This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we learn about the film “Gone With The Wind,” its dark racist themes, and how African Americans organized protests against the film when it debuted in 1939.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury vs. Madison, the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by members of the American Indian Movement, and the swearing in of Hiram Revels as the first African American member of the U.S. And birthdays, including
February 24, 1928: Michael Harrington
February 26, 1846: Buffalo Bill
February 27, 1902: Marian Anderson
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Feature Story: Racism, History, and “Gone With The Wind”
Eighty years ago this week, on February 29, 1940, the film “Gone with the Wind” swept the Academy Awards. The blockbuster film, one of several classics to come out in the remarkable year of 1939 (which also included “Stagecoach” and “The Wizard of Oz”), was based on the best-selling book by Margaret Mitchell.
Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1900. Her parents imparted to her very different influences. From her father, a prominent lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society, she grew up listening to stories about old Atlanta and glories of the Confederacy. From her mother, a women of more radical leanings who was active in the suffrage movement, Mitchell developed her independent personality. After studying briefly at Smith College in Massachusetts, she returned to Atlanta and became one of the first women to land a job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal. In 1925 she married John Marsh and one year later, while recovering from an ankle injury, she began writing a work of fiction that became Gone with the Wind.
Mitchell actually finished the 1,000-page manuscript in 1926, but had trouble finding a publisher. The book was finally published in 1935 and became an instant hit, selling one million copies within six months. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize. By the time of her death in 1949, more than eight million copies had been sold in forty different countries.
The essential story is by now familiar to most. In the beginning, the reader is immersed in a idyllic world of the antebellum South and the plantation-owning elite. But when the Civil War breaks out, the brave sons of the South march off to fight the Yanks and the old South begins to crumble. Within this drama is the story of the tempestuous Scarlett O’Hara and her fight both to save her family plantation, the much-loved Tara, and to win the heart of the strong and dashing Rhett Butler.
With the success of the book, a film adaptation was inevitable. Mitchell sold the film rights to the producer David O. Selznick for $50,000, and later received another $50,000 in royalties. News of the forthcoming film generated a lot of excited anticipation among fans of the book. But not all Americans were thrilled. African Americans rightly understood Mitchell’s book as a deeply racist depiction of a “Lost Cause” version of slavery, the Confederacy, and Reconstruction. In her telling, enslaved African Americans were simple-minded people who were content with slavery and loved their white owners. And she celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as an organization that rescued the South from the alleged depredations of emancipated blacks and Northern carpetbaggers.
African Americans knew that it was this twisted version of the Civil War and Reconstruction that was used by white supremacists to justify Jim Crow, lynching, and segregation. So, they mobilized against GWTW long before the filming began. They wrote letters to David Selznick, the film’s famed producer, urging him to drop the project. “We consider this work to be a glorification of the old rotten system of slavery, propaganda for race-hatreds and bigotry, and incitement of lynching,” wrote one group from Pittsburgh. Several African American newspapers threatened to organize a boycott of not just GWTW, but any film made by Selznick. The pressure didn’t stop the film from being made, but it did convince Selznick to – very reluctantly – delete the n-word from the script.
GWTW premiered on December 15, 1939 in Atlanta and quickly broke all existing box office records. For white Americans, the film represented a compelling fusion of romance and history. For many African Americans, however, GWTW was just what they feared it would be: a racist technicolor extravaganza that told a white supremacist version of the history of slavery, the Confederacy, and Reconstruction. It was, they charged, nothing more than a milder and prettier version of the original American blockbuster, The Birth of A Nation, which had been released in 1915. That infamous film celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who saved the South from the horrors of racial equality. GWTW avoided any references to the KKK, but it did present enslaved African Americans as happy and content people who loved their white “owners.”
These characteristics are embodied in the role of Mammy, an enslaved woman in the O’Hara household who remains cheerfully devoted to Scarlett and the family through all their travails. In the film, there’s no evidence of the violence, coercion, and exploitation that actual slavery was based upon. Mammy was played by Hattie McDaniel and she received both praise and criticism from African American leaders and writers. Some adopted a practical position, arguing that because there were so few roles in Hollywood available for African Americans, black actors should seize any opportunity that came their way. Others, however, said the portrayal of black characters in GWTW was demeaning and that it played to racist stereotypes. Hattie McDaniel herself admitted she was conflicted, but ultimately decided to make the most of the opportunity.
Nonetheless, many African Americans participated in protests outside of theaters showing GWTW. They carried signs that took aim at its rosy depiction of slavery. “YOU’D BE SWEET TOO UNDER A WHIP!” read one sign carried outside a Washington, DC theater. “Gone With the Wind glorifies slavery” read another.
At the Academy Award ceremonies in 1940, “Gone with the Wind” won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Its director, Victor Fleming, earned Best Director honors, while Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Scarlett.
And here’s where things got complicated: Best Supporting Actress went to Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of Mammy. On the one hand, McDaniel made history by becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award. On the other, she did so by playing what critics then and now saw as a racist caricature of an enslaved woman. Hattie McDaniel responded to the criticism by arguing that Hollywood would have found someone to play the role, if not her. And, she said, she did her best to portray Mammy as a positive character. As she put it: “You can best fight any existing evil from the inside.”
The next black woman to win an Academy Award? Halle Berry more than 60 years later in 2001.
As for Margaret Mitchell, she never wrote another novel (hence the expression, “that’s all she wrote”) and despite her fame, lived a quiet life with her husband. “Gone with the Wind,” however, lived on. The book remained in print year after year through countless editions. The film likewise enjoyed several revivals.
