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Birthers, Then and Now

02/08/2015 05:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

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The most virulent haters of President Obama have long been called "Birthers." A major historical anniversary we observe this month suggests that the name is far more appropriate than has been realized.

A hundred years ago, on February 8, 1915, a cinematic masterpiece premiered in Los Angeles. On that day it was called The Clansman, but the title was quickly changed to The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith's creation marked the birth of the feature film and its importance in the development of the art form is difficult to overstate. The movie's greater significance, though, is as a historical monstrosity.

In it, African-Americans are portrayed as subhuman beings that were well-treated and happy under slavery, singing and dancing during the "two-hour interval given for dinner." When removed from the benevolent institution's needed restraints, black people are depicted by Griffith as "crazed negroes" who make "helpless whites" their "victims." Mammy, one of black characters who properly appreciates the benefits of slavery, speaks for the filmmaker when she declares: "Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of am sho' crazy."

Birth of a Nation shows us the extraordinary level of racism that prevailed in early twentieth-century America. More important, it allows us to see both how far we have come from those bad old days of racism in the United States and how little the views of a substantial fraction of the nation's white population have changed in a century.

On the matter of how far we have come, one need go no farther than looking at the occupants of the White House in 1915 and 2015. A hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson was president and this astonishingly racist epic was the first movie screened in the White House. Excerpts from Wilson's A History of the American People are quoted in the film to promote the belief that "a veritable overthrow of the civilization of the South" with the purpose "to 'put the white South under the heel of the black South'" was undertaken during Reconstruction and that white men "roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation" created "a great Ku Klux Klan . . . to protect the southern country from some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution."

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A century later, the movie recently screened at the White House is Selma, and we have come so far that, rather than a racist movie that presents pro-Klan quotations from the sitting President being shown in the White House, an African-American President resides there. That would have been completely inconceivable a century ago.

Yet Birth of a Nation can tell us almost as much about America in 2015 as it does about America in 1915.

From which of those years does the following scenario come? A "mulatto" referred to as a "traitor" is said to plan "to lead by an evil way to build himself a throne of vaulting power"? Though such a charge is indistinguishable from today's postings and viral emails about Barack Obama, it is from Birth of a Nation

The century-old silent film speaks in a loud voice for the same mindset that condemns the current President without regard to what he does. A large number of Americans takes the position on anything Obama advocates that was nicely stated in song by Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers, a movie released seventeen years after Griffith's epic:

Your proposition may be good,
But let's have one thing understood,
Whatever it is, I'm against it.

The underlying mentality that produces the current widespread anti-Obama hysteria is to be found in Birth of a Nation. The totally evil character in the film is the "mulatto," Silas Lynch (on the left below), who is said to be "happy at last to wreak vengeance" on the defeated whites. "I will build a Black Empire," the "drunk with power" mixed-race political leader proclaims.

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How does this 1915 representation of the fictional Silas Lynch differ from the 2008-2015 "conservative" characterization of Barack Obama as an evil, mixed-race man putting in place a plan to establish a black, Muslim empire in which he will rule over and subjugate white Christian people? Only, it seems, in the latter's addition of "Muslim" to the alleged diabolical plot.

Birth of a Nation brought together the deepest fears of many white Americans a hundred years ago. Those fears centered on race, but particularly on interracial sex and most particularly on the union of black men with white women. When a black man in the movie, Gus, seeks to marry a white girl, she leaps to her death in order to preserve her honor.

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Klansmen capture Gus "that he may be given a fair trial in the dim halls of the Invisible Empire." The fair trial takes 21 seconds to find Gus guilty. It took the people who formed the Tea Party about the same amount of time to reach the same verdict on President Obama.

The connection is clear. Barack Obama is the sum of all the fears that were brought to the screen by Griffith and that continue to plague a significant number of white Americans. President Dwight D. Eisenhower enunciated those fears nearly 40 years after the film when he told Chief Justice Earl Warren before the 1954 Brown decision that white segregationists "are not bad people; they just don't want their sweet little daughters to have to sit next to some big black buck."

The basis of the visceral loathing that people who continue to think this way have for Obama is that he is the product of what Eisenhower warned: a white woman coupling with a black man. To them, such a man becoming president represents the "Death of a Nation" -- their nation.

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Beyond that, Barack Obama's presidency points towards an American nation that is, like him, of mixed race -- a nation that is no longer dominated by non-Hispanic whites. The credence that so many people give to absurd stories about the current President is part of their desperate effort to "take OUR country back" and to defend what the movie called in 1915 "their Aryan birthright."

The objective of the Obama-haters is to take the nation back -- back to the one presented on movie screens beginning a century ago today. "Birthers" they certainly are.