In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, an epic silent film about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, was released and quickly became a national commercial success. The film, which is considered one of America’s first blockbuster movies, depicted the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as heroes of Reconstruction and protectors of Southern white women’s chastity. Enthusiastic white audiences viewed the film in sold-out theaters throughout the country. In Atlanta, the movie enjoyed an unprecedented three-week run at the Atlanta Theatre. According to local journalists, the film drew an audience of more than 35,000 people (about one-fourth of the city’s white population) in the first two weeks.
The Birth of a Nation’s success and wide distribution increased national interest in the post-Civil War Klan. In Atlanta, the film served as an inspiration and a guide for the leaders of two early 20th-century Atlanta organizations with close connections to Stone Mountain—the modern Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
William Joseph Simmons was a former Methodist preacher and founder of the Modern Ku Klux Klan. First established in December 1865, the KKK was largely suppressed by the federal government by 1871. Simmons closely followed The Birth of a Nation’s national success and appeal, which he saw as a vehicle to revive and promote membership in the KKK. Days before the film premiered in Atlanta, Simmons led a group of 15 men in robes and hoods up the side of Stone Mountain, set fire to a cross, and symbolically resurrected the KKK. Later, during the opening night of the film’s premiere in Atlanta, Simmons and his fellow Klansmen wore white sheets and Confederate uniforms as they rode hooded horses down Peachtree Street and fired rifle salutes in front of the theater.
The KKK’s connection to Stone Mountain continued over the following decades as the site for Klan rallies, membership initiations, and the organization’s “Imperial Palace.” By 1924, the Klan had expanded far beyond its Southern base with “Klaverns” (branches of the KKK) in almost every Northern state and a reported national membership of six million.
The film’s premiere in Atlanta also inspired Helen Plane, president of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and founder and first president of the Stone Mountain Confederate Monument Association.
Plane had been strongly advocating for the carving of Robert E. Lee on the side of Stone Mountain as a new monument to the Confederacy when The Birth of a Nation came to town. After viewing the film and learning of Simmons’s cross burning on Stone Mountain, Plane’s vision of the monument expanded to include the Ku Klux Klan. She wrote Gutzon Borglum, the original designer of the memorial, urging him to include the KKK in his carving.
“Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South,” Plane wrote, “I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpet-bag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance.”
Plane was not the only UDC member in Georgia or the nation, however, to praise the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, other United Daughters of the Confederacy officers, members, and chapters memorialized the Ku Klux Klan. The UDC saw the KKK as true heroes of the South and included them in an increasingly popular interpretation of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era known as the “Lost Cause.” This interpretation grew out of the work of ladies’ memorial associations and Confederate veteran groups formed in the late 1860s to honor Confederate soldiers. The Lost Cause myth framed the Confederate cause as a noble fight to defend states’ rights rather than preserve slavery and viewed Reconstruction as a painful period of history marked by Northern interference and unruly freed slaves. By the turn of the century, the Lost Cause was firmly established as a central focus of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“We call our dear cause the ‘Lost Cause’ and, as such, we love it, as only women love, in sorrow and defeat; but no cause results in utter failure which has left such a previous legacy of heroism to a people.”
Mildred Lewis Rutherford from Athens, Georgia, who served as historian general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from 1911 to 1916, strongly endorsed the Lost Cause and the importance of the Ku Klux Klan in her speeches, books, and pamphlets on Southern history, slavery, and the Civil War. She included information on the history of the KKK in the educational programs she began developing in 1916 for the Children of the Confederacy, an auxiliary group of the UDC for children under age 18.
One of the books included in the curricula for these youth programs was The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire written by Laura Martin Rose, a member of the Mississippi division of the UDC. Rose dedicated her book to Southern youth in the hopes that it would “inspire them with the respect and admiration for the Confederate soldiers, who were the real Ku Klux, and whose deeds of courage and valor, have never been surpassed.” The book was unanimously endorsed at the 1913 annual convention of the UDC and again at the 1915 Annual Convention of the UDC in San Francisco, where Rutherford urged organization members to ensure The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire was placed in their community schools.
In Georgia, local chapters of the UDC in the early 20th century also pursued their own initiatives regarding educating the public about the Klan and its importance.
In Bulloch County, the UDC chapter published a pamphlet on Reconstruction in 1916 that praised the Ku Klux Klan as “a great law and order league of mounted night cavalrymen called into action by the intolerable condition of a reign of terror under the Negro rule in the South” and described Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as a “genius” who “devised this means of righting matters” when the “foundation of Southern civilization was threatened.” And in Rome Georgia, the local UDC chapter erected a monument to Forrest.
Despite the deepening ties between the UDC and the KKK, Helen Plane’s efforts to add the Ku Klux Klan to Gutzon Borglum’s carving on Stone Mountain were not realized. By the time work on the project finally began in 1923 (delayed by U.S. involvement in World War I), the UDC had already handed over control to a new Stone Mountain Memorial Association, and Borglum would leave within the following year. But Plane’s initial vision of a large-scale carving of Confederate generals and leaders on Stone Mountain did persevere, and the project was ultimately completed in 1972. Today, amid calls for its removal, the carving remains on Stone Mountain as a historical tribute to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause and a monument protected by Georgia state law.