But with the civil rights movement of 1960s and 1970s came more scrutiny of the racism in the book and film. This scrutiny intensified as a new generation of historians rejected the Lost Cause version of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, in favor of an interpretation that exposed the violence and cruelty of slavery and the remarkable success of Reconstruction that was ultimately overthrown by a white supremacist counter-revolution that imposed the Jim Crow racial order.
GWTW still has fans – including, apparently, President Trump who just a few days ago slammed the Academy Awards for awarding a South Korean film, Parasite, the Best Picture honor. Trump said, “Can we get ‘Gone With the Wind’ back, please?”
But GWTW is now increasingly seen as a relic of a time when the nation was thoroughly segregated, when most African Americans could not vote, and when most white Americans considered the South’s defeat in the Civil War, not a victory for human rights and democracy, but rather a tragedy unjustly visited upon a noble people.
So what else of note happened this week in US history?
February 24, 1803 Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Marshall issued his landmark ruling, “Marbury vs Madison.” The specifics of the case are almost irrelevant. What mattered was that Marshall claimed – largely out of thin air – that the Supreme Court had the power of “judicial review” that is, the power to declare laws constitutional or unconstitutional. No such power is mentioned in the Constitution, but Marshall’s declaration went unchallenged and over time came to be accepted as fact. This, by the way, is a bit of history that will make any so-called “originalist” very uncomfortable. And if you want to learn more on this topic, check out ITPL Episode 94.
February 25, 1870 – 150 years ago – Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African American sworn in as a member of the US Senate. Revels had been born a free man in 1827 and grew up to be an educator and minister. He settled in Mississippi after the Civil War and entered politics. His arrival in the Senate symbolized the revolution of multiracial democracy that was taking hold in the post-Civil War South during Reconstruction as millions of emancipated African Americans voted and hundreds won political office. But the racist opposition that Revels and the other African American members of Congress faced foretold the eventual counter-revolution that eventually re-imposed white supremacy in the South.
February 27, 1973 – some 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. They were demanding justice for Native Americans and chose Wounded Knee – the site of an 1890 massacre of hundreds of Native Americans by the US military – for its symbolic value. Police and federal marshals soon surrounded the protestors, beginning a prolonged standoff that involved frequent exchanges of gunfire. The protestors eventually surrendered after 71 days. Their demands were not met, but the incident did bring attention to the deplorable state of affairs on many reservations.
Feb 24, 1868 The House of Representatives voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson
Feb 25, 1836 Samuel Colt received a patent for his repeating revolver
Mar 1, 1961 President JFK established the Peace Corps
Notable people were born this week in American history
Feb 24, 1836 – artist Winslow Homer was born in Boston, MA. Homer is one of this historian’s top two favorite American artists. He painted and drew some really important works in the post-Civil War American South, especially scenes depicting the lives of emancipated African Americans. Later he focused on seascapes along the New England coast. And I know you’re wondering – who’s my other top two artist? Edward Hopper, of course. And here’s a fun fact that might explain my affinities: both Homer and Hopper painted some of their most remarkable works in my hometown, the seaside city of Gloucester, MA.
February 24, 1928 – writer, social activist, and socialist leader Michael Harrington, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Harrington – who incidentally graduated from the college where I work – College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA – is best known for his landmark book about the extensive but hidden poverty in the United States, The Other America (1962). This work was a major inspiration for the anti-poverty measures undertaken by the JFK and LBJ administrations in the mid-1960s.
February 26, 1846 – western scout, buffalo hunter, and showman William Cody, aka “Buffalo Bill,” was born in LeClaire, Iowa. Cody was working in the west as a guide in the 1870s when a writer in NYC named Ned Buntline began publishing dime novels of western adventures featuring a character loosely based on him named Buffalo Bill. Cody eventually went to NYC to perform on stage as Buffalo Bill. And in 1883, now keenly aware of the insatiable appetite among Americans for tales of the Old West, he founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Essentially a western-themed circus, it dazzled audiences for the next 35 years, playing a major role in popularizing many myths about the American west and the frontier.
Feb 27, 1902 the great African American singer Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia. Anderson was a world-famous contralto in the late 1930s when an effort to schedule one of her performances at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC was blocked by the group that controlled the venue: The Daughters of the American Revolution. They refused to allow an African-American to sing at the historic site. So, in stepped Eleanor Roosevelt, who arranged to have Anderson sing an outdoor, Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Thousands turned out for the concert and millions listened to it on national radio. Years later, Marion Anderson said, “I forgave the DAR many years ago. You lose a lot of time hating people.”
Feb 24, 1885 Admiral of the US Navy Chester Nimitz
Feb 25, 1888 diplomat and Sec of State John Foster Dulles
Feb 28, 1901 Nobel Prize winning chemist, Linus Pauling
The Last Word
Let’s give it to Hiram Revels, who 150 years ago this week became the first African American to serve in the US Congress.
Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1871 in which he noted the bitter racism that African Americans faced during Reconstruction:
“I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase. For example, let me remark that it matters not how colored people act, it matters not how they behave themselves, how well they deport themselves, how intelligent they may be, how refined they may be—for there are some colored persons who are persons of refinement; this must be admitted—the prejudice against them is equally as great as it is against the most low and degraded man you can find in the streets of this city or in any other place.
This Mr. President, I do seriously regret. And is this prejudice right? Have the colored people done anything to justify the prejudice against them that does exist in the hearts of so many white persons, and generally of one great political party in this country? Have they done anything to justify it? No, sir.”
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)Borrtex, “Perception” (Free Music Archive)
Andy G Cohen, “Bathed in Fine Dust” (Free Music Archive)Blue Dot Sessions, “Pat Dog” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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© In The Past Lane, 2020
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© In The Past Lane 2020