The War on Film Culture: Part 4: What Shall the History Books Read? (1915)

Oh I suppose it began when I was a child.  I used to get under the table and listen to my father and his friends talk about the battles they had been through in their struggles.  First these impress you deeply.  […]  You know, when you’ve heard your father fighting day after day, night after night, and having nothing to eat but parched corn.  A group of people fighting desperately against great odds.  Great sacrifices.  Suffering.  Death.  It was a great struggle, a great story.

— D.W. Griffith

1914, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) begins to lobby aggressively for government regulation of films. The WCTU claims that films are “addictive,” that they glorify war and violence, and that they cause crime, delinquency and immoral behavior.  They were one of several religious organizations that began to rally against films for their content.

But religious arguments regarding the corruptible nature of films would take a backseat for this next challenge film culture faced regarding censorship.  1915 would be the start of a truly tumultuous time in movie history.  In that year, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation film was released, and became the biggest hit in the country up to that time, blowing all the other film away made prior to it.  It had an epic length, epic scope, and introduced more film-making concepts that hadn’t yet been utilized.  It may have also contributed to this being the year that film-goers went from being largely exclusively working-class, to all classes becoming film-goers.  The motion picture faced opposition from those organized by the NAACP (formed in 1909), William Monroe Trotter, and Booker T. Washington.  Riots broke out as a result.  Many protested against the films existence, and against those who wouldn’t censor it, such as the Board of Censors for the City of Boston.

The arguments against the film’s existence would be summarized in a collection of speeches done by the NAACP, put into the 40+ page book Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against “The Birth of a Nation”In it, there would be arguments that would seem to prove Supreme Court Justice Joseph McKenna’s point about the dangers films possess.  How they can affect society for the worse.  Because it would incite racism.  They would be right.  It was a major influence in reviving the Ku Klux Klan.

Ghostly vision: More 50,000 of the Ku Klux Klan gathered in the shadow of the Capitol¿s dome for two parades in Washington DC in 1925 and 1926


It fans into a living flame the dying embers of bigotry, passion and hate.”

— Isadore Fox


In furthering these purposes the producers of the film do not hesitate to resort to the meanest vilification of the Negro race, to pervert history and to use the most subtle form of untruth–a half truth.

— Boston Branch of the NAACP, 1915


We deplore the insidious influence of this play in the manner of its presentation–before audiences whose judgement is misled and whose passions are inflamed by a most clever combination of spectacular and musical art, with the inevitable result of increased racial and sectional antagonism, at a time when the whole world is longing for peace.


While deploring the decision of the Board of Censors, we congratulate ourselves on the great increase of interest in the cause of human rights, as advocated by our Association, which has been aroused by the recent discussions and we earnestly appeal to all fairminded people, here and throughout the country, to use every effort to counteract the malign influence of this play, through its legal suppression, through a better acquaintance with the truth of our national history, and through more friendly and helpful relations between the colored and white citizens of our land.  And we would especially emphasize the fact that this is not a matter involving the welfare of the colored race alone, but one in which all races composing our cosmopolitan citizenship have a vital interest.


To learn that on a question of decency and self respect they could get together and in a dignified, law abiding manner resent, as one man, the insult offered to their race by this play was a wonderfully heartening result to the twenty thousand colored people of greater Boston.  Add to this the fact that the moral enthusiasm, love for liberty and a genuine feeling of brotherhood which swept over the country in Abolition days seemed to be reawakened; that where for years stood a thin, heroic line of the old guard, growing fewer and more pathetic in their demand that the faith of the fathers be kept, that the Constitution be the paladium of the liberty of all the people and not of a chosen few, there now stand thousands, recruited from the ranks of the various race groups composing our citizenship, demanding fair play and justice for all men, and the compensation far outweighs the failure to stop this one infamous play.  With a view to giving some idea of the scope of the agitation and the spirit in which it was conducted a few of the many letters, resolutions and speeches produced by the opposition to the play in April are put in permanent form with the further purpose of aiding other communities in opposing this and all such productions.

