The Paradoxical Influence of “The Birth of a Nation” on the Black Community in the early 20th Century

Fighting a Movie with Lightning

Master's Thesis, 2012

88 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Nadir
2.1 Legal Discrimination
2.2 Violent Discrimination
2.3 Cultural Discrimination

3 Political Influence
3.1 Organizing and Uniting
3.1.1 Uniting in Organizations Against a Powerful Force The NAACP Women’s Organizations
3.1.2 Uniting in Mass Meetings
3.2 Militant Actions.
3.2.1 Addressing Censors New York Boston
3.2.2 Addressing Local Authorities New York Boston. Portland

4 Cultural Influence
4.1 First Attempts.
4.2 Within Our Gates
4.2.1 Confronting the Submissive African American The Tom The Mammy The Coon
4.2.2 Dismissing the Bad Negro The Black Brute The Black Buck The Mulatto

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography
6.1 Primary Sources
6.2 Secondary Sources
6.3 Sources Figures

7 Appendix
Figure 1 African Americans in Southern States, 1870-1890
Figure 2 Lynching
Figure 3 Number of White and Colored Persons Lynched in United States,
Figure 4 Lynchings of Last Ten Years 1909-1918
Figure 5 Display Ad – The Birth of a Nation
Figure 6 Advertisement The Birth of a Nation Oregon
Figure 7 1,000 People Turned Away At First Matinee of “The Birth of a
Figure 8 Ad The Birth of a Nation Portland
Figure 9 Race for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1890 (Total
Figure 10 Race for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1900
Figure 11 Race for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1910
Figure 12 Race for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1920
Figure 13 Organizing in the US against The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation
Figure 14 Protest at Boston Common 1915
Figure 15 Mammy Caricature
Figure 16 Mammy in The Birth of a Nation
Figure 17 Depiction of a Pickaninny


The history of the suppression of blacks on the North American continent dates back to their arrival in large numbers in the early 1600s, when the first African slaves crossed the middle passage from Africa to North America and the Caribbean, one of the many sea routes that constituted the transatlantic slave trade. It wasn’t until two and a half centuries later, in 1865, that this practice of oppression was finally outlawed with the passage of the thirteenth amendment of the US constitution.1 Three years later, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States”2, including former and now-freed slaves. However, these laws could not bring physical or verbal discrimination against African Americans to a halt.

One of the reasons for this continuation of hatred against blacks lay in the widespread conviction that whites were superior to colored people. Proponents of this belief, like Madison Grant who wrote the racist book The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, justified their insistence on white superiority and racial separation by claiming that blacks would become a danger to whites and themselves if they were treated on equal terms.3 As a result of this widely shared attitude, blacks were considered to have an inferior status and were treated accordingly. A large number of people of African descent throughout the United States, however, were not willing to accept this imposed position in society and longed for equal rights. It was especially during the early 20thcentury that African Americans would manage to get one small step closer to achieving these rights.

During this time the conscience of the black population changed. They were not willing to accept their second-class status any longer, and wanted to gain equality. This new attitude that they espoused during the early 1900s allowed many African Americans to fight against the discrimination they had to face on a large scale. The catalyst for the resulting actions by blacks will be analyzed in the second part of this paper. With their newfound awareness, which was marked by a sense of self-worth and racial pride, many black activists,

like W. E. B. Du Bois, started to fight “the problem of the color-line” 4, and also sought to find a solution to “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men” 5, which implied the black person’s equal inclusion in society. Soon, Du Bois and other black leaders found supporters for their theories which they wanted to apply to the real world.

Despite their efforts, black activists throughout the early 20thcentury were not able to achieve full equality and fair treatment in society. However, they gained a new way of thinking that resulted in the formation of the ‘New Negro’. This term, in essence, designates a new way of thinking in the black community. Its members were neither satisfied with, nor accepted their inferior position in society and were willing to fight for their rights. Phenomena that paradoxically had a positive impact on the black community as a whole, and especially on the New Negro, were the actions undertaken by African Americans all over the United States in response to D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation .

Silent movies prior to The Birth of a Nation were not considered to be of cultural value. One of the movie’s financiers, Roy Aitken, claimed that “the only enthusiasts for the new form of entertainment were working men and their families who patronized the poorly ventilated nickelodeons or the equally musty second-rate theatres.”6 In addition, Joseph Henabery who played President Abraham Lincoln in the movie, “found it hard to believe that the movies could really be considered entertainment.”7 Reading these comments, the recognition of movies as an art form, or their being considered an educational or entertaining device for all social classes, seemed quite impossible during the early 20 thcentury. The Birth of a Nation, however, managed to break free of this negative reputation.

Newspaper commentaries amply demonstrate this change in attitude regarding silent movies at this time. For example, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, Lindsey Hopkins, stated that she had seen the film eight times and would not have minded seeing it again, since “[i]t is history, filled with exact truth, and is artistic to a degree that no one would have thought possible.”8 These responses to the movie can be seen in newspapers throughout the United States at the time and thus confirm that The Birth of a Nation represented a milestone in film history.

