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Vol. 25, No. 3: Left / Right

The Great-Granddaddy of White Nationalism

by Diane Roberts

Mark Twain hated Sir Walter Scott. He blamed Scott for the Civil War, accusing him of infecting the South with the “Sir Walter disease,” brought on by the “sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.” Before the war and beyond the South’s defeat into the heyday of the Lost Cause, Twain despised the way white southerners clung to a spurious version of their own history, refusing to acknowledge that it was built on the vicious and inhumane system of slave labor. Twain diagnosed the South with a pathological dislike of progress that manifested itself in what he called “the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.” Perhaps thinking of the 750,000 who died on battlefields from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, in prisons and in hospitals, Twain accused Scott of “measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.”1

Twain rightly charged that Scott taught the southern upper classes to see themselves as feudal lords and ladies, a self-conception that surely contributed to unrealistic expectations of victory in a war with a larger, better-equipped enemy. But Scott was small beer compared to one of his American disciples: Thomas F. Dixon Jr., who did far more damage to the republic. Dixon was a famous preacher, lawyer, politician, filmmaker, and author whose novels sold like moonshine in a dry county. His postbellum melodramas of dispossessed white gentlefolk and predatory “beasts” warped the nation’s understanding of Reconstruction and exported southern race hysteria to the North and West. In portraying Black men as constantly inflamed with the desire to rape white women, Dixon played a significant role in poisoning the white South with fear and hatred. Southern legislatures capitalized on that fear and hatred, enacting laws to control Black Americans’ educational and economic possibilities, while elites enforced rules governing every interaction between the races, regulating every word and touch. Thanks in part to Dixon’s literary vigilantism, southern white men knew they could murder southern Black men with impunity: nearly five thousand were lynched from the 1880s to 1981.2

Dixon was an America Firster a hundred years ahead of Donald Trump. Woodrow Wilson used the phrase “America First” as an isolationist mantra, resisting U.S. involvement in the First World War. But by the 1920s, “America First” had been taken up by the Ku Klux Klan to mean white America First. Dixon feared people of color wielding political power. Some twenty-first-century Americans feel the same way: the Birther movement, to which Trump once subscribed (and may still), challenged Barack Obama’s American bona fides and thus his presidential legitimacy. Some white people, who have never considered their own ethnicity as anything other than normative, now feel marginalized, even victimized, and confused about why we can’t all just get along. Some think African Americans ought to be grateful for all the opportunities this country gives them, and balk when they hear calls for reparations for slavery. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaks for many when he dismisses the whole idea: hell, it happened 150 years ago. Besides, if slavery was America’s original sin, we have atoned for it by fighting the Civil War, “passing landmark civil rights legislation,” and electing the nation’s first Black president.3

Nationalism flourishes when societies feel economically or culturally insecure. In Hungary, France, Germany, and England, reactionary political movements promise the majority white, culturally Christian (if not particularly devout) population that they can go back to an imagined past without immigrants trying to gate-crash their green and pleasant lands. Donald Trump has succeeded in selling the same snake oil to his supporters, appealing to white Americans’ insecurity, giving a certain amount of cover to violent groups such as the Proud Boys (who “patrolled” outside Trump’s reelection kick-off rally in Orlando, Florida), neo-Nazis, and the many other hate groups that feel empowered by the president’s own racist discourse. Thomas Dixon wrote at a time when America was also in turmoil, trying to recover from the Civil War, trying to decide who was an American and what kind of country we would become. As often in our history, texts were central to these debates. The Founders used scripture, the Magna Carta, and John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to invent the nation. The southern planter gentry used Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels as lifestyle manuals, teaching them to gild their actual world with his fictional one, naming their plantations Waverley and Marmion after two of Scott’s best-known works, taking up maypole dancing as seen in Woodstock (1826), and jousting as described in Ivanhoe (1819). Before the Civil War, Scott’s books amplified the white South’s sense of exceptionalism, encouraging the “chivalric” elevation of white ladies (with the correspondent degradation of enslaved women), and the boast (disproved forever at Gettysburg) that one white southerner could whip ten Yankees. Thomas Dixon’s texts taught white people to hate and fear Black Americans.4

Protestor at an “America First” rally, by Sandy Huffaker, San Ysidro Port of Entry along the US– Mexico border, San Ysidro, California, December 15, 2018, AFP/Getty Images.

Few people read Dixon these days—a handful of southern literature scholars and white supremacists who fancy themselves intellectuals. Dixon’s writing is extravagantly terrible: febrile prose, flat characters, risible paranoid plots, and a pathological obsession with big Black men raping little white girls. These days, Dixon’s best known as the man behind The Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith’s important and breathtakingly racist 1915 film was based on Dixon’s novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905). The novels and the film are both set in a Reconstruction hellscape with “Negro bucks,” aided and abetted by carpetbaggers, demanding land, power, and Ole Massa’s virgin daughter. Enraged white southerners put on hoods and took up arms to save “White Civilization.” Never mind that by 1915 the social and racial reforms begun during Reconstruction had collapsed, and the rights guaranteed to former slaves in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ignored or routinely violated. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson upheld Jim Crow in all its separate but unequal iterations, Black southerners had largely been forced back into servitude via sharecropping and prison labor, and, unlike in the late 1860s and early 1870s, none held elected office in the South. Still, white people’s fears remained unabated. The Birth of a Nation ignited the revival of the KKK, founded in 1865 but nearly extinct after federal crackdowns in the 1870s, motivating medical school dropout William Joseph Simmons to lead fifteen like-minded white men up Stone Mountain in November 1915 to set a cross on fire and proclaim themselves the new “Invisible Empire.”5