— Resolutions Executive Committee Boston Branch of the NAACP, 1915

Note that when the above quote mentions “at a time when the whole world is longing for peace,” this refers to The Great War, World War I, which was still ongoing at this time.

So while they are decrying that this film is repulsive in its intentions, that it should be censored, they also unintentionally provide a reason as to why it shouldn’t be.  That a film made with such propaganda behind it is appalling, it also unites “fairminded” people because of that.  There is a unity not just in the black community, but in the white community, in the American community, decrying this film.  It demonstrates that there is a large enough population to show how far they’ve come since the Civil War, a war which still had veterans walking around during that time period.  While a film is primarily made to make money, entertain, and to inspire others to act in accordance to the lesson taught by the screenwriter(s), it can also have the unintended effect of uniting people against its message rather than for its message.

Films of a similar nature have been being made in more recent years since 2012, but became more prevalent in 1916.  Films like the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters, The Last Jedi, among others, intending to promote a 3rd wave feminist message.  The message being that men should be treated as inferior to women, on ethical, intelligence, and in some cases physical grounds.  Granted, it’s nowhere near as bad as The Birth of a Nation, if for no other reason than rewriting history and teaching it as real history to the uneducated masses was never the intention (that would be more along the lines of Remember the Titans, or Braveheart).  The main difference is that the message is much more subtle.  The Birth of a Nation is anything but subtle with its propaganda.

If history bore no relation to life, this motion picture drama could well be reviewed and applauded as a spectacle.  As a spectacle it is stupendous.  […]  But since history does bear on social behavior, “The Birth of a Nation” cannot be reviewed simply as a spectacle.  It is more than a spectacle.  It is an interpretation, the Rev. Thomas Dixon’s interpretation, of the relations of the North and South and their bearing on the Negro.


If one of his heroes is about to do something peculiarly loathsome, Mr. Dixon thrusts a crucifix in his hand and has him roll his eyes to heaven.  In this way the very basest impulses are given the sanction of godliness, and Mr. Dixon preserves his own respect and the respect of such people as go by the label and not by the rot-gut they consume.


The effect of these lines [from the film], reinforced by adroit quotations from Woodrow Wilson and repeated assurances of impartiality and goodwill, is to arouse in the audience a strong sense of the evil possibilities of the Negro and the extreme propriety and godliness of the Ku Klux Klan.  So strong is this impression that the audience invariably applauds the refusal of the white hero to shake hands with a Negro, and under the circumstances it cannot be blamed.  Mr. Dixon has identified the Negro with cruelty, superstition, insolence and lust.

We know what a yellow journalist is.  He is not yellow because he reports crimes of violence.  He is yellow because he distorts them.  In the region of history the Rev. Thomas Dixon corresponds to the yellow journalist.  He is a clergyman, but he is a yellow clergyman.  He is yellow because he recklessly distorts Negro crimes, gives them a disproportionate place in life, and colors them dishonestly to inflame the ignorant and the credulous.  And he is especially yellow, and quite disgustingly and contemptibly yellow, because his perversions are cunningly calculated to flatter the white man and provoke hatred and contempt for the Negro.

— Francis Hackett in The New Republic, 1915, speaking on “The Birth of a Nation.”

Thomas Dixon is the writer of the book The Clansman, the novel on which the film The Birth of a Nation is based on.  There is no other way to look at that man other than one who hates negros, as lesser than white men, and wishes for others to share the same view.  D.W. Griffith, on the other hand, can be excused as misguided in all this to an extent.  From what I gather, he was stunned at the negative response.  He honestly didn’t foresee that his film could be interpreted for harmful intentions.  The reason for this, in my opinion, and this opinion will have some backing in the next article, is because Griffith didn’t have that good of an education when it came to history.  He wouldn’t be the only one.  Others in this article will note that this film is particularly dangerous because not everyone knows as much as they should about the facts of the Civil War.  And this is a country where the war ended only 50 years ago.  That would be somewhat equivalent to the Vietnam War in today’s context.  And believe me, even today, the Vietnam War suffers from revisionist history that is almost the equivalent to the revisionist history done in The Birth of a Nation.

