Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Titles by Thomas Dixon >> Thomas Dixon, 1864-1946

Thomas Dixon, Jr.: Conflicts in History and Literature
by Andrew Leiter

Why publish an electronic edition of Thomas Dixon's notorious trilogy of the Reconstruction era a century after he wrote The Leopard's Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907)? Dixon's gross caricatures of African Americans, his praise for the Ku Klux Klan, and his defense of lynching place his novels among the most offensive in American literature. Nor does Dixon's melodramatic prose provide much redeeming literary quality, if one could somehow separate substance from style. Yet while Dixon's racism and literary limitations do not recommend his novels to posterity, he remains an essential figure for understanding southern literature and segregation at the beginning of the twentieth century. With more than a century separating us from the publication of Dixon's first novel, readers may find it difficult to believe that Dixon's views on race were once in the mainstream. As the literary champion of white supremacy and the bestselling author of his day, however, Dixon's novels were not only in the mainstream, they had no small part in shaping the national perception of racial tensions.

His version of Reconstruction and "redemption" (the restoration of white supremacy) in North Carolina was overt propaganda that sought both to remind the white South of its racial duties and to justify segregation and racial violence to critics outside the South. Reaching a vast national audience, Dixon was wildly successful in this endeavor. According to Joel Williamson (1) , Doubleday, Page & Company printed approximately one copy of The Leopard's Spots "for every eight Americans," and when D. W. Griffith combined portions of The Leopard's Spots with Dixon's companion novel The Clansman to create the landmark film The Birth of a Nation (1915), Dixon's vitriolic racism, vaguely disguised as chivalry, reached an even broader audience through the compelling new medium of film. After viewing the film, President Woodrow Wilson, who had been Dixon's friend at Johns Hopkins University, reportedly commented, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." (2) Dixon's powerful role in polarizing America's racial tension as a battle between virtuous white civilization and unredeemable black savagery has led one historian to argue that "Dixon probably did more to shape the lives of modern Americans than have some Presidents." (3) At the very least, Dixon was the most influential of the many voices who argued that African American degeneracy since the Civil War necessitated the complete oppression of the African American community.

I. Dixon's Ku Klux Klan Trilogy

Dixon was born in 1864 to a slaveholding family near Shelby, North Carolina. The Civil War was nearing its conclusion, and Dixon grew up in the economic, political, and racial turmoil that followed in the wake of the war. These Reconstruction years would later provide the subject matter for his most popular novels, but he would try a number of careers before he turned to fiction writing. Dixon attended Wake Forest University and graduated with honors before pursuing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University where he concentrated on political science and history. He departed without completing his degree in order to pursue an acting career in New York. When acting proved an impractical profession for Dixon, he returned to North Carolina and studied law. In 1884, the twenty-year-old Dixon successfully ran for the North Carolina State Legislature, but he abandoned politics in distaste after his first term and subsequently abandoned a successful law practice. Dixon then turned to the Baptist ministry, and he moved to Boston and then to New York where he was a popular preacher. Dixon's shift to fiction writing came suddenly in 1901 when he attended a stage production of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Outraged by Stowe's depictions of the antebellum South, Dixon determined to write his own version of southern history. (4) He penned The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden—1865-1900, and sent the manuscript to Walter Hines Page of Doubleday, Page, & Co. Page loved the novel, and Dixon's literary career was underway.

Dixon's Ku Klux Klan trilogy illustrates in broad thematic terms the necessity of the Klan for the defense of white civilization (The Leopard's Spots), the "glorious" success of the Klan in restoring white supremacy (The Clansman), and the disbanding of the Klan once it had become unnecessary (The Traitor). Although The Leopard's Spots contains superficial plotlines of romantic love and political intrigue, the novel serves primarily as an initiation novel, in which the hero Charles Gaston grows from a naïve youth who does not recognize the magnitude of the black threat into a man who is fully dedicated to white supremacy. Dixon intends his polemical defense of racist violence to have a similar effect on his readers as the racial "education" has on Charles Gaston. Dixon facilitates this transition in two ways. First, he parades a host of incidents highlighting the supposed regression of African Americans since emancipation when the controlling mechanism of slavery disappeared. Dixon's evidence of moral decrepitude ranges from the innate character flaws of stupidity, hypersexuality, insolence, and cowardice to crimes of political corruption, robbery, murder, and rape. Second, Gaston is tutored in white supremacy by the Reverend Durham who serves as the mouthpiece for Dixon's views on race. Repeatedly, Durham lectures Gaston and readers on the threat to white civilization and the need for racial purity:

One drop of Negro blood makes a Negro. It kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions. The beginning of Negro equality as a vital fact is the beginning of the end of this nation's life. There is enough Negro blood here to make mulatto the whole Republic. (5)

This threat to the nation, according to Durham (and Dixon), necessitates the complete political and social subjugation of the African American population, and the novel concludes with a quick and violent return to white supremacy.

