In 1914, white supremacy was as dominant in America as ever. Ben Tillman, the one-eyed Senator from South Carolina who in his youth led the Paramilitary Redshirts in taking over his state, proclaimed that “this is a white man’s country and the white men must govern it.” Democrats like Tillman, and President Woodrow Wilson, were overtly dedicated to white supremacy; the Republican Party, after decades as the “Party of Lincoln,” backed away from their allegiance to African Americans from a combination of cowardice and political calculation. Given little reason to trust white politicians, Black Americans increasingly took matters into their own hands.
For a time, Booker T. Washington emerged as their principal spokesman. The Chairman of the Tuskegee Institute was capable of eloquently denouncing Jim Crow (“one man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him”) but became better-known for conciliatory comments. In books like Up from Slavery and a ream of speeches, Washington espoused cooperation with the social order: self-advancement within the strictures of racist society. Echoing Plessey vs. Ferguson, he proclaimed Blacks and whites ideally “as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
Washington’s approach was best-received by moderate whites who hated racism in concept but accepted its inevitability. It did not charm the likes of Ben Tillman; after Washington dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt, Pitchfork Ben complained that “we shall have to kill a thousand n****s to get them back in their places.” Nor did it appeal to W.E.B. Du Bois, the cofounder of the NAACP, who said Washington “represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission. But even Du Bois was a moderate compared to the remarkable William Monroe Trotter, who represented Black America in one of his era’s leading cultural battles.
The son of a freed slave who served in the Union Army, Trotter rarely varnished his opinions. He relentlessly attacked Washington’s ascent as a “a calamity.” He acidly informed the educator that “you would help the race more by exposing the new form of slavery just outside the gates of Tuskegee than preaching submission.” He founded The Guardian, a Black newspaper in Boston, stationing it in the same building as William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and stressed Northern racism as harmful as the South’s institutionalized bigotry. In 1903 he gained widespread notoriety for heckling Washington at a speech in Boston. As Trotter challenged Washington to answer his questions, a riot broke out among the crowd, leading to Trotter’s arrest.
Nor did Trotter shy away from electoral politics. He criticized Theodore Roosevelt over his “lily-white” strategy of courting white Southerners to the Republican Party,1 and his dismissal of Black soldiers accused of participating in the Brownsville Incident of 1906. He was no better-disposed towards Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft; Trotter organized protests against Taft’s nomination of segregationist William C. Hook to the Supreme Court, forcing the President to withdraw the nomination. Rather than pledging loyalty to a party, Trotter encouraged Blacks to “vote independently for men and measures calculated to secure to the race their rights.”
In 1912, faced with a three-way race in which Roosevelt and Taft were among the candidates,2 Trotter endorsed Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s public comments on race (not a pressing issue, at that time, in his home state of New Jersey) were reticent, and he proclaimed himself a friend to the Negro. But Wilson, in fact, was a Southerner who had witnessed Sherman’s March to the Sea as a child; as a professor, he’d written several volumes of history denouncing Reconstruction and was fond of telling racist jokes in private company.
Publicly, Wilson earned Trotter’s ire by segregating the Federal government, firing hundreds of civil servants hired by his Republican predecessors. Trotter directly confronted Wilson in November 1914, in a White House audience rivaling Andrew Johnson’s confrontation with Frederick Douglass in its bad-natured vehemence. To the astonishment of Trotter and his entourage, the President dismissed their concerns as self-inflicted griping. “If you take [my policies] as a humiliation,” he warned, “and sow the seed of that impression all over the country, why the consequence will be very serious.”
Controlling his temper, Trotter responded that “we are sorely disappointed that you take the position that the separation itself is not wrong, is not injurious, is not rightly offensive to you.” Wilson pronounced, with all the professorial hauteur he could muster, that “your tone, sir, offends me” and that by speaking out of turn, Trotter had “spoiled the whole cause for which you came.” As Dick Lehr notes, Trotter’s “tough-talking the nation’s chief executive landed Trotter back on the front pages everywhere.” Just in time to take center stage in one of the 1910s great culture wars.
In 1906, novelist Thomas Dixon Jr. published a potboiler titled The Clansman.3 Dixon dramatized post-Civil War Reconstruction as the savage repression of the defeated South by tyrannical Northern Republicans (“carpetbaggers”) and lecherous Blacks, until liberated by the Ku Klux Klan. While Dixon drew on the Dunning School of pro-Southern historiography, he invented much of the KKK’s lore himself. Notably, Dixon borrowed the Klan’s habit of burning crosses to intimidate foes from Scottish clan rituals rather than the original KKK (later iterations of the Klan, however, adopted the practice). The book’s mixture of racial peril and pulpy plotting proved a best-seller; Dixon adapted it into a stage play which ran afoul of the NAACP and censors leery about its message.