How often is Ho Chi Minh glorified and praised, even in America, in spite of the atrocities he committed?

How ironic, considering that documentary film-maker Ken Burns is responsible for creating documentaries on both the Civil War and the Vietnam War, with much more bias given on the Vietnam War documentary.  But that’s not the worst of it.  It’s also being done in many school textbooks, and other various films.  It’s a war many are still bitter about, that many still argue about, that has created a divide in American society the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Civil War.  Or since the election of Donald Trump.  Or since the release of The Last Jedi.

censorship birth of a nation

Even more eerie is the concept of “yellow journalist” (we really need to bring that term back).  Journalists who distort the truth for the sake of sensationalism. This term originated from the backlash against the newspapers produced by Randolph Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pilitzer.  Backlash against the papers covering the Cuban War for Independence (1895-1898), and having images of Cuban troops being tortured or starved.


The Birth of a Nation was a big hit and a financial success.  But the protests also had some success, getting the film banned in several theaters, and causing D.W. Griffith to rethink his position on the film (in spite of taking a strong anti-censorship stance on films).  He made edits to other versions of the movie, removing mentions of the KKK.  In hindsight, I believe he realized what he had created, being ignorant to the implications prior to its release.  He likely did historical research to confirm the opinions of the NAACP.

The only objection to it [The Birth of a Nation] so far is a Negro Society [which later identified by him as a “Negro Intermarriage Society”] which advises its members to arm themselves to fight the whites.

— Thomas Dixon, March 27, 1915


I have expressed my disapproval of “The Birth of a Nation,” following each view of it on the grounds of falsifying history, in a riot of emotions glorifying crime, especially lynching, immorality, inviting prejudice against the Negro race, falsely representing the character of colored Americans and teaching the undemocratic, unchristian and unlawful doctrine that all colored people should be removed from the United States.  I especially disapprove the play because Mr. Dixon frankly explained to me that his purpose in the play was to promote a propaganda with the desire to accomplish the results that I have stated.

— Rolfe Cobleigh, May 26, 1915

Yes, Thomas Dixon, the one who wrote The Clansman, was interviewed.  His justifications and content in his work and in the film were questioned.  He answered about how you would expect for a white supremacist (a real-deal white supremacist).  He also argued that the only people objecting to the film are those who wish to harm the race he praises in the film.  Basically the equivalent to saying those who protest against films like Ghostbusters 2016 or Oceans 8 or Widows are themselves anti-feminists who wish nothing but harm against females; while at the same time creating films that falsely represent males and invite prejudice against them.  It’s almost as pretentious, except the more recent films aren’t quite as blunt about it.

I should say that the authors’ interpretation of the period of reconstruction and its presentation at this time is a grave injustice to the colored people and to my mind is fraught with danger to any community that permits it to be given.

The play purports to be history and even if it were accurate it is too near the painful period that it depicts to be given without danger of inciting hate, hostility, prejudice and sectionalism.


The audience indicated by its applause reaction to the appeals to their prejudice and hate of the black people.

— Lillian D. Wald, 1915

Huh.  And here people are bitching about 9/11 films made in 2006, 5 years after the incident, saying THAT was too near the painful period in history.  Nevermind the Vietnam War films.  They ain’t got nothing on a film made 50 years after the historical period it represents.  I think this just depends on how well-off society is at that point in time.  How educated they are, and how much prejudice and hatred there is for one another.  Apparently, in 1915, not enough were educated.  And clearly racism was still prevalent (and would remain so though the 60s).  I should say that we don’t have that problem in this day and age.  If nothing else, The Birth of a Nation taught us precisely why we should be educated about the films we see that purport to be history.  More on that later.

