by Mark I. Pinsky
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 66-67
In the first three-fourths of the 20th century the nation viewed the South much as that region saw itself — through the prism of Hollywood. Epic movies have always created powerful myths, but few have done the kind of lasting damage accomplished by D.W. Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION and David O. Selznick's GONE WITH THE WIND. Generations of U.S. citizens have had etched into their consciousness an image of the heroic Klansman on horseback rescuing the flower of Southern womanhood from the clutches of the leering black villain. The pivotal period of Southern history known as Reconstruction has been similarly portrayed with its stereotypes of sleazy, opportunistic carpetbaggers and traitorous scalawags. There is no way to calculate the impact of a single sequence from BIRTH OF A NATION showing black state legislators in the South sitting eating chicken in the legislative chambers with their feet up on desks.
Yet these images did not just spring from the filmmakers' imagination, but were provoked as well by the post-Civil War press, for political reasons. Later, such notions were reinforced by conservative white historians and taught as gospel in segregated classrooms.
A group of younger historians have offered a more accurate view of the Klan and Reconstruction. They argue that the Reconstruction was a very hopeful period of U.S. history. It included some of the most innovative attempts at fundamental land reform, economic cooperatives for marketing, universal male suffrage, biracial political coalitions based on class, the building of a genuine two-party electoral system, free public education, and expanded health care. The experiment was flawed by paternalism of administration and corruption, petty and grand. In the latter case, Northern railroads, determined to buy their way through the South, impartially corrupted whoever was in control of the legislatures of the time, black or white, radical Republican or redeemer Democrat. Ultimately the experiment of the Reconstruction was sold out by national Republicans in the compromise of 1877.
The Ku Klux Klan became the shock troops used by conservative "Tory" or "Bourbon" Southern Democrats to crush Reconstruction and reassert their economic domination. Their ideology was race-based and their main tactic violence against the unarmed. Destructively, the Klan acted against the outnumbered and unarmed, by night and by ambush — not against rapacious armed men, as depicted in BIRTH OF A NATION. As Dr. Allen Trelease, professor of history at the University of NC at Greensboro and author of the definitive study, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, put it — there was not a single incident in all of his research where he could find Klansmen participating in any confrontation which might be loosely be described as a "fair fight."
In spite of their technical genius and grandeur, BIRTH OF A NATION and GONE WITH THE WIND obliterated the fact that racial cooperation has once been attempted and enjoyed some fleeting and scattered successes in the South during Reconstruction. Such an obliteration of history diminished the likelihood that any similar attempts might be made in the future. The combination of Klan and the monied class were a winning combination in the South, which thwarted the hopeful Populist movement of the 1890s, the post World War I black renaissance and resurgence of the early 1920s and the New Deal and CIO union drives in the South, known as Operation Dixie, in the 1930s and 40s. By the time of the civil rights movement of the 60s, working class whites were so accustomed to being manipulated into a violent reaction to any impulse toward racial, economic, political, or social equality that they acted almost reflexively, without the need for any cue or leadership from above. A tradition had already been well established.