The old Klan didn’t burn crosses. The revamped post-1915 Klan took the idea from a scene in The Birth of a Nation, which took it straight out of Dixon’s novels. Dixon found cross-burning in Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake (1810), in which a glamorous Scottish outlaw lights a cross to summon the Highland clans to rebel against the king. The Klan still burns crosses: in Newnan, Georgia, Jacksonville, Florida, and Lawrence County, Mississippi, in 2018; in Creston, Iowa, in 2017. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville echoed the Klan with their Home Depot tiki torches. Dixon influenced other pro-Confederate texts, too. “I was practically raised on your books,” Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell wrote to Dixon in 1936, recounting how she and her friends used to act out his stories, fashioning Ku Klux Klan robes out of their fathers’ old shirts. Mitchell may have created a protomodern woman in Scarlett O’Hara, but she also uses Dixon’s language to describe white ladyhood threatened by “apes” when a “squat black negro with shoulders and chest like a gorilla” assaults Scarlett in Shantytown, the Atlanta ghetto where ex-slaves live. The Klan, made up of good southern white men (including Scarlett’s husband at the time) retaliates.6

Dixon’s racist fiction wasn’t universally embraced any more than Birth of a Nation was. The NAACP and W. E. B. Du Bois challenged his reactionary representations of Reconstruction. Indeed, Du Bois accused Dixon of shamelessly misrepresenting the brief period when Black men could exercise the franchise as “an orgy of theft and degradation and wide rape of white women.” The problem was that, while the North won on the battlefield, the South won in the political and cultural sphere. Lee surrendered to Grant, but swiftly became a national icon of the southern gentleman—the “parfit gentil knight,” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s words. White southerners began to cook up the Lost Cause myth almost immediately, redefining secession as a second American Revolution and presenting slavery not as institutionalized rape and degradation but as a charitable institution designed to civilize “benighted” Africans or take care of a childlike people incapable of handling independence. In the early years of the twentieth century, Lost Cause propaganda spread like a wisteria vine. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected statues of Confederate generals and paid for Confederate memorials in county seats from Maryland to Florida. From the 1880s to the 1930s, while white southern legislatures passed Jim Crow laws, New York publishers marketed plantation ladies’ diaries, Confederate officers’ memoirs, and novels presenting the white South as attractively tragic. Francis Hopkinson Smith, Thomas Nelson Page, Augusta Jane Evans, and dozens more pushed a new kind of reunion narrative in which the supposed grace and beauty of the South would join with the energy and economic power of the North to create a better America, often in the form of a southern lady marrying a Yankee officer who would settle down with her on the (restored) plantation. The best former slaves could hope for was to be hired as servants by the happy white couple. The Littlest Rebel, The Little Colonel, and other films told similar stories. Before the Civil War, white southerners used Scott’s works to learn how to be aristocrats; after the war, Scott taught them how to romanticize defeat and imitate his sad but valiant Jacobites pining for “the king over the water” who would never return.7

Newnan, GA, protest, by Robin Rayne Nelson, ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News, April 21, 2018, Alamy Stock Photo.

None of the Lost Cause writers equaled Dixon in impact because none of them went to the extremes he did in advocating for white supremacy as America’s only hope for survival. Dixon was aided in this ideological work by the Dunning School of historiography at Columbia University. Led by Professors William Archibald Dunning and John W. Burgess in the early years of the twentieth century, these scholars argued that Reconstruction was a travesty. As Burgess said: “A Black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason.” The children and grandchildren of the enslaved were an unassimilated Other, much like Eastern and Southern Europeans landing on Ellis Island. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America largely saw them as intellectually and morally inferior, even physically weaker, yet they were so disruptive to national order that they posed an active threat—a bit like the Mexican “rapists” and “murderers” Donald Trump warned us about. Eventually, Congress would pass the Immigration Act of 1924, severely restricting the number of migrants from ostensibly less desirable places.8

Dixon didn’t invent white American victimhood, but he amplified it, dramatizing the fear of nonwhites, race-mixing, socialism, feminism—anything that might challenge the divinely mandated power of pale, Protestant masculinity. His novels preached that white society must control Black men, lest the nation devolve into criminality, “mongrelization,” and sexual anarchy; white Christian men must circumscribe and “protect” the bodies of white women, lest the American family be destroyed and the moral fabric of the nation ripped to shreds. In The Clansman, an educated Black man assures formerly enslaved characters that soon “the intelligence and the wealth of this mighty state will be transferred to the Negro race. Lift up your heads. The world is yours. Take it. Here and now I serve notice on every white man who breathes that I am as good as he is. I demand, and I am going to have, the privilege of going to see him in his house or his hotel, eating with him and sleeping with him, and when I see fit, to take his daughter in marriage!”9