The whole purpose of the picture is so meretricious in both racial and sectional elements that antipathies are aroused among the spectators.  There is no doubt of the effort to make the Negro contemptible; that he should be made responsible for the inhumanity of his neighbors is stretching the point a little too far.  [The author & producer] ought to realize that if the Negro was as bad as they paint him in these films he was what the South made him; he was the shadow of her own substance; and pride of race, if there were any in the white South, ought to suppress this exposition of their own shame.

In any work that pretends to art it is the motive that is vital and if it tends to be harmful should be suppressed.  Hate is the very source of this production.

— William Stanley Braithwate


It is certain to excite prejudice and animosity between the negro and the white races.  It is not history but caricature.

— Stephen S. Wise


[…] it is precisely because this period of American history is, to our shame, so little known that we object to the gross perversion of that history which this play presents.


It is an effort to mislead the people of this country who are ignorant of these facts, to excite a strong feeling against the colored people already suffering everywhere from race prejudice, and to strengthen the hands of those who would deny them their equal rights as citizens.  If it is immoral to bear false witness against one’s neighbor, to excite hate, to say those things which directly lead to disorder, assault, and perhaps homicide; unless in a word, the only immorality is sexual immorality, this play tends to corrupt public morals and should be suppressed, as it certainly would be if, instead of libelling the weakest among our fellow-citizens, if were in like manner to attack a body of great political strength.

— Moorfield Storey

An unfortunate situation that the supreme court justice McKenna warned about in order to justify the ruling that films won’t be protected by the first amendment.  Confirmation that most aren’t educated on the history of the Civil War during this time period.  This should serve as a warning as to how society should be to protect itself against propaganda that attempts to rewrite history.  Only an educated society should be allowed to view any film they wish.  Because they would know better and be more well-defended against misinformation.  It’s the same reason why parents would protect their children from films with questionable content at a young age, until they are ready for them.  If nothing else, the existence of such a film should be preserved as an example of “what not to do”.  More on that later.

I suppose its most offensive feature to be its defamation of the Negro.  Much as I object to this, on grounds both of justice and policy, the fundamental objection to this play lies deeper.  It is covert, but most skilful and insidious defamation of the Union cause, and apotheosis of slavery and rebellion.  We of the white race should be first to rise against it, and we do ourselves no credit by leaving it to our colored fellow-citizens to protest.  With the exception of the Lincoln episodes, where it cunningly defers to a sentiment that cannot safely be trifled with even in law-abiding North–though it is impossible to overlook a touch of coarse caricature in the face of Lincoln–it is […] a pack of pictured lies so grotesquely false that but for their malice and their power of mischief, as addressed to the eyes of a generation comparatively uninformed, they would be simply laughable.  […]  Purporting to be historical, it is history upside down, a complete inversion of historical truth.


It gambles on the public ignorance of our own history, and as a vast majority of people are more impressed by what they see than by what they read or hear, it is liable to win by permanently lodging a radically false conception in the public mind.


But unless we find a way to effectively resent this libel alike upon our citizenry and our history, let us destroy our soldiers’ monuments, give the battle-flags at the State House to the dust heap, abolish our Memorial Day, and confess ourselves unfit to inherit the traditions of Massachusetts, in our impotence to vindicate them or the memory of the men who made them.

— A. E. Pillsbury


A young white man who saw the film in New York remarked on coming out of the show house “I’d like to kill every nigger in the country.”  He was an average young man.  It was a natural remark.  If the negro race is as represented in this performance I should feel as he does.  If this film is allowed to be produced, there are thousands of others who will be taught to feel as he does.


Common decency demands the suppression of this movie show.


At Friday evening’s performance the collaborator stated between the acts that he claimed the same right to give this performance that a historian has to write history.  A lie can be told by omission as well as by what is said.  Whatever incidents may or may not have happened in reconstruction times the omission of the good, and the slanderous exaggeration of individual crimes until the race is confounded with the individual criminal so that an average spectator will say “I’d like to kill every nigger in America,” is not history.  Would you allow such a rotten history to be used as a text book in our schools?  Why then, under the guise of history, allow it to be used as a text for children in our public halls?


