Myth and fact: the reception of The Birth of a Nation

Lennig, Arthur. "Myth and fact: the reception of The Birth of a Nation. " Film
History. 16.2 (April 2004): 117.
Academic OneFile. Gale. Duke University Library - Perkins. 22 Aug. 2007
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 Indiana University Press
If it is right for historians to write history, then by similar and unanswerable reasons it is right for
us to tell the truth of the historic past in motion pictures. D.W. Griffith (1915) (1)
The Truth. What is the truth? D.W. Griffith (1930) (2)
In mid-October of 1914 D.W. Griffith finished shooting The Birth of a Nation (then known as
The Clansman) and began work on his next feature, The Mother and The Law. Meanwhile, he
devoted his evenings to editing the miles of film that now lay before him. This was no small task.
Having freed himself from the constraints of time and budget that had limited his Biographs and
first features, he now claimed he had to cut 140,000 feet down to manageable size. (3) After
discarding 'eight-tenths of our product', presumably of repeated takes, he still faced 'twenty-six
thousand feet ... of consecutive story. But that is twice too long. We condense, condense,
condense. At the end of more hard labor we edited The Birth of a Nation to twelve thousand feet
or thirteen thousand feet' so that it would run 'two hours and forty-five minutes'. (4) Griffith may
have exaggerated the amount of footage, but there is no doubt--given his enthusiasm and lack of
a detailed script--that he filmed far more episodes than he eventually used. (5) When he
submitted the film for copyright, it contained altogether 1640 separate shots and titles.
By late December the assembled film was ready for exhibition, 'with the exception of the
remaking of a few scenes for the allegorical ending'. (6) The trade press thought that Griffith's
much talked about special picture would run for perhaps nine reels, more than twice the length of
most features, but no one expected that it would play for an unprecedented twelve. (7)
Griffith wanted to test the public's reaction and arranged for a preview--which in itself was
somewhat of a first. This took place at the Loring Opera House in Riverside, California, on
Friday and Saturday, 1 and 2 January 1915. An ad in the Riverside Enterprise of December 30
heralded The Clansman as 'the greatest of all motion pictures' and said it was made by D.W.
Griffith, 'the world's foremost motion picture producer', and that it would be accompanied by a
seven-piece orchestra. (8) (Another ad amended that to five pieces.) Although the theater usually
charged a dime, seats would be offered at 20 cents and 30 cents.
In Riverside, Griffith first demonstrated his gift at publicity. His ads claimed that the film had
taken 'six months' to shoot, had cost $500,000, and featured 25,000 soldiers, 50 companies of
cavalry, and 25 batteries of artillery. Such exaggerations, though, were not always consistent. In
another ad the 25 batteries of artillery became 30. (9) A related article informed the public that
The Clansman would soon be shown in New York 'at the same price of the higher class' stage
plays--fifty cents to two dollars--which suggested that the residents of Riverside were getting a
real bargain. (10)
The local newspapers reported that Griffith had engaged Joseph Carl Breil (1870-1926), 'one of
the country's greatest musicians', to write the score. (11) Breil had earned a reputation in New
York for arranging and composing and conducting music for stage plays. Griffith perhaps first
became aware of his talents when he attended a stage performance of A Good Little Devil, which
featured Mary Pickford, who had left Griffith to return to the legitimate theater in 1913. Griffith
had a keen ear for music and no doubt took note of Breil's effective accompaniment. In late
September 1914, Griffith again heard Breil head the orchestra and chorus for Cabiria when it
appeared in Los Angeles and was impressed by his talent.
Griffith had long been distressed that theater musicians often selected inappropriate
compositions to accompany his films. He complained, 'If there's a lady to die, and the orchestra
leader happens to want to play A Hot Time in the Old Town, the poor lady has to die in two
hops, so as to keep time to the music; or if there's a battle on and the orchestra wants to play
Hearts and Flowers, that battle scene looks like a calisthenic exercise in the Old Ladies' Home!'
After Griffith engaged Breil, the two compiled a carefully synchronized accompaniment--in the
151 page copy of the score at the Museum of Modern Art there are 214 separate cues--employing
a number of classical pieces as well as some original material. Griffith announced that the score
for Birth would employ grand-opera methods by giving each character a distinct musical theme.
It was even reported that he had helped write two of its compositions. (13) Among the pieces
created specifically for the film were a charming love theme and a disturbing, barbaric-sounding
tom-tom motif used for some of the scenes with the Negroes. Particularly memorable was the
'Clan Call', a whoop that Griffith used to yell out while shooting and which he had Breil arrange
for the orchestra. This call was so effective that it was retained for the film's revival in 1921,
although portions of the initial score were changed because some of the pieces had become too
hackneyed. (14)
A few days before the Riverside preview, Breil arrived to rehearse the local players. (15) For this
presentation and in all of the subsequent road-showings of the film, careful attention was also
paid to synchronized sound effects--trumpet calls, drums to approximate cannon fire, and the
sound of horses' hooves. (16) The overall effect was what Richard Wagner had dreamed of--the
Gesamstkunstwerk ('the complete art work'--a blend of libretto, visuals, and music.) Without its
fully synchronized orchestral score and accompanied only by a tinkling piano, or with no sound
at all except for the whirring projector in many a film studies course, the picture loses a good
deal of its emotional and dramatic power. (17)
The Riverside newspapers heralded the exciting fact that Griffith and his stars would attend the
opening performances. Even at this early date in movie history, audiences were thrilled to see
stars in the flesh. Griffith, anxious that his film be taken as a serious artistic effort, encouraged
the press to mention his recently added allegorical ending, which alluded to the World War then
in its fifth month. This grandiose finale, said Griffith, provided 'one of the most realistic sermons
against the horrors of war that could be preached'. (18) Almost three months later, just prior to
the New York premiere, Griffith repeated that his picture was 'the greatest indictment against
war that any man could devise' and cautioned that the end of the European conflict, like the
conclusion of the Civil War, would not resolve the issues. 'Peace after war is not real peace.
Hatred, malice and bitterness, direct results of the long four years' struggle, were apparent in the
relations of the North and South for twenty years after the actual cessation of hostilities.' (19)
Such statements reflected Griffith's sincere effort to use the screen as a pulpit, but a sermon
against war would hardly draw a crowd. Spectacle and powerful drama would. The stress on
peace would soon vanish from the film's publicity.
On 1 January 1915 the public got its first exposure to the milestone film. The next day The
Riverside Daily Press praised the work, noting that the audience applauded 'long and loud' when
Walthall thrust the flag into the mouth of a cannon. The article also remarked that Griffith 'has
treated his subject fairly. It is not overdrawn. It is a picture of true conditions that were brought
on by the "carpet baggers" following the assassination of President Lincoln.' (20) The Riverside
Enterprise was equally impressed: 'No photo-play of its proportions has been so enthusiastically
applauded in this city ...' The reviewer also shrewdly remarked that the film 'is certain to be well
advertised over the country, as it will arouse discussion of the negro problem both south and
north. The resulting arguments will surely mean increased patronage of the motion picture
houses showing it.' (21)
The Riverside Enterprise praised the film and only regretted 'that the effect of the story should be
marred at the very end by the dragging in of alien matter ... depicting the god of war and Christ,
the Prince of Peace. It is hard to conceive the relation between the allegorical finale and the play
proper. This one flaw is the only possible adverse criticism ...' (22) When Birth finally opened in
New York, the Dramatic Mirror also questioned the 'trite allegorical passages...dragged in to
preach a universal peace moral'. (23) Variety too observed that 'some might not care' for the
ending, but added that 'in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace
advocates live, it will go with a hurrah'. (24) Griffith, however, was proud of his allegorical
epilogue which copied the Italian epics that ended with similar visions, and only omitted the
ending for the shortened 1930 sound reissue.
Ebullient after the previews, Griffith told a reporter, 'I am highly gratified at the enthusiastic
manner in which Riverside people received The Clansman'. He noted that the picture 'will be
exhibited in only the best theaters and to the most educated and refined people of the United
States'. He added that the film was made at twice the cost of the then-famous Italian epic,
Cabiria. (25) Clearly, that prestigious imported work still remained a sore point with Griffith,
who rightly felt that his filmic techniques were far better than those of the Italians. He told the
reporter that after having observed the audience's reactions he would make 'a few minor changes'
and then returned to Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on The Mother and the Law.
Back in the fall, Griffith and Aitken had held many discussions about how best to market Birth,
but there is no doubt that from the very beginning it was designed to be a 'special'. The preview
in Riverside reassured them that the film had an extraordinary box office potential. It would not
be distributed through Mutual, for that company had wanted nothing to do with such a costly
film and had refused to back it. Aitken and Griffith knew it could not be shown in even the best
movie theaters, where seats ran 10 cents, 20 cents, and 30 cents, and make a profit. Instead, a
nationwide policy was adopted: to rent legitimate theaters and to exhibit the film as a top-notch
Broadway extravaganza. Italian epics like Quo Vadis and Cabiria had established this precedent
and Griffith thought his film should also get special prices. What those prices would be,
however, remained a matter of contention.
Griffith later took credit for the decision to charge a $2.00 top, an unheard figure of for a motion
picture, although his wife, Linda, claimed it was Aitken's idea and that initially both Dixon and
Griffith had opposed it. (26) The $2.00 price, in terms of publicity value, added to the film's
importance, but is a bit misleading. Except for a few special loge seats, evening performances
ran 25 cents, 50 cents, 75 cents and $1.00. Such prices were high, for at the time full course
suppers at leading restaurants were $1.00 and workers in New York's garment industry were
making from $10 to $15 a week. (27) Thus a $2 admission was the equivalent of almost an entire
day's pay! Even so, higher prices for certain films were not that unusual. The latest Pickford
films shown on Broadway, said Variety in February 1915, had a price range of 25 cents to $1.00.
Up until the first days of February, the film had been known as The Clansman, but after Thomas
Dixon, its author, saw it at a private screening in late January he suggested calling it The Birth of
a Nation. (29) The idea embodied in the new title reflected Woodrow Wilson's thesis in his
History of the American People that America had been essentially 'an aggregation of jangling,
discordant, antagonistic sections', a collection of states, and only after the Civil War did it
become a united nation. (30) Dixon had adopted a similar view in his novel, The Southerner
(1913), which he 'dedicated to our first Southern-born President since Lincoln, my friend and
collegemate, Woodrow Wilson'. Griffith, before the film's New York opening, explained the
meaning of the new title, stating that only after the divisive issue of slavery had been settled and
the union proved inseparable could the states become truly one country. (31) On 8 February the
film was copyrighted as The Birth of a Nation; or The Clansman. (32) Mention of its new title
appeared in the 10 February 1915 edition of the New York Dramatic Mirror.