While The Leopard's Spots concentrates more fully on the need for white supremacy than the terrorist violence (or valiant vigilantism as Dixon presents it) that restores it, The Clansman, as the title suggests, glorifies the violence that "saves" white civilization. The novel contains the same evidence of black degeneration, most notably the rapists, but Dixon delineates more fully the nature of the Klan's defense of civilization. Klan members are the former Confederate soldiers who fought heroically during the war and now ride chivalrously across the southern landscape defending white womanhood from the encroachment of black savagery. As the novel highlights the violent opposition between black and white, it also acts as a novel of reconciliation between North and South, with the Klan serving as the catalyst for that reunion. The regional reconciliation occurs symbolically through the relationship between two families: the northern carpetbagger Stonemans and the southern aristocratic Camerons. The Cameron siblings Ben (a Klansman) and Margaret (a southern belle) capture the hearts and minds of the Stoneman siblings, Elsie and Philip, whose sympathy for the white South and the Ku Klux Klan grows in pace with their love for their southern counterparts. These interregional romances are matched by a political reunion as well, as Augustus Stoneman—a Northern politician and ardent reconstructionist—finally comes to see the error of his ways. He renounces his commitment to African American political rights as well as his opposition to the Klan. This symbolic reconciliation of the American body politic, North and South, coincides with the restoration of white supremacy in the South.

In the final novel of the trilogy, Dixon resumes his historical narrative from the point at which the white South largely achieves political control. The Traitor contains the thematic staples of Dixon's fiction—romantic love, chivalry, conspiracy, white supremacy—but Dixon's overriding concern is to explain the "misconceptions" concerning the last days of the Klan from a perspective balanced between sympathetic and apologetic. In an effort to minimize the Klan's faults, Dixon carefully distinguishes between the early Klan, which he characterizes as the best men of the white South forced into action for self-preservation, and the later Klan, which he characterizes as the worst men of the white South who amount to cowardly bullies. When the "good" Klan has restored the political and social hierarchy of white supremacy, they disband. Some of the less honorable members, however, refuse to disband, and they use the Klan for their personal ends. These ignoble cowards harass Jewish shopkeepers and African American church meetings, but ultimately, they are forced out of action by their nobler predecessors in the Klan. Dixon suggests that this pattern accounts for national misperception about the Klan and that the South is capable of policing itself. The Traitor concludes with a diatribe against northern interference in southern affairs, including the Ku Klux Klan Acts (Dixon's Conspiracy Acts) that were meant to curb Klan violence in the South.

Existing in close relationship to his glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, Dixon's vilification of African Americans is as prejudiced as any in popular literature. Dixon's African American characters are prone to idleness, drunkenness, and the worst sorts of barbaric violence. For example, a woman murders her own child in The Leopard's Spots: "The mother had knocked him in the head and burned the body, in a drunken orgie with dissolute companions." (6) In The Traitor—the least vitriolic novel of the trilogy—African American servants lie for no reason, fight among themselves, and commit adultery. Throughout Dixon's fiction, sexual immorality appears as an innate and dangerous flaw of his African American characters. The mixed-race Lydia Brown of The Clansman seduces and corrupts Augustus Stoneman, who confesses that he "fell a victim to the wiles of the yellow vampire who kept my house" and sank "into the black abyss of animalism." (7) While African American women present a seductive threat to white men, the African American men of Dixon's fiction present a far more terrifying danger to white women—the danger of the black beast rapist. The "black beast" was an enduring image of the segregation era characterizing black males as sexually aggressive, only slightly removed from savagery, and particularly lustful toward white women. According to proponents of this image, if black men were not controlled—meaning segregated and constantly reminded of white supremacy—they would inevitably revert to their bestial nature and rape white women. Again and again Dixon returns to the image of bestial black men such as Gus (The Clansman) who roam the countryside raping virginal white women. This sensational image proved to be the most effective propaganda in Dixon's arsenal of racist stereotypes, and he would use the image as a justification of white supremacy and lynching in his fiction. As late as 1939, he wrote with apparent delight about the castration, torture, and murder of a rapist in The Flaming Sword. Dixon's contribution to pervasive rape fears in the South proved to be the most damaging and enduring legacy of his fiction. To understand his role in contorting perceptions of southern history and race relations, it is important both to distinguish the segregation era in which he wrote from the Reconstruction era about which he wrote, and to distinguish the historical realities of both periods from Dixon's fiction.

