“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
History has such a funny way of playing tricks on you. Just when you think it’s headed in one direction, something or other has already come along and begun to alter its course profoundly, in ways that are visible only in hindsight.
Seventy years ago today, for example, Atlanta was throwing itself one helluva party. The occasion was the world premiere of a little movie called “Gone With the Wind,” and judging from eyewitness accounts, the event became a celebration of the highly romanticized Old South and a vindication of the stories that Southerners — or at least white Southerners — liked to tell themselves about the war and its aftermath, including their relationship with their African-American countrymen.
Here’s how Time magazine described the scene in 1939:
Atlanta’s Mayor William B. Hartsfield proclaimed a three-day festival. Hartsfield urged every Atlanta woman to put on hoop skirts and pantalets, appealed to every male to don tight trousers and a beaver (hat), sprout a goatee, sideburns and Kentucky colonel whiskers.
While the Stars and Bars flapped from every building, some 300,000 Atlantans and visitors lined up for seven miles to watch the procession of limousines bring British Vivien Leigh (in tears as thousands welcomed her “back home”), Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard, Producer David O. Selznick, Laurence Olivier and others from the airport. Crowds larger than the combined armies that fought at Atlanta in July 1864 waved Confederate flags, tossed confetti till it seemed to be snowing, gave three different versions of the Rebel yell, whistled, cheered, goggled.
And when the movie began at Loew’s Grand Theater downtown (now the site of the Georgia Pacific building) a Life magazine reporter wrote that “cheers went up and tears flowed freely. At the announcement of War (1861), the audience rose to its feet with Rebel yells (Yee-aay-ee or wah-hoo-ee or yaaa-yeee).”
W.J. Cash, in his 1941 classic “The Mind of the South,” called Margaret Mitchell’s book “a sort of new confession of the Southern faith” and the scene at the Atlanta movie premiere “one of the most remarkable which America has seen in our time.”
“… in the event it turned into a high ritual for the reassertion of the legend of the Old South. Atlanta became a city of pilgrimage for people from the entire region. The ceremonies were accompanied by great outbursts of emotion, which bore no relationship to the actual dramatic value of a somewhat dull and thin performance. And later on, when the picture was shown in the other towns of the South, attendance at the theaters took on the definite character of a patriotic act.”
But the GWTW premiere, complete with balls, parades and old-timey spirituals by choirs hired from local black churches, proved to be the high-water mark of the Lost Cause mythology and the Jim Crow laws it tried to justify. It was, you might say, a cultural version of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Already, events were conspiring to bring it all crashing down.
Some of the hints of impending change came from those who weren’t even there. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammie, was barred from the festivities in Atlanta. But out in Hollywood, she would go on to win the Academy Award for best supporting actress, becoming the first African American to win an acting Oscar. Leslie Howard, who played the ineffectual Ashley Wilkes, also had to miss the Atlanta festivities. He had returned to his native England to help in the war against Nazi Germany, which had begun just a few months earlier. (Howard would die in 1943 when the Germans shot down his plane.)
Within two years, America would be drawn into that war as well. And even though World War II was fought almost exclusively on foreign soil, it nonetheless planted the seeds of immense change in the American South. Black war veterans came home to Georgia, Alabama and other places having seen the world, and were much less willing to accept the subservient roles they had been handed. Just as important, American leaders understood that the nation could not plausibly lay claim to world leadership and moral power as long as it officially sanctioned white supremacy back home.
Within nine years of the GWTW premiere, President Harry Truman had ordered the complete desegregation of the U.S. military. Within 15 years, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Nobody in Atlanta 70 years ago today could have foreseen that the agents of so much change were already taking their places on the stage.
One of the many photographs of the gala premiere is particularly compelling. It’s a picture of one of the local black choirs that were hired to entertain the white folks from Hollywood. Its members are all dressed in slave costume, as if they were ready to go out into the fields to pick cotton once their singing duties were complete.
And if you look closely, one of the faces is that of a little ten-year-old boy from just a few blocks down the street, a kid named Martin Luther King Jr. In just a few short years, he too would begin to make his mark on history.