Three Questions for Klansville U.S.A. Filmmaker Callie Wiser
Klansville U.S.A. tells the story of the rise and fall of the KKK in North Carolina — a state often considered the most progressive in the South. What can we learn from that dichotomy?
One of the things that stood out when researching the 1960s North Carolina Klan was how often people — politicians as well as residents — blamed “outside agitators” for racial unrest. This is still a phrase we use to explain uncomfortable and sometimes tragic events. After Charlottesville, I saw a post that read: "Keep Charlottesville out of Boston," like white supremacy is something that only exists in Virginia.
We are a nation that touts our belief in equality, but we've never been able to fully address the pervasive belief that if one group seems to be making progress, that progress must be coming at the expense of another group. In a state like North Carolina, where African Americans were perceived to be gaining rights and status, it was not hard for poor whites to be convinced that those gains were coming at their expense.
In the last decade, we have seen something similar play out on a national stage. To many Americans, Barack Obama's election represented a sign of how far our nation has come. Yet for others — white supremacists and Klan organizations particularly — the election of the first black president was a galvanizing moment and a sign that they were losing something.
In Klansville, you use footage from two sources that had large impacts on the KKK’s public image: the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, and a 1965 CBS News report covering a Klan rally that celebrated the accused killers of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. What are some of the ways each presentation influenced public opinion?
Birth of a Nation is absolutely critical to understanding the Ku Klux Klan. The film was a blockbuster, utilizing new cinema techniques like the cutaway shot to build drama and early experimentation in use of color. But what makes Birth of a Nation important is that it offers an alternative history of the Klan and the Civil War.
The Reconstruction-era Klan bears little resemblance to the Klan portrayed in the 1915 movie. Yet some of the dramatic flourishes that the director invented — like the lighting of crosses at Klan ceremonies — became an integral part of the Klan's revival in the 1920s, and enabled the new Klan to embrace a religious and moral righteousness. In the film, the Klan was portrayed as safeguarding white womanhood at the hands of "savage" African Americans and defenders of a particular way of life. This re-interpretation of the Klan has added much to its staying power in the American imagination.
The Klan's celebration of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, however, exposed the thinness of the Klan's claim that it was a force for moral order. In the wake of the televised celebration of Liuzzo's murder, public sentiment shifted, and North Carolina's leaders were much more willing to see the potential for violence within the ideology of the state’s Klan.
Up until that point, it had been relatively easy for some North Carolina leaders and citizens to dismiss Klansmen as "good old boys" blowing off steam, rather than members of a group that embraces white supremacy as a core organizing belief.
Much of Klansville focuses on trying to understand the mentality of the men and women who join the KKK. Was there an interview or a story that you found especially revealing?
One of the things I wanted Klansville viewers to understand was why a person might join the Klan. C.P. Ellis was a former Klansman from Durham. We used footage of an interview he did with , in which he talks about his initiation. I hoped it would give viewers a glimpse into the man down the street whose life wasn't quite turning out as he expected it to, a man who was looking for a sense of identity, purpose and place — and how he might find it in the Klan. I hear echoes of this in how some of the men and women who marched in Charlottesville came to identify with white supremacy through communities on the Internet, and how groups like ISIS recruit new members.
Though is not in this film, his experience is perhaps a useful lesson. In 1971, Ellis was encouraged by both his fellow Klansmen and local white politicians to attend a series of community meetings on school desegregation. There, he’s nominated to co-chair the school committee, along with an African-American civil rights activist named Ann Atwater. Through that experience, they end up talking. She tells him about her kids and her experience, and he pretty quickly realizes that he and his fellow Klansmen — most of whom are poor — have a lot more in common with Atwater than they do with the political leaders who were encouraging them to resist the advancement of African Americans. Later, he’d talk about how he came to see the way powerful people pitted blacks and whites against each other to maintain the status quo. Eventually, Ellis became a union organizer.
His story is a reminder that empathy and dialogue can be powerful agents of change.
I also found the interview with Bunny Sanders to be particularly enlightening. Sanders had the unique experience of growing up African American in a small town in rural North Carolina, where her father was the mayor. She told us about poor, uneducated whites coming to the back door of her house at night for help filling out paperwork and petitions. They would never come to the house during the day or walk in the front door, but they needed help. Those stories gave me a better sense of how poor whites felt when they saw organizations like the NAACP arrive: they wanted an organization of their own.
The Klan promised those struggling whites a social safety net that they did not otherwise have. We heard a number of stories about how local Klan chapters raised money to pay for the funerals of its members, had clothing drives to help families in need, brought flowers to the hospital. And the North Carolina Klan went to a lot of trouble trying to set up an insurance plan for its members. This certainly improved the lives of many Klansmen and their families — but the North Carolina Klan was still held together by a fundamental belief that the political and social advancement of African Americans came at the expense of white people.
Unfortunately, in America, problems of class are still bound tightly to race. As one of the historians I spoke with said, "It's a lot easier to try to stop the black guy down the street from getting ahead than it is to fight the economic and social change taking place on a national and global level." The Klan and related groups are still perpetuating the belief that poor whites are suffering today, not because of larger economic forces, but because other racial groups are harming them.
Published August 17, 2017.