II. The Black Beast, Reconstruction, and Segregation

The sensational fears of black male sexuality to which Dixon pandered had not always permeated the national dialog on racial issues. During the antebellum period the sexual relationships between white men and enslaved women were a focal point of abolitionist attacks on slavery. Novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) highlighted the sexual victimization of enslaved women in an effort to garner outrage against slavery. It would only be after the Civil War, as African Americans began to exert their new political freedoms during Reconstruction, that fears of black male sexuality would emerge. This extraordinary turn of public perception with regard to interracial sex would have far-reaching, enduring, and devastating consequences for race relations in the United States. The focus shifted gradually at first and then with increasing speed as Reconstruction failed and the South moved into an era of vicious segregation. The transition in perspective on interracial sexual dynamics was, in fact, a shift in white minds, for African Americans did not forget the sexual abuse etched in the memories of individual victims and in the complexions of the mixed-race population. Nonetheless, the concerted and consistent efforts of post-bellum southern whites to define white women as the victims of black empowerment succeeded in reversing white America's perception of rape in the South and centralizing that new perception for its political gain.

With the emergence of an African American political class following the Civil War, issues of sex and race began to develop into flashpoints of contention and violence in the South as miscegenation fears played out in the racially mixed legislatures, and the cry of rape began to emerge as a deadly weapon in the terrorist war for white supremacy. In the sanctioned political arena of legislatures and conventions, the issue of legalizing interracial marriage proved particularly controversial. African American politicians introduced such legislation as a means of providing legal recourse for black women who had children by white men, but whites characterized such legislation as evidence that black men sought white wives. (8) These legislative conflicts had a grimmer counterpart in the racial violence marring the South. Throughout the Reconstruction South, whites sought to reestablish the supremacy they had lost in the political arena by enforcing their dominance through terror. Murders, riots, lynchings, whippings, and rapes became commonplace means for the Ku Klux Klan and other groups to establish white supremacy, and the reality of interracial sex in this violent climate remained white men raping black women. In 1866, whites rampaged through the black areas of Memphis, killing dozens of African Americans and raping at least five women during the mayhem. (9) Sometimes white men targeted the wives or daughters of politically active freedmen for rape: the novelist and carpetbagger Albion Tourgée claimed that the Klan raped at least nine women in his North Carolina judicial district in its campaign to establish white dominance. (10)

Despite the harsh evidence of ongoing sexual violence against black women (or perhaps in part because of it), Reconstruction saw the first real rise in white fears of the black rapist. Historians Alan Trelease and Forest Wood have separately noted that there is little evidence to suggest that there was a surge of assaults on white women; nonetheless, Wood argues that white newspapers made the most of any such accusations. (11) He convincingly demonstrates that a black man accused of rape during Reconstruction was sure to meet a quick death either at the hands of a mob or at the end of a "legal" rope. These quick and violent responses set the precedent for white reactions to black men accused of rape for the next seventy years. In his study of Ku Klux Klan activities during Reconstruction, Trelease concurs that violent death was the result of any accusation of rape. Still, a pattern—or more accurately, the lack of a pattern—emerges from Trelease's survey of Klan atrocities and distinguishes Reconstruction rape fears from those in the later part of the century. Namely, accusations of rape were not particularly widespread relative to the rest of the "crimes" for which the Klan dispensed its "justice." Throughout the South the Klan whipped and killed black men and women for arson, theft, murder, miscegenation, voting, organizing, Union sympathizing, any number of other reasons, and sometimes none at all. (12) While it would also be the case later in the nineteenth century that blacks were murdered by whites based on a variety of purported crimes, rape accusations were more common in the later period. More importantly, whites used rape as an excuse or smokescreen for violence against blacks more frequently toward the end of the century than they did during Reconstruction.

The racial violence of Reconstruction was the predominant social concern of the South during Dixon's childhood. Born a year before the conclusion of the Civil War, Dixon was thirteen as Reconstruction drew to a close, and he was not shielded from the racial struggle in those years. His uncle was a prominent member of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan, and Dixon witnessed the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman. (13) It would be a quarter century before Dixon turned to fiction writing, but when he did so, he would retrospectively glorify the violence that restored white supremacy to the South of his youth.