Dixon was so impressed by the film that he wrote President Wilson on 27 January requesting a
meeting. On 3 February, at the White House, Dixon told his college friend that he must see the
picture. The President agreed, but because of the death of Mrs. Wilson the previous August, he
was still officially in mourning and felt his presence at a public performance would be unseemly.
To solve the problem, a private screening was arranged at the White House for 18 February. This
showing of a film at the White House was not a unique event, despite what has been written, for
on 26 June 1914, the President, the Vice-President and the rest of the cabinet had seen Cabiria
Meanwhile, news about the preview in Riverside traveled quickly to Los Angeles, where the film
(still called The Clansman) had been promised to W.H. Clune--one of the original investors--for
a first showing at his Auditorium on 8 February. (33) The National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People became concerned. It had been formed in 1909 by a group of
white liberals and Negroes (34) and by 1914 had fifty branches, but only 6,000 members. (35)
The group wanted the film halted because it depicted Negroes in an unfavorable light and
because it put in graphic and highly dramatic terms certain issues that by now had passed into
history and that for racial harmony were best forgotten. (36) Furthermore, the NAACP felt
opposition to the film's exhibition would be a good rallying point for the fledgling group (37)
and demanded that the Los Angeles City Board of Censors ban the film before its premiere. (38)
When the picture was passed after 'a few very slight and unimportant eliminations', (39) the
disappointed NAACP then convinced the City Council to instruct the Chief of Police to suppress
The Clansman. Clune defended the picture and announced that it 'is, more rightfully speaking,
the story of The Birth of a Nation, or if you choose to call it so, the Rebirth of a Nation'. He
explained that opposition to the film was based on a 'misunderstanding of the great historical
purpose of the picture, which is not an attack on any race or section of the country. It is a most
powerful sermon against war and in favor of brotherly love of all sections and nations.' (40)
Grace Kingsley, film reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, summed up the problem: 'And now ...
comes the protest of the darkies and the interference of the police'. (41) Immediately a court
injunction was secured restraining the Chief of Police from stopping the show. (42) The
presiding judge stated that although the film had a 'tendency to aggravate a situation that is past
and gone', he also felt, as paraphrased by Moving Picture World, that 'the picture was a good one
and that the colored people should pass it by and not try to take any action or stir up agitation'.
(43) These efforts to suppress the film, noted one newspaper cynically, stemmed from the
coming city elections in which 'both the City Council and the chief, ...[have] shown a marked
desire to please the colored element'. (44) These vain attempts to close the show created public
interest and led to a lot of free publicity that caused even more people to want to see the film,
precisely what the NAACP hoped to avoid.
Griffith wanted to oversee the film's Los Angeles premiere and arrived from New York in the
early morning of 7 February. During the time remaining before the film opened the next day, he
supervised the synchronization of the musical accompaniment and perhaps tinkered with the
print once more. When informed of the controversy the film had created he was astonished, for
the novel and the stage play had provoked no such reaction. (45)
The film opened on 8 February as planned and was still called The Clansman. Because of the
NAACP's protests, seventeen policemen were posted at the theater's doors to prevent any
demonstrations. At the end of the film, the applause was overwhelming. A writer for the Los
Angeles Times called it 'the greatest picture that was ever made and the biggest drama ever
filmed'. (46) As a result, the demand for seats, said a newspaper, 'was unprecedented, the house
being sold out days ahead at prices ranging from twenty-five to seventy-five cents with box seats
at a dollar. There was a line-up at the box office from early morn to late at night that would make
a Sarah Bernhardt premiere line-up at the box office look like thirty cents.' (47) Speculators were
buying seats at 75 cents and selling them a few hours later at $2.50 a piece. (48) (This was the
only time the film would be shown at such low prices until its second runs years later.) It
continued to play at Clune's Auditorium as The Clansman for twenty-two weeks and broke the
theater's record for long runs. By the second week of September, over 350,000 people had paid
to see it in Los Angeles. (49)
A few days after the premiere at Clune's, Griffith returned by train to New York, where he had a
few hurried consultations about the film's official opening on 3 March. Aitken booked the
legitimate Liberty Theater on 42nd Street, which rented for $1,250 a week and seated 1,200. (50)
It was the same house where Dixon's play, The Clansman, had been performed nine years earlier.
Griffith then went to Washington, DC, where on 18 February in the East Room of the White
House he and Dixon screened the film for the president, his family, and his cabinet. It was
shown, the press said, at the behest of Wilson's daughters to divert him from his grief. (51) (The
president would find an even better diversion a month later when he met Edith Galt and,
mourning or no mourning, by May had proposed to her.) (52) The film was not shown as a mere
entertainment, however, but as an historical account. One newspaper had announced earlier that
the picture depicted 'the progress of slavery down to the present time' and another reported, 'The
President's interest in the play is due to the great lesson of peace it teaches'. (53) Both statements
were designed to excuse the President for seeing anything as frivolous as a movie in the
sacrosanct White House.
One wonders about Dixon's motives for bringing the film to Washington. In 1939 Dixon, in his
last novel, The Flaming Sword, said he had foreseen 'the deadly attack' that would be mounted
against the film and hoped that a screening for the president--and his tacit approval--would shortcircuit any protests that might arise. (54) When they did occur, Dixon explained his screenings in
Washington to Wilson's press secretary three months later. Dixon claimed he didn't 'dare allow
the President to know the real big purpose back of my film--which was to revolutionize Northern
sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a
good Democrat! ... [Dixon's italics] What I told the President was that I would show him the
birth of a new art--the launching of the mightiest engine for molding public opinion in the history
of the world.' (55) This may have been Dixon's intention, but not Griffith's. The director's main
aim was to make an epic, tell a great story, and dramatize what happened during Reconstruction.
Wilson was impressed with the work, which echoed his own views as offered in his History of
the American People (1902), (56) and he reputedly said that it was like 'writing history with
lightning ... My only regret is that it is all too true.' Although this remark has often been cited, its
provenance remains hazy. It seems to have stemmed from an interview conducted with Griffith
only a few days after the White House showing and printed in the New York American on 28
February 1915. In it, Griffith claimed that the film 'received very high praise from high quarters
in Washington' and explained that 'I was gratified when a man we all revere, or ought to, said it
teaches history by lightning'. (57) (Notice the discrepancy between 'writing' his story and
'teaching' it. There is no mention of 'My only regret is that it is all too true'.)
The private presentation of the film at the White House created such interest that the National
Press Club, at the urging of Dixon, arranged for another showing the next night in 'the big
ballroom' at the Raleigh Hotel. Dixon wrote of these events in The Flaming Sword, claiming that
to forestall any impending censorship problems, he had wanted it known that not only Wilson
but also the Supreme Court had seen the film. In the novel he has a character (was it actually
Dixon?) visit the usually cantankerous Chief Justice White and invite him to the showing. The
judge had no time for entertainment, but became interested when he was told the picture dealt
with Reconstruction and the Klan. The Chief Justice warmed, saying, 'I was a member of the
Klan', and he asked, 'You've told the true story of that uprising of outraged manhood?' And, with
that, he agreed to come along with his brethren. (58)
Among those who attended were Chief Justice White and members of the Supreme Court, the
Senate, the House and the Diplomatic Corps. Altogether, five hundred people viewed the film,
which was 'cheered and applauded'. (59) Evidently, Birth's depiction of carpetbagger and Negro
conduct during Reconstruction created no controversy among the Washington elite of 1915: Not
one word of protest was reported from the thirty-eight Senators and the fifty Representatives
from the House who were present. (60) After this screening, Griffith returned to New York, but
the National Press Club was so impressed by the film that the director was invited back on 25
February to address the organization about motion pictures. (61) For Griffith, who had been an
almost complete failure a few years before, these Washington experiences must have made an
extraordinary impression. He had arrived in the capitol city still a country-boy, but he soon
would be famous throughout the country as The World's Greatest Director.
Griffith wrote to Wilson on 2 March that 'the honor you conferred on us has brought to me so
much happiness that I cannot refrain from expressing my deepest and most sincere gratitude'.
Griffith's letter continued, 'If we carry out the proposed series of motion pictures dealing with
matters historical and political, of which I spoke to you, I should be most happy to have someone
representing your views to pass upon our idea before beginning the initial work'. (62) Griffith
felt that motion pictures had a mission to promote brotherhood, but one cannot be sure what
subjects had been discussed. (At this time Griffith was anti-war and supported Wilson's current
policy of keeping America out of the European conflict.) The president politely replied on March
5 that he was 'interested' in Griffith's plans for future motion pictures and 'if it is possible for me
to assist you with an opinion about them at any time, I shall certainly try to do so, though, of
course, you realize that there is always a violent probability that I shall be absolutely absorbed
and my attention preempted'. (63) The President reiterated his favorable impression of Birth. 'I
congratulate you on a splendid production'. (64)
During these days before the New York City premiere, Griffith bombarded its press with
advertising, spending over $12,000 the first week (approximately the cost of a better-thanaverage feature). (65) Moving Picture World said the film would be exhibited on a scale that
would not 'have been possible a year ago', that it would be accompanied by a forty-piece
orchestra, and that it is 'the most stupendous undertaking of the kind the world has been shown'.
(66) An ad for The Birth of a Nation said that the film contained 18,000 people, 3,000 horses,
was 8 months in the making, and cost $500,000. As a result of this publicity, the public wanted
to see what was being exhibited at such high prices at the prestigious Liberty Theater.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles NAACP had notified its New York headquarters about the film and
the need to suppress it. One of the white backers of the NAACP, Joel Spingarn, 'warned that full
censorship was not the route to take, not only because it was dangerous to the free expression of
art but also because it could work against Uncle Tom's Cabin as quickly as against [The] Birth of
a Nation'. (67) His advice was ignored. Liberals would henceforth be faced with the dilemma of
advocating free speech and yet desiring to suppress it.
The strategies used in Los Angeles were now repeated and pressure was put on the New York
Censorship Board and various New York politicians to ban the film. These efforts were
somewhat subverted by delicate hints that it had been seen by the president, the Supreme Court,
and other Federal officials and approved by them. Still, the pressure mounted.
On the evening of 3 March 1915, the long awaited official premiere of The Birth of a Nation
took place. (The opening of The Clansman in Los Angeles didn't count in the same way because
the important critics and the center of film exhibition were on the East Coast.) Griffith had
refused all suggestions to install scenic decorations around the screen; he wanted no distractions
from the image itself. He did, however, costume the male attendants, who greeted patrons at the
entrance, in Union and Confederate uniforms and he garbed the usherettes in formal dresses of
the 1860's. (68) The rather select opening night audience consisted of many from the film world,
plus prominent literary and society figures, and also, of course, some of the general public.
Hundreds were turned away at the box office and there was standing room three deep behind the
loge seats.
