The 1915 silent-film The Birth of a Nation is one of the most popular and controversial films ever made. It’s success catapulted director D.W. Griffith into stardom while cementing the film, a piece of racist propaganda, into the annals of film history. It’s an amazing film with a horrifying message, which claimed that America’s rebirth after the Civil War was possible only through the power of white supremacy. The Birth of a Nation is still studied in film schools because of Griffith’s early use of dramatic camera and editing techniques. In 1992 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Archives because it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” But why was such a blatantly racist film so popular and why is it still relevant today? That’s what we hope to shed light on in this episode. Let’s dive in….

Transcript for The Birth of a Nation: Everyday Racism in 20th century America

Written and Researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Produced by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Elizabeth: The 1915 silent-film The Birth of a Nation is one of the most popular and controversial films ever made. It’s success catapulted director D.W. Griffith into stardom while cementing the film, a piece of racist propaganda, into the annals of film history. It’s an amazing film with a horrifying message, which claimed that America’s rebirth after the Civil War was possible only through the power of white supremacy. 

Averill: The film follows two families, the pro-Union Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Camerons through two parts. Part I takes the viewer through the antebellum period and the Civil War, ending with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Part II picks up during Reconstruction and paints the post-war landscape as a world turned upside-down with newly freed Black people running amok and the only way to set things right is through vigilante violence from the KKK. The film’s premise is that Black freedom and voting rights during Reconstruction after the Civil War was a horrible mistake that created tragic consequences for white southerners particularly, and the U.S. as a whole.

Elizabeth: However, this interpretation was viewed as fact by many white people in 1915 and we’ll dive into why that is in this episode. Regardless, many modern viewers might be surprised as to how blatantly racist the film Birth of a Nation is. Literally, the KKK are the good guys in the movie. There are no dog whistles or subtle innuendos that could provide cover. Nope, it’s there literally in black and white. Putting racial stereotypes into moving image, the movie weaves the tale that white southern men created the KKK to protect white women from the ravages of Black men. 

Averill: The Birth of a Nation is still studied in film schools because of Griffith’s early use of dramatic camera and editing techniques. In 1992 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Archives because it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” But why was such a blatantly racist film so popular and why is it still relevant today? That’s what we hope to shed light on in this episode. Let’s dive in….

Theatrical release poster for The Birth of a Nation, distributed by Epoch Film Co.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Averill

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig

Averill: Hey you! Yes, you! Thank you for listening to this podcast. And to our amazing Patreon supporters — especially our auger and excavator level patrons, Lauren, Edward, Denise, Maddie, Maggie, Danielle, Lisa, Agnes, Iris, Maria, Colin, Susan, Peggy, and Jessica — thank YOU for choosing us to patronize. We are nothing without you. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of the show, it’s easy! Check us out at patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Elizabeth: The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 film directed by D. W. Griffith. It is an adaptation of Thomas Dixon, Jr’s 1905 book The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic light. The Clansman is the second book in Dixon’s Reconstruction trilogy that includes the 1902 book The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burdon and the 1907 final book, The Traitor: A Story of the Rise and Fall of the Invisible Empire. 

Averill: Thomas Dixon Jr. was kind of a jack-of-all-trades from North Carolina. He was a Baptist minister, a lawyer, a one-term North Carolina legislator, an author, and essentially a professional racist. He was a firm adherent of white supremacy and believed that after slavery was abolished, Black people in the United States had degenerated as a race. His goal in writing novels was to spread the “southern” or Lost Cause/white supremacist view of Reconstruction across the nation. The Lost Cause is shorthand for a sort of shared mythology that refashions the Civil War as an honorable and heroic struggle of a knightly, Christian South against an immoral invader (the North). This mythology was actively created by writers, who wrote nostalgic essays and books about beauty and honor of the Old South, by women’s groups, who helped to direct public events and celebrations of Confederate martyrs, and, of course, by the creation of monuments to Confederate heroes. They also had to create the idea that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and instead was about state’s rights and protecting the homeland from invaders, especially protecting their vulnerable women. This mythology also casts Reconstruction as a time when northern carpetbaggers decimated the south and white southerners’ civil rights were trampled on by the Black people they formerly enslaved. Dixon was a master at perpetuating this mythology and wanted his first book, 1902’s The Leopard’s Spots, and subsequent books to be a kind of answer to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He wanted to show the southern point of view and, as he put it,  “set the record straight” regarding Reconstruction.[1]