With the presidential electoral compromise of 1876-77 that saw the election of the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for a national policy of non-interference with southern affairs, the Reconstruction era drew to a close and ended any substantive hope of political and social equality for African Americans. (14) While blacks continued to hold political clout in some regions and strive for political justice in others, by the late 1870s white dominance had largely been restored. With this restoration came a holding pattern in rape fears. White sexual fears neither disappeared nor increased; rather, they seemed to drift, awaiting the current of southern white thought to take a definitive direction with regard to African American destiny. Joel Williamson describes the years following Reconstruction as a "conservative restoration," by which he means that old style paternalism was the dominant trend in southern race relations. The racist paternalists viewed African Americans as child-like inferiors and were dedicated to social inequality; yet theirs was a generous view of African Americans in comparison to that of the radical racists who emerged in the 1890s. The conservative voices faded from the scene as the more ardent radicals like Dixon spread the view that African American degeneration since emancipation had rendered them unfit for any role in society other than subservience and separation. (15) This transition gave rise to a new generation of white leaders whom historian Glenda Gilmore labels "The New White Man" in her study of segregation in North Carolina. This "New White Man," Gilmore explains, "stated bluntly that the prerogatives of manhood—voting, sexual choice, freedom of public space—should be reserved for him alone." (16) With the rise of these radicals, rape fears had a new direction, and those fears—spurred on by radical voices at every turn—spread with redoubled energy.

Dixon was the most influential of these racist propagandists around the turn of the century, but he was only one of a host of other commentators who were also strengthening the white belief that the African American population was regressing severely since emancipation. Some of these commentators dressed their arguments in pseudoscientific or Darwinian language. (17) As early as 1868, John H. Van Evrie argued that innate moral and physical deficiencies of freed men and women—deficiencies exacerbated by a new social status—were contributing to their rapid decline and eventual extinction: "it is absolutely certain that, as a class, they will become extinct, and a hundred years hence it is reasonable to suppose that no such social monstrosity as a 'free negro' will be found in America." (18) In 1900, Charles Carroll contended: "But for the existence of the lower apes we, at this late day, would have no alternative than to decide that the Negro is the sole representative of his species or that he is a man. . .this interesting family of animals, though unfit for domestic purposes, are invaluable to man in that they enable him to determine the Negro's proper position in the universe—that he is simply an ape." (19) While other commentators on African American character did not tend to argue explicitly against African American humanity (even when their characterization suggested as much), they did tend to agree with Van Evrie that African Americans were lower types of humans fit only for service—a capability even Carroll seems to acknowledge in his backhanded distinction between blacks and the "lower apes." Frederick L. Hoffmann, for example, argued that once freedmen stepped beyond their proper role as servants, such moral and physical degeneration set in that "it would seem criminal indifference on the part of a civilized people to ignore it." (20) The white South would be guilty of no such "criminal indifference," and efforts to keep the African American community subservient turned again and again to the sexual threat posed by the purportedly degenerating black beast.

The most consistent element in discussions of the "New Negro Crime," as Harper's labeled sexual assaults against white women, was the assertion that such crimes were unheard of during slavery. (21) Thus, the supremacist reasoned, sexual assault was the result of African American males' inability to control themselves in their new social status, and consequently, it was necessary both to restrict their new liberties as much as possible and to separate them physically from the white community. For example, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who would later become the first female Senator in the United States, told the State Agricultural Society of Georgia that the rape of white women was increasing "by reason of the corruption and debasement of the right of suffrage; that it would grow and increase with every election where white men equalized themselves at the polls with an inferior race. . . . " (22) Charles H. Smith complained that freedmen had "too much education and too little work," and he argued that to stop the rape of schoolgirls, "The negro will have to be disfranchised and a separate code enacted, that will fit him." (23) R. W. Shufeldt also believed the education of African Americans had led to criminality, and that the only way to counteract "the ever-present desire to ravish the white women of the dominant race" and prevent racial mixing was to enforce "complete and thorough separation." (24) Likewise, Thomas Nelson Page complained that African American leaders should cease "talk of social equality that inflames the ignorant Negro," and instead, work to stop "the crime of ravishing and murdering women and children." (25) Though none of these racial pundits offered any concrete evidence that the African American right to vote, pursue an education, or share public space was linked to the perceived increase in sexual assaults or any upswing in racial mixture, the consistent conflation of these issues was commonplace in white minds.

Southern white politicians exacerbated this confusion as they solidified white support at home and defended segregation and racial violence to the rest of the nation. The racial demagogues found their most powerful rhetorical legerdemain in conflating the political and social rights of African Americans with miscegenation and the defense of white women. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, for example, made a career out of race-baiting with the protection of white women as the centerpiece of his diatribes, and he led the successful effort to disfranchise South Carolina's black population with such rhetoric. (26) Future North Carolina Governor Charles Brantley Aycock, future U.S. Senator Furnifold Simmons, and Raleigh News & Observer owner Josephus Daniels consistently pandered to rape fears in the Democratic party's successful effort to regain control of the North Carolina legislature in 1898. Their efforts to defame black men as sexual predators spilled over into overt racial violence in Wilmington, where it served as an excuse for whites to rampage through the black community and seize complete political control. (27) Such assaults on the character of black men lasted well into the twentieth century. For example, South Carolina Governor Coleman Blease told a crowd of supporters in 1930, "Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution!" (28) Such pronouncements went over well with the white South, as evident from the consistent election of demagogues across the region.