At the end of the first part of the presentation, Dixon gave a little speech and said that the film
was superior to his book and stage play. 'He declared that no one save the son of a soldier and a
Southerner could have made such a picture, and introduced Mr. Griffith as the greatest director
in the world'. Griffith, stepping 'just far enough beyond the wings to be visible from all parts of
the house', said that his 'aim was to place pictures on a par with the spoken word as a medium for
artistic expression appealing to thinking people'. (69)
At Birth's conclusion, there were waves upon waves of applause and the reviews that followed
were similarly ecstatic. The film proved worthy of its advertising campaign, with Variety stating
that it significantly overshadowed Cabiria and that Griffith was indeed 'the world's best film
director'. (70) An ad in the Sunday paper that followed the opening quoted praise from eighteen
New York newspapers. Hector Turnbull in the New York Tribune noted that although Griffith
professed that he did not wish 'to glorify battle' but to show the 'terror and desolation which is the
real truth of war', the film 'will win popularity chiefly because of its tremendous thrill war
scenes'. Turnbull made no mention at all of its racial elements. (71) The New York American
observed that the film had 'the force of a whirlwind ... [leaving] the spectator breathless' and that
'the big racial question ... no longer burns' (72) and its overall effect is 'unsectional and
unpartisan'. (73) The New York Times shared the almost unanimous view that the film was a
great work, but did observe that its subject was 'plucking at old wounds'. (74) Almost everyone,
except for a very few citizens (not all of them black), believed that it was a fair representation of
historical facts.
An article by the Reverend Thomas B. Gregory two days later probably sums up the film's view
of history. He describes the opening in which slaves are first brought to this country.
Without realizing what they are doing, the pioneer
Americans are rocking a devil in the cradle
of liberty, are preparing such an Iliad of
Woe as Homer never dreamed of.
[After the Civil War]... instead of the reunion
which should, and would, have come close
upon the bloody heels of strife, there came
reconstruction--hell broke loose--such a
carnival of high crime and misdemeanor as
the world had not seen since the days of the
Terror during the French Revolution.
All the horrors of that 'ten years of hell' are
made to live before us ...--the scoundrelly
carpet-baggers, the venomous half-breeds,
the hordes of ignorant blacks, the crushed, but
still proud and courageous whites, cast
down ...
[The Southland is cleared] ... of those who
would wipe out its civilization. The carpet-baggers
vanish, the great mass of black savagery
calms down and ceases to be a menace; the
ballot-box is regained by its former masters,
and once again the chaos takes on the form
of order and peace.
The film's 'chief value', he said, 'lies in its truthfulness'. (75) The NAACP, disagreeing with this
generally held viewpoint and upset by the reopening of the wounds of Reconstruction, continued
its vociferous campaign to ban the picture. (76)
On the day after the premiere, the dramatic editor for the Negro newspaper, The New York Age,
telegraphed the city's mayor that the film 'appeals to baser passions and seeks to disrupt friendly
relations existing between white and colored citizens of New York City'. He added that if it is
not 'promptly suppressed serious racial conflicts are inevitable'. (77) He noted that the theater
management, 'fearing that irresponsible colored citizens will show their resentment ... by
resorting to violence ... has adopted a policy of excluding as many colored persons as possible'
and that 'gangmen have been stationed about the theater' to prevent any 'disorderly' behavior.
(78) True, men were hired to halt demonstrations, but 'gangmen' is a rather loaded term.
Louis Sherwin, a critic for the New York Globe, opposed efforts to suppress the film, for they
against the spirit of the Constitution, against
the very life and essence of what should be
true American democratic ideas. The mere
fact that it happens to show a few members of
one of the races constituting the population of
the United States in an unpleasant light is no
argument whatever. If this factor is to be seriously
considered, there is hardly any limit to
which the censorship may not go. The entire
question raises a most dangerous precedent.
Our citizenry is composed obviously of extraordinarily
numerous elements. If Africans
are to have their say and oppose the production
of a play (whether it be a spoken drama
or on the screen) to which they object, why
should not the Jews, Hungarians, Czechs,
Teutons, French, Italians, Slavs, Scandinavians,
Irish and Anglo-Saxons also have the
same privilege? The prospect is appalling. If
this film be suppressed, we shall simply be
serving notice upon all moving picture and
theatrical managers that they may only produce
plays that are absolutely and unquestionably
offensive to nobody. The
consequence of that will be a thoroughly colorless,
innocuous mediocrity, even worse than
we have at present, and a general weariness.
No sane person can pretend that there is any
immoral suggestion in the film concerned. (79)
The NAACP was undeterred by this defense of free speech, but the group and its allies were
bucking an artistic and popular masterpiece, a work invested by Griffith with power and
sincerity. Their argument that the film would cause riots made the public even more eager to see
it. Despite the picture's patina of authenticity, The New York Age later said, it was not
'historically correct' and, even 'if it were, nothing would be gained by bringing up happenings of
the past which only tend to degrade a people and incite race hatred'. (80)
On 8 March, the NAACP demanded that the New York Censorship Board stop the film and
requested that all NAACP members write letters of protest. On 9 March, the group again
contacted the Board and arranged for a screening the next day for those sympathetic to the
NAACP's cause. They also brought criminal proceedings against Aitken and Griffith for
promoting a 'public nuisance'. On 11 March, the NAACP met with the film trade press, claiming
that Griffith and Aitken had ignored the Board's opinions, and once more urged that the film be
The Censorship Board, on 13 March, ordered several modifications, (81) among them a scene
illustrating Lincoln's remedy of sending the freedmen to Liberia, which was considered too
inflammatory. (82) It also demanded that the following disclaimer be inserted as a prefatory title:
'This is an historic presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction period and is not meant to
reflect in any way upon any race or people of today'. These changes remain part of all current
The NAACP, still hoping to have the film banned outright, on 16 March demanded the home
addresses of the members of the Board, information that was refused them. (83) At a special
meeting, the group decided on 23 March to make a 'dignified procession' to the New York
Mayor's office. A few members, however, cautioned that 'white women... [and] colored men'
should not march together in the parade because 'the papers would simply feature "niggers and
white women", say nothing about the film, and author Thomas Dixon would clap his hands in
glee'. (84) On 26 March, Variety reported that two more cuts had been made: 'One was a love
scene between Senator Stoneman (white) and his octoroon housekeeper' and the other 'a fist fight
between a white man and a black'. Griffith responded that the film was 'only a photoplay
reproduction of what actually occurred and which is down in black and white in the pages of
American history'. (85)
The New York Age complained that the legal proceedings against the film have been 'dragging
along at a snail's pace for over two weeks, having been transferred from one court to another'. It
cynically noted that charitable organizations look 'after you when you die' and that only a few, if
any, care about the living. 'Until we possess race consciousness, race respect, race confidence,
and organize, we must be ridiculed and humiliated'. (86)
Finally, on 30 March, a racially mixed delegation called on the mayor at City Hall. (87) The
'colored citizens', consisting of 'high churchmen' and business professionals, described by The
New York Age as 'choking with indignation', were 'orderly and well dressed', their 'neat personal
appearance ... a strong denial to the slurs made against the Negro' in the film. (88)
One of the complainants, Rabbi Stephen Wise (a NAACP backer), said: 'If it be true that the
Mayor has no power to stop this indescribably foul and loathsome libel on a race of human
beings, then it is true that Government has broken down. The Board of Censors which allowed
this exhibition to go on is stupid, or worse. I regret that I am a member.' He called the other
Board members 'contemptible cowards'. (89) Fred R. Moore, the editor of The New York Age,
cited statistics showing that a number of colored citizens were 'other than beastly' and were
lawyers, physicians, and owners of real estate. He noted that they were loyal and 'never fired on a
President of the United States and had not attempted to assassinate the Mayor of New York'. (90)
The mayor concluded, 'There are two scenes that go further and appeal to race prejudice and I
feel that those scenes ought to be modified'. (91) He said that if the film needed any further
'pruning', he would see to it. (92) Two days later, when the film was not banned and no
significant changes made, the angry NAACP forced His Honor to hold a hearing with Griffith,
Dixon, and others present. Joining the protestors were also some 'suffragists'. The protestors
failed to have removed the scene in which Gus pursues Flora until she plunges from a cliff to her
death and faced the fact that the film would be shown almost intact.
Several days later, on 6 April, an editorial in the liberal New York Globe countermanded the
views of its critic, Lewis Sherwin, who had previously praised the picture and defended freedom
of speech. It contended that the film distorted history, that Thaddeus Stevens's attitude towards
the South was 'magnanimous', and that 'the very name of The Birth of a Nation is an insult' and
pandered 'to depraved tastes'. It said that the film was not worthy of any constitutional protection
because it was made to earn 'a few dirty dollars'. (93) Griffith understandably took offense at
these words and replied that he and his associates 'have maintained a dignified silence in the face
of an organized attack of letter writers, publicity seekers, and fanatics against our work'. Griffith
wrote that the public should not be afraid to accept the truth, even though it might not like it. 'We
do not believe it according to constitutional rights in this country to suppress speech'. He noted
that a preface had been added to explain that the events on the screen were 'not meant as a
reflection upon any race or people of today'. The editorial, he said, was 'an insult to the
intelligence and human kindness of nearly 100,000 of the best people in New York City, who
have viewed this picture from artistic interests ...' Griffith, indignant, concluded that the man
who wrote the editorial was 'damaging my reputation as a producer' and was 'a liar and a
coward'. (94)
The day after the New York Globe's editorial, Dixon entered the fray and in a letter to the
newspaper said he accepted, as author, 'the full moral responsibility for its purpose and its effects
on an audience'. He took particular issue with calling Thaddeus Stevens 'magnanimous' and that
the man was, as history proved, 'fierce, cruel, and vindictive'. Dixon explained, 'I am not
attacking the Negro of today' but recording the events of fifty years ago. 'I portray three Negroes
faithful unto death to every trust and two vicious Negroes, misled by white scoundrels. Is it a
crime to paint a bad black man, seeing we have so many bad white ones?' (95)
Failing to get the film banned, the NAACP shifted ground and claimed that the film should be
halted because it would tend to cause a riot. The question of who would be doing the rioting was
not made clear, although the implication was that inflamed whites would run out of the theaters
and commit mayhem. But that is far from what happened. In fact, the only danger stemmed from
the possibility that Negroes might be so incensed at the film that they would riot. Although the
threat of public disturbances would always be raised, there were never any riots.
Given the political pressures and threats of censorship that The Birth of a Nation encountered in
New York City, Griffith and his colleagues were understandably wary of its general reception in
the lucrative northeast market. Boston, of course, had been the main home of the abolitionists
and many of its residents had been passionate critics of the South, both before and after the Civil
War. There was a fear that the film, by raising the ugly question of the North's post-war
treatment of the South, would not be welcomed and that such disturbing aspects of the past
should be best forgotten.
