Gone With the Wind and Its Pernicious Place in History

On this 75th anniversary of the film, a historical look at how the black press covered its premiere and the film’s depiction of slavery and black citizens.

Screenshot of the title page for the trailer for Gone With the Wind
Screenshot of the title page for the trailer for Gone With the Wind Wikimedia Commons

Well, fiddledeedee, as Scarlett O’Hara might exclaim: Gone With the Wind, the epic film of love and war set against the backdrop of a doomed Southern slavocracy, is turning 75, with special screenings in movie theaters around the nation and an airing on TV, too. 

While black film buffs and thrill seekers will be in these audiences, that was not the case when the blockbuster saga premiered at Atlanta‘s Loew’s Grand on Dec. 15, 1939, with Depression-era patrons paying a whopping $10 for tickets.

In that New South that had replaced the antebellum South, there were no seats for black moviegoers. “Negro reaction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind will have to wait until the film comes North,” the Pittsburgh Courier’s Atlanta correspondent reported in the Dec. 23, 1939, edition.

For the GWTW premiere, Atlanta was a bastion of Old South pageantry, with 42 choristers from the oldest black church there, Big Bethel AME, dressed in “the garb of the old South,” according to the Baltimore Afro, to entertain the audience with Negro spirituals.

The film that went on to win 10 Oscars—including the first for a black performer—and that the American Film Institute considers one of the best films ever made, created nearly as much havoc in the equivalent of black Twitter—the black press—as General William T. Sherman’s march through Atlanta during the Civil War.

It was 1939, when millions of despairing people were unemployed and living on some form of public assistance during the Great Depression. Black activists were crusading for a federal anti-lynching bill. Europe was combating Nazis and fascists while America dithered over whether to intervene. And Hollywood was promoting the lost cause in a war that had claimed 750,000 lives and brought about the legal abolition of slavery.

The Afro’s columnist Ralph Matthews warned Hollywood that it was on dangerous ground with GWTW: “This is more than a racial question; it is a matter of grave national concern, and the white guardians of the Ship of State should appreciate the danger. With half the world on fire with national and racial hatreds, this is no time to reopen old sores at home.”

Black folks picketed from coast to coast. Some unions urged boycotts. In Chicago, the Defender called for “a mass protest” and in an editorial observed: “Gone With the Wind is propaganda, pure propaganda, crude propaganda. It is anti-Negro propaganda of the most vicious character. It is un-American propaganda. It is subversive.” In Philadelphia the president of the National Baptist Convention Inc. condemned the film as a “disgrace.” Across the pond, the Defender’s London correspondent reported, “Africans, West Indians, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Ceylonese, Burmese and other colonials” boycotted the film and registered their objections in Parliament.

Strangely, Roy Wilkins, the future NAACP chief, advised everyone to chill. In the Amsterdam News, Wilkins wrote: “It is my pleasure to report to my readers that in the lengthy and long-advertised film, Gone With the Wind, there is very little (almost nothing) over which the dark brothers and sisters can work up a good ‘mad.’ The authors of the film story have been exceptionally careful to avoid the dialogue in the Mitchell novel which, if transferred to the screen, would have been inflammable material.”

Small favors.