Dixon, Thomas, Jr.
Dixon, Thomas, Jr. 1864–1946
Thomas Dixon Jr. was born January 11, 1864, in Shelby, North Carolina. He is best known for his racist novel The Clansman (1905), which served as the basis for D. W. Griffith’s infamous film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Throughout his long artistic career as a lecturer, playwright, filmmaker, and novelist, Dixon railed about the horrors of Reconstruction, the inferiority of African Americans, and the dangers of miscegenation. Whereas he was popular in his day, especially in the South, his strident views on race have left his name tainted in history.
Dixon was born the son of Thomas Dixon Sr., a Baptist minister, and Amanda Evira McAfee, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Growing up in the rural South in the midst of Reconstruction left an indelible mark on the young Dixon. He would always characterize this era as one of history’s greatest tragedies, a time when good southerners suffered at the hands of corrupt northerners and freed slaves. It was also during this period that Dixon became acquainted with the Ku Klux Klan. His most direct influence came from his uncle, Leroy McAfee, who later in life became a leader of the original Ku Klux Klan in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Dixon would go on to justify the original Klan’s actions in his writings, his plays, and his lectures as a harsh but necessary response to a desperate situation. For him, black freedom meant disaster in mainstream public life and miscegenation in private life.
From 1879 to 1883 Dixon attended Wake Forest College, and upon graduation he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University. Dixon was an excellent student, but he soon realized that theater was his true love. He decided to drop out and attend Frobisher’s School of Drama in New York City. Unfortunately, the tall, lanky Dixon was awkward on stage, and his dream of becoming an actor ended quickly. After returning home to Shelby, North Carolina, in 1885, he served a term as a state legislator, earned his law degree, and married Harriet Bussey in 1886.
Dixon soon found a new audience as an ordained Baptist minister. Beginning in 1887, Dixon would go on to hold several ministerial posts over the next decade, including with the Dudley Street Church in Boston and the Twenty-third Street Baptist Church in New York City. As one biographer has noted, Dixon was a “flamboyant and sensationalist preacher,” whose mastery of oratory skills and penchant for showmanship gained him a popular following (Slide 2004, p. 20). His sermons from the pulpit were joined by lucrative lecture tours that, by 1897, made him a very wealthy man. He was known for appealing to the emotions of the crowd, and his favorite topics included the plight of the working man and, especially in the South, the evils of Reconstruction.
Dixon’s first novel, The Leopard’s Spots (1902), was written as a satirical sequel to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he condemned for its gross misrepresentation and mistreatment of southerners (Cook 1968, p. 51). Appropriating a number of Stowe’s characters, including Simon Legree and George Harrison, Dixon wrote an emotionally charged, melodramatic novel of white southern victimization by vengeful former slaves and scheming carpetbaggers. The Leopard’s Spots was the first part of Dixon’s best-selling “Trilogy of Reconstruction,” which also included his most famous novel, The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907).
Most notable in these works is Dixon’s treatment of race. His African-American characters are racist stereotypes. He portrayed black men as highly sexualized, brutish beings driven by their desire to violate white southern women. Dixon felt that African Americans were a threat to white purity, and he railed in his trilogy against the perils of miscegenation. In Dixon’s novels, the horrors of Reconstruction only end with the emergence of the Klan and the reestablishment of white rule in the South through the use of lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans. This theme is most fully developed in The Clansman, in which Dixon presents the robed and hooded horsemen as modern day medieval knights out to protect the white southern population from harm. While Dixon claimed to have opposed slavery and argued that he had no sympathy for the modern Ku Klux Klan, he was a committed segregationist, believing that miscegenation and racial integration would destroy white American civilization in the South.
Dixon’s other notable novels include another trilogy, comprising The One Woman (1903), Comrades (1909), and The Root of Evil (1911). These books focus on the evils of socialism and communism. Over his lifetime, Dixon wrote twenty-two novels, a number of plays, numerous sermons, and other works of nonfiction.
Dixon was well aware of the theatrical potential of his novels, and he labored diligently to bring his works to the stage. He wrote the script for the play version of The Clansman, which opened in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 22, 1905. Like his novels, the production was a melodramatic spectacle, complete with live horses carrying hooded Klansmen on stage. Dixon would go on to adapt several of his novels for the stage, including The One Woman (1903), The Traitor (1907), and The Sins of the Father (1912).
An early admirer of motion pictures, Dixon sought to get his play The Clansman onto the movie screen as early as 1910. After two attempts at producing the film failed, the project was taken over by D. W. Griffith, whose adaptation, The Birth of a Nation, opened in 1915. Whereas Dixon’s storyline was the basis for the movie, Griffith was, by all accounts, the real creative force behind The Birth of a Nation. Dixon increased his wealth as the holder of a quarter interest in the film, which earned millions. Both Dixon and Griffith denied any responsibility for the inspiration the film provided to the creation of the modern Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century. Dixon went on to write a total of sixteen movie screenplays, including The Fall of a Nation (1916), The Foolish Virgin (1924), and Nation Aflame (1937).
Dixon’s fame and fortune declined greatly in his later years. He lost nearly all of his money in the stock market crash of 1929, and by the 1930s he was no longer a popular author. In 1937 he gained modest employment as a court clerk in Raleigh, North Carolina. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 1939, he was cared for by his second wife, Made-lyn Donovan. Dixon died on April 3, 1946.
SEE ALSO Birth of a Nation, The.
Cook, Raymond A. 1974. Thomas Dixon. New York: Twayne Publications.
Gillespie, Michele K., and Randal L. Hall. 2006 Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Slide, Anthony. 2004. American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.