Thomas Dixon Jr.

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Thomas Dixon Jr.
Portrait of Thomas Dixon, Jr.jpg
Born Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr.
(1864-01-11)January 11, 1864
Shelby, North Carolina, U.S.
Died April 3, 1946(1946-04-03) (aged 82)
Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, playwright, minister, state legislator, lecturer
Nationality American
Genre Historical fiction
Literary movement American Romanticism

Thomas Frederick Dixon Jr. (January 11, 1864 – April 3, 1946) was a Southern Baptist minister, playwright, lecturer, North Carolina state legislator, lawyer, author. Dixon wrote two early 20th-century novels —The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden – 1865–1900 (1902) and The Clansman (1905)— which glorified Ku Klux Klan (KKK) vigilante atrocities and romanticized Southern white opposition to racial equality reforms of the Reconstruction era.[1] Film director D. W. Griffith gained fame for his adaptation of The Clansman for the screen in The Birth of a Nation (1915); the film stimulated the formation of the 20th-century version of the KKK.

Early years[edit]

Dixon was born in Shelby, North Carolina, the son of Thomas Jeremiah Frederick Dixon II and Amanda Elvira McAfee.

Dixon's father, Thomas J. F. Dixon senior, was a slave-owner, land-owner and Baptist minister of English and Scottish descent. Dixon Sr. had inherited slaves and property through his first wife's father.[2]

In his adolescence Dixon helped out on the family farms, an experience that he hated, but that he later would say helped him to relate to the plight of the working man.[3] Dixon grew up during Reconstruction following the Civil War. The government confiscation of farm land, coupled with what Dixon saw as the corruption of local politicians, the particular vengefulness of Federal troops and general lawlessness embittered the young Dixon, who became staunchly opposed to reform.[4]

Dixon claimed that one of his earliest memories was of a widow of a Confederate soldier who had served under Dixon's uncle, Col. Leroy McAfee, had accused a black man of the rape of her daughter and sought the family's help. Dixon's mother had praised the KKK after it hanged and shot the alleged rapist in the town square.[5][6] It was a moment that etched itself into Dixon's memory; he felt that the Klan's actions were justified, and that desperate times called for desperate measures.

Dixon's father, Thomas Dixon Sr., and his uncle Leroy McAfee, both joined the Ku Klux Klan early in the Reconstruction era with the aim of "bringing order" to the tumultuous times. Col. McAfee eventually attained the rank of Chief of the Klan of the Piedmont area of North Carolina.[6] But, after witnessing the corruption and scandal involved in the Klan, both men would dissolve their affiliation with the group and attempt to disband it within their region.[7]

Frontispiece to the first edition of Dixon's The Clansman.


In 1877, Dixon entered the Shelby Academy, where he earned a diploma in only two years. In September 1879 Dixon enrolled at Wake Forest University where he studied history and political science. As a student there, Dixon performed remarkably well, and in 1883, after only four years, Dixon earned a master's degree. His record at Wake Forest was outstanding, and he earned the distinction of achieving the highest student honors ever awarded at the university to that date.[8] While a student there, he was a founding member of their chapter of Kappa Alpha Order fraternity.[9] Following his graduation from Wake Forest, Dixon received a scholarship to attend the Johns Hopkins University political science program. Here he met and befriended future President Woodrow Wilson.[10] On January 11, 1884, despite the objections of his Wilson, Dixon left Johns Hopkins University to pursue journalism and a career on the stage.[citation needed]

Dixon headed to New York City and enrolled in the Frobisher School of Drama to study drama. As an actor, Dixon's physical appearance became a problem – he was six foot three inches tall but only weighed 150 pounds, making for a very lanky appearance. One producer remarked that because of his appearance Dixon would not succeed as an actor, but he complimented Dixon for his intelligence and attention to detail and recommended that Dixon put his love for the stage into scriptwriting.[11] Despite the compliment, Dixon returned home to North Carolina in shame.[citation needed]

Upon his return to Shelby, Dixon quickly realized that he was in the wrong place to begin to cultivate his playwriting skills. After his initial disappointment from his Frobisher rejection Dixon, with the encouragement of his father, enrolled in the Greensboro Law School in Greensboro, North Carolina. An excellent student, Dixon received his law degree in 1885.[12]