THE CLANSMAN, THE KLAN, AND BIRTH OF A NATION
North Carolina has played an unique role in the history and development of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. Thomas Dixon, a North Carolinan wrote the novel The Clansman, a racist classic subtitled "an historic romance of the Ku Klux Klan" which formed the basis for BIRTH OF A NATION. Today 10% of the estimated 10,000 Klan members live in North Carolina. On July 9, 1979, members and supporters of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), a Maoist organization active in organizing textile workers in NC mills, showed up in the small town of China Grove, some carrying guns and wooden staves to protest a benefit showing of BIRTH OF A NATION. Taunts and fighting occurred, but no shots were fired. This began a series of events that would lead to the members
In fact, BIRTH OF A NATION has been used as a recruiting film for the Klan for years, and had a material role to play in the Klan's growth. In his book, Hollywood: The Pioneers. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), Kevin Brownlow describes this relation between film and social structures at length. Following is a lengthy quote from that book:
"Compared to Dixon's original, Griffith's racism was mild. The Clansman read like a tract from the Third Reich: '… for a thick-lipped, flat-nosed, spindle-shanked Negro, exuding his nauseous animal odor, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief.' Griffith used none of this. Yet what remained was still alarming …"
"… The mayor of New York … ordered the License Commissioner to cut some of the most offensively racist material. No one will ever know what the material contained, but Francis Hackett in New Republic supplied a clue: 'The drama winds up with a suggestion of Lincoln's solution — back to Liberia — and then, if you please, with a film representing Jesus Christ in the halls of brotherly love.' About 500 feet were lost — although many cuts were the result of Griffith's attention to audience response …"
"Rev. Thomas Dixon, according to his biography, conducted his own campaign among the powerful of the land. He showed BIRTH OF A NATION to the President. 'It is like writing history with lightning,' quoted Woodrow Wilson, whose enthusiasm won Dixon a meeting with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Edward White. White was an intimidating man, and Dixon lured him to see the film by telling him of the President's reactions. 'You tell the true story of the Klan?' asked White. 'Yes — for the first time.' He leaned toward me and said in low, tense tones: 'I was a member of the Klan, sir. Through many a dark night I walked my sentinel's beat through the ugliest streets of New Orleans with a rifle on my shoulder. You've told the true story of that uprising of outraged manhood?''In a way I'm sure you'll approve.' I'll be there,' he firmly announced."
"With evidence that the President and the Chief Justice approved of the film, the NAACP found suppressing it extremely difficult. However, it was banned for ten years in Kansas … and in Chicago, Newark, Atlantic City, and St. Louis … The most depressing fact to emerge from the tumult was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. This organization, which Griffith himself admitted had spilt more blood than at Gettysburg, had disbanded in 1869. The modern Klan began its clandestine cruelty on Thanksgiving night, 1915, on Stone Mountain in Atlanta, where in June, 25,000 former Klansmen had marched down Peachtree Avenue to celebrate the opening of the film … The film provided the Klan with the finest possible publicity for its revival in 1915. The similarity between these two advertisements (reproduced here) is self-evident. The organization was to have been called the Clansmen. But whereas the film used a few hundred extras but made claims to 18,000, the membership in the Klan multiplied alarmingly. By the mid 20s it reached 4 million, and they could stage rallies and marches that were not outdone for sheer scale until November."
- Kevin Brownlow, pp. 65-66
VIDEO AS THE COURT'S STAR WITNESS
When the members of the CWP clashed with the Klan in China Grove in July 79, BIRTH OF A NATION was scheduled to be shown at a local community center. The film was never shown and in the course of a shouting and shoving match between the two groups, a Confederate flag was seized from the Klansmen and burned.
Stung by what all sides considered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the CWP, the Klansmen and Nazis vowed that the outcome would not be repeated. On Nov. 3, 1979, a motorcade of Klansmen and Nazis drove into the staging area of a CWP-sponsored "Death to the Klan" rally in front of a public housing project in a predominantly black section of Greensboro, NC. The Klansmen rolled down their windows and shouted racial epithets and taunts. Several of the demonstrators began beating on one of the vehicles with sticks which had been gathered to carry placards.
The motorcade stopped, several Klansmen climbed out of their vehicles and fired shots into the air, followed by a similar action on the part of the demonstrators. As the crowd scattered and a stick-and-fist fight ensued, a group of Klansmen and Nazis walked to the rear of one of their cars, unlocked the trunk, passed out rifles and pistols, and began methodically, almost leisurely, to mow down the leadership of the Communist Workers Party. In the space of 88 seconds, four lay dead, one dying, and a sixth critically wounded.
All of this was captured by four cameramen, three using videotape and a fourth with 16mm film. Before that sunny Saturday was out, local and national TV news outlets were broadcasting hastily edited versions of what later became known as The Greensboro Massacre. In NC, unlike in most states, still photos and films of alleged crimes cannot be admitted as "substantive evidence" in court. They can only be used to illustrate the photographer's or camera operator's testimony. If the witness is unable to recall independently a person or series of events which appears on the film, the jurors may not consider it and, in the case of a photo, may not even examine it. This unwieldy and really unworkable situation was resolved midway through the first degree murder trial of six Klansmen and Nazis when a package deal was struck by the defense and prosecution permitting the admission of photographic and acoustic evidence on a substantive basis.