When gigantic newspaper ads appeared, announcing the 10 April opening of 'the world's
mightiest spectacle' at Boston's prestigious Tremont Theater, the local branch of the NAACP
exercised its moral and political strength in an attempt to halt the film. They knew racial
relations were hardly good even in the North and would no doubt be worsened by the picture.
On 9 April, Dixon journeyed to Boston where he called on Rolfe Cobleigh, the associate editor
of The Congregationalist and Christian World, who already had stated his opposition to the film.
If Dixon wanted to ameliorate the problem, he achieved just the opposite by telling Cobleigh that
the Klan was a 'chivalric' group dedicated to the defense of the white man and that Negroes
would never be happy in America because of the country's racism and the best solution would be
to get 'rid of the colored people' by shipping them back to Africa or some other foreign land. (96)
According to Cobleigh, Dixon said that he 'regarded Boston as the critical point for their
enterprise, that it was more likely to object to such a play than any other city and that he and his
associates believe that if they could get by in Boston, they would be able to go anywhere else in
the country with the show without trouble'. (97) Thus, the NAACP decided, Boston was the ideal
place to ban the film.
Griffith and his colleagues, acknowledging the pressure to ban the film in Boston, ran the
following advertisement in newspapers the day before the film opened:
The mistakes of the suffering past teach us to
avoid the terrific pitfalls of the now present and
the nearing future. If the people of Europe had
known all that war meant before they began
this terrific struggle, who believes but that they
would never have entered upon it? Again, you
must see this picture if for no other reason than
that your mental machinery--in whatever line
it may be working--must of necessity be
stimulated to an amazing degree. So surprising,
gigantic, thrilling a flash upon the emotions
must necessarily recharge your entire
self with radiant energy. Contrast your present
peaceful and happy state with the terrific agony
and suffering your fathers endured that
you might enjoy your present happiness in
peace and freedom. Boston, the Cradle of
Liberty, will not refuse any art when it is clean
and free from obscenity. The way to answer an
argument is by another argument. No truth can
thrive in an atmosphere that knows the word
suppression. (98)
Other advertisements placed by Griffith and Dixon quoted four Representatives and one United
States Senator in praise of the film, as well as notable authors Richard Harding Davis and Booth
Tarkington. (99)
Instead of ignoring the attempt at suppression, Dixon and Griffith emphasized the issue,
believing that the public would be interested in seeing what was causing the controversy. On the
day before the opening, an advertisement in the Boston Globe said, 'This is the play agitators will
tell you is not fit to be seen in Boston'. (100) Enticed by the brouhaha, Bostonians packed the
theater on opening night. Patrons first encountered a young man, in a formal suit and silk hat,
who took the tickets. Then two women in dresses of the 1860's made a 'graceful minuet bow' and
handed out programs. As in New York, men in uniforms of both North and South and women in
hoop skirts and long curls escorted the patrons to their reserved seats. (101) In the orchestra pit,
as advertised, were forty musicians. Admission prices were those of the legitimate theater, rather
than 'movies', but the often cited two dollar top was again only for certain sections of the lower
floor. Other seats on that level cost $1.00; the first balcony cost 50 cents, 75 cents and $1.00; and
the second balcony 25 cents and 50 cents. (102) All matinees, except Saturdays, were half price.
During the intermission at the first showing, Griffith, rather nervous, stepped out on stage and
expressed his delight, as well as surprise, at the film's reception. He stated that he had expected
Boston, because of the controversy of the previous days, to be angry at the film's attitudes: 'I am
a Southerner and I heard your applause when "Dixie" was played. I don't care how much you
criticize it now, for I know we are all Americans. I feel that you appreciate my efforts.' (103) The
Boston American noted that Griffith 'was so moved by the sympathy of its audience that he
could hardly speak'. (104)
Griffith told the audience that he had hoped to do something out of the ordinary in the realm of
the motion picture. This, according to the Boston Globe, he accomplished: 'It is a great work of
art, first, last, and all the time ...' (105) The Boston Evening Transcript, a far more sober paper,
also praised the film. An article, partially titled 'No cause for racial objection', said that 'Boston
applauded the Ku-Klux' and 'the conflict of the Ku-Klux and the Negroes whom they fought to
subdue was only the usual movie conflict between the powers of good and evil'. The reviewer
did feel that Griffith overused cut-backs 'to flash one from scene of conflict to oncoming rescue,
from hospital to home, from any one place to another intimately related to it', but admitted that
'after the early moments of the evening...the device does not much confuse the spectator'.
Additional praise was lavished on the 'atmospheric and enhancing music, played by a numerous
orchestra and synchronized to the progress of the film'. (106) The reaction was such that in a few
days tickets were sold out four weeks in advance. An advertisement in the Boston Evening
Transcript on 24 April claimed that by its 'Third Triumphant Week' 50,000 Bostonians had
already seen the film.
To mollify some of the opposition in Boston, Griffith sent a cameraman to a Negro college to
shoot footage indicating 'the progress of the colored people' and on 15 April the 'management of
the production' announced that new scenes would be added to 'show the great advance made by
the Negro since the Civil War'. (107) On 17 April these scenes were added towards the end of
the film, after the triumphant parade of the Klansmen. The change was 'made by David W.
Griffith upon the advice of those who believed that, while the story of the carpetbaggers and the
Negro excesses during the reconstruction were historically correct, yet in all fairness the
advancement of the race since that time should be shown'. (108)
Back in New York, the struggle continued. On 14 April, the fiftieth anniversary of the
assassination of Lincoln, a mixed crowd of whites and Negroes attended the film and from their
seats in the front row of the gallery started a demonstration at around 10:30 p.m. During the
scene of Flora jumping off the cliff, two eggs splattered against the screen. The thrower, a white
man named Howard Schaeffle, cried out 'rotten, rotten' (presumably referring to both the film
and the eggs) as he was carried away by police. The NAACP claimed that 'Persons unconnected
with this organization threw rotten eggs at the screen'. (109) At the police station, a black lawyer
with a delegation of Negroes appeared almost immediately to take Schaeffle's case, indicating
that the provocation had been planned.
Sparked by the New York demonstration, some Negro leaders decided to cause an even bigger
disruption in Boston on Saturday night, 17 April, at the Tremont Theater. Their decision was by
no means unanimous. Although some Negroes wanted to be militant, some hoped to
compromise, and still others opposed any confrontation at all, considering it unproductive and
wasteful of energy and public good will. In the meantime, the management had been tipped off
that there would be trouble and stationed sixty plainclothesmen, instead of the usual ten, inside
the theater and two hundred policemen outside. After about two hundred Negroes had been
seated, William Monroe Trotter, the editor of the Negro newspaper, The Guardian, and secretary
of the National Equal Rights League, arrived with another group of Negroes. Somewhat of a
firebrand, Trotter, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, was 'too intense and sturdy to ... compromise'
and disapproved of the NAACP 'because of his suspicion of the white elements' in it. (110) Du
Bois would later observe that Trotter's perennial 'agitation' often proved counter-productive
because it 'solidified opposition'. (111) Earlier, on 12 November 1914, Trotter had led a
delegation to the White House to protest changes in Federal policy regarding the blacks and had
threatened Wilson with the loss of the Negro vote. 'There was a sharp interchange', wrote
Wilson's biographer, with the president accusing Trotter of trying to 'blackmail him and virtually
ordering him from his office'. (112) At the time, the furious Wilson vowed if he were ever to
speak with another Negro delegation it would have to have 'another spokesman'. (113) (Although
even the out-spoken Du Bois felt that Trotter's controversial style did not help racial relations, in
more recent decades his actions have been reinterpreted and he is now seen as an heroic
forerunner of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.)
What happened during the protest in the theater lobby was described most fully in the rather
sensation-seeking newspaper, The Boston Globe. It described the confrontation as breaking into
three episodes. First, there was a fuss in the lobby before the film, then a disturbance within the
theater (where at least one egg was thrown and a number of 'stinkbombs' set off), and finally a
brief scuffle in the street. Even the Globe referred to these events as only a 'near-riot', for there
was no violence or bloodshed. One man, arrested for 'making gestures and swearing', unwisely
called the police 'foreign----white trash'. Later, he explained in all innocence that what he said
was, 'My Lord, man, how do you expect me to move any faster than I am?' His defense was not
convincing and he was fined two dollars. (114)
The facts of the confrontation came out at a trial held on 30 April. By 6:45, the lobby had filled
with people, mostly Negroes. A paper match box was thrown at the manager who, by 7:00,
ordered a policeman to clear the lobby so that customers who had ordered tickets could pick
them up at the box-office. The crowd protested, yelling that it wanted tickets and 'we want our
rights'. At 7:20 the manager suspended all sales and Mr. Trotter grew angry. He told his
followers that 'the police have no right to put you out'. Another Negro, Reverend Puller, yelled,
'We'll take the law into our own hands', and was thereupon arrested. Trotter left with the crowd.
He then came back, asked for tickets at the box-office, and exclaimed, 'We're going to stop the
show'. When theater employees and plainclothesmen attempted again to clear the lobby, Trotter
refused to move and was heard to say, 'I dare any policeman to knock me on the jaw'. (115) (He
denied he said this. (116)) He was then arrested by a plainclothesman. (117) Whether in the
process he was struck was a matter of contention, as was whether or not he had kicked an officer.
(118) (In Thomas Cripps's account, 'a cop hit him'.) (119)
At the trial, Trotter straight-facedly claimed that he had only gone to the theater that night to see
if the film had been cut--he had witnessed an earlier performance--and had no connection with
the other Negroes who happened to be there. He asserted, however, that Negroes were being
refused tickets--the person in the box-office maintained that they were sold out--even though
whites were apparently still purchasing them. Trotter said further that there was no reason to
order the lobby cleared, even though it was reported to be packed with about 125 people, most of
whom were black. Trotter testified that there were only 'a few people' in the lobby and 'no
particular crowd outside'. When asked under cross-examination about the claim of his own
newspaper, The Guardian, that the confrontation was a 'near riot', he replied that the term was
merely a quotation from another newspaper and he himself had no opinion because he was under
a criminal charge. (120)
As a result of the Saturday night fracas at the theater on 17 April, the next afternoon a mass
meeting of about 2,000 Negroes and 250 whites was held at Fanueil Hall, where several speakers
held forth. When 'two colored' men declared they could see nothing objectionable, they were
answered by 'a storm of hisses' and 'denounced as traitors to their race', and when someone
mentioned that Wilson - his name was also hissed--had approved of the film, the chairman of the
meeting replied, 'Why shouldn't it be approved by the man who put into effect the policy of
segregation of colored employees of the Government?' Trotter attacked Mayor Curley: 'If we
were good enough to support you for mayor, we ought to be good enough to be protected by you
from this Southern misrepresentation of our race'. Despite Griffith's published plea for 'free
speech', one speaker said, 'there is a point where liberty becomes license' and another speaker
declared that The Birth of a Nation will mean 'the birth of hell and damnation in this country, if it
is permitted to continue'. At this statement, according to the Boston Herald, the audience 'went
wild in approbation of the sentiment'. (121) There were vows to keep up 'the fight' to ban the
film and the protestors agreed to meet the next day. Said a headline in the Boston Globe:
'Colored People To Storm State House'. (122)
Indeed, they did. On Monday, 'upwards of 1000 white and negro citizens' gathered at the State
House to pressure the Governor to have the Police Commissioner forbid further performances for
the reason that the film was 'immoral'. The crowd was orderly, but angry. When someone started
to sing 'America', he was stopped by 'a storm of hisses'. 'The Star Spangled Banner' followed,
though it too was 'interrupted by hissing'. More popular was 'We'll Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour
Apple Tree', and a variation, 'We'll Hang Tom Dixon to a Sour Apple Tree', went 'best of all'.
