The Guardian

The Guardian July 5, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

A story of the Ku Klux Klan

When was the last time you saw a Hollywood film about the Ku Klux Klan? 
Have you, in fact, ever seen one?

That's not surprising, since you can count the number of such films on the 
fingers of one hand. And yet the Klan has been an exceptionally powerful 
influence on US life since its rebirth in 1915.

In that year the great D W Griffith made his monumental and exhilarating 
epic The Birth Of A Nation. It is a cinematic masterpiece  even 
today watching it is a marvelous experience  but it is deeply and crudely 
racist in its theme and plot.

It tells of how the post-Civil War South was "saved" from anarchy and chaos 
at the hands of ignorant vengeful former slaves by the invention of the Ku 
Klux Klan. These gallant white heroes gallop around in their funny hoods 
rescuing pretty white women from marauding blacks and "Mulattos" and in the 
process  as the final title tells us  preserving "our Aryan 
civilisation".

It cannot be coincidence that 1915 was also the year that the Klan, which 
had effectively died out in the late 19th century, was reinvented in 
Georgia by a former preacher, Colonel William Simmons, as the Invisible 
Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Appealing to white Protestants alarmed at the rapidity of change under the 
stimulus of the USA's industrial growth, and especially alarmed at the 
concomitant influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern and 
Southern Europe, the Klan rapidly consolidated its position.

After WW1, fueled by an influx of returning, flag-waving war veterans, the 
Klan found a potent new source of recruits and funds to fervently oppose 
"subversives".

The "American way" was posed against the supposed chaos of the Russian 
Revolution and the Klan functioned as a secret terrorist force to abduct, 
tar and feather, flog or simply murder labour organisers and 'Red 
agitators'".

By 1924 the Klan reputedly had three million members. There are documented 
instances of traffic police, on nights of major Klan events, directing 
traffic on point duty while wearing their Klan robes. No fear of 
retribution from civic authorities there!

Lynch murders

Those events were often ritualistic lynch murders of one or more blacks, 
sometimes hanged, sometimes shot, sometimes beaten to death. But quite 
often they were tied to a tree or a stake, petrol-soaked wood was piled 
around them and they were burned alive.And this would be done in front of a 
crowd of white onlookers, who hooted and joked and held their children up 
to see. The hideous consequences of classifying some people as less than 
human were in evidence across the South of the US long before Hitler hit on 
the idea of exterminating racially "inferior" people.

Which is probably why the US film industry has avoided the subject of the 
Klan (just as they have avoided the subject of racist lynchings and 
concentration camps too). Television, however, with its rapacious appetite 
for new product and its multiplicity of minority channels for those who are 
not watching the football or reruns of I love Lucy, does have room 
for documentaries (at least) on the subject of the Klan and racism.

One such appeared in June in the USA and with a bit of luck will eventually 
appear on either the ABC or SBS. It is The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A 
Hidden Story, directed by Michael Wilkerson for Cinemax.

Massacre

It's the story of a massacre rather than a lynching, of the destruction of 
the most prosperous black community in the USA.

Tulsa in 1921 was the "Oil Capital of the World". The hub of the town, the 
Greenwood section, was known as "The Black Wall Street".

But the white business community was hardly going to welcome successful 
black competition. The Ku Klux Klan was growing in the town and spreading 
its influence.

When a black man named Dick Rowland accidentally fell onto a white female 
elevator operator, who screamed for help, the incident was made to order. 
The town's local newspaper, The Tulsa Tribune, ran a grossly 
distorted account in its afternoon edition and blatantly called for the 
lynching of the unfortunate Rowland.

A white racist mob gathered outside the jail (we've seen those scenes often 
in the movies, but the victims are almost never black) and a smaller black 
crowd gathered to defend him.

The sheriff now began deputising whites, including hundreds of Klansmen. 
According to historian and retired General Ed Wheeler, the Klansmen set 
about organising in effect "a military operation" targeting the whole black 
community.

I'll let the Variety review of The Tulsa Lynching of 1921 
tell what happened next: "By the next day, over 300 blacks had been killed, 
over 1,200 homes had been burned, and the surviving African-American 
population of Tulsa was forced into confinement.

"Those who were vouched for by whites were released, but made to wear 
ribbons that immediately bring to mind the later yellow stars used by the 
Nazis to mark the Jews."

To prevent the black community rebuilding, the Tulsa city council passed 
special laws that effectively made it impossible for them to build. 
Instead, tents were generously provided for the now homeless black 
citizens.

Such events do not lend themselves to ruling class myth-making, so they do 
not appear in films. It's as simple as that.

Back to index page