When politicians took their cases to a national audience, they toned down anti-federal rhetoric such as Blease's, but the arguments remained largely the same. In 1890, John T. Morgan, U.S. Senator from Alabama, provided the elliptic argument that white women would never consent to marry black men, but somehow social or political equality would force them to do so:

the snows will fall from heaven in sooty blackness, sooner than the white women of the United States will consent to the maternity of negro families. It will become more and more the pride of the men of our race to resist any movement, social or political, that will promote the unwelcome intrusion of the negro race into the white family circle. (29)

Like Morgan, other politicians made their case on the national level in an attempt to justify white supremacy throughout the South. Tillman, Hoke Smith of Georgia, and James K. Vardaman of Mississippi all took their message to Washington and beyond, a message Vardaman put most succinctly: "political equality for the colored race leads to social equality. Social equality leads to race amalgamation, and race amalgamation to deterioration and disintegration." (30) Ultimately, these politicians did not wish to address the issue of African American rights so much as they wished to highlight the dual sexual threats of rape and miscegenation.

While the racist spokespersons dominated the national dialog on race around the turn of the century, they did not go unchallenged. Most significantly, in October of 1892, Ida B. Wells inaugurated critical lynching studies with the publication of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. (31) The thirty-year-old African American activist and journalist challenged the widely espoused and generally accepted white defense of lynching that argued mob justice existed because black men were raping white women. If she could undermine the belief that lynchings were a reaction to sexual assault, she felt that she could reopen America's criticism of racial violence: remove the smokescreen, and lynching would be "explained by the well-known opposition growing out of slavery to the progress of the race" (59-60). Toward this point, Wells noted that less than one-third of lynchings even involved accusations of rape. Furthermore, she argued that those accusations could not be trusted because white men treated consensual relationships between white women and black men as rape, and she related several incidents in which consensual sexual relationships between white women and black men led to the lynching of black men. Inspired by Wells's work, an aging Frederick Douglass wrote and delivered his speech, "The Lessons of the Hour" (1894), in which he argued that rape accusations were lies designed to divert attention away from white violence against blacks. Novelists David Bryant Fulton and Charles Chesnutt challenged white accounts of the Wilmington race riots in their respective novels, Hanover: or the Persecution of the Lowly (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901). And in the most enduring and insightful commentary of the period on African American life and culture, W. E. B. Du Bois's masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903) provided a broad-based refutation of African American regression. Such powerful counterpoints to the racist voices notwithstanding, it was Dixon's vicious stereotypes that reached a vast audience, pandered to white preconceptions about African Americans, and consequently dominated race relations in the early decades of the twentieth century.

III. The Leopard's Spots and the Black Beast

Of the numerous racist propagandists at the turn of the century, Dixon proved to be the most successful at tarnishing the image of the African American male and positioning the image of the black beast at the center of calls for segregation, white unity, and white supremacy. Dixon's The Leopard's Spots (1902) serves as a fictive handbook on black bestiality. The novel presents the rise and fall of Reconstruction in North Carolina as a struggle between a besieged but chivalrous white South and a rampaging black (male) population that equates freedom with access to white women. Dixon's version of Reconstruction is one in which armed freedmen terrorize the countryside abducting white women from their weddings and raping and murdering white girls. Nor does Dixon exclude the educated portion of the African American community from such characterization. An African American newspaper prints "an editorial defaming the virtue of the white women of the community." (32) A black politician, who rallies his supporters with promises that their dreams of white women are not far from fulfillment, later uses his political power to solicit the favors of a white schoolteacher. Northern-educated black men such as George Harris (who, Dixon explains, is the son of Stowe's George Harris from Uncle Tom's Cabin) aspire to marry white women. In short, Dixon argues that black men share an innate and consuming desire for white women that can only be controlled if whites achieve and maintain absolute supremacy in all realms of southern life. This struggle not only excuses a violent response according to Dixon, it necessitates a violent response. Finally, the white men of North Carolina awaken to their duty and assert their authority. The Ku Klux Klan and other valiant defenders of white womanhood "justifiably" lynch Dixon's black beasts—rapists and politicians alike—and drive cowardly black soldiers from the town of Independence. White men seize complete political control, and, Dixon would have us understand, proper racial order is restored.