In spite of the many new features it offered to the film world, the movie portrayed the African Americans in such a bad light that the black community felt the film “was not only an insult to the colored race but was an incentive to race hatred and to lawlessness.”9

African Americans did not accept these clichéd depictions of their community and soon began to plan several activities, aimed at suppressing the movie nationwide, which significantly impacted the black community. It is the aim of this paper to prove that these activities undertaken by African Americans and their supporters in the early 20thcentury against The Birth of a Nation influenced and shaped the black community as a whole, but especially the notion of the New Negro, both politically and culturally.

This topic is of importance to the discipline of American studies for a number of reasons. In 1988, John O’Connor claimed that scholars should “appreciate both history in images and images in history”10 ; he asked historians not to dismiss movies as a mere form of entertainment but to consider them as a device worthy of scholarly analysis, since they are capable of revealing new, historical information. This paper agrees with O’Connor’s argument. By examining The Birth of a Nation, and the cultural milieu it was engendered in, we gain an insight into racism during this period, and the cultural and political transformation of African Americans is revealed.

In addition to this insight, this paper allows a shift in focus from the popular art and propaganda debates regarding The Birth of a Nation to look solely at the influence the movie had on the black community. Up until now, many scholars, like John Hope Franklin, correctly claimed that the movie and its artistic possibilities were used with propagandistic intention to encourage sympathy for the southern people, and for the notions of white supremacy and black inferiority.11 Frequently, however, the role of the African American protestors was either left out completely, or was insufficiently addressed.

Evidently, some scholars have summarized the protests. Melvyn Stokes, for example, portrays the activities undertaken by the movie’s opponents in the United States in his D.W.Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation . Others, like Paul Polgar in his article Fighting Lightning with Fire: Black Boston's Battle against "The Birth of a Nation", have focused on protests in one particular place. These scholars, however, have not linked these actions undertaken by the black community to the concept of the New Negro, nor to the extent to which these actions reflect, and influenced, this new attitude among African Americans. By considering these protests from a different angle, valuable insights into the historical and cultural spheres of the United States can be gained.

In order to support this paper’s thesis, the theories of African American thinkers who reflect the New Negro attitude, such as Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, will be discussed. Following this, the extent to which their aims and characteristics were more widely accepted and adopted by the black community, with the help of the activities undertaken against The Birth of a Nation, will be analyzed. In particular, newspaper articles of from time are useful in understanding the influence the movie had on the New Negro.

The paper will be split into three parts. Before addressing the black community’s actions against the movie, the overall situation of African Americans during the early 1900s will be briefly discussed in the first chapter of this paper. Throughout this discussion the legal, violent and cultural forms of racism they were exposed to will become apparent. This information will provide the reader with an idea of the social environment African Americans were faced with, and which influenced the creation of the New Negro. Additionally, in this part of the paper, the movie The Birth of a Nation will be shortly summarized, whilst information about its director D.W.Griffith, Thomas Dixon Jr., the author of the book The Clansman the movie is based on and the movie’s negative portrayal of African Americans, will be provided.

The second chapter will firstly define the term ‘New Negro’, before briefly comparing it to the concept of the ‘Old Negro’. Moreover, the catalyst for the creation of the new consciousness will be discussed. However, the second chapter will mostly concentrate on the film’s political influence on the black community in the USA, as well as on the extent to which this reflects and affected the New Negro’s political behavior. Following this, the increase in the unification and organization of African Americans will be analyzed. Black organizations, such as the National Organizations for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), female organizations, and mass meetings will be discussed. In addition, militant actions undertaken by the black community will be examined. The major focus will be on addressing censors and local authorities.

The final part of this thesis will concentrate on the cultural influence The Birth of a Nation had on the black community, especially on the black film industry. The activity of fighting the film using its own medium, by creating a movie that contradicts Griffith’s stereotypes of the African American, helped to portray the black community in a new light. The first attempts of fighting film with film, with the movies Lincoln’s Dream and The Birth of a Race, will be discussed. In addition, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates will be more closely examined, proving that, through the inspiration provided by The Birth of a Nation,

Micheaux challenged old stereotypes of African Americans and replaced these with the idea of the New Negro.

Primary sources used to complete this work include newspaper articles from around the United States, as well as the African American newspaper The Crisis, works of representatives of the New Negro, like W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, the movie The Birth of a Nation, Dixon’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, sources presenting the history of the African American in the United States, information on the movie provided by the Aitken brothers, and interviews and statistics.

Secondary sources used consist of books and journal entries dealing with The Birth of a Nation as a film, and the individuals involved in its production, such as D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon, various African American organizations, the New Negro and the Ku Klux Klan.

2 The Nadir

“[T]he Veil [between white and colored people].

It drops as drops the night on southern seas – vast, sudden, unanswering.