Such a declaration would terrify some white people even now, in the twenty-first century; imagine how incendiary it was in 1905. Dixon gave voice to the race demons that have tormented America since our earliest days; he made manifest the belittling stereotypes of Angry Black Woman; conniving Mulatto; incompetent Negro Politician; and, most consequential, the Black Beast. That voice is still with us. You hear it in white supremacist Dylann Roof, accusing his Black victims just before he shot them at Bible study in Charleston: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” You hear Dixon’s rage in the Charlottesville frat boy klansmen’s chant, “Go back to Africa!,” though Dixon, unlike those latter-day Nazis, was not at all anti-Semitic. Dixon is present in white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech celebrating the victory of Donald Trump in November 2016: “America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity.” You see Dixon’s handiwork in the breathless roundup of atrocities allegedly committed by people of color against white people in Breitbart News’s “Black Crime” section; and in the attacks on individuals such as Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice. Dixon’s racist discourse lurks in the Facebook post from a West Virginia mayor calling Michelle Obama an “ape in heels” and in comedian Roseanne Barr’s tweet likening former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a lawyer and graduate of Stanford University, to a monkey. Dixon’s style of negrophobia lives on in Fox News pundits, certain uber-right Republican members of Congress, and Donald Trump, all of whom have at various times called Barack Obama an America-hater, a Muslim, a “liar,” a “tar-baby,” and a foreigner alien to our way of life. These riled-up white people may not know it, but they’re Dixon’s ideological heirs. He is the great-granddaddy of white nationalism.10

Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street a week after the shooting, Charleston, SC, Mic Smith Photography LLC, Alamy Stock Photo. Activists for stricter immigration policies and counter-protesters demonstrate in Laguna Beach, California, by David McNew, August 20, 2017, Getty Images.

Thomas Frederick Dixon was born on January 11, 1864, the same day Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri proposed the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery in the United States. Dixon grew up in Shelby, North Carolina—by coincidence or karmic magnetism the town to which Dylann Roof fled after he murdered nine worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Dixon’s mother’s people had owned a large plantation; his uncle had been a Confederate officer and Grand Titan of the original Klan. Dixon was a prodigy, enrolling in Wake Forest College at the age of fifteen, soon dominating the Euzelian, the college’s debating society, and helping to found the student newspaper. For the first issue, he wrote an essay titled “African Slavery in America—Its Good Results—Why These Should Be Noted.” Dixon graduated in 1883 and won a fellowship to study politics at Johns Hopkins University, where he got friendly with a constitutional history student named Woodrow Wilson. Graduate school bored him, so he decided to become an actor, leaving Baltimore for New York after only a few months. When the Yankee philistines in charge of theater failed to recognize his talent, he returned home to North Carolina, ran for the state legislature, and took to studying the law. He figured he might as well study divinity while he was at it. In 1886, he passed the bar, was ordained as a Baptist minister, and eloped with a preacher’s daughter. He was twenty-two. By the time he was thirty-five, he was a celebrity minister at churches in Boston and Manhattan, attracting huge congregations with his blazing sermon style, and making fancy friends like John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt. By 1900, he was out of the ministry, lecturing all over the country on colonialism (he was for it), votes for women (against it), and the urgent need to send “the Negro” back to Africa.11

Public speaking made Dixon rich: he bought a Virginia mansion and a yacht he christened Dixie. On one of his tub-thumping lecture tours, he saw a “Tom Show,” a theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just as Twain blamed Scott for the Civil War, many white southerners blamed Stowe. Of course, Scott’s novels are no more responsible for the Civil War than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, despite the apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln greeting Harriet Beecher Stowe at a meeting in 1862 with, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Neither Scott nor Stowe invented chattel slavery or the cotton economy or tariffs. Slave-holding southerners used Scott’s novels to justify what they thought was a virtuous social system; Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an attack on slavery and how America betrayed its promise of freedom. The text that ignited the Civil War was actually the Constitution, at least if you believe South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. Nevertheless, Dixon blamed Stowe, vowing to “correct” her with a blockbuster of his own. Published in 1902, The Leopard’s Spots celebrates the sweet life on the old plantation, condemning abolitionists and “Radical Reconstruction” for inspiring Black folks to demand their rights. One character fumes, “A little Yankee woman wrote a crude book. The single act of that woman’s will caused the war, killed a million men, desolated and ruined the South, and changed the history of the world.” The Leopard’s Spots was a hit, selling one hundred thousand copies in 1902 alone. Eventually, there were more than a million in print.12

By the time Dixon died in 1946, he had published twenty-two novels, along with sermons, plays, and rants on socialism, feminism, states’ rights, race, and other perennial white nationalist topics. Dixon subscribed to “scientific racism,” a set of theories claiming that race is biological and Northern Europeans represent the highest order of civilization. There’s little that’s scientific about scientific racism, but plenty that’s racist. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Thomas Jefferson wondered if Black people weren’t “originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances,” but there’s no doubt, he said, that they’re “inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” Collecting skulls and measuring them, the American physician and ethnographer Samuel Morton concluded (predictably) in his Crania Americana (1839) that Caucasians have the biggest brains, while Africans have the smallest.13

Scientific racism in America achieved its fullest expression in The Passing of the Great Race, which appeared in 1916, a year after The Birth of a Nation. Author Madison Grant warned that giving rights to Black people would be an act of “racial suicide” and miscegenation—“mongrelization,” as the racial hygienists termed it—and a “social and racial crime of the first magnitude.” Dixon, along with Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, who called it a “capital book,” agreed: the “lower races,” as Grant deemed them, must remain separate and subordinate. Adolf Hitler was a big fan of Madison Grant, calling The Passing of the Great Race his “Bible.”14

Activists for stricter immigration policies and counter-protesters demonstrate in Laguna Beach, California, by David McNew, August 20, 2017, Getty Images.

