Fixing Gone With The Wind's 'Negro Problem'

Set still of Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh for the drapery dress scene. Harry Ransom Center

Seventy-five years after its release, Gone With The Wind is recognized as a Hollywood masterpiece. But when news first spread that Margaret Mitchell's Civil War romance was to become a movie, David O. Selznick was accused of glorifying Southern racism.

In the spring of 1938, Rabbi Robert Jacobs of Hoboken wrote to Rabbi Barnett Brickner, chairman of the Social Justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, "Soon the David O. Selznick Studios of Hollywood will begin production of the play 'Gone With The Wind.' The book, a thrilling romance of the South, was shot through with an anti-Negro prejudice, and while it undoubtedly furnished almost half a million people in this country with many glowing hours of entertainment, it also in a measure aroused whatever anti-Negro antipathy was latent in them."

Rabbi Brickner in turn wrote to Selznick. "In view of the situation," he wrote, "I am taking the liberty of suggesting that you exercise the greatest care in the treatment of this theme in the production of the picture. Surely, at this time you would want to do nothing that might tend even in the slightest way to arouse anti-racial feeling. I feel confident that you will use extreme caution in the matter."

Brickner wrote a similar letter to Walter White, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. White also wrote to Selznick, suggesting Selznick "employ in an advisory capacity a person, preferably a Negro, who is qualified to check on possible errors of fact or interpretation."

In his reply to White, Selznick wrote, "I hasten to assure you that as a member of a race that is suffering very keenly from persecution these days, I am most sensitive to the feelings of minority peoples." He added, "It is definitely our intention to engage a Negro of high standing to watch the entire treatment of the Negroes, the casting of the actors for these roles, the dialect that they use, etcetera, throughout the picture. One man whom we are considering, among others, is Hall Johnson."

Hall Johnson was the founder of the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, which had gained fame for their choral arrangements of Negro spirituals, and had appeared in the Broadway and film versions of The Green Pastures (1936). Selznick was considering using the Hall Johnson Choir for the soundtrack of Gone With The Wind.

Selznick sent Sidney Howard a blind copy of his letter to White. Howard wrote directly to White. "Mr. Selznick has sent me copies of your letter to him about GONE WITH THE WIND and his answer. I do not see how anything could be any clearer or finer than his answer, which must have satisfied you without any amplification on my part. I can tell you, however, that when I first undertook the job Mr. Selznick and I found that we were in complete agreement on the aspect of the picture over which you are concerned. We had both decided from the start, and independently of one another, that the picture should make no mention of the Ku Klux Klan and show no negro violence."

Storyboard depicting burning of Atlanta by Production Designer William Cameron Menzies. Harry Ransom Center

"All their years of racial pride was wafted away on the wings of a gust of 'Wind.'"

Walter White dictated his reply to Selznick on June 25. He was encouraged by Selznick's and Howard's letters, but still felt apprehension "in that the book fundamentally is so essentially superficial and false in its emphases that it will require almost incredible effort to make a film from the novel which would not be both hurtful and inaccurate picture [sic] of the Reconstruction era."

White ended his letter by saying, "I am interested in knowing of your intention to engage a Negro of high standing to watch the entire treatment of the Negro in the casting of actors, etc." He expressed "high regard" for Hall Johnson, but suggested Selznick consider hiring someone who had studied the Reconstruction period.

Selznick replied, "I would be most interested, and assure you that I will be importantly influenced, in the selection of Negro advisers, by any suggestions you might care to make." Roy Wilkins, assistant secretary of the NAACP, suggested Dr. Charles Wesley, dean of the graduate school at Howard University, as a possible advisor. While Selznick was eager to please White, he did not immediately move forward with plans to hire an advisor.

In early February 1939, about the time that Kay Brown was scheduled to send a copy of the screenplay of Gone With The Wind to Walter White at the NAACP, Victor Shapiro, the studio's new head of publicity, forwarded to Selznick two articles from the African American press.