Elizabeth: The title of Dixon’s first book sums up his views on race and white supremacy. The title, The Leopard’s Spots, refers to the biblical question from the Book of Jeremiah: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” Dixon is implying that just like the leopard cannot change its spots, so too Black Americans could not change what Dixon saw as their flawed nature. In The Leopard’s Spots, Klansmen are seen as heroes who bring order to the Reconstruction South. The book sold fairly well and Dixon followed it up with The Clansman, published in 1905, which also depicts the KKK as the saviors of the Reconstruction South. Both novels depict Black people as being unable to suppress animalistic impulses and being consumed with their sexual desire for white women.

Averill: Shortly after The Clansman was published, Dixon adapted the novel into a stage play that was performed across the U.S. and was extremely popular in the South. There were protests against The Clansman play and it was banned in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Alabama and Macon, Georgia for a time. Regardless, it was extremely popular and drew huge audiences. Upon the play’s success, Dixon began shopping it for the new medium of film.

Elizabeth: Entrepreneurs were creating all sorts of new ways to view moving pictures. At this time nickelodeons were springing up all over the United States. These, for the most part, were converted storefronts where, for a nickel, patrons could sit on wooden benches and watch short silent films that were run on a continuous loop throughout the day. Normally a person played a piano for musical accompaniment. Most nickelodeons could hold about 200 people but as films’ popularity expanded, some theaters opened that could accommodate up to 1000 people. It’s estimated that by 1908 there were about 8,000 nickelodeons in the U.S. and that by 1910 about 26 million Americans visited these theaters weekly. Nickelodeons created a moral panic as do-gooders worried the movie houses would corrupt America’s youth as they watched titillating images on screen inside darkened un-sex-segregated theaters. However, as viewing films became more popular and more respectable, nickelodeons gave way to the lavish “movie palaces” popular in the 1920s.

Averill: In 1911, 1 ½ reels of film were shot of The Clansman in Kinemacolor, a new process that added a two-color process to black and white film. Kinemacolor was most popular in the UK but never took off in the U.S. because of the high cost of the equipment that theaters would need to install in order to show Kinemacolor movies. The adaptation of The Clansman in Kinemacolor was abandoned when director D.W. Griffith purchased Kinemacolor’s Hollywood studio and took over the rights to The Clansman.

Elizabeth: Director D. W. Griffith, like Dixon, had grown up in the shadow of the Civil War and the Lost Cause. Griffith was born 1875, on a farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, to Confederate Army colonel Jacob Wark “Roaring Jake” Griffith, who was later elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Although Roaring Jake died when Griffith was ten years old, plunging his family into poverty, the elder Griffith’s larger-than-life figure shaped Griffith’s worldview from an early age. Griffith said that as a young boy he would sneak into the family room at night and listen to his father talk about his Civil War exploits in defense of the Confederacy. 

Averill: At the age of 14, Griffith’s mother Mary Perkins, moved the struggling family from their farm to Louisville, Kentucky. Soon thereafter Griffith became a traveling actor, which took him across the United States. He was never very good and got lackluster reviews but he landed enough roles to keep working. In fact, he starred in a play produced by Thomas Dixon in 1906 entitled The One Woman. Griffith also began writing plays but without much success. In 1907 he began working as an extra in silent short films, and in 1908 he began directing silent films for the Biograph Company, turning out 48 short films in just his first year alone. Griffith began experimenting with film as a new medium. In 1909 he directed an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, developing the technique of cross-cutting, or showing two stories alongside one another. Soon he began butting heads with the Biograph Company because Griffith wanted to direct longer, more produced films while the company just wanted him to keep churning out short films fit for nickelodeons.