Political career[edit]

It was during law school that Dixon's father convinced Thomas Jr. to enter politics. After graduation, Dixon ran for the local seat in the North Carolina General Assembly as a Democrat.[13] Despite being only 20 years of age and not even old enough to vote for himself, he won the election by a two-to-one margin, a victory that was attributed to his masterful oratory skills.[14] Dixon retired from politics in 1886 after only one term in the legislature. He said that he was disgusted by the corruption and the back-door deals of the lawmakers, and he is quoted as referring to politicians as "the prostitutes of the masses."[15] However short, Dixon's political career gained him popularity throughout the South for his championing of Confederate veterans' rights.[16]

Following his career in politics, Dixon practiced private law for a short time, but he would find little satisfaction as a lawyer and he would soon leave the profession to become a minister.

Ministry and lecturing[edit]

Dixon was ordained as a Baptist minister on October 6, 1886, with his first practice in Greensboro, where he had attended law school.[17] Church records show that in October 1886 Dixon moved to the parsonage at 125 South John Street in Goldsboro, NC to serve as the Pastor of the First Baptist Church. Already a lawyer and fresh out of Wake Forest Seminary, life in Goldsboro must not have been what young Dixon had been expecting for a first preaching assignment. The social upheaval that Dixon portrays in his later works was largely melded through Dixon's experiences in the post-war Wayne County during reconstruction.[citation needed]

On April 10, 1887, Dixon moved to the Second Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. His popularity rose quickly, and before long he was offered a position at the Dudley Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. As his popularity on the pulpit grew, so did his demand as a lecturer.[17] While preaching in Boston, Dixon was asked to give the commencement address at Wake Forest University. Additionally, he was offered a possible honorary doctorate from the university. Dixon himself rejected the offer, but he sang high praises about a relative unknown who Dixon believed deserved the honor, his old friend Woodrow Wilson.[18] A reporter at Wake Forest who heard Dixon's praises of Wilson put a story on the national wire, giving Wilson his first national exposure.[18]

In August 1889, Dixon accepted a post in New York City, despite the fact that his Boston congregation was willing to double his pay if he would stay.[19] In New York, Dixon would preach at new heights, bumping elbows with the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt (whom he helped in a campaign for New York Governor).[19] Sometime in the next five years, however, Dixon became disillusioned with the church, and he began to believe that he could no longer belong to any particular denomination. So, in 1895, Dixon resigned from the Baptist ministry, and started preaching at a nondenominational church. He continued preaching there until 1899 when he began to lecture full-time.[citation needed]

Dixon enjoyed lecturing and was often hailed as the best lecturer in the nation.[20] He gained an immense following throughout the country, and particularly in the South, where he played up his speeches on the plight of the working man, and what he called the horrors of Reconstruction.[21] It was during such a lecture tour that Dixon attended a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dixon could hardly contain his anger and outrage at the play; it is said that he literally "wept at [the play's] misrepresentation of southerners."[22] Dixon vowed that the "true story" of the South should be told. As a direct result of this experience, Dixon wrote his first novel The Leopard's Spots (1902), which employs several characters, including Simon Legree, recycled from Stowe's novel.[20]

Writings & Film Adaptations[edit]

"I thank God that there is not to-day the clang of a single slave's chain in this continent. Slavery may have had its beneficent aspects, but democracy is the destiny of the race, because all men are bound together in the bonds of fraternal equality with common love."

-Thomas Dixon Jr., 1896 from Protestantism and Its Causes, New York[6]

" amount of education of any kind, industrial, classical or religious, can make a Negro a white man or bridge the chasm of centuries which separate him from the white man in the evolution of human nature."