One speaker said that if Mayor Curley didn't behave himself, they'd sing it about him, too. (123)
The Governor, anxious not to alienate Negro voters, promised that he would do what he could to
stop the film, but admitted that the decision lay with the courts. When one Negro asked him if he
would try to get a law passed if the courts persisted in approving the film, the Governor replied,
'I most certainly shall'. He explained that he was 'deeply impressed' by such a large showing at
the State House. 'And I hope to God it will never happen again', he declared. The Governor
issued a statement that attempted to placate the protestors, but he also observed that people of
'your race' should 'have no reason at all to be ashamed or humiliated at the fact that there may be
here and there something objectionable to you and your people'. (124) When the Governor was
asked to address the crowd, he demurred, so Trotter spoke instead, stating that a warrant should
be issued to arrest the management of the theater showing Birth. One speaker declared that the
film was 'misrepresentative of history, in that it shows only one side and selected incidents to
enforce that side, all tending to bring obliquity upon the Negro's history in this country'. Another
speaker said 'that if the continued exhibition of the picture led to acts of violence, the moral
responsibility for such acts would rest upon the officials who permitted the pictures to go on,
after knowing of the feeling against it'. (125) In the evening, several thousand curious people,
mostly white, gathered in front of the theater, but nothing happened and they left without
incident. (126)
After this meeting, on the next day, 20 April, the protesters went to court, complaining that the
film 'is immoral in tendency and tends to corrupt the morals of youth'. (127) Close to 200
Negroes 'thronged the courtroom corridor' during the hearing. The white lawyer for the NAACP,
Mr. Hallowell, 'asserted that the preservation of public peace required immediate consideration
of the case'. (128) The defenders of the film were irritated at the claim that the 'peace' was
threatened; after all, they asserted, it was the Negroes' own opposition that was causing the
turmoil. The arguments in the courtroom turned on the fact that there was no statute to prevent a
film from being shown except for immorality. At this point, the judge adjourned the trial and said
he would see the film that night. Although there had been some 'verbal clashes during the
hearing, the order in the courtroom was excellent, except for the crowding'. The resultant
publicity caused even more people to throng to the theater and on the evening of April 20 over
one thousand people were turned away at the box-office. (129) As Dixon had warned, the
protestors 'had given the picture a million dollar's worth of publicity'. (130) 'They had created a
nation-wide curiosity to see the mysterious force that had aroused such animosity. The carefully
laid plans had proved a boomerang. They had helped accomplish the thing they had hoped to
prevent.' (131) The New York Age agreed that the film was getting free advertising, 'but such
publicity will not rebound to the credit of the promoters in the long run. This they will find out
sooner or later.' It concluded, 'Let colored Americans in other cities please take notice'. (132)
They did, by holding further protests throughout the country, which, unfortunately for their
cause, only added to the film's success.
The next day the judge, having seen the film, decided that only one scene, Gus's attack on the
white girl, because it was 'offensive and immoral', could and would be cut. (133) The lawyer for
the Negroes disagreed, arguing that several other scenes were inimical to public welfare because
they justified Lynch Law and cast aspersions upon a section of the citizenry; he asserted that 'the
word immoral should be construed in its broad sense as anything hostile to the welfare of the
general public or contrary to good order and public welfare'. (134) The lawyer for the defense
replied that the film had given no offense to the great majority of people, but only to a small part,
who have incited the trouble. The judge said: 'This is a splendid production, I will say one of the
most magnificent I have ever witnessed'. With the exception of the 'nauseating' scene with Gus
and Flora, 'the play is within the law. It must be remembered that in reaching this decision I have
not taken into account any question of color.' (135) The judge added, 'There is a degree of feeling
in this case not warranted by the evidence'. He said he examined the film as if it were a book or a
play: 'There have been scenes a thousand times worse enacted in plays on the local stage where
only white people took part. I am not letting the element of color interfere in this case, regardless
of the fact that it may incite certain elements of the population'. (136)
Meanwhile, annoyed that the film had not been stopped, the complainants, led by Trotter, went
to the State House to seek special legislation. Representative Louis R. Sullivan, sensing that
political advantage could be gained, had already offered on 20 April a bill in the State House to
prohibit 'any show or entertainment which tends to excite racial or religious prejudice or tends to
a breach of the public peace'. (137) There was so much pressure in Boston that the legislature
suspended its own rules to allow the bill, designed specifically 'to provide action against The
Birth of a Nation', to be discussed at a public hearing held on 23 April. The Lieutenant-Governor
favored the bill because he opposed 'the production of anything that tends to stir up racial
prejudice'. (138) The Mayor felt that films should be more carefully censored than the other arts
because of their frequent portrayals of disgusting and shocking episodes. A Mr. Lewis, 'one of
the leading colored citizens', (139) stated, 'We do not mind the minstrel or the fun-loving negro,
but we shall protest forever against such a calumny as this upon the colored race'. (140)
A State Senator complained the next day that films in general depict too many sensational scenes
and are too offensive to appeal to the better class of citizen. Some women's organizations, he
said, believe that too many pictures containing 'all sorts of violence' are unfit to be shown before
either children or adults. To replace such 'degrading' films, he provided his own uplifting recipe
for the cinema, a fare of pictures of educational value to which, he claimed, audiences would
flock. He wanted films showing 'interesting countries and peoples, their way of doing things,
etc., the building of big construction enterprises, processes of manufacture, historical pageants',
and the like. How much better, he said, 'if children could see animals in the zoo being fed or
parading about in their quarters'. (He didn't anticipate that decades later that there would be
protests about keeping animals in zoos!) He spoke of seeing a film about mushrooms and how
they were grown. 'It was highly entertaining. Who hasn't heard of 'growing like a mushroom'?'
At a meeting on Sunday, 25 April, at a Baptist church in Roxbury, there was much criticism of
the mayor's decision to cut only one scene from the film. Dr. Alice McKane asked: 'Shall we
fight for existence, or shall we not exist because we are black? I say fight, fight to the bitter end;
fight until the last drop of blood is gone; we are not fighting as black people but as American
citizens. We want The Birth of a Nation removed from the city of Boston and we propose to see
it go. If we cannot get rid of it by fair means we will get rid of it by foul.' (142)
When the hearing continued on Monday, April 26, most of the people attending were for a
degree of censorship. Among the exceptions was Dr. Hawkins, a Protestant pastor, who asserted
that banning the film would be 'Russian Censorship'. He said, 'Any race or class of people must
put up with many things that are unpleasant for the sake of the preservation of the freedom of
expression so sacred to the American people. No race should be placed by law above criticism.'
He said that he had seen the film and 'found nothing objectionable in it, even before the "Gus"
incident was removed. No race should be so sensitive that it cannot stand a discussion of its
weakness.' Rabbi Charles Fleisher also opposed the censorship bill: 'I can stand all the hysteria
and vilification that will come to me for my stand on this matter if this play tends to make the
North and the South face the negro problem. I am glad the play is being given'. The Rabbi added
'that the great principle of freedom of speech is being threatened by this agitation'. He quoted
liberally from Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People to show that the film, 'while
not precisely accurate historically, is generally correct'. He added that 'a few excitable men have
not only got the negroes up in arms against this play, but have got the politicians going. The
Governor was quick to jump in and tell the colored people that he would be glad to help them.'
Then other politicians, he said, joined the bandwagon. He added that, as a Jew, he did not
particularly enjoy the portrayal of Shylock as typical of his race, but his people have stood a lot
of persecution and have been strengthened by it. 'If a race is to be pampered and protected from
criticism, it will never grow up. The negroes have made splendid progress in the last 50 years but
the large majority of them are still children, and this statement is proven by their action in
Boston.' At this point, there were one or two hisses from the audience. 'I know that is not
pleasant', he said, 'but it is true'. Other speakers, also, opposed the censorship provisions as being
too broad and essentially unconstitutional. (143)
Meanwhile, Griffith issued a statement, saying that the 'astounding' censorship bill being
proposed would immerse civic authorities into 'deep waters' and was contrary to free speech.
'One man's orthodoxy is another man's heterodoxy. One man's 'judgment' is another man's
'prejudice.' The truth is', he said, 'hardly anyone seems to have considered seriously the farreaching consequences of this rash project. The clause, tending to 'a breach of the public peace'
opens up the way for any disgruntled or venomous adversaries to start a disturbance in a theatre
lobby and thereby get a play suppressed ... Shall the magnificent Civil War and reconstruction
drama be stopped in Boston at the behest of an insignificant minority?' He advised Bostonians
not to make themselves 'the laughing stock of the country by enacting such a travesty of law and
justice'. (144)
By now the debate over censorship had expanded far beyond the specific film that initiated the
problem and sorely tested the consciences of those who saw the far-reaching effects that motion
pictures could have on the public, and yet also believed in freedom of expression. The press
understood the dangers of the proposed censorship legislation and opposed it. The Boston Herald
considered the bill 'hastily devised' and feared in the long run that it would 'limit the freedom of
the individual'. Any group, said the paper, could 'agitate and assume a threatening attitude' and
thus be able to close any show not to their liking. (145) In a long editorial, The Boston Transcript
concurred: 'Any sort of censorship is irritating to the spirit of our people, and only that regulation
which is in the essential interest of public decency and public morals should ever be tolerated'. It
felt that America was a 'government of laws and not of men', and that the censorship bill 'puts a
premium on violence by making it possible for any two men who engage in a fisticuff in the
lobby of a theater to force the authorities to stop the show ...' Such legislation could affect
'Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Christian Scientists, mill owners disapproving of films opposed to
child labor, saloon keepers fighting against films, etc'. Under such a law, it said, Uncle's Tom's
Cabin could also have been banned. (146)
As pressures mounted, Griffith, Dixon, and others decided that the legislators should see the film
for themselves, so invitations were extended to the Governor and the entire legislature. When the
Negroes heard of this, they criticized the free showing as a 'bribe'. In another meeting, held at the
Roxbury Baptist Church, on 29 April, 'it was voted to urge the Legislature not to attend' the
private screening arranged for them. (147)
Meanwhile, the legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary rejected a bill, submitted by the
NAACP's lawyer, to prevent showing any film that might incite a riot as determined by the
agreement of the mayor of Boston and the chief of the district police. Also rejected was a
proposal to have the decision made solely by the chief of the district police. The committee did
accept a bill allowing the mayor, police commissioner, and chief justice of the Municipal Court
to halt a film (though only by unanimous vote). There would be no right of appeal, nor did the
bill mention any specific reasons for preventing a film's exhibition. (148)
On Sunday, 2 May 1915, two meetings were held, one in Tremont Temple, the other on the
Common. 'Several colored preachers declared they prefer death to continued production here of
The Birth of a Nation, and predicted "disgraceful scenes in Boston" if the play is not stopped'.
