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On This Day...
      ...in 1915 Boston's African-American community protested the showing of the racist film The Birth of a Nation. When 800 black women gathered at a Baptist church, one speaker suggested that "if there are men here who are afraid to die there are women who are not afraid. This [movie] would not be tolerated if it affected any other race or people." In spite of rallies and demonstrations, the film opened on April 17, 1915, at the Tremont Theater. While African Americans protested, thousands of white Bostonians flocked to the film. Quite possibly the most controversial movie ever produced, The Birth of a Nation also has the distinction of being the first film shown in the White House.

When The Birth of a Nation was released in the winter of 1915, it fascinated and repelled audiences. A silent movie that used innovative techniques, such as close-ups, flashbacks, and fades, it appealed to popular myths about the supposed injustice inflicted on the South during Reconstruction. And it portrayed African Americans as either childlike individuals with limited mental abilities or depraved creatures who lusted after young white women.

African Americans and sympathetic white people found the film deeply offensive. All across the country, blacks filed petitions, appealed to legislatures, met with mayors and governors, picketed theaters, and organized protest marches in an effort to ban the film.

The Birth of a Nation was based on the Reverend Thomas Dixon's 1905 book, The Clansmen, which pays tribute to the Ku Klux Klan. D.W. Griffith, director of the film, was also an admirer of the Klan. The members of the Klan "ran to the rescue of the downtrodden South after the Civil War," he wrote in his autobiography. It was a view his film championed. The idea, explained leading actress Lillian Gish, was to "tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn't been told accurately in history books."

The film premiered in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915. In early April, Boston newspapers announced that it would soon be shown in the city. The local NAACP was the first chapter in the nation. Together with William Monroe Trotter, it spearheaded a vigorous campaign to ban the film.

William Monroe Trotter (1872–1934) was an uncompromising advocate of equal rights for black Americans. An 1895 graduate of Harvard, he was the first African American elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1901, he founded The Guardian, a weekly newspaper devoted to race relations, and used it as a forum to attack the growing number of lynchings, the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line, and all forms of racial discrimination.

In 1905, Trotter and Massachusetts native W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded the Niagara Movement, but when that became the NAACP, Trotter withdrew. He objected to the presence of whites in the NAACP leadership and its dependence on white financing. He created an alternative organization — the National Equal Rights League.

To ban The Birth of a Nation, blacks had to go beyond showing that the film slandered African Americans and utterly distorted history. Like their counterparts in other northern cities, the leaders of Boston's NAACP and Trotter argued that the film was a threat to public safety, that it heightened racial tensions, and could incite violence.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley responded by holding a public hearing. D.W. Griffith as well as Trotter and NAACP leaders testified. Curley claimed he could only censor the film if it were "indecent and immoral." After the filmmaker agreed to cut certain sexually suggestive scenes, the film opened.

Trotter and a number of other African Americans attempted to purchase tickets and were refused. When they protested, police appeared and arrested Trotter and ten others. The following day historic Faneuil Hall was the site of a huge demonstration.

The protests intensified. On the 19th, some 2,000 African Americans assembled at the State House to protest the film. A group of black leaders met with Governor David Walsh, who shortly thereafter introduced the Sullivan Bill to tighten censorship. A group of black women held a meeting at a church in Roxbury on the 25th. "We want 'The Birth of a Nation' removed from the city of Boston," they declared, "and we women of Boston propose to see that it goes."

Two days later, 500 African Americans appeared when the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Sullivan Bill. On May 2nd, there was an NAACP meeting at the Tremont Temple and then a rally, organized by Trotter, on Boston Common. The Sullivan Bill passed three weeks later, but when the censorship board met, it ruled that The Birth of a Nation was "not at all objectionable."

The film was shown in Boston 360 times over a period of six-and-a-half months. It enjoyed similar success in other cities and was hugely profitable. By the end of 1915, in New York City alone, gross receipts were $3,750,000. In spite — or perhaps because — of the film's popularity with white audiences, the protests it generated proved to be a watershed in black activism. The film brought national attention to the five-year-old NAACP; when white newspapers covered the protests, which they did, black Americans had a rare opportunity to be heard.

Sources

"African-Americans in Motion Pictures: The Past and the Present"

Boston Confronts Jim Crow, 1890–1920, by Mark R. Schneider (Northeastern University Press, 1997).

"D.W. Griffith and the Birth of a Monster: How the Confederacy Revived the KKK and Created Hollywood," by Mark Calney.

Trotter: A Biography of Black Boston, 1872-1934,by Kerri Greenidge (Beacon press, 2005).


 
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