Elizabeth: Griffith left Biograph and co-produced The Life of General Villa, a semi-biographical film shot with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. This film launched Pancho Villa into international notoriety. Later, Griffith created his own production studio with producer Harry Aitken and began work on the adaptation of Dixon’s The Clansman. Griffith explained that Dixon’s romantic mythology about the Klan “hit me big…” and that he “hoped at once that it could be done, for the story of the South had been absorbed into my very being.” Griffith shared that “I could just see these Klansmen in a movie with their white robes flying.”[2]

Averill: According to actress Lillian Gish who played The Birth of a Nation’s female lead as Elsie Stonemen, at the beginning of filming Griffith told his actors that he wanted the film “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.”[3] Obviously, ‘truth’ for Griffith and Dixon was a mythologized “southern truth” that did not reflect the actual reality of the war or Reconstruction. 

Elizabeth: Griffith spared no expense on filming The Birth of a Nation. The movie was originally budgeted at $40,000 but ended up costing $110,000. That’s about $2.7 million in today’s money and at the time it was the most expensive film ever made.

Averill: The reenactment of the Union army’s assault on Petersburg, Virginia, in 1865, which led to the South’s surrender, was the largest war scene ever filmed. The scene took three days to film. Not only was it a giant undertaking physically but Griffith and his cinematographer Billy Bitzer used new film techniques that made their several hundred extras appear on-screen as two armies numbering in the thousands. They used smoke bombs to simulate cannon fire and in some of the more dramatic shots, Griffith and Blitzer filmed actors dressed as Klansmen riding horses while they zoomed beside them in a car. Apparently, Griffith was an exacting director as the scene where John Wilkes Booth jumped to the stage of Ford’s Theatre after shooting President Lincoln was filmed more than fifteen times until he was happy. Griffith shot 36 hours worth of film, equaling twenty-six miles, which had to be edited down into a three-hour movie.

Elizabeth: Griffith hired composer Joseph Carl Breil who was famous for composing music for stage plays. Briel and Griffith worked closely to combine classical music such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which became “The Ride of the Klansmen,” into the original score. In fact, at the movie’s L.A. premier, the Los Angeles philharmonic orchestra played the score live in the theater while movie goers went wild over what they saw and heard.

Averill: The first half of the film takes place just before and during the Civil War and the second half of the film takes place during Reconstruction. The film follows two families, the Northern abolitionist Stonemans consisting of U.S. Representative Austin Stoneman, who is based on Thaddeus Stevens, and his daughter Elsie, and sons Phil and Tod, and the Southern Camerons, including the patriarch Dr. Cameron, his wife Mrs. Cameron, and their three sons Ben, Wade, and Duke and their daughter Margaret. Part I of the film begins in South Carolina, on the Cameron family plantation where the eldest Stoneman son Phil falls in love with Margaret Cameron. The antebellum South is depicted as a courtly, lovely place where enslaved people working on the Stoneman plantation enjoy their work and love their white masters. When the Civil War breaks out, the sons of both families enlist in their respective armies. The youngest Stoneman boy, Tod, is killed in battle. So are two of the Camerons’ sons.

Elizabeth: Back in South Carolina, the defenseless Cameron women are attacked by a Black Union regiment and are dramatically saved by Confederate soldiers. Meanwhile, Confederate Ben Cameron leads a dramatic charge at the Siege of Petersburg, which earns him the nickname of “the Little Colonel,” but also finds him wounded and captured. He is taken to a Union military hospital in Washington D.C. and told he will be hung as a traitor. While there, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman who is working as a nurse at the hospital and they begin a relationship. Part I ends with President Abraham Lincoln’s dramatic assassination at Ford’s theater.

Movie still from The Birth of a Nation (1915), Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth and Joseph Henabery as Abraham Lincoln

Averill: In Part II of Griffith’s retelling, men like Austin Stoneman and the Radical Republicans are determined to enforce harsh measures through Reconstruction policy in order to punish the South. Stoneman and his mixed-race protege Silas Lynch go to South Carolina to implement Reconstruction policies. During the election in South Carolina, Griffith portrays Black people stuffing ballot boxes while white people are turned away from the polls. It is in this election that the mixed-race Lynch is elected lieutenant governor. The next scene shows the newly elected South Carolina legislature as almost entirely African American, who are all acting in stereotyped fashion. One guy has his feet up on his desk, another is drinking hooch straight out of the bottle and eating fried chicken.