The fight for equal rights during Reconstruction, the white backlash, restrictions on immigration in the early twentieth century, and women’s struggle for the vote, manifest a fundamental dispute over who should be allowed the full benefits of American citizenship. More than a century on, we still haven’t decided. White people control most of the nation’s legal, cultural, economic, and political capital, yet many worry that any concession, any atom of power accorded people of color means less for them. Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric played to white paranoia and resentment: maybe his election after eight years of Barack Obama was, as Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested, “the awful price of a Black presidency.” We’ve been here before. During Reconstruction, something like two thousand Black men were elected to local and state offices. A few even made it to Washington, D.C.: Hiram Revels, a freeborn North Carolinian, and Blanche Bruce, who’d been a slave in Virginia, became United States senators. P. B. S. Pinchback, son of a white planter and an enslaved woman, served as governor of Louisiana for about six weeks in 1872; in 1868, South Carolina had a majority Black legislature. These attempts at representative democracy didn’t last long, about eight years. In late 1876, after an excruciatingly close and corrupt presidential election, southern Democrats cut a deal with Republicans to give the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Electoral College votes he needed on one condition: that the Feds withdraw Union troops from the South, leaving the antebellum ruling class to reassert its power. White folks called this “Redemption” and swiftly set about enshrining Jim Crow. Yet white supremacy never felt secure. Black people had taken over once—what if they tried it again? In Dixon’s Leopard’s Spots, Reconstruction Era Black officeholders are feckless and corrupt. They establish a brothel inside the North Carolina capitol, build a bar at the foot of George Washington’s statue, and booze it up.15

Things are even worse in the South Carolina legislature depicted in The Clansman. Dixon’s chapter, “The Riot in the Master’s Hall,” reflects his disgust: “The space behind the seats of the members was strewn with corks, broken glass, stale crusts, greasy pieces of paper, and picked bones. The hall was packed with negroes, smoking, chewing, jabbering, pushing, perspiring . . . a big Negro bawled: ‘Dat’s all right! De cullud man on top!’” A white man, one of “the remains of Aryan civilization,” as Dixon puts it, witnesses this scene on the chamber floor with the portraits of the old aristocracy “on the walls, in marble bas-relief, the still white faces of Robert Hayne and George McDuffie, through whose veins flowed the blood of Scottish kings.”16

Reconstruction was not, despite Dixon’s overwrought propagandizing, the equivalent of the Jacobites’ defeat or the Highland Clearances as run through Sir Walter Scott’s romance-making machine. Nor was it a nonstop assault on the rule of law and the chastity of white women. It was democracy. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “There was one thing that the white South feared more than negro dishonesty, ignorance, and incompetency, and that was negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.” A century later, things are depressingly similar. When the half-African Barack Obama became president (a mere 390 years after English colonists dragged twenty Angolans onto the Virginia shore), he had to endure a congressman shouting, “You lie!” in the middle of a speech, social media posts depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch, and “jokes” about him “chugging forties,” washing down his fried chicken with malt liquor. White nationalists vowed to “take our country back”—back to an imagined white-dominated America where everybody says “Merry Christmas.”17

Activists protest crackdown on medical marijuana, by Justin Sullivan, San Fransicso, CA, February 16, 2012, Getty Images.

The population of the United States will be majority minority by 2045. Even so, it’s unlikely that white economic and social power will have diminished to the point of parity with African Americans and Latino/as by then. White folks have, after all, a four-hundred-year head start. Nevertheless, as New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow has said, many suffer from “white extinction anxiety.” The Trump administration calls the immigrants and asylum seekers trying to cross the U.S.–Mexico border “an invasion”; Congressman Steve King of Iowa says, “You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies”; and scientific racism is back—or perhaps it never left. Sociologist Charles Murray gives pseudoscientific cover to conservatives who insist that affirmative action and other social programs are a waste of time. His famous book The Bell Curve (1994), written with psychologist Richard Herrnstein, claims that race is a determining factor in intelligence. White people in Thomas Dixon’s day clung to that idea and some in contemporary America still cling to it—even people who should know better, like Nobel Prize–winning biologist James Watson, who has lamented developed-world policies in Africa because they “are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” Donald Trump concurs; he famously dismissed Haiti, Nigeria, and other African nations as “shithole countries.”18

Dixon was obsessed with “racial purity,” fearing miscegenation would lead to cultural and moral collapse. In his novels, even racial progressives know this: in The Leopard’s Spots, an old abolitionist, a patron of Black education and political advancement, draws the line at the thought of his daughter marrying a part-Black man. He throws her suitor out of his house, huffing: “One drop of your blood in my family could push it backward three thousand years in history. If you were to win her consent, a thing unthinkable, I would do what old Virginius did in the Roman Forum—kill her with my own hand rather than see her sink in your arms into the Black waters of a Negroid life!”19