In Greensboro, prosecutor Rick Greeson wanted the all-white jury to view a 16mm film as an illustration of the testimony of George Vaughan of WGHP-TV in High Point, NC, the cameraman who shot it. "At some point someone was screaming my name and yelling, "Get down. Duck," George Vaughan testified. "I don't know why I did it — I just kept shooting," he said. The only gap in his observation was the moment when the eyepiece of his camera was knocked away from his face.
His two and a half minute film, punctuated by the sound of gunshots and screaming, showed the incident in frightening detail. The jury displayed little emotion during the showing and later, when they were shown color photos made from the film. They were allowed to observe only the pictures which depicted what George Vaughan could specifically remember seeing.
Earlier in the day, a former reporter with another local station, Laura Blumenthal, then with WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, NC, completed her testimony on the shooting, in which her cameraperson, David Dalton, sustained wounds from a shotgun blast while filming from beneath the station's bullet-ridden car.
Defense attorneys say that their major problem with videotape in jurisdictions where the tapes provide substantive rather than merely "illustrative" evidence is that the tape's impact cannot be diminished through cross examination. There are also questions of technical enhancement and even manipulation of such tape. And there are other questions: Can the tape be shown to jurors more than one time, and in slow motion, stop action or instant replay? Should each juror watch on a separate monitor. Can an enlarged screen be used?
As a result, the jurors watched all four sets of film at least six times — at regular speed, slow motion and stop action, with sound and silent, as well as with the commentary and testimony of the camera operators. Six consoles were set up around the chamber and the lights were dimmed. (Reported plans from the Justice Department to construct some kind of hologram from the film had to be scrapped when too many blind spots developed. Two of the cameramen were standing together and one was wounded while shooting.)
Despite the extraordinary amount of photographs and ballistic and eyewitness testimony, each of the six defendants was acquitted by the all-white jury that heard the case. Remaining charges against the other Klansmen and Nazis were subsequently dropped by the Guilford County district attorney.
In the course of the Greensboro Trial, a showing of BIRTH OF A NATION, scheduled for the local branch of the University of NC, was cancelled after 30 black students appeared with signs to demonstrate.
DOCUMENTARY FILM: THE GREENSBORO MASSACRE
Sally Alvarez and Carolyn Jung produced and directed an 88-minute 16mm film on the Greensboro Massacre, with a budget of about $30,000 and the sponsorship of the Communist Workers Party. New Liberty Films in Philadelphia provided camera, editing, and production assistance.
For legal and financial reasons, the new production company, Parallax Film Productions, decided not to request footage taken by local area TV stations, except the sequences used in court that became part of the public record. Instead the directors chose to take a biographical approach, letting spouses, friends, and co-workers speak of those murdered. Those interviews with textile workers, white and black, recalling the three victims who were organizing unions at various mills were exceptionally moving and powerful, as were the testimonies of clinic patients who had been treated by the victims who were physicians, usually for free.
The film has a number of shortcomings. THE GREENSBORO MASSACRE still contains too many sequences with CWP Chairman Jerry Tung and Central Committee member Phil Thompson, walking around New York City and Northern New Jersey discussing the state of the U.S. economy and the impending collapse of capitalism. There are also a few heavy handed tricks, like cutting from a hog pen at feeding time to a speeded up sequence on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange.
The film does provide a valuable insight into the lives of those who died. Each was extraordinary, and their biography demonstrates the best a generation has to offer and contribute. Male and female, black and white and hispanic, Jew and Gentile, mid 20s to early 40s, parents of babies and teenagers, they all traveled to different roads that day. For director Sally Alvarez, a close friend and comrade of those who were shot down, the killings were a traumatic event which brought her back to NC from NJ, and back to filmmaking. She had originally studied video at the School of Radio, Motion Pictures, and Television at the University of North Carolina.
"I can remember when I was a teaching assistant at film school," Alvarez recalls, "showing students BIRTH OF A NATION over and over again. Everybody talked about the technique. But nobody said anything about the politics."
Since Mark Pinsky wrote this article, the film's title has been changed to RED NOVEMBER, BLACK NOVEMBER. Reelworks, Inc. distributes the film from 39 Bowery, Box 568, New York, NY, 10002.