(149) The speakers within the Temple were white and included President Emeritus Charles W.
Eliot of Harvard, who was later quoted in the NAACP pamphlet as saying: 'I ought to state at
once that I have not seen this play. One does not need to see it, in order to learn what its manifest
tendencies and purposes are.' (150) (This college administrator's ability to know all without
having to acquaint himself with facts apparently is endemic to the position. (151)) Eliot worried
about the film's effect on the white race because of its 'false teaching of history, the false
teaching concerning American ideals of liberty and justice, and the perversion of those ideals ...'
(152) But what the NAACP chose not to quote--nor any other writer who has cited Eliot--was his
next sentence saying that he did 'not look upon the production of this play primarily as a thing
insulting or injurious to the black race'. He also disagreed with the previous speakers at the
meeting by declaring that he did 'not believe that the interests of the colored race demanded that
the play be suppressed'. (153) 'Negroes', he explained, 'should not feel insulted, because their
evident progress in recent years shows that what the film depicts is no longer valid'. A less
restrained minister at the same meeting declared that if the film continued to be shown there
would be 'human barbecues and burnings at the stake' in Boston, 'and worse disgraces than those
of ante-bellum days in the South'. (154)
While The Birth of A Nation was becoming a cause celebre in Boston, a few Democrats became
fearful they would lose the black vote because President Wilson had commended the film and
urged the president to disengage himself from what was proving to be a contentious issue.
Wilson's secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, advised the President to make a statement. 'I would like
to do this', Wilson told him, 'if there was some way in which I could do it without seeming to be
trying to meet the agitation stirred up by that unspeakable fellow [Trotter]'. (155) Wilson had not
forgotten his unpleasant confrontation with him. He ordered Tumulty to say that he had been
'entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time
expressed his approbation of it', and that it was only shown as 'a courtesy extended to an old
acquaintance'. (156) This statement, issued under the secretary's name, was received by a
Massachusetts Congressman on 30 April and printed in the newspapers. (157) Three years later,
when the nation was at war, Wilson, with the mantle of world savior on his shoulders, finally
stated that the film was divisive and that he disapproved of this 'unfortunate production'. (158)
This change of heart did not, however, modify Wilson's Federal policy towards blacks.
Finally, the cause of all this incipient censorship legislation was shown to a large crowd of
legislators and their friends on 3 May at the Tremont Theater. They saw it in the slightly cut
form that was currently playing; afterwards, the censored parts were shown separately. The
legislators reacted enthusiastically and 'applauded when the Klu Klux Klan riders were shown
rushing to the rescue of Elsie Stoneman ... Handclapping also occurred in a few other cases, but
not to any extent.' So many legislators attended that when the House convened at one o'clock
only about fifteen of the 240 members were present. Forty minutes later, enough members had
returned from the theater to make business possible. (159)
On 11 May, an advertisement for the film in The Boston Evening Transcript stated that Dixon
had told Rolfe Cobleigh that the Reverend Dr. Parkhurst, the famous New York Presbyterian
minister and political reformer, had praised the picture. When Cobleigh demanded to see this
opinion in writing, Dixon provided a copy, but then Cobleigh claimed that he had 'no space' to
print it in his newspaper. The advertisement also included Parkhurst's comment: 'It is not
apparent what are the grounds of the objections urged against it, nor what is the animus of those
who are scheming to have the exhibition prohibited by court proceedings'. Dr. Parkhurst
The criticism that it [the film] exhibits the negro
in an unfortunate light and that it is calculated
to engender racial animosity is fully met by the
consideration that it represents the negro, not
as he is now at all, but as he was in the days
when he had the chains broken from him and
when he was rioting in the deliciousness of a
liberty so new and untried that he had yet
learned to understand it and was as ignorant
as a baby of the way to use it. It is in this
respect exactly true to history, and if it reflects
upon the negro as he was then it is a compliment
to the black man of today.
Reverend Parkhurst concluded by saying that the film 'has my unqualified approval'. (160)
In late May, Griffith defended his work:
The Birth of a Nation is no attack on the negro
race. Why should the colored people be
barred from the film any more than Shakespeare's
Shylock? Isn't he a bad example of
the Hebrew race? There is good and bad in
every class of people, and how are we to find
the good unless we see the wrong way first?
Why take a romance of the civil war so seriously? ...
As a matter of fact, the better class of negro
has taken no part in this argument. [He was no
doubt thinking of Booker T. Washington.] It is
not the conservative element, but rather the
notoriety seeker, who have set up this great
cry. In the picture I have given both sides of
the colored question--the old-time faithful
servant, who served his master with heroic
devotion, and then later the Hampton Institute
for the colored people--endeavoring to show
what this race has now accomplished by its
thrift and honesty.
Furthermore, The Birth of a Nation should not
be judged with the ordinary motion picture.
The price--$2--has placed it with the stage
productions. The press, books and plays are
allowed to present the true side of things, and
it does not seem justice to injure this art to
satisfy a few people ...
It is my greatest regret that this picture has
resolved itself into a racial discussion. The plot
is founded on the true facts of the reconstruction
period, with no intent to hurt either blacks
or whites. Why, the greatest villain in the play
is Stoneman, a white man. If we have white
villains why isn't it permissible to have an occasional
black one? The matter should not be
one-sided. (161)
On 21 May, at the urging of the NAACP, a new censorship law was passed in Massachusetts and
on the following day the three censorship board members were petitioned to stop The Birth of a
Nation. But the city that hosted the Boston Tea Party and fathered the American Revolution was
not about to suppress freedom of speech, so the request was denied and only a few minor
incidents followed. Although petitions were circulated in Brookline, some Negroes declined to
sign because they had not seen the film (a more honest response than Eliot's) and others who did
see it did not find it objectionable. (162)
On 1 June 1915, The Boston Evening Transcript printed an article by E.W. Thompson, a veteran
of the Union Army, who said that the film prompted thought and 'thought is good. If lies be
mixed in with truth, the lies are detected soon.' He added that he could not imagine that the old
abolitionists or Lincoln would have wished the show to be suppressed. He described the
newfootage of the Negro colleges and stated that the 'decent, seemly, composed, self-respecting,
wholly respectable graduates of Hampton and Tuskegee who appear in the show illustrate what
some forty years of 'abolition,' freedom, education, property rights, etc., have done for colored
Americana. The print-parts [i.e. the inter-titles] relate that hundreds of thousands of the formerly
enslaved race now serve in the learned professions ... What better demonstration can thinkers
desire to illustrate than that the black advances magnificently when given a white chance?' (163)
Although this veteran defended the film, certain Negroes continued to oppose it. On 7 June,
about fifty, walking in pairs, picketed in front of the Tremont Theater. 'They caused some
excitement and attracted a crowd but lost much of their enthusiasm' when eight of them were
arrested for 'sauntering, loitering or obstructing the sidewalk'. (164) All were given bail within
fifteen minutes by a Dr. Hall, a Negro. Meanwhile, the six Negro patrons who entered the theater
that night were kept under surveillance by plainclothesmen, but no incidents occurred.
At the same time, outside in the Park Square, William Monroe Trotter was recruiting
demonstrators. One Negro was heard to remark that 'a few sticks of dynamite would terminate
the photoplay quicker than any demonstration'. (165) About eighty policemen, including four
mounted officers, were on duty near the theater. In the Park Square, one Negro, already awaiting
trial for creating a disturbance on the Common a few nights previous, was heard urging his
followers to 'be on hand tomorrow night'. The fact that the police acted promptly apparently
discouraged any further protests. (166) Indeed, this was the last newsworthy event concerning
the film in Boston.
When the Massachusetts censorship law was passed and still did not halt presentations of The
Birth of a Nation, the film's producers hoped that this would be the end of such battles. But the
NAACP did not give up and continued to fight the film in other states and cities, occasionally
with some success. Although The Birth of a Nation was certainly a remarkable work, it is
doubtful that it would have received such extreme fame if the attempts to ban it had not
provoked the curiosity of many people who otherwise would not have considered seeing it. As
Dixon said in a letter of 5 April, 'the silly legal opposition they are giving will makeme a
millionaire if they keep it up'. (167) Dixon was right.
Although The Birth of a Nation caused controversy and protests, the facts of the matter, as we
have seen, were not quite so sensational as later commentators would lead us to believe. The
general impression exists--and persists--that the film created a furor wherever it was shown.
(168) Lewis Jacobs asserts in his The Rise of the American Film (1939) that 'race riots broke out'
(169) and many writers in other fields have drawn upon this 'fact'. For example, historian Edward
Robb in Echoes of Distant Thunder (1975), states that a protest in front of a Boston theater 'soon
developed into a race riot'. (170) The usually authoritative Seymour Stern mentioned 'mass
demonstrations and riots' that reached 'a high pitch of fury' (171) and stated that '5,000 Negro
and white protestors stormed the steps of the State Capitol Building' followed by 'a counterdemonstration by countless thousands of Negro-haters and reactionaries ... Both Negro and white
casualties ran high.' (172) Dixon, in The Flaming Sword, exaggerated unmercifully, claiming
that a 'mob of more than ten thousand' came to storm the theater and that 'a serried line of five
hundred' policemen 'with drawn night sticks' quelled the 'rioters'. (173) Stern fantasized about
what followed: 'Beatings, fist-fights, knifings, mob-clashes, shootings of a seemingly organized
type, coupled with damage to both Negro and white property'. In Hollywood: The Golden Years
(a documentary narrated by Gene Kelly), hordes of Boston citizens are seen protesting The Birth
of a Nation, but this footage was taken during the Boston police strike of 1919! A three-part
documentary on Griffith presented on public television in the 1990s included an interview in
which Karl Brown dramatically asserted that the film 'started riots, put blood on the streets'.
(174) His conclusion was based on hearsay, for he had remained in Los Angeles and witnessed
no such events.