Marriage between a Black person and a white person wasn’t legal until the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia. Alabama didn’t overturn its ban (superseded by the Constitution) on mixed-race marriages until 2000. Miscegenation still upsets white supremacists. In a now famous Breitbart article, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos write, “The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.” White supremacist outlets such as VDARE and American Renaissance lament race-mixing. The black-shirted carriers of tiki torches in Charlottesville asserted the privilege of the white and the Christian, hollering, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”20

Dixon joined this battle more than a century before neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, white militia members, and Klansmen marched to Lee Park in 2017. In 1906, when Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain staged an event at Carnegie Hall to raise money for Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University), Dixon sent a messenger with a note saying he’d give Tuskegee $10,000 if Washington “would state at the meeting that he did not desire social equality for the negro and that Tuskegee was opposed to the amalgamation of the races.” In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, prompting South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman (who in 1876 had been a member of the Red Shirts, a racist vigilante group), to snarl, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n—-r will necessitate our killing a thousand n—-rs in the South before they will learn their place again.” One of the stanzas of an anonymous piece of doggerel making the rounds of the popular press read: “I see a way to settle it / Just as clear as water, / Let Mr. Booker Washington / Marry Teddy’s daughter.”21

William Faulkner wrote in Absalom, Absalom!, “Let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color, too.” White Americans worried about what would happen if Black and white people socialized together. From the 1880s until well into the 1960s, Georgia law forbade Black and white amateur baseball teams from playing within two blocks of each other. In Oklahoma, a Black corpse could not ride in a hearse previously used for a white corpse; and in Mississippi, you could get six months in jail for any written “arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality.” Dixon’s fiction fed white rage with scenes like one in The Clansman in which a Black man repeatedly described as “ape-like” rapes fifteen-year-old Marion Lenoir. In The Leopard’s Spots, a gang of Black soldiers abducts Annie Camp, daughter of a Confederate veteran, on her wedding day. One of the white men riding off to rescue Annie asks her father: “What shall we do, Tom? If we shoot, we may kill Annie.” Tom replies, “Shoot, man! My God, shoot! There are some things worse than death.” Later, Annie’s little sister Flora is found lying “on the ground with her clothes torn to shreds and stained with blood.” In The Flaming Sword (1939), Dixon’s last novel, a Black man bizarrely inspired by the poetry of James Weldon Johnson (which Dixon clearly had not read), tortures and rapes a white girl, subjecting her to “the agony and shame of indescribable sex atrocities,” which Dixon then spends three pages describing.22

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right rally at the University of Virginia, by Shay Horse, Charlottesville, VA, August 11, 2017, NurPhoto via Getty Images.

This is “race porn,” designed to disgust but also to titillate. The white powers-that-were built a social, political, and economic system to protect white women from sexual degradation by lustful and/or revenge-minded Black men. But perhaps white men’s fear of (and fascination with) Black male sexuality results from transference: during slavery (and after), white men could rape or sexually exploit Black women with little or no consequence. Albion Tourgée, a Union soldier turned Reconstruction Era judge in North Carolina, said that the Klan raped the wives and daughters of politically active freed slaves, trying to frighten Blacks into submission. After emancipation, white men feared that not only would Black men demand sexual access to white women, but—given the long-cherished fantasies of Black sexual potency—white women might welcome them. The white philanthropist Joanna Burden in Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) finds the housebreaking Joe Christmas most arousing when he reveals he may be part-Black. After Joe Christmas kills her, the town has a kind of erotic response to her body; they “believed and hoped that she had been ravished, too: at least once before her throat was cut and at least once afterward.”23

The “black beast rapist” terrorized white people in their imaginations. White terror against Black people was a reality. At least six (possibly many more) residents of the turpentine hamlet of Rosewood, Florida, were killed in 1923 when white people heard “something” about a white woman who was attacked by an unknown (and possibly mythical) Black man. The Scottsboro Boys, nine young African Americans in Alabama, were falsely accused of attacking two white women on a train in 1931. In 1949, four teenagers in Groveland, Florida, found themselves accused of raping a white girl. Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall murdered two of them, claiming they tried to escape. None were guilty. Politicians from 1877 onward used the fear of Black men to create ever more stringent Jim Crow laws, all following Dixon’s lead in trying to contain what they imagined was out-of-control Black male lust. Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, filibustering an anti-lynching bill in 1938, waxed Dixonesque: “Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”24

The rhetoric these days is slightly less florid, but the sentiments are remarkably consistent. White nationalist pinup Lana Lokteff, co-owner of the alt-right media company Red Ice, gives speeches warning white women that brown and Black men want to rape them. At a 2017 rally in Ohio, Donald Trump informed the crowd that gang members “take a young, beautiful girl, sixteen, fifteen, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.”25

This is nothing new for Trump. In 1989, after police arrested five teenaged boys, four African American and one Latino, for allegedly beating and raping a white woman in Central Park, he took out full-page newspaper ads howling for blood: “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.” In truth, the New York cops beat confessions out of the boys, denying them sleep, food, and water. In 2014, DNA evidence cleared them. By then, the Central Park Five had served at least ten years in prison, and the real rapist had gone on to brutalize other victims. Nevertheless, Trump called their exoneration “a disgrace.” Yusuf Salaam, one of the Five, said, “Had this been the 1950s, that sick type of justice that they wanted—somebody from that darker place of society would have most certainly come to our homes, dragged us from our beds and hung us from trees in Central Park. It would have been similar to what they did to Emmett Till.”26

Protesters at Occupy Wall Street, by Rose-Marie Murray, Raleigh, NC, October 15, 2011, Alamy Stock Photo.