If mud-slinging is to be propagated by movies, what is it that had produced the race of mulattos in this country?  Not the rape of white girls by colored men.  If history is to be taught, let us have history.


Its result will be to increase race hatred.  What we need in this country, now above all times, is peace and harmony.


The play is a public menace and should be suppressed.  If you expect our colored population to be law-abiding citizens, the law must give them equal protection with the other races.  No movie play which slandered the Irish, or the Catholics, or the Yankees as this play slanders the negro race would be allowed an hour in Boston, and I challenge any person to see this performance and then deny this statement.  Why not give fair play to the weaker race as well as to the stronger, a race more sinned against than sinning?

–J. Mott Hallowell


Why should it hold the stage against such vehement and feeling protests of great numbers of our people?  When I ask this question, I am told that it is “history,” “truth,” “realism.”  Fine words these, which may be used as cloak beneath which to smuggle in much evil.  […]  “Truth” and “history” should not be so presented as to become a gross offense, a cruel insult to a great body of respectable, honest, worthy persons.  No one respects history more than I do, […] but the more I respect it, the more I resent its misuse.  To use it for the purpose, or even with the result, of outraging the feelings of a multitude of our fellow-citizens, is not only cruel, and against good humanity, but it is distinctly against public policy, which pre-eminently calls for harmony and good feeling between all fellow-citizens.

— John T. Morse, Jr.

J. P. Tumulty points out that, while Woodrow Wilson did see a screening of the film at the White House, he “at no time expressed his approbation of it.  Its exhibition at the White House was a courtesy extended to an old acquaintance.”

If there is anything tending more to destroy and undermine American Institutions and American liberty, it is race or religious prejudice.


The Constitution of this government guarantees to every man, woman and child an equal opportunity in life, and those things which tend to and create prejudice and hatreds and bigotry must be eliminated, not by force, but by law.

— Gov. Walsh of Massachusetts

Funny that we still get films promoting religious and racial prejudice to this day.

[…] I beg to state that I was among the minority of the National Board of Censorship as to “The Birth of a Nation.”  I believe, as did the minority of the members, that the picture portrayed the Negro in such a brutal and degrading way that half of it, or the second part, should either be eliminated or cut so completely that but little of it would be left.  However, the majority of the Board thought otherwise.

— Frederic C Howe, ex-president National Board of Censorship

Well what do ya know?  You mean to tell me that a board of censors is made up of humans who could be politically/racially/religiously biased in such a way as to show unfair favor with what films they will allow and what films they won’t?  Unintentionally making the case as to why films shouldn’t be censored.  This will be followed up by a quote from another individual later on.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a prostitution of dramatic art for a propaganda of prejudice.  I am glad that so many of the Southern mayors have forbidden its production in their cities, and I am surprised that it had not met with like opposition in the North.

[…]  It is sugar coating for a dose of black poison.  It expresses the pious hope that its portrayal of the horrors of war may lead to the triumph of peace, while in the most unmistakable manner it is sowing the seed of strife.

[…] It’s tendency is to undo the work of half a century in training public sentiment, and I therefore appeal to all fair minded, justice loving people to use their influence against it.

— Edward T. Ware, president of Atlanta University


The play is fundamentally wrong in that it attempts to deal with the development of America since the abolition of slavery by ignoring the substantial progress of the Negro race and emphasizing the cruel misunderstanding of the readjustment period in which unfortunate individuals of both races figured.  No matter how many other artistic and historic features the play may have, its ultimate result will be to intensify race prejudice and thereby do great and lasting harm to both races.