In 1911, Dixon’s novel was adapted by William F. Haddock, who shot about half-an-hour of footage before abandoning the project. The Clansman then passed to D.W. Griffith, who’d already made his name as one of Hollywood’s premiere directors of one-reel melodramas. Tantalized by the prospect of making a feature-length epic,4 Griffith, the son of a Confederate Colonel, found Dixon’s book dazzling: “I could just see these Klansmen in a movie with their white robes flying.” After buying the rights in 1914, Griffith shot a three-hour epic, changing the title to The Birth of a Nation.
Much has been written about Birth, both for its technical innovations and its racism. By the standards of its time, Richard Schickel notes, it was “a miraculous production: miraculous in its length, in its combination of spectacle and intimacy, in its complexity of structure, in its cost.” Today it’s difficult to watch, and not only because its florid melodrama and logy pacing (Griffith’s uncut version runs 193 minutes, though versions edited as short as 133 minutes appeared on reissues) haven’t aged well. Like Triumph of the Will, Battleship Potemkin and other problem films, Birth of a Nation left an indelible imprint on cinema while poisoning the society that produced it.
The first half of Birth provides standard War Between the States soap opera, imitated in later novels and miniseries like North and South and The Blue and the Gray. The story charts the interwoven destiny of two families: the Northern Stonemans, led by the ghoulish, club-footed Congressman Austin (Ralph Lewis)5 and the Southern Camerons. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthal) falls for Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish), despite his revulsion for her father’s abolitionist politics. War comes, and Cameron becomes a Confederate war hero, rising to the rank of Colonel in the Battle of Petersburg.
The dramatics are hokey but the massive battle scenes remain impressive and thrilling, setting a standard for big screen action. The movie’s historical vignettes are brief but effective, so far as they go. Abraham Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) receives sympathetic treatment: in keeping with the Dunning school, he’s portrayed as a moderate who clashes with Stoneman’s call for Radical Reconstruction.6 Alas, Lincoln’s plans for peaceful reconciliation are foiled when John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh, who as second unit director filmed many of the battle scenes) assassinates him. Thus unleashed,7 Stoneman unleashes “a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South.”
In the second half, Birth devolves into full-on propaganda, depicting Republican rule as a bacchanalia of corruption and abuse. We see an all-Black legislature (modeled on a Thomas Nast cartoon) whose members place bare feet on desks, eat chicken, squabble with each other and generally act like ill-mannered children. White Republicans stuff ballot boxes and intimidate Southerners intending to vote (nicely inverting reality). Ben, that flower of Southern Manhood, is outraged, even more so when Elsie Stoneman breaks off their relationship. Together with his colleagues he forms the Ku Klux Klan, a hooded order of terrorists who gallantly resist Republican tyranny.
Stoneman reacts by sending troops to the South, triggering Birth‘s most evil vignette. Gus (Walter Long, a white actor in blackface), a Black soldier in the Union Army, falls for Cameron’s sister Flora (Mae Marsh). “I’s captain now,” Gus gleefully proclaims, “and I wants to get married now!” The young, virginal Flora throws a bucket at Gus, who doggedly pursues her into the forest. Flora panics at the sight of Gus literally foaming at the mouth with desire,8 which one writer compares to “the ejaculation of semen.” So horrified at the prospect of miscegenation is Flora that, cornered by Gus, she jumps off a cliff to her death.
It is the most racist scene in the history of Hollywood cinema,9 no mean feat, laying bare all the ugliness underpinning Griffith’s film, Lost Cause mythology and a society premised on white supremacy.10 But it’s only the curtain-raiser on an even more vile sequence: soon afterwards, Ben Cameron leads a mob of Klansmen to lynch Gus, an event which the film depicts with righteous triumph. Soon afterwards, Stoneman sends more soldiers to “crush the white South under the heel of the black South.” Among them is Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), a mulatto whom Stoneman appoints Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina.