By the 1930s, Thomas Dixon had lost most of his fortune after spending lavishly on a film production company that failed to generate hits and making lousy real estate deals. Members of the KKK were no longer his heroes. Dixon disapproved of the Second Klan, the post-1915 version he helped to inspire. They were too anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic—Dixon, unlike some white supremacists, considered Catholics and Jews just as “white” as the Scottish Presbyterians he lionized. Most of all, the new-look Klan’s members were largely what Dixon would regard as “white trash,” unmannerly and gratuitously violent men who were not—unlike his uncle, the Grand Titan, or Ben Cameron, hero of The Clansman—gentlemen. Nevertheless, Dixon’s race politics remained the same. The Flaming Sword bitterly attacks those who fail to protect white womanhood and protect the white ethno-state. The title is a slap at Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, in which Du Bois wrote that white racists, like the cherubim barring humankind from Eden, prevent social and economic progress: “A clear vision of a world without inordinate individual wealth, of capital without profit, and of income based on work alone, is the path out, not just for America, but for all men. Across this path stands the South with flaming sword.”27

In The Flaming Sword, Angela Cameron (daughter of Clansman hero Ben Cameron and sister of the rape victim Marie) initially represents a liberal New South—kinder, gentler, hopeful, naive. After her sister’s death, she moves to New York, determined to “study” African Americans and come to terms with what happened to Marie. She goes to work for the NAACP, which Dixon calls “the Negro Junta”; listens to jazz, “a direct growth of the African jungle”; and describes dancing at Harlem clubs as “an expression of sex impulses straight from the tropical forests.” Disgusted by the sight of Black men squiring blondes around Manhattan, she comes to believe that America must become a truly white nation, and those of “African blood” must be expelled—or exterminated. Just then, leftist revolutionaries topple the government in Washington. A Marxist army marches north from Mexico, and the “Nat Turner Legion” of Black guerilla fighters conquers Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The insurgency deploys sexual violence as a weapon: “Negro criminals have been detailed to fire every Southern city, rape every white woman who can be taken.” Angela joins the largely southern white resistance and vows to save civilization.28

The defenders of “civilization” fight on today, battling the supposed takeover of the country by people of color, feminists, LGBTQ people, Muslims, socialists, and globalists. Some white people are still trapped inside Thomas Dixon’s sensibility. Recent studies from the American Psychological Association, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others show that Black youth and men are perceived as violent, dangerous, and older and physically larger than they are. Cleveland police said they thought Tamir Rice was twenty years old. He was twelve. Young Black men have been shot by the cops for spurious reasons or no reason at all. A Black student was murdered on the University of Maryland campus by a white student with alleged ties to white nationalists. People of color have been stopped by the police for swimming, taking a phone call in a hotel lobby, staying in an Airbnb, sitting in a Starbucks, and walking down a public street. They’ve been denied the ability to vote, or even to register to vote.29

Dixon’s ideological great-grandchildren, never really silent, shout good and loud now, sounding just as scared as they did in 1868, 1915, and 1963. Of course, it’s not only Black folks they’re terrified of now, but brown, too: “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like,” warned Fox News’s Laura Ingraham. “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” Ingraham’s colleague Tucker Carlson suggested on air that immigrants make America “dirtier,” while Rep. Steve King has said (more than once) that non-Europeans contribute nothing of note to civilization. Hate crimes by white people are on the rise, yet white people think people of color are out to get them. This is about fear of losing power, as it always has been. Du Bois put it plainly in Black Reconstruction, “It was not, then, race and culture calling out of the South in 1876; it was property and privilege, shrieking to its own kind, and privilege and property heard and recognized the voice of its own.”30

This article was first published in the Left/Right Issue (vol. 25, no. 3: Fall 2019).

Diane Roberts is an eighth-generation Floridian, and currently professor of creative writing at Florida State University. She is the author of four books, most recently Dream State, a historical memoir of Florida, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. Her work has appeared on NPR and the BBC, and in the New York TimesGuardianOxford American, and Tampa Bay Times.

