This is the grave of Thomas Dixon.
A man who did almost incalculable damage to the nation, to the point that it would have been better for us if he had never been born, Dixon was in fact born, however unfortunately, in Shelby, North Carolina in 1864. He came from the Baptist slaveowning class. This was a special group of slave holders. See, slavery was horrible enough for anyone. But what the Baptists brought to it was an extra level of hypocrisy, moralistic Godbothering on top of wresting life and limb from generations of African-Americans. Dixon’s father was a preacher and a slaver. His brother Amzi became a leading figure in the early twentieth century rise of modern Christian fundamentalism.
After the end of the Civil War, Dixon’s father and other older relatives joined a lovely new organization called the Ku Klux Klan. These people were determined, by any means necessary, to launch a counterrevolution in the rural South and lynched and raped and murdered their way to that, both against African-Americans and against any whites who showed sympathy to the freedpeople. In fact, Dixon’s uncle on his mother’s side was the head of the KKK in Piedmont, North Carolina. This made a huge impression of the young boy and he would romanticize these scumbags for the entirety of his revolting life. He later claimed one of his first memories was of a KKK parade in 1869. Moreover, he also remembered when a white woman went to his family saying that a black man had raped her daughter (almost certainly a lie and as Ida B. Wells would later prove with horrifying detail, there was a whole lot of consensual sex between black men and white women that relatives would say was rape when it was discovered) and they went out and shot the guy.
Dixon went to Wake Forest, that Baptist bastion of the South. He graduated in 1883 with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. He was the best student in the school at the time. He went to the new PhD program in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. There, he met and befriended one of the other students there–Woodrow Wilson, a fellow southerner and white supremacist. They spent lots of time together, but Dixon dropped out to go into journalism. He moved to New York and dabbled in acting for awhile. But he failed pretty miserably at it. Evidently he had a certain amount of talent and hard work, but was also 6’3″ and 150 pounds, meaning that he was so weird looking that he was hard to cast at anything. A bit lost in his life, Dixon went home to North Carolina.
At home, Dixon tried to go into playwriting. But that was going nowhere. His father convinced him to go to law school and then into politics. He received a law degree from something called Greensboro Law School in 1885 and then ran for the North Carolina General Assembly. Understand that he was still only 20 years old by this time. He won, but only served one term, claiming he was disgusted by the corruption of politics. But he actually was pretty popular because he really only cared about one issue–pensions for Confederate veterans. Union veterans were receiving pensions, which was the real origin of the welfare state in the United States. But they didn’t commit treason in defense of slavery. Anyway, it didn’t go anywhere. Dixon practiced law briefly, didn’t like, and then followed his family into the ministry.
He became a minister at a Goldsboro, North Carolina church in 1886. He moved to a church in Raleigh the next year. Evidently, he was actually really good at this job. Maybe the acting training helped. Anyway, he soon moved to his hated north–Boston. And then in 1889, a big church in New York. He gave a lot of speeches and also began promoting his buddy Woodrow Wilson in the national press. But his over-the-top nature offended some Baptists, who claimed his sermons were sensationalistic instead of holy and he finally resigned in 1895, even though John D. Rockefeller, who really liked him, offered to pay for a big church for him. He was rich by this time and could easily make more money on the lecture circuit, which he did frequently. He bought a huge estate in Virginia and semi-retired to the country, where he could live out his antebellum fantasies.
Dixon also kept writing and he turned to his beloved Confederate romanticism to influence him. Moreover, while on a lecture tour, he saw a theater performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, still popular as a production forty years after the book’s publication. Dixon was furious. He couldn’t believe that the South was portrayed so horribly. Not these fine slavers! A self-described reactionary, Dixon, like many of these people, from Wade Hampton to Donald Trump, claimed to be a friend to black people. But that friendship was nothing but paternalistic condescension backed up with the hand of violence. He frequently made the usual claims: blacks wanted to rape white women, slaves were loyal and were angry about the idea that they would leave their masters when the Union armies came, that black legislators were barefoot and drunk while misruling the South. For Dixon, the greatest enemy the South ever had was Thaddeus Stevens, with his genuine anti-racism and belief that the South should have to respect the human rights of black people. But don’t fret, Dixon hated everything remotely modern. He thought women’s suffrage came from Satan. He was in a constant freakout over the horrors of socialism and communism entering the United States.
So Dixon began publishing novels about all of this. His first, The Leopard’s Spots, in 1902, actually took the Simon Legree character from Stowe’s novel to provide a, uh, different perspective on the villain. The book’s title came from Jeremiah 13:23, reading, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” In other words, this was Dixon’s scientific racism in novel form. That was followed with The Clansman in 1905 and The Traitor in 1907. This trilogy of Reconstruction racist fantasies made Dixon nationally famous.
Who did Dixon dedicate The Clansman too? Why his uncle of course. The dedication read, “To the memory of a Scotch-Irish leader of the South, my uncle, Colonel Leroy McAfee, Grand Titan of the Invisible Empire Ku Klux Klan.” Lovely.
And then came D.W. Griffith, who decided to make The Clansman into Birth of a Nation. With its official approval from Dixon’s old friend and now president Woodrow Wilson, the world’s first true blockbuster epic film also turned Dixon’s grotesque racist vision of the American past into an awe-inspiring visual experience. By the time this was filmed in 1915, Dixon was well into his reactionary novel career. In fact, he had recently published a trilogy of novels about the horrors of socialism. Great titles here: The One Woman: A Modern Story of Utopia (1903), Comrades: A Story of Social Adventure in California (1909), and the subtlety titled The Root of Evil (1911). Comrades was made into a 1919 movie called Bolshevism on Trial. This is the poster for it.
Evidently the film actually exists and has 27 ratings on IMDB. I will have to find this fine, fine looking production. It was so over the top that Secretary of Labor William Wilson publicly criticized it.
Dixon kept writing his junk to a dwindling audience. His last book was The Flaming Sword, in 1939. He soon had a cerebral hemorrhage. He actually survived this but was pretty well disabled after this, dying in 1946. He had lost all his money by this point on speculative financial ventures, mostly in land. He was actually working as a court clerk in Raleigh by the late 1920s to make a living. Toward the end of his life, he married his assistant on his hospital bed, infuriating his children. She is buried with him and not his first wife.
Thomas Dixon is buried in Sunset Cemetery, Shelby, North Carolina.
This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. I really, really appreciate it for this one. If you would like this series to visit other racists who were involved with Birth of a Nation, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. D.W. Griffith is in Crestwood, Kentucky and Henry Walthall, who played Ben Cameron, and who John Ford later coaxed out of retirement for Confederate romances of his own, is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.