While Dixon intends the assaults on white women to provoke the same guttural outrage on the part of his readers as they do on his white characters, he conflates the issue with all forms of miscegenation and social progress for African Americans through the "logical" voice of Rev. Durham. Throughout the novel, the Reverend Durham explains the conflict in the South as a battle to preserve white civilization: "the future American must be an Anglo-Saxon or a Mulatto. We are now deciding which it shall be." (33) Durham accompanies this favorite refrain with explanations of the way in which it relates to politics, education, and social restrictions on blacks, while returning again and again to the "protection" of white women. "You cannot seek the Negro vote without asking him to your home sooner or later," Durham expostulates at one point, and "If you ask him to your house, he will break bread with you at last. And if you seat him at your table, he has the right to ask your daughter's hand in marriage." (34) Later, Durham defends the white South's struggle to a northern acquaintance. After characterizing his life's work as an effort "to maintain the racial absolutism of the Anglo-Saxon in the South, politically, socially, economically," the reverend dismisses current examples of racial intermixture as the result of the "lawless instincts of the white male," but, he continues:

Unless by the gradual encroachments of time, culture, wealth and political exigencies the time comes when a negro shall be allowed freely to choose a white woman for his wife, the racial integrity remains intact. The right to choose one's mate is the foundation of racial life and of civilisation. The South must guard with flaming sword every avenue of approach to this holy of holies. (35)

The "right to choose one's mate" apparently applies only to men, and if Durham has his way, white women will be protected from black men choosing them. (36) Durham's solution for the preservation of white civilization begins with the elimination of even agricultural education for blacks. This should be accompanied by disfranchisement and segregation, with the ultimate goal of removing the black population from the continent. Finally—and perhaps Dixon has his northern audience particularly in mind here—Durham employs the most potent segregation-era non sequitur: if anyone disagrees with these arguments, "let him prove it by giving his daughter to a negro in marriage." (37)

Dixon wrote with the purpose of defining southern history for its relevance to his contemporary South. This involved writing a racial present into the southern past. He wrote The Leopard's Spots twenty-five years after the close of Reconstruction, and his version of history was more indicative of his generation's thought on race than it was indicative of white thought about blacks at the close of the Civil War. In particular, Dixon superimposed the powerful white sexual anxieties current at the turn of the century back onto the Reconstruction era. Violent white opposition to African American progress was certainly a primary feature of the earlier Reconstruction period, but the perceived threat to white females had not yet become the standard defense for such violence. Through the voice of Rev. Durham and the presentation of African American sexual aggression, Dixon conflates all of the worst aspects of segregation at the turn of the century—lynching and riots, as well as economic, political, and educational disparity—with the defense of white women. His obsession with the sanctity of white womanhood contributed extensively to the racist violence in the white South, and it would become a thematic staple for a subsequent generation of southern writers.

Dixon's fiction did not create the violent racial climate or sexual fears at the beginning of the twentieth century, but his work certainly exacerbated the already unbearable tensions and occasionally provided the spark that set off racial firestorms. For example, historians and contemporary commentators cite the stage production of The Clansman in Atlanta as a contributing factor to that city's race riot of 1906, in which white mobs rampaged through African American communities. (38) Even more incendiary than the stage productions, however, was D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film adaptation of The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman that featured a black rapist. The film was tremendously popular and engaged its audience on the most emotional level. In her autobiography The Making of a Southerner (1947), Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin relates the powerful response the film drew from its white audience: "Here was the black figure—and the fear of the white girl—though the scene blanked out just in time. Here were the sinister men the South scorned and noble men the South revered. And through it all the Klan rode. All around me people sighed and shivered, and now and then shouted or wept, in their intensity." (39) The movie contributed to acts of violence against African Americans and played an instrumental role in the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the second decade of the twentieth century. (40)

Dixon's influence on subsequent southern literature appears as significant—if not entirely quantifiable—as his impact on the southern racial climate. Most clearly, his work inspired Margaret Mitchell, and Gone with the Wind owes much to his Ku Klux Klan trilogy. Mitchell loved Dixon's books, and as an adolescent she even organized neighborhood children for their own dramatizations of his novels. Years later, Mitchell remained fond of Dixon and his work. When he wrote to congratulate her on the success of Gone with the Wind, she returned the compliment, explaining, "I was practically raised on your books, and love them very much. For many years I have had you on my conscience, and I suppose I might as well confess it now." (41) Mitchell proceeded to explain jokingly that she feared lawsuits for copyright infringement over her dramatic productions as a child, but she might as well have had in mind the literary debt she owed to his version of Reconstruction. Gone with the Wind contains all the same stereotypes of African Americans during Reconstruction that Dixon presented, including the sexual threat, and it is not unreasonable to read Gone with the Wind as the standard bearer for Dixonian Reconstruction into the latter half of the twentieth century. While Dixon's fiction established the popular image of the South for the first two decades of the twentieth century, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind did the same for her generation. The pattern of Dixon's and Mitchell's influence paralleled each other as well: wildly popular historical romance followed by blockbuster movies. Whereas Dixon's fiction proved to be the most powerful shaping factor of the southern image for twenty years or so, Mitchell's presentation of the South has now endured for nearly seven decades and shows little sign of fading.