There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears.” 12

W. E. B. Du Bois

In order to understand the main reasons for the outrage inspired by, and resulting protests against, The Birth of a Nation, it is indispensable not only to focus on the actions directed against the movie itself, but also to examine the social environment African Americans were surrounded by in the United States during the time the movie was presented to a broad audience. In light of the discriminatory situations the black community was exposed to, it is not surprising that they longed for a change they achieved by creating and realizing the idea of the New Negro, an idea that was influenced and shaped by the reactions against Griffith’s movie.

For the most part, the black historian and professor Rayford W. Logan was right in claiming that the period following Reconstruction, up until the early 20th century, reflects a nadir, a figurative low point in the existence of African Americans.13 In the words of the human rights advocate Stetson Kennedy, the black community was degraded to a “second-class citizenship” since the United States represented “a white man’s country”.14 These arguments can be affirmed by taking a closer look at the legal, violent and cultural forms of racial discrimination the black community of the United States had to face during this time.

2.1 Legal Discrimination

In 1863 the president of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which ensured that “all persons held as slaves within any State shall be thenceforward, and forever free [and won’t be] repress[ed].”15 As a result of this historic document, in conjunction with the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the American Constitution that were mentioned in the introduction, all citizens of the United States, including African Americans, were promised equal treatment in all spheres of life. This fact, however, met with strong disapproval from many white citizens.

They created various discriminatory laws to continue the oppression of blacks, thus preventing them from escaping their second-class status.

Laws enacted and various customs made to suppress the black community in the United States, known as Jim Crow laws, originated right after the Reconstruction era in 1877 and lasted until the 1960s.16 Their main goals can be divided into two subcategories that were aimed at maintaining the supremacy of white people in the US. The two categories, disenfranchising African Americans and segregating them in almost all spheres of life, including public places, means of transportation, social institutions and others, legitimized their second-class status in society and will be analyzed in the following.

The first section of the Fifteenth Amendment promises that “[t]he right […] to vote shall not be denied or abridged […] on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”17 This part of the Constitution guarantees that people of all classes and colors, including African Americans, ultimately have the political right to vote. This right, however, was not supported by many white citizens of the US, who instigated several counteractions that resulted in the disfranchisement of many black people, especially those living in the Southern states by, 1910.18

The main reason for disenfranchising blacks was the threat of their power conservative whites believed they would be exposed to. As can be seen in Figure 1 (see appendix), African Americans constituted a majority in several southern states, such as South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana, throughout the 1870s and up until 1890. In many other southern states, blacks accounted for at least 40 per cent of the total population. In light of their soaring numbers in many southern states, by gaining the right to vote, African Americans had for the first time in their lives the power to transform the political landscape of the country they inhabited. Southern democrats felt threatened by this, since they aimed to retain their political power, which supported the idea of maintaining the African American as a second-class citizen. The democrats, however, lost the vote of 1884 when the African American community supported, and voted, for the Republican Party in large numbers.19

The democrats, of course, wanted to regain their power and achieved this aim by preventing African Americans from voting, mainly with the help of constitutional means. These lawful actions included the creation of a poll tax, which many blacks couldn’t afford, and the institution of a literacy test, since many blacks could not read or write as a large number had not received any education during slavery. Moreover, voter registrations and the grandfather clause, which granted veterans and their descendents the right to vote in the case that those veterans had been allowed to do so prior to 1866, were introduced.2021 Since most of the former slaves had not been allowed to vote prior to 1866, nor were their descendents. As a consequence, democrats achieved their aim of depredating the blacks of their voting rights.

Also accepted by law were the discriminations blacks faced in their social environment, for example, in public institutions. This second-class treatment received by African Americans, best-known as ‘separate but equal’, was first mentioned in the US Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896. In this case, it was questioned whether it is unlawful to “require[e] railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches […], to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and colored races.”22 The court decided that this undertaking was lawful and thus paved the road for future areas of legal segregation.23

The places where segregation took place were countless. The list of Jim Crow laws that were a part of the colored person’s daily life is too long and would demand more space than this paper offers. It can, however, be shortly summarized that African Americans were segregated in almost every public place. They were, for example, not allowed to enter public swimming places, had to attend segregated schools, churches, neighborhoods, restaurants, parks, places of amusement, such as theaters, and were designated separate areas in public means of transportation, among other things.24 In case African Americans violated one of these Jim Crow laws, they had to face insults and were mostly refused any service.25

Besides being segregated physically, African Americans and whites were also separated emotionally. In various states of the US, two people from different races were not allowed to be engaged in a relationship. This fact was even forbidden by law. As a human rights activist stated, “in 29 states of the U.S.A. it is against the law for persons of different race to make love, marry, or have children.”26 If any of these regulations were violated, severe consequences for both partners involved, such as imprisonment for up to ten years, a fine, the loss of a child and the denial of marriage could be the result.27

In general, many states of the United States executed Jim Crow laws that legalized the segregation of African Americans and thus rendered them second-class citizens, in legal terms.