"'Gone With The Wind' Put On The Spot by Earl Morris: Predicts Picture Will Be Worse Than 'Birth of a Nation'" was written by Earl J. Morris, motion picture editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, on February 4. "Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better" had appeared in the February 9 issue of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly African American–owned newspaper.

Both editorials were apprehensive about the treatment of African Americans in the upcoming film based on the contents of the novel.

These editorials were soon followed by a five-page article by Morris, titled "Sailing With The Breeze," mailed directly to Selznick's office with a note saying, "For Your Information: This Copy is being forwarded to one hundred and thirty-three Negro newspapers located in all parts of these United States."

The article began, "Seventy-five years of racial self-respect has flown with the breeze in the much ballyhooed Hollywood epic film 'Gone With The Wind.' Picture yourselves standing before Producer David O. Selznick, Director George Cukor, and 26 members of the production staff, all white, and reading script [sic] which contains the word 'Nigger' several times. Well, approximately one hundred Negro actors did just that in competing for coveted roles in the picture while all their years of racial pride was being wafted away on the wings of a gust of 'Wind.'"

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"It might have repercussions on the Jews of America as a whole among the Negro race."

This was followed by news from Shapiro that Col. Leon H. Washington, founder of the Los Angeles Sentinel, was organizing a boycott of the film by maids in the Los Angeles area.

Selznick was unnerved. Filming was in full swing, he was not satisfied with the footage his director, George Cukor, was producing, and protests against his having cast a British woman in the main role were pouring in.

He turned to his friend Jock Whitney for help: "Herewith the syndicated article and editorial on GONE WITH THE WIND in which we are attacked by the Negroes," he wrote. "I think this could become wide-spread and dangerous, and I feel it particularly keenly because I think it might have repercussions not simply on the picture, and not simply upon the company and upon me personally, but on the Jews of America as a whole among the Negro race."

On February 14, Whitney responded with a plan: "I think there are several things we can do which will be of advantage," he wrote, "not only in counteracting present indications of disapproval, but in creating a positive enthusiasm for the picture. I do not believe that there is any cause for alarm at the present time, however, since, as you may have heard, the chief instigator of the articles which worried you, Earl Morris, has learned that his information was false. I think he will retract quite handsomely."

Set still for Scarlett's oath, one of he major set pieces in the film and a point of major character development for Scarlett. Harry Ransom Center

Indeed, Morris had wired Shapiro the day before: "Is it true that objectionable epithets referring to Negroes used in Gone With The Wind have been removed from the script of the motion picture production. Please wire answer collect." Shapiro replied, "It is true that objectionable epithets are not in script Gone With The Wind, also no Ku Klux Klan sequence appears and nothing in film will be objectionable to Negro people. Regards."

The February 18 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier included an article by Morris, "Offensive Word and KKK Sequence Deleted From Film Version of 'Gone With The Wind'—Publicity Department of Selznick Studios Gives Courier Reporter Information in Exclusive Interview."

Shapiro also invited Morris to visit the set to interview African American cast members. On March 20, Shapiro reported to Selznick that Morris and a colleague had visited the studio:

We had a fine chat and they were highly pleased with the assurances we gave them again, first that the word n——r does not appear in the script, that the Ku Klux Klan sequence is out, and that there is nothing offensive to the Negro people in the picture. They were most voluble in their praise of the studio's attitude, and Morris took special pains to show me the front page denial herewith of February 18th, which I don't believe you saw.

To further cement this relationship, at Mr. Morris' request we had a photograph taken at my desk with Mr. Menzies, Mr. Morris and Mr. Christmas looking over the script. This they wanted as concrete evidence they had been out to the studio and had been received. This will be published in the negro papers."

Shapiro closed with, "For the time being, at least, it seems to me that the situation is well in hand."

An extract from The Making of Gone With the Wind by Steve Wilson, published by the University of Texas Press. Gone with the Windwill next be screened on Turner Classic Movies at 10pm on Friday February 6 2015.