The newspapers of the time in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, and later in Washington,
DC, as well as the trade press, reveal that most confrontations over Birth occurred in meetings
and courtrooms and that there were no riots and only one large demonstration. Although some
Negroes and a few vocal whites disapproved of the film--the more militant of them indeed did
try to stop its exhibition--The Birth of a Nation when it first came out in both North and South
was generally extolled for being an accurate and stirring dramatization of America's past and was
almost universally praised by film reviewers, editorial writers, historians, clergymen, politicians,
union leaders, socialists, and the public at large. These viewers seemed to have had no trouble
with its content and accepted it with few reservations. It reflected the attitudes of most of the
nation as evidenced in federal and state laws, in the United States Military, and in restrictive
covenants preventing blacks from living in white neighborhoods.
Contrary to what Andrew Sarris contended in 1969, that the film was 'regarded as outrageously
racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word', (175) the general public couldn't
understand what all the fuss was about. What now seems racist--especially since the Civil Rights
movement--did not appear offensive or even unfair at the time. To most viewers, it was no more
than 'teaching history with lightning'.
The pressures that the Negroes created in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and elsewhere gave
the film immense publicity, as well as causing a good deal of resentment among those people
who felt that there should be no censorship of this medium except on the grounds of obscenity.
In fact, the well publicized, but minor, demonstrations may have had an opposite effect by
reminding viewers of the threatening images of massed, disorderly Negroes seen in the film.
From this point on through the next decades, noted Thomas Cripps, the film would be 'an eternal
bugbear that wasted black effort and money'. (176)
(1.) DWG, Letter to the editor of The American, 8 April 1915.
(2.) DWG, quoting Pontius Pilate, in a filmed interview for the re-release of The Birth of a
Nation, 1930.
(3.) This figure was probably much exaggerated. Variety, providing some background material
on the production, noted on 29 January 1915 that 120,000 feet had been shot. Seymour Stern
says 108,000. ('The Birth of a Nation', Film Culture, Spring-Summer 1965, p. 52).
(4.) DWG,' What I Demand of Movie Stars', Motion Picture Classic, February 1917, p. 68.
(5.) In its original form, according to the New York American of 28 February 1915, Birth totaled
13,508 feet and 1,544 shots. Certain episodes as well as some individual shots within existing
scenes were later omitted because of censorship, but it is doubtful that almost 1,000 feet were
removed. The first night's print ran three hours, less 8 minutes for an intermission. Within the
first few weeks of the New York opening, its 'final' version was cut to 1,375 shots. A laboratory's
footage count made on May 31, 1919 stated a negative of 12,628 feet and for some reason (were
other titles and scenes cut?) positive prints contained 12,423 feet. The Museum of Modern Art's
prints have nine different figures, ranging from 11,220 to 11, 671 feet. Eastman House has
11,467 feet, and the Library of Congress 11,320. When Birth was measured for the New York
State Censorship Board, according to a memo in its files for 27 December 1922, it was 11,700
During the silent period projectionist soften used their own discretion, and varied the speed from
scene to scene. Indeed, Griffith advised the managers of his road shows to speed up or slow
down certain sequences, but, alas, we have no detailed record of his suggestions. The Birth of a
Nation seems to have been shot at about 16 frames per second, except for certain action scenes
which were deliberately under-cranked at about 12 frames so that they would run faster to
intensify the drama and suspense, a habit that persisted in fight and chase scenes even into the
late 1930s. When a film like The Birth of a Nation is unwisely shown at sound speed at 24
frames per second, the footage at 12 fps runs at twice the speed and appears ridiculous.
The liner notes of a 1990 video re-release of the Eastman House print of 11,467 feet states that
the film was projected at 16 frames per second, resulting in 'three hours and nine minutes, a very
close tally to the three hour running time (plus eight minutes intermission) reported in 1915'
(Scott MacQueen, Liner Notes for the LumiVision discs, 1990). Reported where? All of the
subsequent premieres and roadshows of the film that were under Griffith's close personal
supervision ran two hours and forty-five minutes -arunning timehe oftenmentioned throughout
his life--yet this video release lasts 25 minutes longer. What is the reason for this discrepancy?
The answer is simple. Griffith did not show the film at 16fps. (Silent films were often projected
faster than they were shot and audiences were used to this procedure.) With Birth's running time
of two hours and forty-five minutes, simple mathematics prove that it was projected on average
at 20 frames per second or 75 feet a minute. Self-styled 'purists' who insist on using 16 fps (sixty
feet a minute) are not as pure as they think.
Back in the later years of Griffith's Biograph period, he often had Bitzer crank at about 14 frames
per second in order to pack more running time into his one reelers. By the time of Birth and
Intolerance he used 16 frames and by 1918-19 he had sped up to about 19. Although many
cameramen through the 1920s continued to believe they were shooting at 16--a fact that today
many 'authorities' have accepted--James Card of Eastman House knew better. Most films in the
1920s were shot between 20 and 24 frames per second and often projected at even a faster speed,
as running times in theaters show. For example, even at a first run house in New York in 1922,
Orphans of the Storm was projected at 24 frames!
(6) Motion Picture News, 2 January 1915.
(7.) Article dated October 12 in Motion Picture News, 24 October 1914.
(8.) This prestigious building, erected in 1890, had seen some of the greatest stage plays. After it
was renovated in 1918, it became a motion picture theater and remained the oldest one in
Southern California until it closed on 9 January 1973, at that point specializing in pornography!
(9.) Later ads, for the New York opening, promised that there were 18,000 people in the cast. An
elaborate multi-page program contained additional 'facts': There were over 5,000 distinct scenes
[actually fewer than 2,000], 3,000 horses [sixty seems more likely], 5,000 books consulted about
the Civil War [at best, under 100], a city specially built and burned for Sherman's March to the
Sea [it was a model made out of packing cases and about 30 feet in area], 200,000 feet of film
were taken, and the picture cost $500,000. Although there have been many estimates of the
production's cost, a typewritten balance sheet of the Epoch Producing Corporation for 13 March
1915, cited its expenses as $104,360.52. Because Griffith had traded away a good deal of his
interest in the picture in order to get enough money to complete it, he did not receive as much
money as he originally could have. The film earned millions, but according to his income tax
report, in 1915 Griffith received $140,243.09 in royalties and $15,700 in dividends from Epoch,
totaling $155,943.09. (Letter to Griffith, regarding his income tax, 28 January 1916.)
(10.) Riverside Enterprise, 30 December 1914; Riverside Daily Press, 31 December 1914.
(11.) Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1914.
(12.) DWG, quoted by Grace Kingsley, Los Angeles Times, 8 February 1915.
(13.) Kingsley, Ibid.
(14.) See The Musical Courier, Vol. 82, No. 19, 12 May 1921 and its next issues, No. 20 and No.
22, 19 May 1921 and 2 June 1921.
(15.) Riverside Enterprise, 2 January 1915.
(16.) Griffith claimed in 1930 that Birth was 'the first screen production to utilize sound effects'.
(DWG, Press sheets for Abraham Lincoln.) Although this statement is not quite true, certainly
the film was carefully synchronized with natural sounds.
(17.) One so-called film expert has opined, 'Because it had to rely on piano accompaniment for
punctuation, all silent film drama ... is "melodramatic" '. Thomas Elsaesser, 'Tales of Sound and
Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama', in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, Leo Braudy,
Film Theory and Criticism (4th edn) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 519.
(18.) Riverside Enterprise, 2 January 1915.
(19.) Unidentified clipping from a New York newspaper, circa 27 February 1915.
(20.) Riverside Daily Press, 2 January 1915.
(21.) Riverside Enterprise, 2 January 1915.
(22.) Riverside Enterprise, 2 January 1915, p. 2.
(23.) Dramatic Mirror, 10 March 1915.
(24.) Variety, 12 March 1915.
(25.) Riverside Enterprise, 2 January 1915.
(26.) Linda Griffith, When the Movies Were Young, p. 255.
(27.) According to a 1911 report by The Federal Immigration Commission.
(28.) Variety, 5 February 1915.
(29.) According to Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1926), 641; this occurred on 20 February 1915, another legend endlessly repeated and
demonstrably not true.
(30.) Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People (Volume 5), pp. 128-131.
(31.) DWG, New York American, 28 February 1915.
(32.) It was registered first by the Epoch Producing Corp., but a few days lateron 13 February it
was copyrighted again by D.W. Griffith Corporation. This discrepancy was cleared up in a
gentlemanly fashion at the time, but in the 1960s there was a complicated law suit between the
later owners of Griffith's estate and Epoch about who held the rights.
(33.) Los Angeles Times, 12 January 1915.
(34.) The whites ran the organization for decades. Some Negroes, especially Wiliam Monroe
Trotter and W.E.B. Du Bois, resented this fact.
(35.) Edward Robb Ellis, Echoes of Distant Thunder (New York: Coward, McCann, 1975), 117.
(36.) Lester A. Walton, 'The Invasion of Boston', New York Age, 22 April 1915.
(37.) Thomas Cripps, in Slow Fade to Black, declares that 'black Angelenos 30,000 strong
sounded the call'. (p. 53.) This figure is wholly unwarranted. Most likely not more than thirty
individuals were concerned with the protest.
(38.) Grace Kingsley, Los Angeles Times,4February 1915.
(39.) Los Angeles Times, 6 February 1915.
(40.) Los Angeles Times, 6 February 1915.
(41.) Grace Kingsley, 'Staging The Clansman', Los Angeles Times, 7 February 1915.
(42.) Los Angeles Times, 9 February 1915.
(43.) 'Doings at Los Angeles', Moving Picture World, 27 February 1915, p. 1273.
(44.) Unidentified clipping, 20 February 1915.
(45.) Grace Kingsley, Los Angeles Times,7February 1915.
(46.) Los Angeles Times, 9 February 1915.
(47.) Los Angeles dateline of 20 February, New York Star, 3 March 1915.
(48.) 'Doings at Los Angeles', Moving Picture World, 27 February 1915, p. 1273.
(49.) Los Angeles Times, 12 September 1915.
(50.) Variety, 12 March 1915.
(51.) The Morning Telegraph, 19 February 1915; also The Washington Post.
(52.) A joke of the time was that when the President proposed to Edith, she was so surprised she
fell out of bed. Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper-Collins,
1997), 641-642.
(53.) Lester A. Walton, 'The Invasion of Boston', New York Age, 22 April 1915; [Washington]
Evening Star, 18 February 1915.
(54.) Thomas Dixon, The Flaming Sword (Atlanta: Monarch Publishing Company, 1939), 254256.
(55.) Dixon, Letter to Tumulty, in Arthur S. Link, editor, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), volume 32, p. 142.