2.2 Violent Discrimination

Following Reconstruction, African Americans were not only exposed to threats and fraud, but had to face violent assaults which were usually conducted by mobs that either acted on their own racially-prejudiced convictions, or on behalf of racist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.28 These groups were usually against the equality of colored people and aimed at keeping them poor and reliant, since many conservative white people saw them as a threat to their traditional values and their society, which they were convinced, would be destroyed if blacks received equal rights.29

The most drastic form of violence used against African Americans was murder, often in the form of lynching. This usually involved a mob killing a black person, mostly by burning or hanging the victim, and justifying this action by claiming that the African American was guilty of a harsh crime, such as murder or other, lesser offenses.30 Frequently, however, African Americans were not lynched for any crimes they had committed but, as the black leader W. E. B. Du Bois claimed, it actually “was blackness that was condemned and not crime.”31 As can be seen in Figure 2, pictures were taken of the victims surrounded by a large white crowd, who seem to celebrate the occasion. These public executions were conducted on purpose in order to intimidate the colored community.

The NAACP has engaged with the topic of lynching and compiled valuable statistics about this violent discrimination in the early 20thcentury. First of all, it must be stated that not only black people, but also white individuals were victims of lynching. However, their numbers are much smaller than the number of African Americans lynched. This becomes obvious in Figure 3 (created by the NAACP) which depicts the numbers of white and black people lynched in the US between 1889 and 1918. The number of white people lynched is always significantly smaller than those victims of African decent.

Even though the numbers slowly decreased in the early 1900s, an average of 50 black people were lynched every year throughout the 1910s. This means that by the time The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, lynching was still a part of the daily lives of Americans, especially for those living in the South, since most of this type of crime took place in that part of the United States (see Figure 4). The majority of the US states, however, have been involved in lynchings, specifically intended to remind African Americans of their lower status in society, a status which they were not supposed to break free of.

2.3 Cultural Discrimination

“Whoever controls the film industry controls the most powerful medium of influence over the public.”32

Thomas Edison

The cultural environment surrounding African Americans was most likely partly responsible for the legal and violent forms of racism that were analyzed earlier. Its negative and stereotypical portrayal of colored people resulted in the justification for suppressing these second-class citizens legally and violently. With the emergence of silent movies in the early 20th century, these stereotypes could be visually portrayed in a much more effective way than any caricature or book description was able to achieve. The Birth of a Nation portrays just such a negative picture of the African American. Before discussing the movie’s degrading portrayal of black people, it is necessary to be informed about the creators of the movie and the reasons for its wide success. Both men had many similarities, which most likely resulted in their positive collaboration regarding the movie. Moreover, the main reasons for the film’s wide popularity will be discussed. The following plot summary of the film will shed light on the negative portrayal of the colored citizens.

David Wark Griffith, born in 1875, and Thomas Dixon Jr., born in 1864, had many experiences and attitudes in common which greatly contributed to their collaboration on The Birth of a Nation . Both shared a similar past, since both had grown up in the southern part of the United States, Griffith in the border state of Kentucky, and Dixon in North Carolina during a time when the aftermath of the Civil War and the influence of Reconstruction could be felt.33 Like other southerners, the families of both men were exposed to poverty, owned slaves which they lost during Reconstruction and were supporters, and even fought on the side, of the confederacy during the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.34

These similar backgrounds led to a shared belief in the Southern Lost Cause. This belief saw southerners distorting history in order to claim that their role in the Civil War, and during Reconstruction, was presented wrongly and that they fought for a worthy and righteous cause, thus finding a justification for some of their controversial actions, such as the approval and support of slavery and the institution of the Ku Klux Klan.35 This belief became apparent in several statements made by both men when talking about The Birth of a Nation . Dixon, for example, stated that he wrote the book the film is mainly based on, The Clansman, and supported shooting the movie since “it expresses the passionate faith of the entire white population of the South” that was until then, in his opinion, portrayed wrongly.36 Griffith was also convinced that the South had been portrayed in the wrong light. He claimed that “[t]he real story of the Reconstruction Era has never been filmed”.37 Griffith, thus influenced by his past, wanted to tell “the truth about the South, touched by its eternal romance which I had learned to know so well.”38

Like Dixon, he was not only convinced that the South’s beauty was not portrayed correctly but that the history of the whole Civil War, Reconstruction Era and especially the role of the Ku Klux Klan during these times was misinterpreted. For example, Griffith was convinced that the Klan had been the South’s savior during the war and Reconstruction.39 Dixon’s conviction concerning this matter becomes especially apparent in his Reconstruction Trilogy, consisting of The Leopard’s Spots, The Clansman and The Traitor . In the very last line of The Clansman, he claims that owing to the Ku Klux Klan, “Civilization has been saved, and the South redeemed from shame.”40 Examples like this of the Southern Lost Cause permeate the entire movie.

