- Historic Sites
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
“He had the short, heavy-set neck of the lower order of animals. His skin was coal black, his lips so thick they curled both ways up and down with crooked blood-marks across them. His nose was flat, and its enormous nostrils seemed in perpetual dilation. The sinister bead eyes, with brown splotches in their whites, were set wide apart and gleamed ape-like under his scant brows.”
This rabid description of a black trooper on duty in the state that had until recently held him in slavery is a typical vignette from the 1905 best seller The Clansman . Its author, Thomas Dixon, said, “I had a message and I wrote it as vividly and simply as I knew how. ” And people listened. The novel sold well over a million copies and went on to become D. W. Griffith’s film epic The Birth of a Nation . The message was simple enough: it was, as Booker T. Washington angrily summed it up, “that to educate the Negro is to increase his powers for mischief.”
Dixon must have come early to his obsessive racism. Born in North Carolina in 1864, the son of a Baptist minister, he grew up in the lean, violent Reconstruction years, made the more brutal for him by constant beatings from his father. Once, while he was still a small child, his uncle warned him that five thousand black marauders were massing to sweep through the country; he picked up a shotgun and stood ready to defend his home. Against this phantom horde, the boy came to see the hooded horsemen of the Ku Klux Klan as “knights of old, riding for their country, their women and their God.” When he entered Wake Forest College at the age of fifteen, he wrote his first story—a saga of the birth of the Klan. His college record was strong enough to win him a scholarship in political science at Johns Hopkins University, but on his twentieth birthday the restless young man left school and headed for New York and an acting career that lasted until a theatrical manager skipped town with three hundred dollars of his money. Glumly, Dixon returned to North Carolina, entered law school, and, within the year, ran for the state legislature and won by a landslide. He did well in politics and law, but both professions soon paled: “the whole system of law trials, the more I thought of it, seemed little short of a crime,” he said, and the politician was nothing more than “the prostitute of the masses.”
He brooded about his calling with his wife, Harriet, and finally found a career during a walk along the beach. “I descended from the sand dune a different man. A light was shining in my heart that would not go out.” He entered the ministry.
He turned out to be as able at preaching as he was at politics and law. Ordained in the Baptist Church in 1886, he was soon called to an important pastorate in New York City. There he drew crowds with increasingly sensational speeches against feminism, populism, and black rights. Perversely for a self-described “reactionary individualist,” he also spoke with strength and pity on the plight of New York’s poor. He was, he said, “full of fire and pizen,” and he gave a lively enough sermon to build a fortune on the public-speaking platform. Before long, he was able to buy a five-hundred-acre estate over-looking Chesapeake Bay and a yacht, the Dixie .
In 1899 he left the ministry for the lecture circuit and toured the country until, in 1901, he happened to attend a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin . Outraged by this attack on his beloved Dixie, he sat down to write a novel that would set the record straight. Doubleday, Page and Company accepted the product of this fervor, The Leopard’s Spots , within forty-eight hours after he submitted it. Set in the postwar South of Dixon’s boyhood, the book is a polemic against what its author saw as the black’s blind and ceaseless ambition to mate with white people, filled with such speeches as: “One drop of your blood in my family could push it backward three thousand years in history. … I would kill her [my daughter] with my own hand, rather than see her sink in your arms into the black waters of a Negroid life!”
The book caused a furor—one critic called it “the most bigoted of American novels”—but its combination of melodrama and venom made it an immediate success. Dixon, now envisioning a trilogy of novels about the Reconstruction era, went on to churn out The Clansman in thirty days. In a time of increasing Jim Crow legislation, this clanging paean to white supremacy served as a rallying point for race hatred. Dixon turned it into a play, and fulfilled an old ambition by acting in it for a season. It was a popular success, but even in the South it sparked rage wherever it played. Pronouncing it a “nightmare,” the governor of Alabama said: “Undertaking to teach Southern white people something of the horrors of social equality is absolutely useless. They are already taught. The situations and suggestions are disgusting beyond expression. It is bad, top, bottom and sides, and it hurts.”
Similar protests were voiced on a grander scale after Griffith released his famous 1915 film, but throughout Dixon blandly maintained that he was a staunch friend of the black. (One black critic replied that this “profession of friendship is, I confess, too subtle a process for the African intellect.”) Dixon insisted that he only wished to spare the Negro the horrors of the war of extermination that was inevitable if “this thing, half devil and half child” were allowed to remain in America. “We must,” he said, “remove the negro or we will have to fight him.”