OTD in History… June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s epic of the old South Gone with the Wind published

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OTD in History… June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s epic of the old South Gone with the Wind published

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s epic Southern Civil War drama Gone with the Wind is first published, the best-selling book earns first-time author Mitchell a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, and 80 years later has $30 million in sales and is second only to the Bible. Mitchell, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal, started writing the book while she was recovering from a leg injury in 1926. In secrecy, Mitchell drew on stories she heard of the old south from her childhood, combined with meticulous research to write her over 1,000-page drama spanning the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Almost immediately after publication, Hollywood film producer David O. Selznick paid Mitchell, a then-record $50,000 for the film rights, setting his sights on making the biggest blockbuster ever made in Hollywood.

Three years later on July 1, 1939, and after five months, filming wrapped up on the movie version of Gone with the Wind. The making of the movie was a production almost as long as the book. Selznick would wait two years to secure Clark Gable from MGM, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who would distribute the film. Selznick would also go through multiple screenwriters, scripts, cinematographers, and directors before filming was complete. Principal photography began on January 26, and post-production ended November 11, 1939.

The race to fill the role of Scarlett would capture the media and public’s attention, the 1938s version of a reality show “Search for Scarlett,” with over 1,400 women including every high profile actress in Hollywood vying for the role until, British film actress Vivien Leigh, tested for it in December 1938. Selznick called Leigh his “Scarlett dark horse,” making it easier to choose her was his brother Myron Selznick was Leigh’s agent. Selznick would finally choose 25-year-old Leigh for the role.

Rounding out the other major roles were Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Scarlett’s third husband, Leslie Howard as Scarlett’s unrequited love, Ashley Wilkes, and Olivia DeHavilland as his cousin and wife and Scarlett’s sister-in-law and best friend. The film’s cost went out of a control, and it was the most expensive ever made to that point. An early rough preview screening in September 1939, left the “audience cheering,” as David Thomson observed in biography Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick for Selznick it was “was the greatest moment of his life, the greatest victory, and redemption of all his failings.”

In December 1939, Gone with the Wind had a star-studded opening in Atlanta, Georgia at the Loews Grand Theatre, where 300,000 attended, topping off a three-day event celebrating the film and the Confederacy. The four-hour film would go on to win then a record ten Academy Awards out of 13 nominations, two of which were honorary. Among its wins includes Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Best actress went to Vivien Leigh playing Mitchell’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara and supporting actress to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Scarlett’s beloved Mammy, a slave.

The book was controversial at the time for its romanticizing of the Antebellum and Confederate South, its language describing slaves, inclusion of the racist Ku Klux Klan, it’s sexualized depictions of marital rape and childbirth, and its most famous phrase “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” uttered by Rhett Butler to Scarlett. Selznick toned down most of the racist language but the stereotypes remained. The movie is the biggest money-making film of all time when inflation is factored in and considered one of the best films ever made. It was re-released several times including on June 26, 1998, when it was remastered in its original format. Even up to the book and movie’s 75th anniversary, commentators acknowledged its racism but put it into context.

Now as the movie is approaching its 80th anniversary, Gone with the Wind is again controversial. With the Confederate monument removal movement after the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the violence at Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, many are questioning Gone with the Wind’s portrayal of the secessionist south and slavery as a racist ode to the Confederacy. So far, 110 Confederate monuments have been removed, and there are calls to remove Gone with the Wind as well. Last August 2017, the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, that played the movie each year for the past 34 years, declined to do so because of the film’s racial “insensitivity.” The move caused an outcry on social media for the beloved book and movie.

The cancellation of the screening made journalists question should the book and movie be part of the movement? The results were divided between those they believe it should be retired versus those who understand the film in its context and that it was not a political position on the South but about the individual characters and Scarlett O’Hara’s journey. The problem is many do not see Gone with the Wind as a work of fiction, not history. In 2008, preeminent reconstruction historian Eric Foner noted in a Washington Post book review, “The work of historians, however, has largely failed to penetrate popular consciousness. Partly because of the persistence of old misconceptions, Reconstruction remains widely misunderstood. Popular views still owe more to such films as “Birth of a Nation” (which glorified the Klan as the savior of white civilization) and “Gone With the Wind” (which romanticized slavery and the Confederacy) than to modern scholarship.”

African American writer Angelica Jade Bastien writing in Vulture called Gone with the Wind a “Cinematic Monument to the Confederacy” but concludes, the characters’ “great capacity for racism exists in tandem with their own admirable qualities, making them frustratingly human and trickier to demonize.” While Harvard Professor Cass R. Sunstein writes in the Atlantic, “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind The classic novel shows that individual lives cannot be reduced to competing sets of political convictions.” Sunstein does not see Gone with the Wind as political like the Confederate flag, and concludes, “It would be a mistake to disparage the sad magic of half-forgotten songs. Americans have good reason to remember the sweetness, and the deaths, of the countless real-world Tartletons — and never to dishonor those who grieve for them.”

On the opposite side, New York Post opinion writer Lou Lumenick in his article from 2015 believes “Gone with the Wind’ should go the way of the Confederate flag,” and argues it should be retired to museums. Lumenick finds “The more subtle racism of “Gone with the Wind’’ is in some ways more insidious, going to great lengths to enshrine the myth that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery — an institution the film unabashedly romanticizes.” While Ed Kilgore writing in 2017 concurs, declaring, “Yes, Gone with the Wind Is Another Neo-Confederate Monument.” In his New York Magazine article, where he argues that Gone with the Wind is “a neo-Confederate political symbol” not “an innocent piece of brilliant cinema and anachronistic history that’s under attack by the forces of political correctness,” as film critic Kyle Smith described it.