Elizabeth: It should be noted that this scene is one of the few scenes where African Americans are actually playing the characters on screen. Many of the African Americans in the film were portrayed by white actors in blackface. Griffith initially claimed this was deliberate, stating “on careful weighing of every detail concerned, the decision was to have no black blood among the principals; it was only in the legislative scene that Negroes were used, and then only as ‘extra people.'”[4] There are a few other scenes where Black actors are filmed, particularly in the antebellum slave fields pictured early in the movie, but all leading Black characters are white people in blackface.

Gus, portrayed in blackface by white actor Walter Long

Averill: While all this is going on, Ben “the Little General” is frustrated that Black people are no longer acting subservient to whites. He gets inspired when he sees two white children pretending to be ghosts in order to scare some black children and he dreams up the Ku Klux Klan. Later, the youngest Cameron sister Flora is ambushed by Gus, a former slave and Union soldier. He is played by white actor Walter Long in blackface. Gus’s character is seen leering at Flora, playing into the stereotypical hyper sexed Black man intent on sleeping with white women. Gus tells Flora he wants to marry her and chases her through the woods. In one of the more famous scenes from the movie, Flora jumps off a cliff instead of succumbing to the rape that the movie implies will happen. In retaliation, Ben and his newly formed KKK hunt down Gus, castrate, and lynch him.

Elizabeth: In response, the lieutenant governor Silas Lynch attempts to suppress the Klan. He also helps pass a law that would allow mixed-race marriages (which wasn’t a law that was actually passed and instead shows how convinced white people were that Black men wanted to have sex with white women). In Lynch’s crackdown, Ben’s father, the senior Dr. Cameron is arrested when he is found with Ben’s KKK regalia. He is rescued by Phil Stoneman and his loyal black servants who then whisk him away to a cabin in the woods where they come across a group of white former Union soldiers. Instead of turning them in however, the ex-soldiers join sides with them, the intertitle card reading: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.”

Averill: Elsie Stoneman then goes to Silas Lynch to plead for clemency for Dr. Cameron but Lynch, who you’ll remember is mixed-race, tries to force Elsie to marry him, which was code for he wanted to rape her. So again another stereotypical attempted rape of a white woman by a Black man. Elsie is essentially kidnapped by Lynch and then saved by Ben and his KKK buddies. After rescuing Elsie the Klansmen race out to the hut where Dr. Cameron and the ex-Union soldiers are fighting Lynch’s militia and win the battle. Then the Klansmen parade through the town and all of the Black townspeople are shown running away in fear. The next scene is a fast forward in time, showing the next election day where Black people are blocked from voting by a line of mounted and armed Klansmen.

Elizabeth: The film ends with the marriages of Margaret Cameron to Phil Stoneman and Elsie Stoneman to Ben Cameron, two families reconciled through white supremacy, just like the nation. Reconciliation was a pretty common sentiment among most white Americans in the early twentieth century- this idea that the rift in the nation must be reconciled at the expense of Black peoples’ full freedom. Historian David Blight sums this up perfectly stating, “the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture… the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”[5] In other words, most of white America wanted to forget about the promises of emancipation and the 14th and 15th Amendments and instead just “heal” the rift between white Northerners and Southerners as much as possible. Men like Griffith and Dixon “gave their well-plied audiences the message not only that blacks did not want their freedom, but also that emancipation had been America’s greatest and most dangerous disaster.”[6]

Averill: The mid 1910s were filled with fiftieth anniversaries of the Civil War. In 1913 there had been a huge celebration at Gettysburg to commemorate that battle’s 50th anniversary. Fifty-thousand Civil War veterans went to Pennsylvania to celebrate as well as President Woodrow Wilson and 150 reporters from the press. These types of Blue-Grey reunions buoyed the idea that, according to Blight, “The war was remembered primarily as a tragedy that forged greater unity, as a soldier’s call to sacrifice in order to save a troubled, but essentially good, Union, not as the crisis of a nation in 1913 still deeply divided over slavery, race, competing definitions of labor, liberty, political economy, and the future of the West.”[7]