Furthermore, both men liked to articulate their similar opinions by sharing affection for writing. Besides his career as an author, Dixon was, amongst other things, a student of politics together with Woodrow Wilson, a lawyer, a minister and an actor; however, he was extremely angered by the portrayal of Southerners in general and thus was highly ambitious about portraying southern history the ‘right’ way in his Reconstruction trilogy.41 Griffith, as well, liked to act and write with the aim of convincing the audience with regard to the correct history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. For example, he acted in Dixon’s The Clansman and wrote and directed movies that were concerned with the South. Following this, he was involved in the production of eleven movies concerned with the Civil War era, prior to the making of The Birth of a Nation.42

The collaboration of these two similar men regarding their attitude to the Civil War and Reconstruction resulted in the creation of the most popular silent movie of its time, which owes its popularity to three influential factors. Until The Birth of Nation was produced, movies were usually short, mostly consisting of only one reel, inexpensive, played in cheap movie theaters known as nickelodeons, and were mostly viewed by the working class.43

With the release of The Birth of a Nation, the negative perception of movies began to change, due in large parts to its various innovations. It was not only the first movie to be twelve reels long, which accounts for about three hours, but its production costs of $100,000 were, moreover, the highest ever dealt with in the movie industry. Furthermore, the admission charge, which was usually below $1 and only accounted for some cents, only amounted up to $2 for this production.44 The Birth of a Nation, thus, was the longest and most expensiv silent movie made at that time. Four main factors were responsible for waking the desire in US citizens of all social classes to watch such a long and expensive movie.

First of all, technical innovations not many people had experimented with before were used by Griffith and thus enhanced the popularity of the movie. For example, he often changed camera angles and used close ups. Moreover, Griffith was one of the first movie directors to play with light and dark, and one of the first producers to perform night shots with the help of “a secret new process.”45 In addition, newspapers advertised that new devices were used to project the movie and that optical experts were hired to guarantee a perfect view of the screen.46 The orchestra that was present during almost every show in the US’s big cities was also a positive innovation. It consisted of almost forty people who accompanied the movie scene by scene and thus created a more realistic feeling. This effect was described by a Boston newspaper, which stated that the music “express[es] the spirit of the martial or romantic tunes.”47

Advertisement in general contributed to the movie’s popularity. The siblings Roy and Harry Aitken who produced the Birth of a Nation were “among the first [to see the movie industry] as a profit-making enterprise.”48 And, in order to make a profit, the product to be sold needs to be advertised. It comes as no surprise that the Aitken brothers were owners of the first film company that bought large advertising space in newspapers, filling whole pages.49

Figure 5 presents a typical advertisement for The Birth of a Nation, taken from the Boston Daily Globe in 1915, the like of which could be traced in many national newspapers following the movie’s release. This large ad is intended to convince its readers to watch the movie by providing several pieces of information, such as the high number of people and horses involved in shooting it, the production cost, the presence of an orchestra and, probably most effective, statements of known personalities that had watched the film. The Boston governor Walsh, for example, stated that the movie would “correct bitter notions of Civil War and Reconstruction times.”50 Another viewer, Mayor-General John F. O’Ryan of New York, claimed that the film is “[h]istorically and educationally […] a most wonderful achievement.”51 Other advertisements even functioned as teasers by depicting some scenes, such as the battlefield, Abraham Lincoln or the Ku Klux Klan riders from the movie (see Figure 6).

In addition, President Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to the movie was also partially responsible for its popularity. Dixon and Wilson were fellow students at Johns Hopkins University and thus it comes as no surprise that, as a favor to his friend Dixon, the president, fifteen senators, his cabinet and representatives were asserted to have watched and approved the movie on February 18th1915.52 53 It is also often argued that Wilson, after seeing the movie, said “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”54 It is not clear if he ever made this statement. However, by using the real or fictitious approval of the president in newspapers as means of publicity, Dixon and Griffith most probably assured a curiosity regarding the movie in the general public.

The final factor that resulted in the movie’s great popularity was its educational value. With the help of the film, Griffith wanted to please “[t]he foremost educators […][who] have urged upon moving-picture producers to put away […] the imitation of the fiction of the cheap magazines and go into the field of history of our subjects.”55 Being mainly based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, The Birth of a Nation focuses on the historical and educational themes of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Its authenticity is increased with the help of blended-in newspaper articles dealing with topics such as secession, and texts that refer to sources like the excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People, or further historical facsimiles, exact copies of an original source.56 In consideration of these themes and their believable depiction in the movie, The Birth of a Nation is considered to be “the first time in art production that history in the large has been presented in living pictures” and should consequently be satisfactory to the demands of the educators.57

Indeed, the film greatly influenced its white viewers, who considered it to be of high educational value. This becomes apparent when considering the high numbers of school teachers who wanted their students to watch the movie. In New York, for example, the heads of eleven schools wanted to take their students to see The Birth of a Nation at the Liberty theater.58 In Atlanta, about 600 school children were lined up at the ticket counter hoping to get hold of the much desired seats (see Figure 7). Furthermore, in Texas, history students were asked to participate in an essay contest with the theme “Why Every Student of American History should see ‘The Birth of a Nation’.”59 In light of these examples, it becomes obvious that the movie not only entertained Americans in an innovative way but was also considered to represent and to be capable of educating people about true historical events, even though several incidents were portrayed in an incorrect way, especially the role of the African American.

