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Thomas Dixon, 1864-1946 and C. D. Williams
The Leopard's Spots. A Romance of the White Man's Burden—1865-1900
New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902.

Summary

Thomas Dixon, Jr. was born January 11, 1864, in Shelby, North Carolina. His father was a Baptist minister and farmer, and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth McAfee, grew up as the daughter of a South Carolina planter. As a child during the South's devastating Reconstruction period, Dixon witnessed firsthand the difficulties associated with postwar poverty. He was first able to attend school regularly at the age of thirteen, when he entered Shelby Academy in 1877. A gifted student, he enrolled at Wake Forest College only two years later and by 1883 had earned his master's degree. Dixon's stellar academic record earned him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where he studied history and politics for a semester until lured away to pursue an unsuccessful acting career in New York. In a year fraught with change, Dixon returned to North Carolina in May 1884. He entered law school in Greensboro and was elected to the state legislature at age twenty. In March 1886, he eloped with Harriet Bussey, and the couple later had three children. In the same year, he was ordained a Baptist minister, and his flair for preaching resulted in his leadership of sizeable congregations in Boston and New York.

Dixon left the ministry in March 1895 in order to pursue lecturing full-time, a move that resulted in his spectacular rise to fame and fortune. While on his lecture tour, he began writing the first of his Klan trilogy, The Leopard's Spots (1902), which was a runaway success. The Klan trilogy—which also includes The Clansman and The Traitor—is so named for the prominent role the Ku Klux Klan plays in Dixon's attempt to redress injustices perpetrated against the South. In addition to essays on socialism, the "race problem," and women's suffrage, Dixon would publish some twenty novels as well as write and star in several plays and films. After the 1905 publication of The Clansman, Dixon attempted selling an adaptation of his novel, but it took nearly ten years before Epoch Producing Corporation agreed to invest in the project. Under D. W. Griffith's direction, the notorious film The Birth of a Nation was first screened in 1915. That same summer, Dixon relocated to California, opening Dixon Studios, Laboratory and Press. Despite producing several films, Dixon's movie venture did not flourish, and he returned to New York in 1923.

Deeply conservative both politically and religiously, Dixon remained adamantly against extending political rights to African Americans, fearing that social equality would inevitably result in miscegenation, a prospect Dixon found unseemly. Such reactionary beliefs, in conjunction with his insistent veneration of the South, made Dixon a popular yet controversial figure. During the last fifteen years of his writing career, his appeal steadily declined. Though he made at least two fortunes, upon his death in Raleigh on April 3, 1946, Dixon was virtually penniless. In spite of the magnitude of his career and his former celebrity status, Thomas Dixon and his works have since sunk into relative obscurity.

With The Leopard's Spots, Dixon sought, in part, to correct what he perceived as gross misrepresentations of the South in literary works, primarily in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which even fifty years after its publication was still widely read. Stowe's landmark novel had long been a source of ire for southerners, and Dixon felt that her sympathetic portrayal of African Americans demanded revision. Insistent in making his criticism overt, Dixon takes the names of Stowe's characters for several of his own. Dixon's reworking of Stowe's title character, Tom, for example, makes him not a humble African American servant but a poor white Christian whose family is victimized by black men. Dixon takes the critique of slavery offered by Stowe and re-examines it from the perspective of the Reconstruction era South and argues that the primary threat to American values is racial equality.

Book One of the novel begins with tired and wounded southern soldiers returning to their home in Hambright, North Carolina after the devastating Confederate surrender in 1865 and follows these veterans through the first years of Reconstruction. This first section presents the history that shapes the novel's main characters and their views on race. Following the Civil War, many of the African Americans in Hambright gain political and social power with the help of Simon Legree and Tim Shelby, who symbolize the vile and despotic partnership of opportunistic white liberals (Legree) and power-hungry black men (Shelby). Legree and Shelby's immediate plan is to take over as much land as possible in Hambright under the guise of legal seizure for unpaid taxes and redistribute it to black residents. Their master plan, however, is to completely redistribute power and wealth in the South. Dixon subtly links Shelby's political aggression with sexual deviance when, at the height of his power, Shelby makes a sexually suggestive remark to a white woman in the town.

Shelby's threat causes Reverend Durham and other town leaders to strike back, and they create the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK lynches Shelby, forces Legree north, and wields enough control to impeach North Carolina's governor as well remove other corrupt Republican politicians. After they achieve these goals, Durham and the other leaders disband the group, fearing some members will abuse the KKK's power. In his fictional portrayal of the beginning of the Klan, Dixon argues the group began as merely a defensive organization meant to protect white womanhood from black male sexual aggression as well as to protect government from corruption. Later in the novel, Dixon's Klan actually works to suppress other white supremacist groups that have violent designs.

Despite this initial victory, though, the KKK has not permanently squelched the groups that threaten the Klan's idea of a morally sound nation. In Book Two, which begins over twenty years after the close of Book One, the Republican party is again threatening to take control of the state and expand African American rights, and another white girl is kidnapped by a black man in Hambright. The protagonist is Charlie Gaston, a struggling attorney and aspiring politician, who has been raised by the Durham family since his mother's death. Gaston eschews Durham's previous KKK activity, and, like Dixon, uses rhetoric as his chief weapon. He gains celebrity as a passionate and persuasive orator and travels the state to spread his gospel of white supremacy. In the town of Independence, likely a fictionalization of Charlotte, North Carolina, Gaston and a committee of twenty-five others pass a "Second Declaration of Independence," in which they denounce corrupt and tyrannical (especially black and pro-black) leadership. More specifically, the document demands resignations from town officials and closure of the black newspaper. Deciding that words alone will not ensure their success, the committee assembles a mob to enforce their demands as well as to keep African American and Republican voters away from polls at the next election. Through these activities, Gaston gains tremendous popularity.

When Gaston attends the North Carolina state Democratic convention, he gives a rousing speech on the future of the party in which he asserts, "This is a white man's government, conceived by white men, and maintained by white men through every year of its history, —and by the God of our Fathers it shall be ruled by white men until the Arch-angel shall call the end of time!" (p. 442). Gaston's speech sways the party's leadership to his position, and they not only amend the party platform, but also choose Gaston as their nominee for governor, guaranteeing the success of his policies. Throughout The Leopard's Spots, however, the upper class whites, including Durham and Gaston, make it clear that they do not hate African Americans. Durham, in fact, tells Tom Camp that such hatred is a sin, and Gaston tries unsuccessfully to stop a lynch mob set on killing his childhood friend Dick, who has raped and murdered a young white girl.

Durham and Gaston also discuss other important racial issues of the time, such as miscegenation and education for black workers. The former issue, in particular, shows up as an underlying element of almost every debate in the novel. For example, when Charlie Gaston suggests a plan for the freedmen's industrial and agricultural training, Durham, who favors colonization for freedmen, exclaims, "Even you are still labouring under the delusions of 'Reconstruction.' The Ethiopian can not change his skin, or the leopard his spots. Those who think it possible will always tell you that the place to work this miracle is in the South. Exactly. If a man really believes in equality, let him prove it by giving his daughter to a negro in marriage" (p.459-60).

Despite the importance of politics in his first novel, Dixon closes his novel with the successful resolution of the courtship between Gaston and Sallie Worth, the daughter of a Confederate hero. Dixon adeptly deploys melodrama and romance to ensnare his readers and ensure his arguments about race are integrated with other emotional elements that further his point. The success of this novel and the film The Birth of a Nation attests that his method was effective.

Works consulted: Powell, William S., ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Jennifer L. Larson
Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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