Header image: Make America First sign at the Republican National Convention, July 20, 2016, by Kevin Dietsch, UPI/Alamy Stock Photo.NOTES

  1. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1883), 467–469; “Statistics from the Civil War,” Facing History and Ourselves,” accessed June 23, 2019,
  2. Michele K. Gillespie and Randal L. Hall, eds., Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009). Dixon also produced eighteen films, though none were as successful as Birth of a Nation; see Anthony Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004). Various numbers were reported for lynchings; see, “History of Lynchings,” NAACP, accessed June 5, 2019,; and Ida B. Wells, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1892–1893–1894 (Chicago, 1895).
  3. On the origins and morphing meanings of “America First,” see Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream” (New York: Basic Books, 2018). On whiteness as a category, see Emily Bazelon, “White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness,” New York Times Magazine, June 13, 2018, Laurie Kellman, “McConnell on Reparations for Slavery: Not a ‘Good Idea,’” Associated Press, June 18, 2019,
  4. Prasenjit Duara, “Development and the Crisis of Global Nationalism,” Brookings Institution, October 4, 2018,; Stephen A. Crockett, Jr., “Trump Rally Brings Out White Supremacist ‘Proud Boys’ Wearing Matching Polos,” The Root, June 19, 2019,
  5. Dixon is popular with “intellectual” white supremacists such as Jared Taylor, who don’t think he’s a great writer but a powerful one; see Jared Taylor, “Race and Literature: Why Is It Always Liberal?,” American Renaissance, January 20, 2012, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage, 2011), esp. parts one and two. Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  6. For more on cross-burnings and other Klan activity, see Sandhya Somashekhar, “The Confederate Flag Resurged. The KKK Burned a Cross. Racial Tensions Flared in a Southern Town,” Washington Post, February 2, 2018,; and Harold Gater, “Another Burned Cross Found in Lawrence County,” Mississippi Clarion Ledger, August 8, 2018, Petula Dvorak, “Trump Lit the Torches of White Supremacy in Charlottesville. We Must Extinguish Them,” Washington Post, August 13, 2017, Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” Letters, 1936–1949, ed. Richard Harwell (New York: Macmillan, 1976), 52–53.
  7. W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1984), 240. Edward A. Pollard was first to cast the Civil War as a clash between “two nations of opposite civilizations,” one “chivalric” and cultivated, the other mercantile and hopelessly bourgeois. The Lost Cause; A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E. B. Treat, 1866), 47. See “A Brief History of Jim Crow,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, accessed June 17, 2019, Allen G. Breed, “‘The Lost Cause’: The Women’s Group Fighting for Confederate Monuments,” Guardian, August 10, 2018, On Lost Cause novels and other literary expressions of Confederate sentiment, see Diane Roberts, The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region (New York: Routledge, 1994). Shirley Temple starred in The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel, both directed by David Butler and released in 1935. “The king over the water” refers to Charles Edward Stuart, the “Young Pretender” hoping to recover the British throne for the Stuarts. The romanticized failure of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” became a Scottish “Lost Cause.” As Tom Lehrer says in “The Folksong Army” on his 1965 album That Was the Year That Was, while the oppressors “may have won all the battles, / We had all the good songs.”
  8. John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, eds., The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013); John W. Burgess, Reconstruction and the Constitution (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 133.
  9. Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1970), 275.
  10. Dixon, Clansman, 219; Kevin Sullivan, “‘Evil, Evil, Evil as Can Be’: Emotional Testimony as Dylann Roof Trial Begins,” Washington Post, December 7, 2016,; Kelly Weill, “Alt-Right Charlottesville Marcher Brandon Higgs Accused of Trying to Kill Black Men,” The Daily Beast, February 12, 2019,; Eric Goldstein, “‘Now Is the Time to Show Your True Colors’: Southern Jews, Whiteness, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” in Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History, eds. Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2006), 134–155; Daniel Lombroso and Yoni Appelbaum, “‘Hail Trump!’: White Nationalists Salute the President-Elect,” Atlantic, November 21, 2016,; Morgan Winsor, “Woman Who Called Michelle Obama an ‘Ape in Heels’ Pleads Guilty to FEMA Fraud,” ABC News, February 18, 2019,; Kelly Wynne, “Roseanne Barr on Valerie Jarrett: ‘I Thought She Was White,’” Newsweek, June 24, 2018,
  11. See Slide, American Racist, for biographical information on Dixon.
  12. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2016); Daniel R. Vollaro, “Lincoln, Stowe, and the ‘Little Woman/Great War’ Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote,” Journal of Abraham Lincoln Association 30, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 18–34,; David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (New York: Norton, 2012); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper, 2014); “Confederate States of America—Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, accessed June 24, 2019,
  13. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: Penguin, 1989), 149–151; Samuel Morton, Crania Americana (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839).
  14. Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 60. Roosevelt wrote Grant a letter which was printed as a blurb praising the book; see Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” New Yorker, August 13, 2015, Adam Serwer, “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots,” Atlantic, April 2019,
