"History Written with Lightning": Religion, White Supremacy, and the Rise and Fall of Thomas Dixon, Jr
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Susan V Donaldson
Baptist minister and author of novels, plays, sermons, and essays, Thomas Dixon, Jr. today remains most known as the storyteller behind the 1915 D. W. Griffith Film The Birth of a Nation. I argue that Thomas Dixon crafted a white supremacist rhetoric and narrative of modern whiteness indebted to the structures of Fundamentalist Christianity. With varying degrees of success, later writers struggled with the legacy the Dixonian cultural narrative bequeathed them.;Fundamentalist theology offered a whole host of tropes, metaphors, and arguments to its users. In short, Fundamentalism presented a rhetorical stance that was, in the hands of an ambitious and designing opportunist like Dixon, capable of being adapted for other purposes. Dixon structured his narrative of whiteness like a religion and drew the blueprints for that architecture from the Fundamentalist theology that he and his brother A. C. Dixon promulgated. That Fundamentalist mindset included consequential interpretations of the apocalypse that divided theological positions between premillennial and postmillennial points of view. Drawing on rhetorical analysis from Kenneth Burke, I analyze the ways Thomas Dixon crafted a blueprint for a revived Klan trained for constant surveillance of eschatological signs as a way to intervene and avoid the racial apocalypse he prophesied. Fundamentalist rhetoric and imagery provided Dixon tropes, arguments, and stirring icons that he could assimilate and incorporate into his vision of whiteness. This morality play for Dixon had some form of a threatening black man who menaced a pure white woman and called forth a white paladin of vengeance to be her savior. This savior then grouped all the men in the community in a white supremacist cult that would forestall the racial apocalypse Dixon worried would arrive. This study traces Dixon's creations, strategies, and eventual failure at dressing his white supremacy in religious robes.;Far more than being a study of one author, this project ranges beyond Dixon himself to his impact on a surprisingly wide range of twentieth-century cultural texts and artifacts, including film. From the immediate response from writers like Charles Chesnutt, Kelly Miller, Sutton Griggs, and W. E. B. Du Bois to the epic engagements of William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell, Dixon's legacy has involved several writers in its wake. Ultimately the rise and fall of Thomas Dixon's version of white supremacy offers a view of America's racial and sexual obsessions and the rhetoric bestowed by white Protestantism through which to articulate and structure those obsessions into narratives and social formations designed to consolidate and preserve whiteness. Any view of the Dixonian narrative that treats it as a freakish aberration ignores the centrality and popularity that it enjoyed at its height, and such a view would risk misunderstanding the forces that shaped such a damaging vision, one that inspired the second Ku Klux Klan and codified the symbol of the burning cross. Religion and racism run throughout the cultural and literary history of the United States, but they were never so infamously mingled and menacingly deployed than in the writings of Thomas Dixon.
© The Author
Kidd, David Michael, ""History Written with Lightning": Religion, White Supremacy, and the Rise and Fall of Thomas Dixon, Jr" (2013). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1539623616.