In consideration of the advancements this movie offered to the film industry, the question arises why especially black US citizens did not celebrate this cinematic innovation but instead thought it to be discriminatory and historically inaccurate. Thus, in order to understand the agitation of the colored citizens, the content of The Birth of a Nation needs to be analyzed. In doing so, it will become apparent that the film is negrophobic, which means that it displays a fear and dislike of black people enjoying equal rights.

The first part of the movie is concerned with the Civil War, which lasted from 1961 until 1965, and it then changes focus to the following Reconstruction era, which ended in 1877. These time periods are depicted with the help of two families, the Camerons and the Stonemans. The Camerons, consisting of Mrs. and Dr. Cameron and the children Colonel Ben, Margaret, Wade, Duke and Flora, live in the South, whereas the Stonemans, consisting of Austin Stoneman, a parliamentary leader and father of Tod, Elsie and Phil, hail from the northern part of the US. The movie begins by portraying the antebellum time in the South, the period prior to the Civil War. The life in Piedmont, South Carolina seems very idyllic and free of any problems. The Cameron siblings tease and play, and even cats and dogs get along peacefully.60

During a visit from Tod, Duke and Phil Stoneman, together with the Cameron siblings, they stroll over cotton fields which are maintained by black slaves.61 The black people depicted seem friendly, nice and satisfied with their work. After a while, they meet a crowd of black people on their two hour break from work who are joyous, dance and appear to be happy.62 These first scenes of African Americans clearly demonstrate their inferior position, with which, however, they seem to be satisfied. What is degrading is the way they are depicted during the above-mentioned dancing scene. Most of them do not stand straight but move monkey-like and dance in a silly way, which makes them appear mentally disabled. By depicting the black slaves in this manner, Griffith implicitly justifies their inferior status in society, and, by the same token, the white people’s superiority.

The film then changes focus to the outbreak of the Civil War, the main cause of which is not presented as the institution of slavery, created by white men, but as African Americans. This becomes obvious in the sentence that is depicted on the movie screen during its first minute. It reads that “[t]he bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.”63 The disunion then climaxes with Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which, as mentioned in section 2.1, outlawed slavery. As a result, secession takes place and 75.000 volunteers are called for. The Stoneman brothers fight for the Union army, whereas the Cameron siblings support the opposing Confederacy. Over the course of the war, two Cameron brothers and one Stoneman brother are killed.

The movie then depicts the worsening situation of the Piedmont inhabitants. Poverty deepens and a thieving and violent black guerrilla invades the city. In this racist depiction, with the help of their wild gestures and their unscrupulous behaviour, blacks are reminiscent of beasts. This portrayal represents one point of the southern lost cause which supports slavery. Without this institution, blacks only cause trouble, behave rudely and lack any respect or remorse. In the end, only the heroic white confederacy is able to stop them.

Shortly after this incident in South Carolina, the Union wins the war and Ben Cameron, (also referred to as “the little Colonel”), who was wounded during a battle, is

transported into a hospital where Elsie Stoneman is volunteering as a nurse. As Mrs. Cameron arrives, she learns that her son is supposed to be hanged as a guerrilla. In order to prevent this from happening, Elsie encourages her to appeal to the president, who repeals the death sentence. Ben Cameron, who has fallen in love with Elsie, then returns to his southern home, along with his mother.

Meanwhile, radical northerners, including Austin Stoneman, speak out against Lincoln’s mildness towards the south. Stoneman demands that the south’s “leaders must be hanged and their states treated as conquered provinces.”64 The figure Stoneman is supposed to represent Thaddeus Stevens, a radical republican during the Civil War and Reconstruction era who supported “abolition, the arming of black troops, equal rights, and black suffrage.”65 He was known for always speaking out, in a rather snappy tone, about what was on his mind and was thus often seen as "truculent, vindictive, and cynical."66 In consequence, people used to have prejudices against Stevens, such as Lillian Gish, the actress who plays Elsie Stoneman who thought that Stevens’ southern policy destroyed Abraham Lincoln’s post-war aims.67 The movie thus not only distorts the picture of African Americans but also radicalizes the picture of their supporters. Most white people in the movie are depicted as average persons, whereas Stoneman’s character, a supporter of African Americans, looks grim, gestures wildly and is unfriendly. According to Dixon and Griffith, Stoneman’s character, however, only becomes this cold due to the influence his mulatto housemaid, Lydia Brown has over him. In The Clansman, people even gossip about the fact that she dominates “the old Commoner and his life.”68 Thus, the movie informs its audience once again that handing black people too much power will result in harm.