— Booker T. Washington



I do not feel clear that it is the interest of the white people of this country to have this play suppressed.  I am sure that the colored people have no serious interest in having this play suppressed.  This play is said to insult colored people.  I beg to say to the colored people here present that they had better not feel insulted.  They cannot be insulted.  The progress of the colored people in this country since they ceased to be slaves is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of civilization.  Just think what the colored people have come from.  No colored person in the Southern States had any property, or could by any possibility hold any, under the regime of slavery.  How is it now?  They are holding large amounts of property in lands, buildings, and chattels.


And how was it as to family relations?  Under slavery in our Southern States no man had any legal right to wife or children; no black mother had any right to her children; every black woman was at the mercy of her master and his sons.  From that state the Southern negro has now come up; and it is a marvel how quickly and how far he has advanced.  My interest is not at all in the effects of this play on the negro race in our country.  The negro race is taking care of itself, and has proved that it is wonderfully capable of so doing.  It is the mental condition of the white race that I am concerned about, because of the false teaching of history, the false teaching concerning American ideals of liberty and justice, and the perversion of those ideals, which this play contains.

[…] It is quite true […] that there has been a growing indifference among the white people, and particularly the young people of our country to all these questions about liberty and justice in the conduct of public affairs.  This play, shown all about the country, will draw the attention of multitudes of people to those questions of public liberty and justice.  If the presentation of this play is everywhere accompanied with a new exposition of what the American people stand for in this world, I am not sure that we shall not so win a good result, a beneficial result, a result well worth securing.  Therefore I feel it desirable that whatever restrictive law is now adopted in Massachusetts shall be a general law of universal application for the prevention of improper, unsuitable, unpatriotic, unwise plays and moving pictures and that it should not be based on the particular incident in Boston which we are now considering. […]

Let us be careful, therefore, that we get a law from the present legislature which will do good by the year and by the decade here in Massachusetts.  Let us not ask for it on account of this particular play, but because we want a just and proper control of all plays, moving pictures, and dramatic representations that are to be set before the American public; and let us all remember what the American ideals are for the guidance of this nation, […] They are just the ideals for which the freer nations in Europe are now contending,–liberty for all men, justice for all men without distinction of race, and then universal human brotherhood.

— Dr. Charles W. Eliot

Another reason offered as to why the film shouldn’t be censored.  It presents an opportunity for the American people to see it and declare, “We are not insulted by this film which aims to divide.  We are strong enough together to know that something as petty as this won’t succeed.  We know what we stand for, what our values are.  And this film shall not dissuade us from that.”  That is the sort of society I hope America evolves to, someday.  Until then, censoring films like this that attempt to divide us won’t exactly erase the prejudice.  Plus censoring this wouldn’t allow for something else to happen.

In fact, in response to this film, the NAACP would organize other film-makers to make educational films showing how the black man isn’t as violent or deranged as depicted in The Birth of a Nation.  Films such as The Homesteaders (1919), or Within Our Gates (1920).

The Homesteader (1919)
An “All-Star Negro Cast”?  Black Panther can suck it!


Now, you see, if The Birth of a Nation didn’t exist, and if it did succumb to censorship everywhere, not only would that be a piece of film history unfairly thrown to the wayside (even if it did cause a Klan uprising), but it would also not allow “race films” like these to be made.  It wouldn’t allow such controversies and discussions and responses to be cemented in history, so that future generations can learn from them.  It serves as just one more way for society to evolve to that state I hope we can one day achieve.

Now, the whole serious history of the United States for the past fifty years has been the history of men and women, North and South, Negro and white, grappling with this great question,–how we are to live together in peace in this country?  I say North and South, for the best men to-day are grappling with that question, they are trying to get away from the bitter memories of the Civil War, get away from the memory of slavery, get away from many ugly things that happened on both sides during the era of reconstruction.  That is our effort; that is what we are trying to do; North and South, we are trying to do it.