Now, Silas reveals his agenda. He lusts after Elsie Stoneman, and proclaims his eagerness to create a “Mongrel Empire” premised on miscegenation, presided over by him and Elsie. 11 Fortunately, Ben and his hooded Klansmen12 ride to Elsie’s rescue (in early screenings, this scene was scored to Ride of the Valkyries), scattering Silas’s militia and defeating the dastard. White supremacy restored, the Camerons and Stoneman intermarry. A triumphant inter-title announces that “the former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”
Griffith knew that he’d created something innovative and unique. But he was also sitting on a bombshell that threatened to exacerbate the era’s racial tensions. It was a particularly fraught time to lionize the Ku Klux Klan. As Griffith wrapped production, the nation was riveted over the trial of Leo Frank, the Jewish man accused of murdering a Christian girl in Atlanta. Frank’s alleged offense (after his death sentenced was commuted, angry Georgians lynched Frank) caused Southerners to call for “another Ku Klux Klan…to restore HOME RULE.” And Griffith, and Dixon, gave them the tools.
The movie premiered in New York in February 1915 to rapturous acclaim (“If there is to be a greater picture…may we live to see it” went a typical rave). The film’s early screenings were splashed with hoopla that stressed its status as a cultural landmark. In one town, Birth‘s opening was presaged by a mounted parade of Klansmen; in other cities, ushers dressed in Civil War uniforms and Southern belle dresses bade audiences to their seats. Griffith’s agents issued hyperbolic claims about the movie’s historical accuracy and bought full-page newspaper ads espousing its technical wizardry.
The NAACP and other liberal groups mobilized in opposition. Jane Adams called it “a pernicious caricature of the Negro race”; Oscar Garrison Villard, the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, bluntly branded Birth “an incitement to crime.” Booker T. Washington called it a “vicious and hurtful play” and reached out to his nemesis, W.E.B Du Bois, to campaign against it. D.W. Griffith, stung, insisted the movie was “based upon truth in every vital detail” and attacked one negative reviewer as “a liar and a coward.” Thomas Dixon contented himself that the attacks seemed only to increase the film’s popularity. “The silly legal opposition they are giving it,” Dixon chortled, “will make me a millionaire!”13
On March 25th, President Wilson held a private screening of the movie in the White House. Although Wilson apparently enjoyed the film – he wrote Griffith a private letter thanking him for the screening soon afterwards – he was silent afterwards, and proved reticent about involving himself publicly in the controversy.14 Wilson issued a statement that the screening was “a courtesy extended to an old acquaintance” and that he regretted the “unfortunate production’s” likely negative impact on race relations. Although the NAACP praised Wilson’s disclaimer, it proved inconsequential. The fact that the movie received a White House screening at all proved a powerful endorsement.
Trotter, who had been lecturing in the South during Birth‘s premiere, returned to Boston and worked to block beliefs. Blasting Griffith’s film as “an incentive to great racial hatred,” called in favors from Mayor James M. Curley. The flamboyant Curley, Trotter’s friend and sometimes ally, agreed to hold a hearing about the film on April 7th – Trotter’s 43rd birthday. The film was set to premiere in Boston on April 9th, the 50th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Before the Mayor and D.W. Griffith, Trotter and his lawyers had to muster all the legal skills and moral indignation possible to block its release.
Trotter bolstered his case with testimony from Jane Addams and others who attested to Birth‘s historical distortions and scabrous racism. Then he appealed to Curley as an ally of Boston’s colored people, who had vocally denounced lynching and worked with Trotter to block efforts at formally segregating Boston neighborhoods, to invoke Boston censorship laws to suppress Birth. Trotter characterized Griffith as “a Southerner seeking to flout Boston and her abolitionists.” Mayor Curley, Trotter said, must “stand up for his home city and her great men, and protect his Colored friends.”
Trotter’s eloquent appeal was followed by John F. Cusick, Griffith’s attorney. He reminded Curley that the movie had premiered “before President Wilson and the members of his cabinet,” and recited the film’s positive reviews and audience acclaim. Far from racist propaganda, Cusick insisted, Birth possessed “especial educational, instructive and of moral value.” Then Cusick portrayed Griffith as the artistic martyr to censorship, his free speech imperiled by Trotter’s own intolerance.
Mayor Curley listened impassively to both presentations before rendering his verdict. Claiming that “my power is limited in this matter,” he told Trotter that “you have introduced no evidence that I could use in stopping at least one performance.” About Birth‘s racial stereotypes, the Mayor asked rhetorically, “Are there not good Negros and bad?” Trotter objected to this bizarre comment; Curley interrupted and declared his ruling as final, with the caveat that Griffith consult with his censor about cutting some inflammatory content. Confronted by Trotter’s party outside the courthouse, Griffith triumphantly told them to “come and see the play.”