The movie continues by depicting Lincoln’s assassination in the theater in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, which is witnessed by Phil and Elsie.69 With this incident, the second and main part of the movie, the Reconstruction era, begins. Following this, “[t]he Executive Mansion of the nation has shifted from the White House to this strange house on the Capitol Hill”, Stoneman’s home, whose new closest colleague is “Silas Lynch, mulatto leader of the blacks.”70 Lynch, along with Lydia Brown, looks like the African Americans depicted during the black guerrilla scene. They have a grim facial expression, are power-seeking, unscrupulous, and, as will be seen later, try to achieve their aims by every means possible. Moreover, their strangeness is intensified with the use of blackface. In the movie, hardly any African American actors were used. Instead, white actors were painted to imitate blacks, as it was the trend in the popular minstrel shows of that time.71 This makes the actors portraying blacks in film appear unreal.

Soon after the beginning of the Reconstruction era, the southern black community gains more power, which is the result of the actions undertaken by Stoneman and Lynch. Stoneman orders Lynch to go to Piedmont to help the carpetbaggers, people who left the North to find more political success in the South, gain the power of the black vote.72 In addition, the Freedman’s Bureau for freed ex-slaves that provided all kinds of supplies to the African American population is established. Stoneman soon follows and stays at the Camerons’ house, acting upon the advice of his physician, who claims that the mild climate will help cure his illness.73 Dixon and Griffith attempt to convince the viewer that this generosity, and the new freedom of African Americans, will only lead to trouble. According to Stoneman, the only aim of the blacks is to “crush the white South under the heel of the black South.”74 This aim is soon achieved by the control that is gained of the State House of Representatives, the passage of a bill that allows the intermarriage of white and black people and the right to vote for colored people, whilst at the same time, most white people are disenfranchised. During a legislative session, blacks are depicted as being entirely without manners; they drink, eat chicken, talk and put their bare feet on the table.75 At this, African Americans are demonstrated in a primitive and uncivilized way. Again, The Birth of a Nation discriminates against black people through these depictions, justifying white people’s supremacy by implying that freed blacks do not make reasonable decisions.

To curtail this perceived threat posed by African Americans, Ben Cameron, inspired by children playing with a bed-sheet, decides to form the Ku Klux Klan, “the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.”76 The importance of the group is also emphasized in newspaper advertisements for the movie. Some ads depict the disguised clansmen riding on their horses and wearing crosses around their necks, which stand for

Christian values. The movie claims that these robes were made by loyal southern women who supported the protective group.77

All in all, Dixon and Griffith presented in the movie a patriotic Ku Klux Klan that cherished the southern lost cause and wanted to protect their traditional way of life. In reality, ever since slaves had been freed, however, they had represented a terrorist group. The Klan felt threatened by the freed masses who were gaining more and more political power. In order to restore the white man’s supremacy, which they felt was endangered, the Ku Klux Klan wanted African Americans to be dependent again and consequently suppressed them in all spheres of life, often by using violence.78

The movie achieves its climax when the youngest of the Cameron siblings, Flora, decides to go to for a walk to nearby springs. She is followed by Gus, a black man, whose gaze is directed at the young girl. The situation bodes something ill. By becoming aware of Gus’ presence, Flora feels threatened, runs away, climbs onto a rock and begs Gus to leave her. As Gus approaches her, the child jumps off the cliff and dies in the arms of her brother

Ben who was looking for her.79 He, of course, informs other clansmen of the tragic incident, who look for Gus, find him guilty of murder, kill him and leave him as “the answer to the blacks and the carpetbaggers” on the porch of Lieutenant Governor Lynch’s house.80 As a counteraction, Lynch decides to impose the death penalty on everyone that is in the possession of the white Ku Klux Klan robes. These are found at Mr. Cameron’s house, who is thereupon arrested. His son Ben, along with his faithful servants, a black woman and man, successfully escapes with a carriage.81

The representation of these two black servants stands in contrast to the other unscrupulous and violent black figures in the movie. It is, however, also discriminatory toward African Americans. These characters represent the stereotype of the loyal black person who is subordinate, takes orders from whites and does not make his own decisions. Their depiction supports the idea that blacks lead a good life when they are in a position of inferiority, controlled by a white master


1 “The Charters of Freedom: Constitution of the United States Amendments: 11-27,” National Archives

2 Ibid.

3 Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race: or The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916) 84.

4 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover, 1994) 9.

5 Du Bois, Souls, 9.

6 Roy E. Aitken and Al P. Nelson, The Birth of a Nation Story (Middleburg, Va.: Denlinger, 1965) 32.

7 Cf. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By … (New York: Knopf, 1968) 43.

8 Lindsey Hopkins, “Indorses "Birth of a Nation.",” The Atlanta Constitution (18 October 1915) 4.

9 “"Birth of a Nation" causes Near-Riot: Alleged Plot to Destroy Film Results in Scenes and 11 Arrests,” Boston Daily Globe (18 April 1915) 1.