Elizabeth: America was in a kind of remembrance fever over the war during the period. In fact, The Birth of a Nation was not the only film about the Civil War. Griffith himself had shot 12 films about the Civil War while working for Biograph Pictures, all with a romantic view of the war and southern values, and he was not alone. Many films of the era portrayed Black characters as happy and content under slavery and taught that slavery was not at all the cause of the war but that slavery’s destruction was responsible for the degeneracy of the Black race. Many movies depicted Black servants, particularly Mammies, as loyal to their white masters. In the 1914 short film, The Old Oak’s Secret, a Black character named Old Mose goes so far as to hide his master’s will because he did not want to see it’s manumission clause come to fruition.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Thus, movie-goers were accustomed to seeing this type of imagery on the screen. Therefore, 1915 was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War and a fitting year for a racist movie.

Elizabeth: The first public showing of The Birth of a Nation was in Los Angeles on January 1st and 2nd, 1915. It was shown using its original title, The Clansman. Buzz surrounding the movie was so big that the second night sold out and the theater had to turn moviegoers away.

Averill: Dixon and Griffith were masters at generating press for the movie. In fact, Dixon had already proven he was adept at shameless self-promotion. To promote his book The Clansman, Dixon had challenged the Black leader Booker T. Washington to debate “The Future of the Negro in America.” Obviously Washington declined, knowing Dixon was an avowed racist and had no intention to debate ethically or with facts. Nevertheless, the stunt garnered headlines, encouraging Dixon to keep up the antic, going so far as to pledge $10,000 to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute if Washington would publicly assert that his doctrine of Black self improvement was not intended to achieve “Social Equality for the Negro” and that his Tuskegee Institute was “opposed to the Amalgamation of the races.”[8] Dixon’s scheme to promote his book was lightyears ahead of contemporary marketing tactics used to drum up excitement for media.

Elizabeth: Griffith was no stranger to self promotion either. When Griffith left Biograph and began his own production company he took out a full page ad in the New York Dramatic Mirror, an entertainment newspaper popular at the time. The ad stated that Griffith was solely responsible for “revolutionizing motion picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.” It also said that Griffith had invented a plethora of film techniques from the close-up to the fade-out shot. This wasn’t really true, many directors at the time were pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, but Griffith early on in his directing career understood how advertising and embellishment worked to his advantage.[9]

Averill: One of the biggest boons for the movie Birth of a Nation was its showing in the Wilson White House. Thomas Dixon and Woodrow Wilson had been graduate students together at Johns Hopkins University. Dixon met with Wilson in early February, 1915 and told him that “…I had a Motion Picture he should see, not because it was the greatest ever produced or because his classmate had written the story and a Southern director had made the Film, but because this picture made clear for the first time that a new, universal language had been invented.”[10] Wilson agreed to see the film if Dixon promised to keep the event quiet and not use the event for press in any way. The Birth of a Nation was shown in the White House on February 18, 1915. It’s often touted as the first film ever shown in the White House, which is technically true because it was shown inside the East Room but the first film ever shown on the White House grounds was actually the 1914 film Cabiria, which was shown on the White House lawn.

Elizabeth: President Wilson and members of his family and cabinet were present for the viewing of the film The Clansman, in the East Room. (The film’s title was changed to The Birth of a Nation before the March 2 New York opening.) Dixon and Griffith were also in attendance at the White House viewing. After the screening, President Wilson reportedly said of the film, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Historians are in disagreement as to if Wilson actually said this about the film. Historian Mark E. Benbow maintains that the first part can probably be attributed to Wilson but the “terribly true” bit is most likely a fabrication, but whatever Wilson said after the screening, he essentially “gave the filmmakers all the endorsement they needed by agreeing to view the film in the White House. In Griffith’s words, by viewing the film in the White House, Wilson ‘conferred’ an ‘honor’ upon The Birth of a Nation.” And in fact, the screening was in itself a tacit endorsement sufficient to protect the film from censors and to allow it to be shown around the country.”[11]

Averill: Regardless of what Wilson said, he was very much okay with the depiction of Reconstruction as a time when, in his own words, “whites were under the heal of the black South….” In fact, Griffith had even used Wilson’s own academic works, Wilson was a professional historian and former president of Princeton University, as source material for some title cards in the film.