-Thomas Dixon Jr., 1905 from "Booker T. Washington and the Negro", p. 1, Saturday Evening Post, August 19, 1905.[23]

Dixon's "Trilogy of Reconstruction" consisted of The Leopard's Spots, The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). Dixon's novels were best-sellers in his day despite being sordid racist parodies of historical romance fiction. They glorify a antebellum American South white supremacist viewpoint. Dixon claimed he opposed slavery, yet he espoused segregation and vehemently opposed universal suffrage and miscegenation.[24] Dixon's Reconstruction era novels, depict Northerners as greedy carpetbaggers and white Southerners as victims. Their prejudice and bigotry appealed to a readership fearful of losing its privileged legacy of brutal oppression and exploitation.[25] Dixon's "Clansman" caricatures the Reconstruction as an era of "black rapists" and "blonde-haired" victims, and were his racist views not known, the vile and gratuitous brutality and KKK terror, which the novel revels in, would be read as satire.[25] If "Dixon used the motion picture as a propaganda tool for his often outrageous opinions on race, communism, socialism, and feminism,"[26] D. W. Griffith in his film adaptation of the novel, The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a case in point. Dixon wrote a stage adaptation of The Clansman in 1905. In The Leopard's Spots, the Reverend Durham character indoctrinates Charles Gaston, the protagonist, with a foulmouthed diatribe of hate speech.[25] One critic notes that the term for marriage "the Holy of Holies" may be a crude euphemism for vagina.[25] Equally Dixon's opposition to miscegenation was as much confused sexism as racism, as he only opposed white woman and black man relationships, while black woman and white man relationships, for Dixon, were perfectly fine.[25]

Another pet-hate subject for Dixon, and the focus of his trilogy, was socialism: The One Woman: A Story of Modern Utopia (1903), Comrades: A Story of Social Adventure in California (1909), and The Root of Evil (1911), which also discusses some of the problems involved in modern industrial capitalism. In 1919, the book Comrades was made into a motion picture entitled Bolshevism on Trial. In the play The Sins of the Father, which was produced in 1910–11, Dixon himself took the leading role. Thomas Dixon's writings remain popular with today's far-right nationalists and White Supremacist groups.[citation needed]

Dixon authored 22 novels; additionally, he wrote many plays, sermons, and works of nonfiction. He also wrote some film scripts. His writing mostly centered on three major themes: (1) racial purity; (2) the evils of socialism; and (3) the traditional family role of women as wife/mother.[27] A common theme found in his novels is violence against white woman, mostly, though not always, by a Southern black man. These crimes are almost always avenged through the course of the story, the source of which might stem from a belief of Dixon's that his mother was sexually abused as a child.[28] He wrote his last novel, The Flaming Sword, in 1939 and not long after was crippled by a cerebral hemorrhage.[29]

Attitudes toward revived Klan[edit]

Given that Dixon was an extreme nationalist, chauvinist, xenophobic, racist, reactionary ideologue, the reason he distanced himself from the "bigotry" of the revived second era Ku Klux Klan, seems intended to infer that the "Reconstruction Klan" were not bigots. He did denounce antisemitism as "idiocy", but only on the grounds that the mother of Jesus was Jewish. While lauding the "loyalty and good citizenship" of Catholics he claimed it was the "duty of whites to lift up and help" the supposedly "weaker races". His ultimate intent was to promote aggressive far-right politics.[30]

Family life[edit]

Dixon and his first wife Harriet

Dixon married his first wife Harriet Bussey on March 3, 1886. His wife and he were forced to elope to Montgomery, Alabama, after Bussey's father refused to give his consent.[31] Dixon and Harriet Bussey had three children together: Thomas III, Louise, and Gordon. Following a career of major ups and downs that saw Dixon earn and lose millions, Dixon ended his career as a court clerk in Raleigh, North Carolina.[32] Harriet died on 29 December 1937. Fourteen months later, on February 26, 1939, Dixon suffered a crippling cerebral hemorrhage.[33] Less than a month later, from his hospital bed, Dixon married Madelyn Donovan, an actress who had played a role in a film adaptation of one of his novels.[33] Dixon is buried with his second wife Madelyn in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina. His gravestone reads: "Thomas Dixon Jr. 1864-1946 Lawyer-Minister-Author-Orator-Playwright-Actor A Native of Cleveland County and Most Distinguished Son of His Generation. -- He was the author of 28 books dealing with the reconstruction period. The most popular of which were 'The Clansman' and 'The Leopard's Spots,' from which 'The Birth of a Nation' was dramatized. -- His Wife Madelyn Donovan 1894-1975."[34]

His brother, the popular preacher Amzi Clarence Dixon, was famous for helping to edit The Fundamentals, a series of articles (and later volumes) influential in fundamentalist Christianity.