10 Cf. John E. O'Connor, “History in Images/Images in History: Reflections on the Importance of Film and Television Study for an Understanding of the Past,” The American Historical Review 93:5 (1988) 1209.

11 Cf. John Hope Franklin,“"Birth of a Nation": Propaganda as History,” The Massachusetts Review 20:3 (1979) 417–34.

12 W. E. B. Du Bois, Dark Water: Voices from Within the Veil (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 1999) 143.

13 Rayford W. Logan, The Negro in the United States: A Brief History (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1957) 101- 102.

14 Stetson Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens ( Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973) 7.

15 Logan, 106.

16 Cf. David Pilgrim, “Who Was Jim Crow?,” Ferris State University (2000)>. 14.10.2011.

17 Logan, 114.

18 Logan, 59.

19 Cf. Kenneth C. Barnes, Who Killed John Clayton? Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861-1893 ( Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) 3.

20 Cf. Brownlow, 90.

21 “Grandfather Clause,” West's Encyclopedia of American Law (2005)>. 20.9.2011.

22 “Plessy v. Ferguson,” US Supreme Court Center (1896)

23 Plessy v. Ferguson.

24 Kennedy, 193-196.

25 Walter White, “The Paradox of Color,” The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance Ed. Alain LeRoy Locke (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997) 362.

26 Kennedy, 58.

27 Ibid. 58.

28 W.D. Weatherford, “Killing and Lying,” The Crisis (June 1916) 72.

29 Cf. William Loren Katz, The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan Impact on History (Washington, DC: Open Hand Pub, 1986) 19, 29-30.

30 Weatherford, 72.

31 Du Bois, Dark Water, 20.

35 Cf. Gary W. Gallagher, “Introduction,” The Myth of the Lost Cuse and Civil War History Eds. Gary W. Gallagher, Alan T. Nolan. Bloomington (Ind: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001) 1.

36 Cf. Fred Silva, Focus on The Birth of a Nation ( Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 971) 91.

37 Aitken, 25.

38 Cf. Silva, 57.

39 Aitken , 25.

40 Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1970) 374.

41 Cf. Stokes, 27, 32, 35.

42 Ibid. 65-68.

43 Cf. Stokes, 4.

44 Ibid. 3.

45 “Stars and Stories of the Film World: Farewell Appearance here of Griffith's Spectacle "The Birth of a Nation",” The Atlanta Constitution (19 March 1919) 2.

46 “Motion Picture Art.: Latest Scientific Devices Used in Projecting "The Birth of a Nation" on the Screen,”

Boston Daily Globe (5 April 1915) 13.

47 “Attractions at the Theaters: "The Birth of a Nation" Pictures at the Tremont,” Boston Globe (2 May 1915) 58.

48 Aitken, 12.

49 Aitken, 42.

50 “Display Ad – The Birth of a Nation,” Boston Daily Globe (11 April 1915) 59.

51 Ibid.

52 Cf. Stokes, 32.

53 “Censors to Pass on it,” Boston Daily Globe (8 April 1915) 9.

54 Cf. Franklin, 425.

55 Cf. Silva, 59.

56 David Wark Griffith, The Birth of a Nation: Adapted from Thomas Dixons Novel (London: Eureka Video, 2002) 00:15:50; 1:28:34; 1:20:50.

57 “At the Local Theaters this Week: "The Birth of a Nation",” The Atlanta Constitution (12 December 1915) B4.

58 “Why "The Birth of a Nation" is Shown: Tremendous Volume of Praise completely Drowns out Antiphony of a few Opponents,” Boston Daily Globe (9 April 1915) 15.

59 “Why History Students Should See "The Birth of a Nation",” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (20 March 1919) 6.

60 Griffith, 00:5:10.

61 Ibid. 00:12:24.

62 Ibid. 00:14:17.

63 Ibid. 00:1:43.

64 Griffith, 1:18:32.

65 Cf. Tyler Anbinder, “Old Thad Stevens: A Story of Frustrated Ambition,” Reviews in American History 26:3 (1998)>.

20.11.2011. 546.

66 Ibid.

67 Cf. Silva, 43.

68 Dixon, The Clansman, 58.

69 Griffith, 1:25:26.

70 Ibid. 1:29:09; 1:29:48.

71 Cf. Noble, 14.

72 Griffith, 1:33:20.

73 Ibid. 1:36:58.

74 Ibid. 2:01:06.

75 Ibid. 1:54:39.

76 Ibid. 1:59:09.

77 Griffith, 2:03:58.

78 Cf. Katz, 39-40.

79 Griffith, 2:11:42.

80 Ibid. 2:22.18.

81 Ibid. 2:30:28.

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The Paradoxical Influence of “The Birth of a Nation” on the Black Community in the early 20th Century
Fighting a Movie with Lightning
Free University of Berlin  (John F. Kennedy Institut)
American Studies
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Stefanie Laufs (Author), 2012, The Paradoxical Influence of “The Birth of a Nation” on the Black Community in the early 20th Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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