Elizabeth: In Part II of the film, which takes place during Reconstruction, three title cards use excerpts from Wilson’s five-volume History of the American People. The first title card “explains” how Northern “carpetbaggers,” a derogatory term for northerners who went South to profit from Reconstruction, swept into the South after the Civil War. The card reads:

Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes. . . . In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.

Averill: A second title card that quotes Wilson reads:

The policy of the congressional leaders wrought…a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South…in their determination to “put the white South under the heel of the black South.”

Elizabeth: And a third title card reads:

The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation…until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.

Averill: As noted by historians such as Arthur Link and Melvyn Stokes, Griffith took parts of sentences from different pages for the third title card, to make it appear that Wilson believed the formation of the Klan was the only just response by southern whites to Reconstruction. Regardless, Wilson’s romantic view of the antebellum south and his belief that Reconstruction was a failure because Black people gained legislative power through chicanery and bribes, and corrupted southern governments until white people were able to gain control again, was part and parcel of the Lost Cause mythology. Here’s a long quote from Wilson himself, writing about Reconstruction:

Elizabeth: The first practical result of reconstruction under the acts of 1867 was the disfranchisement, for several weary years, of the better whites, and the consequent giving over of the southern governments into the hands of the negroes. And yet not into their hands, after all. They were but children still; and unscrupulous men, “carpetbaggers,” — men not come to be citizens, but come upon an expedition of profit, come to make the name of Republican forever hateful in the South, — came out of the North to use the negroes as tools for their own selfish ends; and succeeded, to the utmost fulfillment of their dreams. Negro majorities for a little while filled the southern legislatures; but they won no power or profit for themselves, beyond a pittance here and there for a bribe. Their leaders, strangers and adventurers, got the lucrative offices, the handling of the state moneys raised by loan, and of the taxes spent no one knew how. Here and there an able and upright man cleansed administration, checked corruption, served them as a real friend and an honest leader; but not for long. The negroes were exalted; the states were misgoverned and looted in their name; and a few men, not of their number, not really of their interest, went away with the gains. They were left to carry the discredit and reap the consequences of ruin, when at last the whites who were real citizens got control again.[12]

Averill: The Birth of a Nation accurately captured Wilson’s view of Reconstruction as a chaotic period when white Southerners were denied their civil rights. Men like Dixon, Griffith, and Wilson emphatically believed that radical Republicans had ‘put the white South under the heel of the black South.’[13]

Elizabeth: Wilson, like Dixon, grew up during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He was born in 1856 in Virginia to a pro-slavery Presbyterian minister who preached the benefits of slavery from the pulpit. Wilson went on to become a historian and was president of Princeton University from 1902 – 1910. After being elected to the presidency in 1912, Wilson appointed numerous southern cabinet members who segregated federal workplaces for the first time.

Averill: A day after the White House screening, Griffith and Dixon convinced the National Press Club to hold a private screening of the film at the Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Supreme Court Chief Justice White was the guest of honor. The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels was in attendance as well as the other Supreme Court Justices and many members of Congress. Although the press corps was not supposed to write about the film, which hadn’t been released publicly in the East yet, they could write about the Washington D.C. screening event. This coverage created more buzz for the movie and gave the movie tacit endorsement by the U.S. government. Also unsurprisingly, the screening at the White House was leaked to the press, giving the movie more support from the highest levels of government.

Elizabeth: The press coverage because a point of embarrassment in the Wilson White House, prompting Wilson to issue a statement reading:

It is true that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was produced before  the President and his family at the White House, but the  President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it. Its exhibition at the White House was a courtesy extended to an old acquaintance.

Averill: In hindsight this statement seems a bit disingenuous as Wilson knew Dixon. So it’s to be believed that Wilson did not know about Dixon’s bestselling novels The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, which had also been a very successful state play? Mmmmkay.

Elizabeth: However, The Birth of a Nation was quickly becoming one of the most controversial films ever. Throughout the United States, censorship boards and local political leaders had the power to ban a film from screening if they felt the movie was somehow injurious to the public. The NAACP attempted to block the film from playing in cities across the U.S. In New York City, the NAACP was able to secure 12 seats for a screening by the National Board of Censorship before the film was to be released in New York City. However, on the day of the event, NAACP leadership learned that their twelve seats had been reduced to two, and those two seats had to be filled by white people.