What prevents us from doing it?  We know that it is difficult; we know that it is hard; we know how far we have to go.  Now what is the most wicked thing that a man could do under those circumstances?  Simply to revive all that is ugly and all that is hateful in that period which we are trying to put behind us?  Good men of both races to-day seek to forget things that are behind, and press forward to the things that are before, “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.”  That is what they are trying to do.  When we are trying to do that, trying with all our might, when educated men of both races recognize the great danger of ignorance of both races and of ignorant passions, then if someone should come to us and try to throw us back into that place from which we emerged, what should we say of him?  I know of nothing better than the old Scripture words to describe the situation of trying to revive those memories and those passions “as a mad man who scattereth firebrands, arrows and death.  So is every man that deceiveth his neighbor and says, ‘Am I not in sport?'”  Now, it is not sport.  It is a propaganda against which we come here to protest.  We are seeking the way, the Christian way, the civilized way of emerging from conditions in the past that we all recognize.

[…] I believe that it might be possible for a true artist, in the spirit of art, to tell the story of our American history, the good and the bad, in a way to show the condition from which we have emerged.  But the man who would do that, and speak of the Negro race, must be a man who is able to stand on Boston Common before the Shaw Monument and look at those faces.  There was a need of that monument to picture to posterity and to the people of this day the great meaning of that race emerging out of slavery and passing towards freedom and towards citizenship; and unless that is done we are misreading, misconceiving human history; and when purporting to write history one dares to throw upon the screen quotations from the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, –when he does that when he purports to be teaching history, then every one who believes that history of the nation is sacred must protest against it, and unless there is some way by which that protest can be made it is accepted as the voice and feeling of the present time.

A few years ago I read a book published by a certain society called “The Crimes of the Clergy,” and they took every crime that had been committed by a clergyman in historic times, and put it in that book, and I suppose there were enough crimes to go around.  But if that book were dramatized, and a whole army of clergymen were represented committing those crimes, I should protest, and so should every decent man.  Each race, each sect, each party has in its past history done things which, taken out of their settings, could produce only prejudice against them.  The great end of all true history is to show the causes and the reasons of things.  The great purpose of all history in such a country as this is to show how we, made up of all races and conditions, can live together in peace and good-will; and I know of no way by which to preserve that state, to make possible the great nation which we here conceive to be possible, save that when any one party sect or race is insulted, men of other parties and other sects and other races shall say, “You have struck me.”

— Rev. Samuel M. Crothers

Shaw Monument, depicting the 54th black regiment lead by the white commander that charged Fort Wagner July 18, 1863.

After the film’s release and various riots and protests against it, black filmmakers produced films intended to counter the message portrayed in The Birth of a Nation.  These films portrayed blacks in a more positive and realistic fashion.  This didn’t prevent clan membership to rise to over 4 million people by 1920.  Nor did it prevent race riots from breaking out throughout the country, peaking in the North in 1919.  But the film did end up banned in 8 states.

The calls for censorship against various films by various religious organizations, which in turn influenced the populace in many cities, eventually grew to such a point to where the issue could no longer be ignored at a federal level.  The question now, is what would the government say about censorship at a national level?

There is nothing the matter with the picture business that good pictures will not cure.

— Nicholas Schenck



“A Brief History of Film Censorship”  National Coalition Against Censorship

Lehr, Dick (Oct. 6, 2016).  “When ‘Birth of a Nation’ sparked a riot in Boston”  Boston Globe

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Boston Branch. Fighting a vicious film: protest against “the birth of a nation”, 1915. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

“D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation”  PBS.org

“Period Responses to The Birth of a Nation”  Blackbird Archive.  Spring 2015, Vol. 14, No. 1.

Merrit, Greg.  2013.  Room {1219} The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, The Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, And The Scandal That Changed Hollywood.  Chicago Press Review Incorporated.  Chicago, Illinois.


Part 0, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5, Part 6

4 thoughts on “The War on Film Culture: Part 4: What Shall the History Books Read? (1915)

  1. Hi, I’m a student doing a term paper on Birth of a Nation and I was wondering where you got the quote from the Resolutions Executive Committee Boston Branch of the NAACP (1915). This quote would be immensely helpful for my paper, but I need to be able to cite it. Thank you.


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