A hundred years ago—on March 3, 1915, to be exact—as war consumed Europe, and the United States tried to steer clear of entanglements, some of the best minds and most passionate social-justice advocates had one goal: to stop the opening of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation at the Liberty Theater in New York City’s Times Square.
Charlotta Bass, editor of the West Coast’s oldest black newspaper, the California Eagle, had sounded the alarm some days before in a telegram to NAACP headquarters, warning about a hideous film that was wowing white filmgoers in Los Angeles despite efforts to have it banned. Leaders of the six-year-old New York-based organization, led mainly by white philanthropists, sprang into action. Through lobbying, letter writing and litigation, they spearheaded a campaign that for most of the rest of the year saw them and their allies in the black press trying to outrun the publicity juggernaut that turned The Birth of a Nation into the talk of the nation.
Bass and her husband, Joe, had been onto the story for about a decade, since Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman had become a play that eventually became the movie The Birth of a Nation. As editor of the short-lived Montana Plaindealer, Joe Bass had urged readers to ignore the “infamous and hell-inspiring play” and its “unprincipled author.” He predicted that the play would cause “strife, prejudice and race hatred.”
That it did, as James Weldon Johnson—the author-educator-diplomat-activist, and contributing editor of the New York Age—explained in a March 1915 editorial: “The Clansman did us much injury as a book, but most of its readers were those already prejudiced against us. It did us more injury as a play, but a great deal of what it attempted to tell could not be represented on the stage. Made into a moving picture play it could do us incalculable harm.”
The film venerated the Ku Klux Klan in a post-Civil War Armageddon in which beastly black men, with the support of white Northern conquerors, preyed upon Southern white women, and where ignorant black men elected to office made a mockery of governance. Its obvious message, taken from a history written by Woodrow Wilson—a professor before he became president—was that only the KKK saved civilization from these savages.
The three-hour, action-packed film was something to behold in terms of cinematography. Indeed, it was such an advance technically over anything else that had been produced in this fairly new medium that it is still taught in film courses. Yet whatever the artistic merits of the film, the story itself was meant as a paean to white supremacy and a call for solidarity with the South. Dixon said so himself in a speech: “My object is to teach the North, the young North, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period. I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering during that time … to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.”
While movies were in their infancy, so, too, was the NAACP and its monthly magazine, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, then edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Racism was on the rise, with the institutional imprimatur of President Wilson, who turned out to be more loyal to his Southern roots than to the blacks who had left the Republican Party to support him in 1912. Black leaders seethed.
The Afro-American, in a front-page open letter to Wilson on Jan. 10, 1914, reminded the president of his promises and urged him to “reject the suggestions of our enemies and administer a tardy justice to the millions of your colored constituents, who are not only ignored as a part of the body politic but are neglected, disenfranchised, and also persecuted by some of your party associates and subordinates.”
So The Birth of a Nation was the final straw.
With Charlotta Bass’ paper on the West Coast, New York City’s The Crisis and the New York Age, the Chicago Defender and the Boston Guardian, among other publications in the black press, readers were bombarded with news of the film making its way to a city near them. Although it had a premiere in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, that was nothing compared with the spectacle of the New York City premiere on March 3.
Ads in major papers. Advanced ticket sales for reserved seating. Times Square billboards of Klan night riders. Special trains to transport white movie patrons from Connecticut and New Jersey. Griffith and Dixon were more Barnum and Bailey than the famed circus impresarios as they promoted what was “America’s first blockbuster film,” as Dick Lehr, a Boston University journalism professor, describes it.
But between Los Angeles and New York, Griffith and Dixon racked up the first of many coups when they arranged a screening at the White House, a first. That screening for Wilson on Feb. 18, 1915, was, in turn, more fuel for the publicity beast. And one more reason for blacks to despise Wilson.
“It showed that Woodrow Wilson was the cracker that he was,” Thomas Cripps, a retired historian who has written extensively on blacks and film, told The Root. “He’s Ivy League educated, sophisticated in every way you can imagine. Yet racially he harbored the same ideas that any Ku Klux Klansman of the day believed.”
After New York, the film sailed into Boston in April. “The center of the fight has been Boston,” The Crisis reported in June. There, William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, met the Hollywood machine head-on. His brief arrest following one disturbance outside the theater showing the film made national headlines. With editorials and speeches, at rallies, at hearings at City Hall and at the state capitol, he fought to have the film banned, then stunned everyone when more than 2,000 people turned out to protest the film.
For a brief minute, Trotter and company thought they had won when the state established a censorship board to determine whether the film could be shown and Trotter’s erstwhile ally, the Boston mayor, headed it. But as Lehr recounts in his book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, their confidence proved unfounded.
Despite some canceled screenings and scene revisions in cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Des Moines, Iowa, the outrage expressed in editorials and by activists only delayed the inevitable; boosted ticket sales, to the delight of Griffith and Dixon; and divided civil liberties allies over the strategy of demanding censorship.
“It is undoubtedly true that the agitation carried on by our organization and individuals have [sic] helped to advertise Dixon’s wretched film play,” The Crisis editorialized in June 1915. “At the same time it is also true that to an unusual extent the friends of the Negro race and of fair play in general have been rallied to the side of justice, and this is no easy thing to accomplish.”
By 1941, though, even Griffith thought his movie too incendiary for general audiences. “It should not be shown to general audiences,” he told his biographer. “It should be seen solely by film people and film students. The Negro race has had enough trouble, more than enough of its share of injustice, oppression, tragedy, suffering and sorrow. And because of the social progress which Negroes achieved in the face of these handicaps, it is best that The Birth of a Nation in its present form be withheld from public exhibition.”
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, has worked for the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Washington Post. She is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.