Margaret Mitchell backed black civil rights secretly

By Kenneth Kowald

Recently, Elaine and I watched an “American Masters” program on Channel 13. It was about Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind.”

It was fascinating in many ways, but I will get to that shortly. First, some memories.

The book was published in 1936 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The film version came out in late 1939 and received seven Academy Awards. Making allowance for inflation, the film, at three hours 44 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission, has been the highest grossing American film of all time. The book itself quickly sold 1 million copies, at the high price for those days of $3 a copy. It was more than 1,000 pages in length.

Sometime long after the original showings of the film, I saw it one night in a theater on Grand Avenue in Maspeth, not far from my former JHS 73. I remember walking along 57th Avenue, where we lived in Elmhurst, and onto Grand Avenue and then entering the theater, probably long gone. I do not remember the name of the theater.

The film was wonderful. If I am not mistaken, I had a major test at Newtown High School the next morning, but it did not seem to matter. I assume I went to bed quite late that night.

I read the book years later and liked it. I know some reviewers did not think highly of it, but there is much to admire in it. Not to be admired are some of the depictions of blacks and the Ku Klux Klan.

And that is why the “American Masters” program we saw was so fascinating.

Mitchell was a person of her time, but she had a rebel streak. It seems that one of the reasons the Junior League of Atlanta blackballed her was that she wanted to do her league work in medical clinics used by blacks only.

Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, could not attend the world premiere in Atlanta because of segregation. She could not sit at the awards ceremony with white actors.

Mitchell learned of that and wrote to McDaniel about it. They kept up a correspondence for many years.

But, most striking, was Mitchell’s help for blacks to get medical education. The president of Morehouse College wrote to her to ask for support for such students and she began a private campaign of donations, which enabled perhaps 70 to 80 black men to become physicians. It did not become public knowledge until many decades after her death.

It is also possible that she may have tried to help desegregate the Atlanta police force. It was a failed early attempt. That was many years ago. Mitchell died as the result of being hit by an automobile on Peachtree Street in Atlanta in 1949. She was 48.

It turns out she was a remarkable woman in many ways. Of course, when I saw the film and later read the novel, this was not public knowledge. I think back to my days at Newtown High School when seeing a black person in class was a rarity. And, in my days in the U.S. Army, the black troops were segregated. President Harry Truman ended discrimination in the armed forces by executive order, knowing Congress would not do it.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s changed much that was evil. We know so much more must be done.

If you want to read one of the great speeches of our time, find the speech President Lyndon B. Johnson gave about civil rights, when he spoke to Congress March 15, 1965, a week after the horror in Selma, Ala. Johnson’s eloquence was matched by his passion. Every time I read it, it makes me proud once again that I am an American.

To a kid trekking to Maspeth to see a great motion picture, all of that lay far ahead, but it is good to know that there were people, like Margaret Mitchell of Georgia, Harry Truman of Missouri and Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who did what they could to make us all equal.

Mitchell made a difference in many lives in a private way. She was, indeed, as the PBS program showed, “An American Rebel.” Some have noted that if her efforts were known, she might have faced death threats.

Her book and the film are still wonderful.

P.S.: I am pretty sure I passed the test the next day at Newtown.

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