Averill: From there the NAACP petitioned the New York City mayor John Purroy to block the film’s release in the city. In response Dixon and Griffith met with the mayor and his staff and promised to edit two scenes that were causing the most uproar, both scenes that implied Black male lust directed towards white women. With this promise, the movie was shown and it became apparent only after the fact that the scenes in question were not edited for content, only minor cosmetic changes had been made.

Elizabeth: Large protests against the film were held in several cities. Scores of white audiences loved the movie while the NAACP and other civil rights groups organized protests against the movie that depicted Black people as gullible, brutal, and rapists. Jane Addams said, “One of the most unfortunate things about this film is that it appeals to race prejudice upon the basis of conditions of half a century ago, which have nothing to do with the facts we have to consider to-day. Even then it does not tell the whole truth. It is claimed that the play is historical: but history is easy to misuse.”[14] In Boston, Booker T. Washington wrote a newspaper column asking readers to boycott the film. Boston civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter organized mass demonstrations against the film, which resulted in a police riot and numerous arrests of Black people who tried to buy tickets to the movie and were turned away.

William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934)

Averill: Dixon and Griffith bristled at the push-back, while also thoroughly using it to their marketing advantage. Both boasted about the film’s historical accuracy and most moviegoers, even the historian Wilson himself, didn’t find issues with the film’s historical inaccuracies. In one example of many, Part II of the film makes it seem as if all southern legislatures had a Black majority during Reconstruction and subsequently ran amok.[15] Dixon and Griffith act as if the period between 1865 and 1867 didn’t happen, when, in historian John Hope Franklin’s words, “not one black man had the vote, when all Southern whites except the top Confederate leaders were in charge of all Southern state governments, and when white Southerners enacted laws designed to maintain a social and economic order that was barely distinguishable from the antebellum period.” Contrary to how the film depicts the period, after 1867 Black men were a majority in legislatures in only two southern states.

Elizabeth: Griffith’s indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance in 1916, intended as a rebuttal to his critics and which explored the theme of “intolerance.” Griffith felt no need to apologize for The Birth of a Nation over it’s distortion of history and negative racial stereotyping. Instead, he saw his critics as the “intolerant” party- thus the name of his 1916 film. Despite the controversy, the film was immensely popular with white audiences and was a huge box office success.

Averill: So why was it so popular? Yes, it was a cinematic marvel and according to actress Mary Pickford was “the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously.” Yet, it’s so racist. I mean again, the stereotypes of Black people in this movie are quite disgusting and the KKK are literally the heroes of the film. Klan activities were shown as just and in a noble light, when in reality the Klan were a vigilante terrorist organization. So what gives?

Elizabeth: Things were different in 1915. Journalist Dick Lehr states it best by writing, “most white viewers cheered and applauded, some standing in ovation. From their vantage point of white privilege, they were clueless of race complaints. The film, after all, reflected conventional thought that the Negro race was inferior, and to think otherwise required a paradigm shift in the media, the public’s mind, and in much of the history and science of the time.”[16]

Averill: This white, American worldview was showcased in the Blue and Grey reunions happening across the county, in the films and literature Americans consumed, in the histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction that they read by respected historians, like Woodrow Wilson, or the “Tragic Era” view of Reconstruction supported by early 20th-century historians such as William Archibald Dunning and Claude G. Bowers.

Elizabeth: This was the period where Jim Crow segregation codified the separation of African Americans from the white general population and a segregated culture had become common.[17] The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was a powerhouse organization that throughout the early 20th century succeeded in demanding that textbooks in public schools told the story of the Civil War, slavery, and the Confederacy from a Lost Cause/ southern point of view. The UDC was influential in shaping the memory of the Civil War and according to historian Joan Marie Johnson, “The UDC worked to “define southern identity around images from an Old South that portrayed slavery as benign and slaves as happy and a Reconstruction that portrayed blacks as savage and immoral.”[18]

Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy around a Confederate monument in Lakeland, Florida, 1915