(56.) Wilson wrote, 'It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be
set free and left without tutelage or restraint'. (p. l8.) After the war 'the tasks of ordinary labor
stood untouched; the idlers grew insolent, dangerous; nights went anxiously by, for fear of riot
and incendiary fire'. (p. 20) Wilson spoke of men in Congress 'without pretense or refinement of
view, their whole temper hardened and embittered by the war and all its unpalatable
consequences, ... [They were] willing to follow those who were frankly bent upon bringing the
South to utter humiliation and penitent submission.' Wilson added that the Radical Republicans
'wished not only to give the negroes political privilege, but also to put the white men of the
South, for the nonce at any rate, under the negroes' heels'. (p. 38)
Wilson's book described Negro office-holders 'who could not so much as write their names and
who knew none of the uses of authority except its insolence ... No one who thought justly or
tolerantly could think that this veritable overthrow of civilization in the South had been foreseen
or desired ....' (p. 49.)
He concluded, 'The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of selfpreservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments
sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers'. (p.58.)
(57.) I examined bound volumes of the newspaper at the New York State Library to check this. It
can be found in the Sunday paper of The New York American, section M, p. 9. Griffith also used
the word 'teach' in a statement reported in Stephen Gordon, Photoplay, October 1916.
(58.) Thomas Dixon, The Flaming Sword (Atlanta, Georgia: Monarch Publishing Company,
1939), 254-262.
(59.) Washington Times, 20 February 1915.
(60.) New York Morning Telegraph, 22 February 1915.
(61.) Ibid.
(62.) DWG, Letter to Wilson, 2 March 1915, pp. 310-311.
(63.) Wilson, Letter to DWG, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, p. 325.
(64.) Wilson, Letter to Griffith, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 5 March 1915, p, 325.
(65.) Variety, 12 March 1915, p. 1.
(66.) Moving Picture World, 20 February 1915, p. 1121.
(67.) Carolyn Wedin, Inheritors of the Spirit (New York: John Wiley, 1998), 149. Ms. Wedin
comments that 'Children came out despising Lincoln and the Congress for freeing the slaves--just
as the movie intended'. (p. 49) This is hardly the film's intent or the impression left on viewers,
and is yet another example of socalled scholarship. Lincoln in fact is handled reverently, almost
like a God, and is called in a title the 'Great Heart'. Ms. Wedin's conclusion is so erroneous, one
wonders whether she ever saw the film.
(68.) Moving Picture World, 10 July 1915.
(69.) Moving Picture World, 13 March 1915.
(70.) 'Film Reviews', Variety, 12 March 1915.
(71.) Hector Turnbull, 'A Stirring Film Drama Shown', New York Tribune, 4 March 1915, p. 9.
(72.) New York American, 4 March 1915, p. 10.
(73.) New York American, 7 March 1915, section M, p. 7.
(74.) New York Times, 4 March 1915.
(75.) Rev. Thomas B. Gregory, New York American, 5 March 1915, p. 10.
(76.) New York Times, 7 March 1915.
(77.) Lester A. Walton, Telegram to Mayor Mitchell, 4 March 1915, printed in The New York
Age, 11 March 1915, p.1.
(78.) The New York Age, 11 March 1915, p.1.
(79.) Louis Sherwin, New York Globe, 4 March 1915, later quoted by Griffith in an
advertisement in the Boston Evening Transcript, 9 April 1915.
(80.) Lester A. Walton, 'The Invasion of Boston', New Age, 22 April 1915.
(81.) The original synopsis printed in the program (February 1915) for Clune's Auditorium said:
'The first seed of disunion is planted by the African being brought to America in New England
ships and sold to the South, pious Puritans blessing the traffic'. In the New York premiere there
was a scene of Negroes being brought to Jamestown, Virginia, thus sowing the seeds of disunion.
(Rev. Gregory, in The New York Journal, 5 March 1915.) This thought was encapsulated in a
title insert, at least when it reached New York, as, 'Having profited by the trade and having no
use for slaves themselves, the traders of the 17th century became the Abolitionists of the 19th'.
Somehow this was found offensive and changed to 'The Nineteenth century abolitionists
demanding the freeing of the slaves'. (A portion of this title was quoted in a review of the film by
W. Stephen Bush, Moving Picture World, 13 March 1915.) The title about Pious Puritans
blessing the traffic disappeared and was replaced by 'The bringing of the African to America
planted the first seed of disunion'. The following title, 'The negro was imported in New England
ships and sold by the traders to the South', although true, also was omitted. (The North didn't
want to be reminded of its complicity with slavery.)
(82.) It was in the premiere version. Moving Picture World, 13 March 1915.
(83.) A day-by-day account of the NAACP's efforts was printed in The Crisis and reprinted in
Silva's Focus on the Birth of a Nation, p. 68.
(84.) Inheritors of the Spirit, p. 151.
(85.) Variety, 26 March 1915.
(86.) The New York Age, 25 March 1915, p. 1.
(87.) The New York Age says the 29th in its 1 April issue. The event was hardly considered
newsworthy. The only mention I found was in about a three inch piece a few days later in The
New York American.
(88.) The New York Age, 1 April 1915.
(89.) New York Times, 31 March 1915.
(90.) The New York Age, 1 April 1915, p. 1.
(91.) New York American, 2 April 1915, p. 9.
(92.) The New York Age, 1 April 1915, p. 1.
(93.) New York Globe, 6 April 1915. This was the same logic used by the US Supreme Court
when in a landmark decision in 1915 it denied motion pictures the right of free speech.
(94.) New York Globe, 10 April 1915.
(95.) Thomas Dixon, letter to the editor, dated 7 April, in the New York Globe, 10 April 1915. A
slightly garbled version appears in Fred Silva's Focus on the Birth of a Nation, pp. 76-77.
(96.) The New York Age, 6 May 1915.
(97.) Rolfe Cobleigh, Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against the Birth of a Nation, Boston
Branch of the NAACP, 1915.
(98.) Boston Evening Transcript, 9 April 1915.
(99.) Boston Evening Transcript, 9 and 10 April 1915.
(100.) Boston Globe, 9 April 1915.
(101.) Boston Globe, 10 April 1915.
(102.) Boston Evening Transcript, 24 April 1915.
(103.) Boston Globe, 10 April 1915.
(104.) Boston American, 10 April 1915.
(105.) Boston Globe, 10 April 1915.
(106.) Boston Evening Transcript, 10 April 1915.
(107.) Christian Science Monitor, 15 April 1915.
(108.) Christian Science Monitor, 17 April 1915.
(109.) The Crisis, in Silva's Focus on The Birth of a Nation, p. 71.
(110.) W.E.B. Du Bois, 'William Monroe Trotter' (an article originally in The Crisis, 1934),
David Levering Lewis, editor, W.E. B. Du Bois: A Reader (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), 136.
(111.) Ibid., p. 137.
(112.) Arthur Link, Wilson: The New Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956),
(113.) Ellis, p. 119.
(114.) Boston Evening Transcript, 28 April 1915, p. 2.
(115.) Boston Evening Transcript, 30 April 1915.
(116.) Boston Evening Transcript, 3 May 1915.
(117.) Boston Globe, 3 May 1915.
(118.) Boston Globe, 3 May 1915.
(119.) Cripps, p. 60.
(120.) Boston Evening Transcript, 3 May 1915.
(121.) Boston Herald, 19 April 1915.
(122.) Boston Globe, 19 April 1915.
(123.) Christian Science Monitor, 19 April 1915.
(124.) Ibid.
(125.) Christian Science Monitor, 19 April 1915.
(126.) Boston Globe, 20 April 1915.
(127.) Christian Science Monitor, 20 April 1915.
(128.) Ibid.
(129.) Boston Globe, 21 April 1915.
(130.) The Flaming Sword, p. 269.
(131.) The Flaming Sword, p. 270.
(132.) New York Age, 22 April 1915.
(133.) Christian Science Monitor, 21 April 1915.
(134) Boston Evening Transcript, 21 April 1915.
(135.) Boston Globe, 21 April 1915.
(136.) Ibid.
(137.) Christian Science Monitor, 21 April 1915.
(138.) Christian Science Monitor, 22 April 1915.
(139.) Moving Picture World, 1915, p. 953.
(140.) Boston Evening Transcript, 23 April 1915.
(141.) Christian Science Monitor, 24 April 1915.
(142.) Christian Science Monitor, 26 April 1915.
(143.) Boston Globe, 26 April 1915.
(144.) Boston Journal, 26 April 1915.
(145.) Editorial reprinted in an advertisement in The Boston Globe, 27 April 1915.
(146.) Boston Evening Transcript editorial, quoted in entirety in The Boston Globe, 27 April
(147.) Boston Evening Transcript, 30 April 1915.
(148.) Ibid.
(149.) Boston Globe, 3 May 1915.
(150.) Fighting a Vicious Film, p. 37.
(151.) As a professor, I encountered such infinite wisdom in Deans and Chairmen as well.
(152.) Fighting a Vicious Film, p. 40.
(153.) Peter Noble, 'The Negro in The Birth of a Nation', in Silva's Focus on The Birth of a
Nation, p. 131, was so convinced of his fairness and Griffith's racism that he asserted that Eliot
'spoke bitterly and often against the showing of the film', a direct contradiction to what Eliot
actually did say.
(154.) Boston Globe, 3 May 1915.
(155.) Link, p. 253.
(156.) Dated 28 April 1915, quoted in Fighting a Vicious Film.
(157.) Christian Science Monitor, 1 May 1915. See Wade, p. 137 for further explanation.
(158.) Link, p. 254.
(159.) Boston Evening Transcript, 3 May 1915.
(160.) As quoted in Boston Evening Transcript, 11 May 1915.
(161.) Louella Parsons, 'D.W. Griffith in Plea For His Greatest Film, Chicago-Herald, 30 May
(162.) Boston Globe, 24 May 1915.
(163.) Boston Evening Transcript, 1 June 1915.
(164.) Boston Evening Transcript, 8 June 1915.
(165.) Boston Globe, 8 June 1915.
(166.) Boston Evening Transcript, 8 June 1915.
(167.) Fighting A Vicious Film. The essence of Dixon's statement was referred to in an earlier
hearing (Boston Globe, 19 April 1915).
(168.) In studying the New York newspapers, I was surprised to learn that the controversy,
except for the Negro press, received very little coverage. Boston, however, was another matter,
as I discovered when I went there to examine court records and the newspapers of that period.
(169.) Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, p. 178.
(170.) Edward Robb Ellis, p. 128.
(171.) Seymour Stern, American Classic Screen, November -December, 1980, p. 30.
(172.) Seymour Stern, Cinemages (New York: Group for Film Study, 1955), p. 25.
(173.) The Flaming Sword, p. 267.
(174.) Brown's filmed interview in the Kevin Brownlow and David Gill three-part documentary
on Griffith made for television.
(175.) Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice, 17 July 1969, p. 45.
(176.) Cripps, p. 63.
Arthur Lennig received his PhD in English and American Literature, and for 31 years taught film
history and filmmaking at the State University of New York, Albany. His previous books include
Stroheim and The Immortal Count. His current project is a major study of D.W. Griffith, from
which this essay is adapted. Correspondence c/o [email protected]
Gale Document Number:A138527522
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