Written by Stephen Johnson
Additional Research and Curation by Amelia Nezil and Jimena Ortuzar
This image shows a public performance created in an attempt to revive the fortunes of a long-dormant movement in North America, the Ku Klux Klan. Originally forged in the American South during the period after the Civil War, where it actively and violently promoted segregation and a related series of 'Jim Crow' laws, the 'Klan' had fallen on hard times, and all but disappeared.
Then, in 1915, D. W Griffith released his 'epic' film The Birth of a Nation, which was a paean to the Klan, a powerfully sentimental piece of propaganda, and the most successful and widely seen film up to that time. Its release was protested extensively but nothing could stop its wide circulation across North America, or its attraction despite the subject matter--it was a technological as well as a propagandistic achievement, and much like some advance film technology today, it was difficult for audiences to avoid seeing it and still be a part of the general cultural conversation. So they went, and they were either appalled or moved.
One of the results of the circulation of this film was a resurgence of groups calling themselves the KKK, all attempting to galvanize their membership in the interests of discrimination against anyone not Protestant and European in origin. This was true in Southern Ontario, and the newspapers of the 1920s and early 1930s had frequent reports of public gatherings, organizational meetings, and more.
Hamilton, Ontario, was a typical and not an unusual case. The 1920s was a disruptive cultural moment, when changes in communications and industrial technology, the movement of people in both urban and rural settings, and sudden changes of economic fortune drove many to look for stability in organizations both old and new--organizations with many different political and social 'soap to sell.' They protested the presence in the community--in any way--persons of colour, any non-Western-European immigrant, any Jewish immigration or presence, any Catholic immigration and presence...and the French. First Nations populations were not even countenanced with prejudice--they simply did not exist.
I have a personal family history with this event. My father was born and raised in Hamilton, and remembered these events. He remembered a cross burning on the side of Hamilton Mountain, an image only, burned into his memory (so to speak), and image without any history at all that he could remember. He remembered that his next door neighbour was a member of the local chapter of the KKK, and that everybody thought he was a 'flake' (if memory serves me, this was the word used). But he also remembers that the film The Birth of a Nation came to Hamilton not just once or twice, but in his recollection, annually, playing to broad audiences, for no defensible reason. It was simply on tour, and local communities accepted the 'tour.' That particular piece of inflammatory nostalgia had apparently become normalized.
So what are we to take from these memories? The KKK was not a group that many people joined or respected. But they could not be ignored, and they could not be forgotten, because of their own performance of their existence, through the visceral power of a burning cross and through the endless circulation of a film by a touring monopoly that had no interest in local culture.