As Seen in “Bessie,” Was One of Bessie Smith’s Tent Shows Actually Interrupted By the KKK?

Bessie (2015) opens with the character making out with some paramour in an alley. When he gets a little too hands-on for Bessie’s (Queen Latifah) liking, she picks up a shard of broken glass from the street and stabs him. Seconds later, she’s on stage singing for a full house. It’s an excellent way to quickly introduce us to the type of person Bessie Smith was known to be.

As her fame rose, she did nothing to quell this loud, tough image. The film contains a scene where Bessie is holding a concert in a large circus tent when the KKK show up, threatening to collapse the tent and set it ablaze. Bessie, not having any of it, walks through the crowd to the door of the tent, grabs a hatchet from one of the Klansmen, and scares them off. Naturally, the crowd goes wild, and Bessie looks like a hero.

Bessie really did this in real life, though the hatchet part may have been an exaggeration. Bessie held a number of tent shows throughout her career, and about a dozen Ku Klux Klan members showed up at one only to find themselves chased off by the performer.