In addition to Dixon's clear influence on Mitchell's literary imagination, thematic aspects of Dixon's presentation of the black beast resurface throughout southern literature. In particular, his superimposition of rape fears onto prior historical periods that did not share those fears occurs with frequency. Likewise, the death of white women who are "tainted" by sexual contact with African American men appears consistently in subsequent southern fiction. Mitchell, of course, follows Dixon's lead in presenting the sexual threat as necessitating white supremacy during Reconstruction, but other authors have extended similar fears back to the antebellum and Civil War periods. A few notable works that follow this pattern include William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Allen Tate's The Fathers (1938), Robert Penn Warren's Band of Angels (1955), and William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). These re-imaginings of the southern historical landscape vary both in their points of revision and in their artistic vision, but repeatedly the specter of the black beast appears at the center of the historical conflict.

A violent death is the standard consequence in Dixon's fiction for African American characters who transgress the taboo on white women, but Dixon also popularized the image of the death of the violated woman. While not originating the literary connection, Dixon deployed it repeatedly as the crowning horror of the black presence in the South. In The Leopard's Spots, for example, black villains abduct a white woman on her wedding day, and when her white rescuers accidentally kill her, the father thanks the men because "it might have been worse." (42) Likewise, in The Clansman, when a young white woman is raped by a black man, she and her mother commit suicide rather than live with the shame. Griffith pursues this same theme in The Birth of a Nation when, in the most dramatic scene of the film, "Little Sister" throws herself from a cliff rather than be ravished by a black man. While racist artists like Dixon dwelt on the demise of the "soiled" white woman with sensational indignation, the image has such currency throughout southern literature that it appears almost as lethal for white women to broach or cross the sexual taboo—willingly or unwillingly—as it is for African American men. A few such texts in which the white women die quite gruesome deaths include Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), Faulkner's Light in August (1932), and Erskine Caldwell's Trouble in July (1940). Other texts employ the metaphoric deaths of isolation or madness as the white female's doom: Tate's The Fathers, Jean Toomer's "Becky" (1923), and Eudora Welty's "June Recital" (1949). It is difficult to establish to what extent these various authors of a subsequent generation had Dixon in mind as they wrote. For the most part, they wrote with far greater acuity about race relations than did Dixon. Still, they came of age at the height of Dixon's popularity and would have been familiar with his work. At the very least, their tendency to struggle with the image of the black beast suggests that they were products of the violently racist and sexually paranoid South that Dixon helped shape.


1. Joel Williamson, Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford UP, 1984) 158.

2. Lawrence J. Oliver and Terri L. Walker, "James Weldon Johnson's New York Age Essays on The Birth of a Nation and the 'Southern oligarchy,'" South Central Review 10 (1993): 4.

3. Williamson, Crucible 140.

4. Williamson, Crucible 157.

5. Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Leopard's Spots. A Romance of the White Man's Burden—1865 - 1900 (New York: Doubleday, 1902) 242.

6. Dixon, The Leopard's Spots 93.

7. Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman, An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, 1905) 371.

8. Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States, Paper. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1995) 91; and Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Perennial ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989) 321.

9. Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Vintage, 1976) 24-28; and Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, 2nd ed. (New York: Quill, 1996) 25.

10. Foner 427, 430-31; and Gutman 385-88. Also see Catherine Clinton, "Reconstructing Freedwomen," Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, ed. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) 306-19. Clinton draws on the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands and other sources to discuss the ongoing (even escalating) victimization of black women during Reconstruction.

11. Alan W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) xx, passim; Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley: U California P, 1968) 143-48.

12. In addition to Trelease's White Terror, see Foner Ch. 9.

13. Raymond A. Cook, Thomas Dixon (New York: Twayne, 1974) 23.

14. For an analysis of this infamous electoral compromise, see Foner 575-87.

15. Williamson's Crucible remains the definitive study of white attitudes concerning racial issues in this period. He discusses the "conservative restoration" in chapter three, and he devotes the second section of Crucible to the "rise of the radicals" and their shaping of southern society. He dates these years of violent racism from 1889 to 1915.

16. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1996) 64.

17. For discussions of regressionist works from this period, see Gutman 532-44; and George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (1971; Hanover: Wesleyan, 1987) Ch. 8. Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari provide a valuable survey of the relationship between major evolutionary theorists and concepts of race in Race and Human Evolution: A Fatal Attraction (Boulder: Westview, 1997).

18. J. H. Van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination; or, Negroes a Subordinate Race, and So-Called Slavery Its Normal Condition (New York: Van Evrie, Horton, 1868) 315.