The debate over Gone with the Wind and its canceled screening is part of a greater trend where political correctness is going overboard on movies and books that depict a time where there were racial insensitivities. This includes a Biloxi, Mississippi public school district removing To Kill a Mockingbird from its reading list, and most recently the American Library Association removing author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s book award. Classic books and movies with racial insensitivities are opportunities to be taught critically and in the context of the times, but we cannot selectively erase offensive history, if we do, we will be left with nothing to read or learn from our past.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

OTD in History… June 29, 1940, Roosevelt signs into law the Alien Registration Smith Act monitoring immigrants

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OTD in History… June 29, 1940, Roosevelt signs into law the Alien Registration Smith Act monitoring immigrants

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: FDR Presidential Library

On this day in history June 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Alien Registration Act known as the Smith Act making it illegal to plan to overthrow the United States Government and requiring all non-citizen immigrants to register with the government. With American involvement in World War II imminent, Congress decided to pass a series of laws restricting basic freedoms starting in the 1930s meant to protect the government citing national security. The law targeted communists, anarchists, fascists, racists and labor unions, most of which were immigrants. The Act was also used as a basis to intern Japanese Americans in camps during the war.

The US government has a long history of being wary of immigrants especially during times of war. The first laws were passed under President John Adams the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Again in World War I, Congress a series of laws that hindered free speech and targeted immigrants including the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, which made it criminal to use any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about US “government, its flag, or its armed forces” and applied “when the United States is in war.”

In the late 1930s, Congress again attempted to revive anti-alien and anti-sedition laws, particularly aimed at deporting Austrian born union leader Harry Bridges. Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, an anti-labor Democrat and Chairman of the Rules Committee authored the Alien Registration Act, a softer version than the 100 other anti-immigrant bills under consideration. The bill passed the House 382 to 4, with 45 abstaining on July 29, 1939.

The Act made it illegal “to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing any government in the United States by for or violence.” There were few dissenting voices in Congress, Rep. John A. Martin of Colorado called it “an invention of intolerance contrary to every principle of democracy and abhorrent to the spirit of Christianity,” while Rep. Lee E. Geyer of California called it a “Hitler measure.” (Martelle, 6) Roosevelt signed the bill the same day France fell to Germany and signed an armistice with Nazi Germany.

In addition, the Roosevelt administration distrust of immigrants was so high he had the Immigration and Naturalization Service transferred and operated under the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The New York Times writing about the bill stated, the “normally distasteful, appeared inevitable, the Administration sponsored the legislation.” In total 215 individuals were indicted, only after the Supreme Court deemed some of the convictions unconstitutional did the prosecutions stop.

The American government overreached with the Alien Restriction Act. As Scott Martelle writing in his book The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial analyzed, The Smith Act would resonate in ways unimagined at the time it was enacted. The law would be used to ruin lives, destroy friendships, and kill careers; it would become a tool of court-sanctioned political repression; it would feed the “hysteria,” as President Harry S, Truman called it, that Senator Joseph McCarthy would harness with such devastating results. In the end, it would give license to the U.S. Government to send American citizens to prison for what they believed, rather than for what they had done.” (Martelle, 7)

Seventy-seven years later the US under President Donald Trump is again reviving anti-immigrant laws with his America First agenda, first with travel ban mostly from Muslim countries upheld by the Supreme Court, his calls for building a wall at the Mexican-American border, and his zero-tolerance policy arresting immigrants illegally crossing the border and separating them from their children. Although reports make it seem that anti-immigrant policies in the US are new under Trump, they have a history as almost as old as the nation, and unfortunately will continue to occur as long as there are immigration and fear of the unfamiliar.

READ MORE

Martelle, Scott. The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

 

THE SMITH ACT OF 1940,
54 Stat. 670, 671, title I, §§2–3 (June 28, 1940), current version at 18 U.S.C. §2385
SEC. 2. (a) It shall be unlawful for any person—
(1) to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or
propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence,
or by the assassination of any officer of any such government;
(2) with the intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States,
to print, publish, edit, issue, circulate, sell, distribute, or publicly display any written or printed
matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing
or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence;
(3) to organize or help to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate,
or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States by force
or violence; or to be or become a member of, or affiliate with, any such society, group, or assembly
of persons, knowing the purposes thereof.
(b) For the purposes of this section, the term “government in the United States” means the Government
of the United States, the government of any State, Territory, or possession of the United
States, the government of the District of Columbia, or the government of any political subdivision
of any of them.
SEC. 3. It shall be unlawful for any person to attempt to commit, or to conspire to commit, any of
the acts prohibited by the provisions of this title.
18 U.S.C. §2385 (as of Jan. 2, 2001)
TITLE 18 – CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE
PART I – CRIMES
CHAPTER 115 – TREASON, SEDITION, AND SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITIES
Sec. 238 5. Advocating overthrow of Government
Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability,
or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the
government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political
subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such
government; or Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government,
prints , publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written
or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of
overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts
to do so; or Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly
of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government
by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society,
group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible
for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five
years next following his conviction.
If two or more persons conspire to commit any offense named in this section, each shall be fined
under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment
by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following
his conviction.
As used in this section, the terms “organizes” and “organize”, with respect to any society, group,
or assembly of persons, include the recruiting of new members, the forming of new units, and the
regrouping or expansion of existing clubs, classes, and other units of such society, group, or assembly
of persons.

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