Today marks the 75th Anniversary of the Atlanta, Georgia premiere of the movie “Gone With The Wind.”
Why is this a topic worthy of Legal Legacy? The reason is that the book from which this movie was derived was, and remains, one of the most widely read and influential books of modern times, and the movie is considered to be one of the greatest ever made. It therefore contributes to many people’s impressions of what slavery was “really” like, and adds a soft, romanticized mint-julep-y glow to notions about life on a southern plantation before the Civil War. It is also profoundly racist. Not only is this movie and the book that inspired it a total misrepresentation of the facts, but examining how the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction are remembered is critical to understanding the social and political situation in today’s United States.
The Antebellum South: Just one big party, if you were white….
The book’s author Margaret Mitchell was no abolitionist. She called black men “apes,” and indeed, in a famous scene that takes place during Reconstruction late in the movie, she portrays Scarlett as being attacked by “…a squat black negro with shoulders and chest like a gorilla. … so close that she could smell the rank odor of him” as he tried to rape her.
Still, you object, weren’t there quite lovable slaves on Scarlett’s plantation? You may be thinking of Mammy, who Mitchell describes as looking “sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face.”
Scarlett with “Mammy”
Then there was Scarlett’s loyal farmhand, the slave Big Sam, who, Mitchell writes, when he saw Scarlett after the Civil War was over:
…his watermelon-pink tongue lapped out, his whole body wiggled, and his joyful contortions were as ludicrous as the gambolings of a mastiff.”
The book and movie would have you believe that slaves – docile and loyal, sided with their Southern masters and hated and feared the Yankees. In fact, however, thousands of slaves – those who could, at any rate, abandoned their masters at the first opportunity and fled to the north. They also volunteered to serve in the Union Army, and by war’s end according to historian Eric Foner, some 180,000 had done so, over one-fifth of the adult male black population of the U.S. below the age of forty-five. There was an excellent reason why Southerners were afraid to educate and/or arm their slaves. Surely if owners treated them so benevolently, this would not have been an issue, and the owners knew that.
Following the Civil War, Southerners were still not reconciled to freedom for blacks, and fought back in every violent and nefarious way they could. Blacks in the South experienced a progressive narrowing of options. The Ku Klux Klan, along with supposed law enforcement officials and judges, all conspired to keep blacks in de facto servitude to whites. (See, for example, the book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon, which shows you how, long past the time of the Civil War, slavery was actually still alive and well in the South in all but name, with active support of the state and federal governments. Laws defining very petty crimes, such as against “loitering,” were used liberally to convict black men, who thereby became a source of involuntary labor, much of it quite punitive. Among those making use of the resultant convict lease system were railroads, mining and lumber companies, and planters, with the arresting and convicting authorities kept happy with kickbacks.)
Black convict labor, 1930’s
The rewriting of history helped perpetuate this web of oppression, and the popular acceptance of the slavery system as halcyon helped alleviate any guilt or doubts anyone might have had, had they even known what was happening with blacks. Gone With the Wind was seminal to this revisionism.
The climate on the film set wasn’t as bad as the book’s dialogue, but it wasn’t great either. MGM had ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’ signs on the bathrooms during the shooting, until a group of black performers threatened a work slowdown. Individual cars were sent each day to pick up the white performers, but all of the black actors had to carpool to the studio. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, did not honor a promise to NAACP leader Walter White to hire a black consultant for the film, because he suspected (undoubtedly correctly) that such a person might want to make changes to the content of the film.
Not just Hollywood: Lancaster, Ohio, 1938; photo by Ben Shahn
And then there was the Premiere. One million people came to Atlanta for it, held at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, on December 15, 1939, this day in history. It marked the climax of three days of festivities hosted by Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, which included a parade, receptions, thousands of Confederate flags and a costume ball. Eurith D. Rivers, the governor of Georgia, declared December 15 a state holiday. Alas, the black actors could not attend the premiere, because Georgia’s Jim Crow laws prevented them from sitting with the white members of the cast. (To his credit, Clark Gable threatened to boycott the event, but Hattie McDaniel, who eventually won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, convinced him to attend.)
At the premiere, from left: Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell, David O. Selznick and Olivia de Havilland
Nor could black moviegoers attend, at least not in the South. As the Pittsburgh Courier’s Atlanta correspondent opined in its December 23, 1939 edition, “Negro reaction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind will have to wait until the film comes North.”
But blacks were reacting, nevertheless. As The Root reports:
Black folks picketed from coast to coast. Some unions urged boycotts. In Chicago, the Defender called for “a mass protest” and in an editorial observed: ‘Gone With the Wind is propaganda, pure propaganda, crude propaganda. It is anti-Negro propaganda of the most vicious character. It is un-American propaganda. It is subversive.’ In Philadelphia the president of the National Baptist Convention Inc. condemned the film as a ‘disgrace.’”
African-American attorney civil rights crusader William L. Patterson excoriated the film in “The Chicago Defender” on January 6, 1940:
It has lied about the Civil War period shamelessly. It has distorted and twisted the history of an era… “￼￼Gone With the Wind” has glorified slavery. …[It] has martyred the southern plantation owner. In martyring this relic of barbarism [it] not only ‘morally justifies’ the slave breeding pen and the degradation of Negro womanhood and manhood, it has scorned upon and desecrated the love that democratic white America has for freedom and truth.”
To portray the relationship between masters and slaves as benign was as patently absurd as the recent claim by a member of a Colorado school board that slavery was given up by the South “voluntarily.” Are we to believe that the rape of young black girls by their white masters and the regular beatings of slaves were voluntary or benign acts as well?
Moreover, at the time the movie premiered in 1939, the Ku Klux Klan was still quite active; just one month before the release of the movie, 8000 Klansman marched in Atlanta! Jim Crow laws in the South prevented blacks from enjoying the same rights as whites, and Southern senators in Congress continued to block the passage of a federal anti-lynching law, saying it “encroached on state sovereignty.”
Ku Klux Klan rally in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 30, 1939. (AP Photo)
Perhaps the best way to memorialize the premiere of this movie is to devote some time to thinking about why the book and movie remain so popular, and what might be done to mitigate the effects of their mis-history.
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