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“The True Story of the Ku Klux Klan”: Defining the Klan through Film


In 1923 the Ku Klux Klan produced two films, The Toll of Justice and The Traitor Within. This article considers, for the first time, what the representation, promotion and exhibition of these films suggests about the ways in which the Klan sought to promote and define itself at the height of its power. It examines the cinematic articulations of Klan policies and explores the broader engagement of the Klan and cinema. In doing this, the article repositions film as a contributing factor in the growth and development of the modern Klan during the 1920s.

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1 “The Ku Klux Klan Makes a Movie,” Movie Weekly, 6 Oct. 1923, 4–5, 29. Columbus Dispatch, 22 Nov. 1923, 25. Moving Picture World, 22 Sept. 1923, 324.

2 “Kansas Governor asked by NAACP to bar ‘Birth of a Nation’ Film,” press release, 8 June 1923, NAACP Archives, File C302.

3 See Simcovitch, Maxim, “The Impact of Griffith's ‘Birth of a Nation’ on the Modern Ku Klux Klan,” Journal of Popular Film, 1, 1 (Winter 1972), 46. Simmons and his followers paraded in front of the theatre on the night of the premiere, while the film was advertised next to a notice for “The World's Greatest, Secret, Social, Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficiary Order.”

4 Robert Goldberg, Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 4. Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5, notes that “within a few months” of Tyler and Clarke joining the Klan “membership jumped to an estimated 100,000.”

5 MacLean, 5.

6 Goldberg, 4. Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City 1915–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 10, 194. The Klan had state entertainment bureaus that would arrange suitable music, minstrel shows, plays and, in some cases, films to be shown both privately in Klaverns and at public outdoor meetings.

7 The letter was dated 22 April 1921 from Atlanta, Georgia. It was subsequently published as an advertisement for the film, which prompted a complaint from the NAACP to Fox. The advert, along with the correspondence between Fox and the NAACP is in the Records of the N.A.A.C.P. at the Library of Congress. Box I: C 312.

8 The letter, written by J. M. McArthur, was sent on 24 May 1921. It was reprinted in New York World, 21 Sept. 1921, 2, and was briefly mentioned in Wid's Daily, 22 Sept. 1921.

9 Jackson, 1967. An advertisement appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 18 Dec. 1921, 9, with a further report in Searchlight, 7 Jan. 1922, 4. The Denver promotion was reported in Goldberg, 14. An advert in the Denver Post in July 1921 credited the film's return to the Klan.

10 Variety, 23 June 1922.

11 “Klux Closes Deal for $400,000 Film to Advertise Klan,” New York World, 25 Sept. 1921, 2. Variety, 25 March 1921, 47, discussed the possibility of the Klan “going into picture production on a large scale.”

12 Fiery Cross (hereafter FC), 14 Dec. 1923.

13 FC, 10 Aug. 1923, 12. Kokomo Daily Dispatch, 26 July 1923, 1–2.

14 Imperial Night-Hawk, 9 May 1923. “How the Commercialized Movies Are Undermining Morals in America,” Imperial Night-Hawk, 1 Oct. 1924.

15 For information on the bans see “Kansas Klan Bars Chaplin,” Searchlight, 23 June 1923, 2. “Klans Determined to Clean up the Movies,” Imperial Night-Hawk, 6 June 1923. “Chas. Chaplin Film Is Banned in S.C.,” FC, 11 May 1923, 8. For Bella Donna see “A Lesson for the Negro and the Jew,” Dawn, 12 May 1923.

16 Dawn, 12 May 1923. See also Rice, Tom, “Protecting Protestantism: The Ku Klux Klan vs. The Motion Picture Industry,” Film History, 20, 3 (2008), 367–80.

17 “8 Millions go to Theaters Daily,” Searchlight, 26 April 1924, 2. Thomas Edison, quoted a month earlier in Fiery Cross, stated that “whoever controls the motion picture industry controls the most powerful medium of influence over the people.” See “Edison Urges Movie Men to Curb Greed,” FC, 7 March 1924, 6.

18 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1922). See also Lee Grieveson, “Cinema Studies and the Conduct of Conduct,” in Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson, eds., Inventing Film Studies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008), 50.

19 Kokomo Daily Dispatch, 11 Aug. 1923, 12.

20 American Standard, 1 July 1924, 5–6.

21 In The Toll of Justice, all of the interiors had to be reshot after problems with the lighting system, while one review noted that “the technique of the production is rather crude” compared to “more experienced producers.” Moving Picture World, 1 Dec. 1923, 458. Ohio State Journal, 10 Dec. 1923, 12.

22 David Stephenson was arrested in 1925 for the rape and manslaughter of Madge Oberholtzer. His subsequent conviction is often cited as a contributing factor in the decline of the Klan.

23 New York World, 14 April 1923, 9. Moving Picture World, 22 Sept. 1923, 324. Cavalier stated that its first production would be “A Portrayal of the Life of Abraham Lincoln.” Kokomo Daily Dispatch, 11 Aug. 1923, 1.

24 “Klan Film a Fizzle,” Moving Picture World, 1 Dec. 1923, 458. The report explained that Corey Cook was “arranging to sail for Egypt soon to take up travelogue work,” while the general manager of the company was leaving for California.

25 Newark Advocate, 17 Dec. 1923, 5, 13. The film was first shown to a select audience of Kleagles. Advertisements often targeted Klansmen, with the Charleston Gazette, 21 Sept. 1924, 4, stating, “Notice, K.K.K. “The Toll of Justice” will be shown at the Reel Theatre.”

26 Decatur Review, 17 July 1924, 12.

27 Kluxer, 5 Jan. 1924, 29.

28 Kluxer, 5 Jan. 1924, 29. Noblesville Daily Ledger (hereafter NDL), 24 April 1924, 6.

29 Muncie Sunday Star, 17 Feb. 1924, 7. FC, 14 March 1924.

30 Winchester Journal Herald, 7 Feb. 1924, 4. FC, 14 Dec. 1923, 1.

31 NDL, 4 Nov. 1922, 3.

32 An edited version of The Toll of Justice is available at the University of North Carolina. The Florida Feature Film Company produced a picture with Walter Miller and Irva Ross entitled The Toll of Justice in 1916, which, contrary to a few erroneous reports, did not feature the Klan and bore no relation to the later film. See Moving Picture World, 30 Sept. 1916, 2102.

33 NDL, 17 Jan. 1924, 2. FC, 14 March 1924, 7.

34 Movie Weekly, 6 Oct. 1923, 4.

35 Chicago Daily Journal, 2 Jan. 1923, 23. Chicago Evening Post, 4 Jan. 1923. The Evening Post, in widely condemning the play, suggested that it should be used to “torture” the Klan's enemies: “No punishments for crimes, treasons and misdemeanors could be more dire than to abduct the guilty wretch and take him on a joy-ride to a performance of this show.” These reviews were accessed at the Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York.

36 Joan Silverman, “The Birth of a Nation: Prohibition Propaganda,” in Warren French, ed., The South and Film (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981), 29.

37 “None but Native Villains,” New York Times, 2 Aug. 1923, 14.

38 John Moffatt Mecklin, The Ku Klux Klan: A Study of the American Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1924), 25–29.

39 NDL, 24 April 1924, 6.

40 The quotations come from the official publicity material for Heart O' the Hills, accessed at the Moving Image Section, Library of Congress.

41 Pickord's character was a young boy in John Fox Jr.'s original novel and a 1924 remake, entitled The Hill-Billy, cast her brother Jack Pickford in the central role.

42 Kathleen M. Blee, “Women in the 1920s' Ku Klux Klan Movement,” Feminist Studies, 17, 1 (Spring 1991), 60.

43 Columbus Dispatch, 2 Jan. 1924, 23. Mansfield News, 20 Feb. 1924, 11.

44 Ashland Times–Gazette, 20 Feb. 1924, 12. The poster in Kluxer, 5 Jan. 1924, 29, again purported to offer the “truth” behind the Klan, with a question mark wrapped around a hood and the tagline “See The Toll of Justice for the Answer.”

45 There are, of course, important exceptions. For example, Human Wreckage, released in 1923 by Mrs. Wallace Reid, was positively promoted as a warning against and exposé of drug addiction.

