Before I go into my opinions on this, we need to contextualize both the era Gone with the Wind was made about and the era it was made in. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind covers a broad span of time, and one could write an entire book on what happened in each year to provide a really complete picture of what exactly happened in the eras covered. Because of this, I’m only going to cover a few main points.
The South after the Civil War
- Slaves returned to plantations.
Many slaves did in fact return to the plantations that previously enslaved them. They had nowhere else to go; their homes and belongings were stationed at plantations before the war. With the Southern economy in shreds, jobs were hard to find for whites–former slaves had little chance of securing anything for themselves. There was a very brief time during Reconstruction when a limited amount of African Americans experience upward mobility in the South, but these stories usually end in the person’s death or being forced back into poverty. Some slaves who moved to metropolitan areas were more successful in their endeavors, but many struggled to find work when their previous experiences all pertained to agricultural work.
- The KKK was birthed during Reconstruction.
Gone with the Wind (the book) actually focuses on the KKK rescuing Scarlett after she’s accosted by an African American man. Mitchell describes them as a “tragic necessity.” The scene actually stayed in the film, but instead of “a squat black negro with shoulders and chest like a gorilla” fumbling Scarlett’s breasts, she’s primarily attacked by a white man and his African American companion (a not so subtle dig at the dangers of Blacks and whites intermingling). Both feature Scarlett’s savior, her former slave, Big Sam. Much like the book, Ashley Wilkes and Frank Kennedy go to avenge Scarlett’s attack. However, in the movie, neither is portrayed as a member of the KKK while the book clearly lays out their Klan membership. The KKK’s omission likely lies in a couple things. For starters, Selznick was Jewish and wanted to appeal the film to a wide audience. It’s not shocking for a Jewish man to leave out an organization starkly against his existence. There were also concerns from the Hayes Office and the NAACP about the KKK’s part in the film.
America in 1936
- Eugenics were still popular.
So there’s a lot to unpack here, and I recommend one check out a number of books if they’re interested in the history of America’s eugenics program. In short, the idea of eugenics took America by storm in the late-1800s and it really continued until about the mid-part of WWII. Eugenics had been used to justify slavery since slavery in the U.S. had began, but there was a zenith during the time of Mitchell’s birth. The idea was based on African Americans being docile (again, an idea that was popularized years before) and needing Caucasians to survive. The “science” of eugenics was also used as justification for the formation of Jim Crow laws. As many know, Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger was a proponent of eugenic programs, and even spoke at a KKK event. Which brings me to my next point…
- The KKK was marginally popular.
The original KKK started in December of 1865 and faded out by the 1870s. Members primarily focused on combatting Reconstruction efforts, which of course included allowing African Americans certain rights. In 1905, Thomas Dixon released a bestselling book, The Clansman. The book was actually part of a trilogy, all of which portrayed the Klan as saviors to the Southern cause. Dixon turned the novel into a successful play and D.W. Griffith turned it into a hugely successful film in 1915. The film is what sparked the Klan’s rebirth and by 1924(ish), roughly 20% of the eligible white male population was a member (estimates range between 4-5 million Klan Members out of 106 million total people in the United States). Many also supported the Klan, even if they never became members. There’s no real count of Klan sympathizers, but it’s safe to say they likely would have made up another decent chunk of the U.S. population. The Klan started to have some debilitating lawsuits and internal disagreements in the late 1920s, and faded to about 30-40,000 members by 1930. But former members didn’t just die off. They were still around and most held onto their racist views. These views made GWTW socially acceptable in the eyes of many whites.
- Margaret Mitchell’s views were very common in the South.
Romanticizing the Antebellum era is still rampant today, and it was even more popular in the 1930s. Many Southerners considered the upheaval of their lives the Civil War brought a great miscarriage of justice. The idea of the South “rising again,” combined with Dixon’s glorification of the KKK during Mitchell’s formative years, led to Gone with the Wind’s racist overtones’ celebration.
So, is Gone with the Wind a racist film? Not for most white audiences of the time, but definitely for today; however, it shouldn’t be buried either. Its context needs explanation. I have yet to see a cable introduction point out exactly why Gone with the Wind, both the film and book, were so popular in the 30s, and I’m hoping HBO corrects this oversight. If you love Gone with the Wind like I do, keep enjoying it, but just realize why the film is problematic.