Averill: Groups like the UDC erected hundreds of monuments celebrating the Confederacy during the early 20th century. It was spurred on by the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and a desire to justify spreading Jim Crow segregation and the brutal repression of African American’s civil rights during the period. Historian Karen Cox states monuments are “a legacy of the brutally racist Jim Crow era”, and that “the whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy”[19] It’s no coincidence then that a later wave of Confederate monument building coincided with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Elizabeth: The year 1915 was not only the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the year Birth of a Nation was released. 1915 also saw the re-birth of a horrible organization. In November 1915 about a dozen men gathered on a cold night in Stone Mountain, Georgia. They used pine boards soaked in kerosene to make a cross and lit it on fire, igniting the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan. Within a year the new KKK had about 100 followers. By 1921 the KKK was a national organization numbering almost one hundred thousand. In 1926, thousands of Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., it’s leaders not even bothering to cover their faces.

Averill: So when we ask ourselves, why did audiences tolerate The Birth of a Nation? And when we look at the American landscape of race relations, education, and popular culture in the early 20th century, we really shouldn’t be surprised at all. The Birth of a Nation was a story that affirmed white people’s ideas about their own racial superiority and what they believed was the proper racial hierarchy. Even if they didn’t join the Klan themselves, many Americans saw no issue with the sentiments on display in movies like The Birth of a Nation. It was a story of the mythology they already understood as history. Often the 1910s-1920s are referred to as the nadir of race relations. Lynching was grotesquely common. Segregation was further entrenched. Voting rights were annihilated in the south and many places in the north too. Birth of a Nation was just one piece of this larger wave of white supremacy in America.

Thanks for listening.

Commentary (transcription coming soon)

 Notes

[1] John Franklin Hope, “’Birth of a Nation’: Propaganda as History,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1979): 417-434, 419.

[2] Griffith quoted in Dick Lehr, The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2014), 117.

[3] Lilian Gish and Ann Pinchot, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (New York: Prentice Hall: 1969), 131.

[4] Melvin Stokes, D.W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time Stokes (Oxford University Press) 2007, 87.

[5] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010), 2.

[6] Blight, 395.

[7] Blight, 386.

[8] Quoted in Lehr, 71.

[9] Lehr, 115-116.

[10] Quoted in Lehr, 150.

[11] Mark E. Benbow, “Birth of a Quotation: Woodrow Wilson and ‘Like Writing History with Lightning,’” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 9, No. 4, Oct. 2010: 509-533.

[12] Woodrow Wilson, “The Reconstruction of the Southern States,” The Atlantic, January 1901.

[13] Wilson quoted in Benbow.

[14] Addams quoted in Stokes, 432.

[15] Lehr, 154.

[16] Lehr, 272.

[17] Woodward, C. Vann and McFeely, William S., The Strange Career of Jim Crow, (New York: Oxford: 2002), 7

[18] Johnson, Joan Marie,” ‘Drill into us… the Rebel Tradition’: The Contest over Southern Identity in Black and White Women’s Clubs, South Carolina, 1898-1930,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 66, No. 3: 525–562.

[19] Cox, Karen L. (16 August 2017). “Analysis – The whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy”. The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/08/16/the-whole-point-of-confederate-monuments-is-to-celebrate-white-supremacy/

Further Reading:

Benbow, Mark E. “Birth of a Quotation: Woodrow Wilson and ‘Like Writing History with Lightning.’” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 9, No. 4, Oct. 2010: 509-533.

Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010.

Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Cox, Karen L. The whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy – The Washington Post

Gillespie, Michele Gillespie & Randall Hall, ed. Thomas Dixon Jr. And the Birth of Modern America. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009.

Gish, Lilian and Ann Pinchot. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. New York: Prentice Hall, 1969.

Hope, John Franklin. “’Birth of a Nation’: Propaganda as History.” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 20, No. 3. 1979: 417-434.

Johnson, Joan Marie (2000). “‘Drill into us… the Rebel Tradition’: The Contest over Southern Identity in Black and White Women’s Clubs, South Carolina, 1898-1930”. The Journal of Southern History. 66 (3): 525–562.

Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2014.

Slide, Anthony. American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2004.

Stokes, Melvin. D.W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time Stokes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Wilson, Woodrow. “The Reconstruction of the Southern States.” The Atlantic, January 1901.


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