  15. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “My President Was Black,” Atlantic, January/February 2017, On black office holders during Reconstruction, see “Reconstruction’s New Order,” History, Art and Archives, United States House of Representatives, accessed May 15, 2019,; and Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). For an account of the fraught 1876 presidential election and the Compromise of 1877 that resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, see Roy Morris Jr., Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden and the Stolen Election of 1876 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003). Thomas Dixon Jr., The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 1865–1900 (New York: Doubleday, 1902), 188.
  16. Dixon, Clansman, 264, 266.
  17. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and Its Benefits,” American Historical Review 15, no. 4 (July 1910): 795; “Rep. Wilson Shouts, ‘You Lie!’ to Obama During Speech,” CNN, September 10, 2009,; “Mayor to Quit over Obama Watermelon E-mail,” NBC, February 27, 2009,; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Potential Glenn Beck Replacement Eric Bolling’s Racially-Tinged Language: ‘Obama’s Chugging 40’s’ in Ireland,” ThinkProgress, May 24, 2011,; Liam Stack, “How the ‘War on Christmas’ Controversy Was Created,” New York Times, December 19, 2016,
  18. William H. Frey, “The U.S. Will Become ‘Minority White’ in 2045, Census Projects,” Brookings Institution, March 14, 2018,; Fiona Blackshaw, ed., “Nine Charts About Wealth Inequality in America (Updated),” Urban Institute, October 5, 2017,; Charles M. Blow, “White Extinction Anxiety,” New York Times, June 24, 2018,; “National Emergency: Is There a Crisis on the U.S.–Mexico Border,” BBC, February 15, 2019,; Philip Bump, “Rep. Steve King Warns That ‘Our Civilization’ Can’t be Restored with ‘Somebody Else’s Babies,’” Washington Post, March 12, 2017,; Gavin Evans, “The Unwelcome Revival of ‘Race Science,’” Guardian, March 2, 2018,; Julia Belluz, “DNA Scientist James Watson Has a Remarkably Long History of Sexist, Racist Public Comments,” Vox, January 15, 2019,; Eli Watkins and Abby Phillip, “Trump Decries Immigrants from ‘Shithole Countries’ Coming to the U.S.,” CNN, January 12, 2018, See also Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016).
  19. Dixon, Leopard’s Spots, 398.
  20. Aaron Blake, “Alabama Was a Final Holdout on Desegregation and Interracial Marriage. It Could Happen Again on Gay Marriage,” Washington Post, February 9, 2015,; Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” Breitbart, March 29, 2016,; David A. Graham, “Charlottesville Was a Turning Point,” Atlantic, April 29, 2019,
  21. The Raleigh Times, January 25, 1906; Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (New York: Knopf, 2002), 216; “N—-rs in the White House,” Sedalia Sentinel (MO), October 25, 1901.
  22. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Random House, 1936), 112; Graham, “Charlottesville”; Dixon, Clansman, 304; Dixon, Leopard’s Spots, 126, 375; Thomas F. Dixon Jr., The Flaming Sword (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005), 138.
  23. Foner, Reconstruction, 430. Tourgée went on to litigate Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932), 315–316.
  24. Michael D’Orso, Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996); Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); Gilbert King, The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (New York: Harper, 2013); James O. Heath, To Face Down Dixie: South Carolina’s War on the Supreme Court in the Age of Civil Rights (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017), 156; Wilkerson, Other Suns, 303.
  25. Emma Bowman, “The Women Behind the ‘Alt-Right,’” NPR, August 20, 2017,; Graham Lanktree, “Trump Says Immigrant Gang Members ‘Slice and Dice’ Young, Beautiful Girls,” Newsweek, July 26, 2017,
  26. Gabrielle Bruney, “Breaking Down Donald Trump’s Deranged Involvement in the Central Park Five Case,” Esquire, May 26, 2019,; Oliver Laughland, “Donald Trump and the Central Park Five: The Racially Charged Rise of a Demagogue,” Guardian, February, 17, 2016,
  27. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 706.
  28. Dixon, Flaming Sword, 220, 452, 443.
  29. “People See Black Men as Larger, More Threatening Than Same-Sized White Men,” American Psychological Association, March 13, 2017,; “Discrimination Pervades Daily Life, Affects Health Across Groups in the U.S., NPR/Harvard/RWJF Poll Shows,” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, October 24, 2017,–affects-health-across-groups.html; Christopher Ingraham, “Why White People See Black Boys like Tamir Rice as Older, Bigger and Guiltier Than They Really Are,” Washington Post, December 28, 2015,; Christina Tkacik, “Bowie State Student’s Stabbing Death at University of Maryland to be Prosecuted as a Hate Crime,” Baltimore Sun, October 17, 2017,; Maya Eliahou and Christina Zdanowicz, “A White Woman Allegedly Hit a Black Teen, Used Racial Slurs and Told Him to Leave a Pool. Then She Bit a Cop,” CNN, June 29, 2018,; “Airbnb Owner Blames Her Black Guests’ ‘Lack of Good Nature’ as Reason for Her Neighbor Calling the Police,” Atlanta Black Star, May 10, 2018,; Matt Stevens, “Starbucks CEO Apologizes After Arrests of Two Black Men,” New York Times, April 15, 2018,; Topher Sanders, Kate Rabinowitz, and Benjamin Conarck, “Walking While Black,” ProPublica and Florida Times-Union, November 16, 2017,; Danielle Root and Adam Barclay, “Voter Suppression During the 2018 Midterm Elections,” Center for American Progress, November 20, 2018,
  30. “Discussion: Ingraham Denies Saying Anything Racist in Her Televised Racist Segment,” TPM Discussions, August 10, 2018,; Erik Wemple, “Tucker Carlson Said Immigration Makes America ‘Dirtier.’ So an Advertiser Took Action,” Washington Post, December 15, 2018,; Hatewatch Staff, “The Biggest Lie in the White Supremacist Propaganda Playbook: Unraveling the Truth About ‘Black-On-White-Crime,’” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 14, 2018,; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, xiv. On immigration from nations outside Northern Europe, see G. K. Peatling, “Thomas Dixon, Scotch-Irish Identity and ‘The Southern People,’” Safundi 9, no. 3 (July 2008): 239–256.
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