19. Charles Carroll, "The Negro a Beast; or, In the Image of God," Documents of American Prejudice: An Anthology of Writings on Race from Thomas Jefferson to David Duke, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Basic Books, 1999) 308-309. Mason Stokes provides an interesting discussion of Carroll, his work, and his ambiguous racial status (historians have characterized Carroll variously as black, mulatto, and white), The Color of Sex: Whiteness, Heterosexuality, & the Fictions of White Supremacy (Durham: Duke UP, 2001) 95-107.

20. Frederick L. Hoffman, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (New York: MacMillan, 1896) 312.

21. George Harvey, "The New Negro Crime," Harper's Weekly 48 (1904): 120-21. Also see, Atticus G. Haygood, "The Black Shadow in the South," The Forum 16 (1893): 167-75; Charles H. Smith "Have American Negroes Too Much Liberty?" The Forum 16 (1893): 176-83; Walter Hines Page, "The Last Stronghold of the Southern Bully" The Forum 16 (1893): 303-14; Thomas Nelson Page The Negro the Southerner's Problem (New York: Scribner's, 1904) 107-15. Those who contested the rape myth were also likely to cite the lack of sexual assaults during slavery, and especially the Civil War, as a defense of the black male character; see Ida B. Wells, "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894," Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 ed. Jacqueline Jones Royster (Boston: Bedford, 1997) 79; Frederick Douglass "The Lessons of the Hour: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on 9 January 1894," The Frederick Douglass Papers, ed. John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992) 584; W.E.B. Du Bois, "Rape," The Crisis 18 (1919): 12-13.

22. Quoted in Williamson, 128.

23. Smith 179, 182.

24. R. W. Shufeldt, "The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization," Documents of American Prejudice 326-30.

25. Page 111.

26. Williamson, Crucible 130-39.

27. For an excellent account of rape fears in relation to the election and the Wilmington riot, see, Gilmore 61-118.

28. Quoted in William I. Hair, "Lynching," Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1989) 175.

29. John T. Morgan, "The Race Question in the United States," Documents of American Prejudice 302.

30. Quoted in Williamson, Crucible 379. For Williamson's discussion of the exportation of rape and miscegenation fears, see 378-85. Well past Williamson's radical period, race-baiting demagoguery would remain a staple of southern politics with numerous practitioners like Tom Watson of Georgia, Tom Heflin of Alabama, and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who at the late date of 1946, wrote Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.

31. For extensive discussions of Wells' seminal role in the protest against lynching, see Patricia A. Schecter, Ida B.Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 2001); Schecter, "Unsettled Business: Ida B. Wells against Lynching, or, How Antilynching Got Its Gender," Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1997) 292-317; Jacqueline Jones Royster, "Introduction: Equity and Justice for All," Southern Horrors and Other Writings 1-41; Giddings 17-31; Hall 78-80; and Trudier Harris, introduction, Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 1-13.

32. Dixon, The Leopard's Spots 411.

33. Dixon, The Leopard's Spots 198.

34. Dixon, The Leopard's Spots 242.

35. Dixon, The Leopard's Spots 333.

36. Durham's use of the term "holy of holies" to describe marriage is intriguing to say the least. The phrase carries the slang implications of female genitalia, suggesting Dixon's primary concern is to protect white male sexual proprietary rights. For a discussion of this yonic reference together with the extensive phallic imagery of the novel, see Stokes 133-57. Considering Durham's lack of concern over white men having sexual intercourse with black women, the entire passage supports John Dollard's claim that segregation provided a "sexual gain" for white men because they had sexual access to both black and white women. See Chapter 7, John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957). This "sexual gain" was one aspect of the interracial sexual dynamics of slavery that lasted into segregation.

37. Dixon, The Leopard's Spots 460.

38. Williamson, Crucible of Race 209-23; Walter White, A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White (1948; Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1970) 5-12.

39. Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, The Making of a Southerner (1947; Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1991) 200. For an account of how the Ku Klux Klan capitalized on such emotional responses by turning the film into a successful recruiting tool, see Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford UP, 1994) 12-13. Mason Stokes argues that "Birth allows us to witness the passing of the white-supremacist torch from one popular genre to another, from the literary romance to film. This new genre, which would become the popular American genre of the twentieth century, offered an invigorating array of new possibilities for the representation and projection of white fears, fantasies, and anxieties," 159.

40. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching, Rev. ed. (New York: Columbia UP, 1993) 54; Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford UP, 1994) 12-13.

41. Margaret Mitchell, letter to Thomas Dixon, 15 August 1936, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind Letters, 1936-1949, ed. Richard Harwell (New York: Macmillan, 1976) 52-53.

42. Dixon 126.

Titles by Thomas Dixon available on this site: