"History Written With Lightning": Religion, White Supremacy, And The Rise And Fall Of Thomas Dixon, Jr

David Kidd
Baptist minister and author of novels, plays, sermons, and essays, Thomas Dixon, Jr. today remains most known as the storyteller behind the 1915 D. W. Griffith Film The Birth of a Nation. I argue that Thomas Dixon crafted a white supremacist rhetoric and narrative of modern whiteness indebted to the structures of Fundamentalist Christianity. With varying degrees of success, later writers struggled with the legacy the Dixonian cultural narrative bequeathed them. Fundamentalist theology offered a
more » ... whole host of tropes, metaphors, and arguments to its users. In short, Fundamentalism presented a rhetorical stance that was, in the hands of an ambitious and designing opportunist like Dixon, capable of being adapted for other purposes. Dixon structured his narrative of whiteness like a religion and drew the blueprints for that architecture from the Fundamentalist theology that he and his brother A. C. Dixon promulgated. That Fundamentalist mindset included consequential interpretations of the apocalypse that divided theological positions between premillennial and postmillennial points of view. Drawing on rhetorical analysis from Kenneth Burke, I analyze the ways Thomas Dixon crafted a blueprint for a revived Klan trained for constant surveillance of eschatological signs as a way to intervene and avoid the racial apocalypse he prophesied. Fundamentalist rhetoric and imagery provided Dixon tropes, arguments, and stirring icons that he could assimilate and incorporate into his vision of whiteness. This morality play for Dixon had some form of a threatening black man who menaced a pure white woman and called forth a white paladin of vengeance to be her savior. This savior then grouped all the men in the community in a white supremacist cult that would forestall the racial apocalypse Dixon worried would arrive. This study traces Dixon's creations, strategies, and eventual failure at dressing his white supremacy in religious robes. Far more than being a study of one author, this project ranges beyond Dixon himself to his impact on a surprisingly wide range of twentieth-century cultural texts and artifacts, including film. From the immediate response from writers like Charles Chesnutt, Kelly Miller, Sutton Griggs, and W. E. B. Du Bois to the epic engagements of William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell, Dixon's legacy has involved several writers in its wake. Ultimately the rise and fall of Thomas Dixon's version of white supremacy offers a view of America's racial and sexual obsessions and the rhetoric bestowed by white Protestantism through which to articulate and structure those obsessions into narratives and social formations designed to consolidate and preserve whiteness. Any view of the Dixonian narrative that treats it as a freakish aberration ignores the centrality and popularity that it enjoyed at its height, and such a view would risk misunderstanding the forces that shaped such a damaging vision, one that inspired the second Ku Klux Klan and codified the symbol of the burning cross. Religion and racism run throughout the cultural and literary history of the United States, but they were never so infamously mingled and menacingly deployed than in the writings of Thomas Dixon. Rebirthing Thomas Dixon, Jr.: William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell Dixiecrats, Neo-Confederates, and Hip Hop Artists Rediscover Dixon 2 25 61 92 148 212 222 235 i ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The church of my Alabama youth, the Homewood Church of Christ, occasionally had "hymn-singing" services. One such Sunday evening in the early 1980s, our church invited the black song leader from the all-black, downtown Birmingham Church of Christ, a man who bore the emblematic name Calvin, mostly called Brother Calvin. Wayne Kilpatrick, the church's head minister at the time, introduced Brother Calvin as the one who was doing "such good work at the downtown church," and the man who would lead us in song. Kilpatrick requested that Calvin sing not in the way that we normally sang, but to sing in the way that "y'all sing at your church." Calvin enacted Kilpatrick's request with his first hymn, "There's Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus," by adding flourishes of intonation and rhythm as well as "hallelujahs" and phrases like "singin' it!" To the delight of the all-white congregation, Brother Calvin moved away from the podium, swayed to the music, and brought ecstatic performances to his song-leading. That night at the Homewood Church of Christ the congregation witnessed an invocation and control of black spirituality. This dissertation claims that summoning and mastering a performance of blackness was a central feature of most versions of post-Civil W ar southern white protestant Christianity, and that these variables were also the most essential components of the second Ku Klux Klan Thomas Dixon inspired with his writings. The conflation of religion, white supremacy, and violence appeared ominously in the burning cross, a symbol Dixon helped establish in his 1903 novel The Leopard's Spots. I know that my fascination with the religion and the violent white supremacy at the heart of Dixon's infamous narratives is a direct result of my being a child of the intensely religious city "Bombingham." All my life I have tried to understand how such an ostensibly religious community as Birmingham could produce people who would bomb a church and kill children. Those of us in the white-flight suburbs south of town were not often taught about it in school, but we all knew from whispers on porches at night and playgrounds in the day that in 1963 on Sunday, September fifteenth at 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four girls and injuring twenty-three congregants. Four Klansmen had planted the bomb:
doi:10.21220/s2-5k6d-9535 fatcat:5qchoulcuzd23mels5lmghpyma