List of works[edit]

The Thomas Dixon Collection[edit]

The Thomas Dixon Collection, consisting of over fifteen hundred volumes from Dixon's personal book collection and nine paintings featuring illustrations from his novels, is hosted by the John R. Dover Memorial Library at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.[36][37]


  1. ^ Maxwell Bloomfield, "Dixon's 'The Leopard's Spots': A Study in Popular Racism." American Quarterly 16.3 (1964): 387-401. online
  2. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon pp. 21-22; Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America.
  3. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 23; Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America.
  4. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, pp. 22-27.
  5. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 23.
  6. ^ a b c Roberts, p. 202.
  7. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 25; Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America
  8. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 34.
  9. ^ "History and catalogue of the Kappa Alpha fraternity". Kappa Alpha Order, Chi Chapter. 1891: 228. 
  10. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 34; Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation
  11. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon.
  12. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America.
  13. ^ "Dixon, Thomas". American National Biography. Retrieved March 13, 2017. Dixon now decided that he would try politics, and in 1884 he ran successfully for a Democratic seat in the state legislature. 
  14. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 36; Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America
  15. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 38.
  16. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, pp. 38-39.
  17. ^ a b Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 40.
  18. ^ a b Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 41.
  19. ^ a b Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 42.
  20. ^ a b Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 51; Slide, p. 25.
  21. ^ Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon.
  22. ^ Slide, p. 25.
  23. ^ Roberts, p. 204.
  24. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon, p. 27.
  25. ^ a b c d e Leiter, Andrew (2004). "Thomas Dixon, Jr.: Conflicts in History and Literature". Documenting the American South. Retrieved 2017-07-21. 
  26. ^ Slide, Anthony American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon
  27. ^ Cook, Raymond A. Fire from the Flint: The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon (1968)
  28. ^ Slide, p. 30.
  29. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Davenport, F. Garvin. Journal of Southern History, August 1970.
  30. ^ "Thomas Dixon Dies; Wrote 'Clansman'", New York Times, April 4, 1946, p. 23.
  31. ^ Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 39.
  32. ^ Gillespie, Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America; Davenport, Journal of Southern History: August 1970; New York Times, April 17, 1934. p. 19, Dixon Penniless; $1,250,000 Gone.
  33. ^ a b Cook, Thomas Dixon, p. 128.
  34. ^ "Thomas Dixon's headstone at". Retrieved 2007-02-07. 
  35. ^ Anthony Slide - American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon 2004 Page 161 0813171911 " If The Mark of the Beast is important as the only film that Thomas Dixon directed as well as wrote and produced, it is equally important for bringing Madelyn Donovan openly into his life."
  36. ^ "Archives". Gardner-Webb University. Retrieved 1 June 2016. 
  37. ^ "Thomas Dixon Library Goes to Gardner-Webb College". The Daily Times-News. Retrieved 1 June 2016. 


  • Bloomfield, Maxwell. "Dixon's 'The Leopard's Spots': A Study in Popular Racism." American Quarterly 16.3 (1964): 387-401. online
  • Cook, Raymond A. Thomas Dixon pp. 21–22, Twayne Publications, Inc., 1974. ISBN 0-8057-0206-7
  • Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1986-1920. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8078-2287-6
  • Gillespie, Michele K. and Hall, Randal L. Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louisiana State University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8071-3130-X
  • Williamson, Joel. A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Oxford, 1986. ISBN 0-19-504025-2
  • Slide, Anthony, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon, University Press of Kentucky, 2004. ISBN 0-8131-2328-3
  • Roberts, Samuel K. Kelly Miller and Thomas Dixon Jr. on Blacks in American Civilization, pp. 202–209, Phlyon, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2nd Quarter 1980)
  • Davenport, F. Garvin Jr. Thomas Dixon's Mythology of Southern History, pp. 350–367, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (August 1970)
  • McGee, Brian R. "Thomas Dixon's The Clansman: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Anticipated Utopia", pp. 300–317, Southern Communication Journal, Vol. 65 (2000)
  • McGee, Brian R. "The Argument from Definition Revised: Race and Definition in the Progressive Era", pp. 141–158, Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 35 (1999)

Further reading[edit]

  • Lehr, Dick (2014), The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Director and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War, New York: Public Affairs.

External links[edit]