46 The American Legion Film Service was established in 1921 and provided projection machines and films to Legion posts throughout the country. It was part of “a campaign for cleaner and more truly American films.” See “James Darst of Legion Film Service in City,” Indianapolis Star, 11 Aug. 1921, 16. “Film Service Gets Generous Approval,” Pinedale Roundup, 6 March 1924. The Church Film Company provided titles such as The Life of Christ and The Servant in the House to a wide range of churches. See Bismarck Tribune, 20 Sept. 1921, 4.

47 Newark Advocate, 17 Dec. 1923, 5. Kluxer, 5 Jan. 1924, 29. The same line was later used to promote The Traitor Within in Indianapolis. FC, 14 March 1924.

48 Muncie Evening Press, 16 Feb. 1924, 7. NDL, 15 Jan. 1924, 3. Greencastle Herald, 13 Feb. 1924, 5. Anderson Daily Bulletin, 9 Jan. 1924, 8.

49 Columbus Dispatch, 2 Jan. 1924, 23.

50 “Klan Members to March,” Columbus Dispatch, 5 Jan. 1924.

51 Searchlight, 1 Jan. 1924, 5.

52 Mansfield News, 17 Feb. 1924, 4; 22 Apr. 1923, 3.

53 “Ku Klux Klan Film to Be Shown Here,” Chronicle Telegram, 3 March 1925, 1–2. Youngstown Citizen, 19 March 1925.

54 Decatur Review, 17 July 1924, 12. Marion Daily Star, 5 Feb. 1924, 9.

55 Movie Weekly, 6 Oct. 1923, 5.

56 New York World, 14 April 1923, 9. See also Dyer, Thomas G., “The Klan on Campus: C. Lewis Fowler and Lanier University,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 77 (Fall 1978), 453–69.

57 Muncie Morning Star, 22 Feb. 1924. Ashland Times–Gazette, 19 Feb. 1924, 12.

58 Muncie Morning Star, 16 Feb. 1924. The Cadle Tabernacle often showed religious pictures.

59 FC, 21 March 1924. Tolerance, 8 April 1923, 3.

60 Lincoln Daily Star, 8 Dec. 1925, 6.

61 The Traitor Within (certificate 116) was submitted by Hoosier Distributors of Indianapolis and was rejected on 14 April 1924 “on account of being harmful.”

62 Searchlight, 21 June 1924, 2. Daily Northwestern, 17 July 1924, 3. Decatur Review, 8 Aug. 1924, 4. The picnic also included Klan bands, clowns, acrobatic stunts and a fireworks display, which included “floating Klan crosses.”

63 Dawn, 2 Feb. 1924. Decatur Daily Democrat, 18 Jan. 1924, 1. The return of the parts is reported on the front page of the paper on the following day.

64 “Threat Note Says No More Klan Pictures,” FC, 25 Jan. 1924, 1. The Klan, for its part, suggested that the theft “has created great excitement here which has rebounded greatly to the benefit of the Klan and as a result it is understood that a great influx of members had resulted.”

65 NDL, 16 Nov. 1923, 6. NDL, 12 Nov. 1923, 3.

66 NDL, 18 Aug. 1924, 3. NDL, 6 Aug. 1924, 3.

67 NDL, 28 Nov. 1923, 3.

68 NDL, 26 Aug. 1924, 1. Ohio State Journal, 17 Aug. 1924, 2. William Lutholtz suggested Cavalier was defunct by the time of Stephenson's court case in 1925. M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D. C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991), 287–89.

69 Indianapolis Star, 2 July 1925, 1–2. “K.K.K. Leader's Picture Plant,” Variety, 24 June 1925, 3, 15. Clarke argued that his company “will be in direct competition with the biggest motion picture companies in the world.”

70 Indianapolis Directory 1925. “Erstwhile Klan Chief to be Sentenced,” Hammond Times, 19 July 1934, 5. Marion County Grand Jury notes, D. C. Stephenson Collection (M264), Box 3, Folder 6, at Indiana Historical Society. The note is dated 26 Aug. 1926.

I would like to thank Dr. Lee Grieveson for his comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article. I also thank the AHRC for helping to fund the research on which this article is based.

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