting and lawful organization is crucial when watching the movie. Disarming all blacks and regulating the next election (depriving blacks of their right to vote which they will not get back till century later) seems absolutely right, reasonable and inevitable for securing rights of the white race in the reconstructed South to Griffith and the Southerners of that time; the view which will prevail in the South for many decades later. A little white blonde girl scarred in a cabin surrounded by black brutes trying to get in and hurt her, who is saved by the heroic Klan, and white citizens cheering the Klan cavalry while terrified blacks are running away restored to the position where they belong to, is a great illustration of the legendary role of the Klan in the Southern folk tales, the Klan which brings peace and liberty to the white race: “Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!” (The Birth of a Nation)

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