Birth‘s premiere came, attracting the same rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences as before. One critic assured readers that “nobody last night left the theater feeling inflamed against the respectable and industrious colored population of Boston.” The reviewer ignored reports to the contrary: scuffles erupted at several Boston theaters between Black protesters and white viewers. Nor did he quote the moviegoer who, asked about his reaction to the movie, volunteered that “I would like to sweep every n***** off the earth.”
Trotter wasn’t through with Birth of a Nation. On April 12th he returned to City Hall, confronting Mayor Curley over Griffith’s failure to comply with his censorship requests. The Mayor, incensed by the director’s rebuke to his authority, now proclaimed Birth “an outrage upon the colored people of the country.” Having given the film his sanction, however, Curley relinquished whatever power he’d held over Griffin. Protests continued, including an April 17th showdown at which Trotter himself was arrested. But it no longer mattered: Birth‘s success, and its director’s reputation as a genius, was assured.
For the rest of his life, D.W. Griffith remained alternately hurt and indignant by accusations of racism. “I am not now and never have been anti-Negro or anti any other race,” he insisted; certainly a Kentuckian raised on stories of Confederate glory might sincerely not have understood Trotter’s objections. Later films like Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919), featuring more positive cross-cultural romances, are often interpreted as atonement for Birth‘s bigotry.15 Richard Schickel argues that Griffith “shared with southerners of his age and background…an unconscious but not especially vicious or passionate racism.” Fair enough; but even commonplace racism perpetrates stereotypes and hatred with potential to harm.
Certainly Birth‘s most baleful legacy isn’t its box office receipts or technical innovations. In November 1915, Atlanta priest William J. Simmons, already inflamed by the Leo Frank case, took the film as an excuse to launch a Second Ku Klux Klan. He noted that “something was going to happen in town the next week” – the Atlanta premiere of Birth of a Nation – which he hoped “would give the new order a tremendous popular boost.” Simmons thus held the first rally at Stone Mountain, burning a cross which initiated a movement that boasted millions of members, dwarfing its predecessor in its power, reach and influence.16
Perhaps the most effective response to Birth came from a Black filmmaker. In 1920, Oscar Micheaux premiered Within Our Gates, a melodrama explicitly connecting the abuses of slavery and Reconstruction with the modern plight of African Americans. The movie’s most memorable sequence is an extended flashback depicting the lynching of the protagonist’s family in graphic detail. While Micheaux lacks the operatic grandeur of Griffith, his scalding treatment of race relations and the “New Negro’s” dilemma dismantles Birth‘s pretensions to accuracy. Heavily censored upon release, Within Our Gates went largely unappreciated in its day; it took later generations to declare it a classic.
Undaunted by failure, William Monroe Trotter used his feud with Griffith to launch an “increasingly transnational New Negro militancy,” writes biographer Kerri Greenidge. He renewed his alliance with the NAACP while also courting radical Black groups like Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement. He lobbied Congress in support of anti-lynching bills and became a leading advocate for the Scottsboro boys, falsely accused of rape in 1931 Alabama. Unfortunately, Trotter grew depressed over his financial troubles and increasing distance from the political mainstream. On April 7, 1934 (his 62nd birthday) Trotter fell to his death from his home, in an apparent suicide.
The NAACP would also protest Gone With the Wind (1939), to little effect as it became the highest-grossing movie ever made, with all its racial stereotypes and Lost Cause iconography intact.17 Their protests were slightly more effective with Tennessee Johnson (1942), a biopic lauding the 17th President’s feud against the Radical Republicans. Filmmaker William Dieterle agreed to soften the movie’s anti-Reconstruction message and rewrite Thaddeus Stevens (played by Lionel Barrymore at his crankiest) as a well-intentioned extremist. “What Lincoln did for the slaves, I will do for the slave masters,” Johnson (Van Heflin) exclaims at one point, in a line rivaling anything in Birth in its tone-deafness.
In one sense, Trotter had the last laugh. Today The Birth of a Nation is rarely viewed except by film students and hardcore racists; its brazen distortion of history renders it unwatchable for anyone to the Left of Richard Spencer. Which isn’t to discount the immense damage that it’s done over the past century. Or how it illuminates the racism that, even today, courses through American politics and popular culture.
Sources and Further Reading
This article draws upon Kerri K. Greenidge, Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter (2019); Dick Lehr, The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights (2014); Richard Schickel, D.W. Griffith: An American Life (1984) and Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987).