Political Scientist Rick Valelly '75 on Birth of a Nation and the Civil Rights Movement

Rick Valelly

The Washington Post: What a 100-year old racist movie tells us about civil rights then and now

As the debate about the historical accuracy of “Selma” reminds us, historical movies about the black freedom struggle can generate a national argument about what kind of country we are — and about what view of it should prevail. No movie did this with greater impact, unfortunately, than the white supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation.”

It premiered 100 years ago this past week in New York City, after having been screened at the White House. It then toured the nation, triggering African American protests even as white audiences stood up and cheered during the scenes of Klan riders redeeming the South from “Negro rule.”

As the movie went on to become one of the most profitable films ever made, millions of Americans became partisans in a culture war over the meaning of the Reconstruction. That culture war is still with us, despite the great progress we have made as a country in the past century – and we are about to enter into a new phase of it as the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction unfolds over the coming decade.

Read the full article at The Washington Post

Rick Valelly '75 is Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, where he has taught since 1993. He is the author of the award-winning The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (2004), American Politics: A Very Short Introduction (2013) and Radicalism in the States: The American Political Economy and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (1989). His current research focuses on the political development of LGBT rights in the U.S. with a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.