The Battle Over Birth of a Nation

The Battle Over Birth of a Nation

The pro-Ku Klux Klan message of Birth of a Nation inspired thousands of Americans to join the hate group and helped get government censors work.


Everett CollectionOriginal poster for Birth of a Nation, 1915.

Wherever it goes, the Birth of the Nation film arouses widespread indignation. In Boston the excitement has been at white heat, because of a series of hearings before Mayor, Governor, and a committee of the Legislature. A judge has been found with authority and courage enough to cut out the most objectionable scene. The press has been full of arguments for and against the film and the proposed legislation. Many clergymen have preached about the play; and ex-President Eliot, speaking in a Cambridge church, was one of those who protested against its falsification of history. Never before have the colored people of Boston been so united and determined, or appeared to better advantage, and their white friends have rallied in great force to their aid. Gov. Walsh, ex-Congressman McCall, and Lieut. Gov. Cushing have spoken out emphatically against permitting the play to continue, though the Mayor sided with the producers—as the Mayor of New York has failed to recognize in his utterances the gravity of the situation, or to rise to the emergency, being content with the promise of certain slight excisions, which appear to be of little or no value. The play continues to do its devilish work of misrepresentation and of arousing race hatred.

That Mayor Mitchel has had little legal authority to deal with the play is admitted, though there are differences of opinion as to just what powers were available. But this alleged lack of authority is to be remedied by an ordinance now before the Board of Aldermen to empower the Commissioner of Licenses to revoke, suspend, or annul any moving-picture license “for cause after a trial.” The ordinance further reads:

Proof shall be taken before the Commissioner of Licenses upon notice of not less than two days to the proprietor, manager, or person in charge of said place, to show cause why such license should not be revoked, annulled, or suspended. The Commissioner of Licenses shall hear the proofs and allegations in each case, and determine the same, and any place the license for which shall have been revoked, annulled, or suspended shall not thereafter be licensed again to the same licensee within one year, under the provisions of said sections. On any examination before a Commissioner of Licenses, pursuant to a notice to show cause as aforesaid, the accused party may be a witness in his own behalf.

This plainly constitutes the Commissioner of Licenses a censor of all moving-picture plays, precisely as the Mayor of every town in Massachusetts, except Boston, now has similar powers. That the plan has its defects is obvious, for a Commissioner of Licenses with bad judgment might work a considerable amount of harm.

But this risk is inevitable with any censorship, and no bill has as yet been suggested to the Massachusetts Legislature—which is bent on passing some measure before it adjourns—that is free from defects of one kind or another, save the proposal to put Boston on an equal footing with the other cities of Massachusetts. The truth is that this new means for public amusement and education has brought with it grave perils which we are only just beginning to realize, for side by side with its educational possibilities are the dangers of unrestricted propaganda. As the Rev. Dr. Crothers has pointed out, we have lulled ourselves into a sense of security by repeating to ourselves that the “past at least is secure.” But along comes this play, which is not only designed to make large sums for its promoters, but is admittedly a deliberate propaganda to degrade and injure ten millions of citizens, besides misrepresenting some of the noblest figures in our past, Stevens, Sumner, and Lincoln, and perverting history, if only by the onesidedness of its portrayal. Now, let us suppose, as Dr. Crothers has also suggested, that others inspired by this shameful example turn to religious propaganda, and represent the horrible murdering of Catholics at Drogheda by Cromwell, or the massacre of Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s night—what then?

Undoubtedly, the tortures of the Inquisition would make effective capital against the Pope at Rome; and if moving pictures had existed in 1898, we might have seen a still more vindictive anti-Spanish crusade by films of battle, or devastation, or reconcentrado camps. Pictures of Russian pogroms would make plenty of money, yet rouse bitter national and racial antipathies. Obviously, the feeling that would result from a religious film-propaganda might lead to most serious breaches of the peace. If a mild, gentle, humorous philosopher like Dr. Crothers admits that the offending film in Boston stirred his heart to mutiny and rage, the potentialities for evil in less-balanced minds need no stressing. What makes the matter worse is that it is not a question of dealing with a single theatrical production, for the film can be duplicated so that the objectionable performance may be going on in forty or more cities at the same moment. It is not surprising, in view of this power for evil, that the United States Supreme Court on February 23 last in three unanimous decisions upheld the laws of Ohio and Kansas creating official censors. “We would have,” it said, “to shut our eyes to the facts of the world to regard the precaution unreasonable or the legislation to effect it a mere wanton interference with personal liberty.” The Court plainly had in mind the difficulty of controlling by public sentiment alone a series of films scattered over the whole country.

Yet so excellent a newspaper as the Boston Advertiser feels that the proposed censorship may be a most dangerous infringement of our freedom of speech and of expression, on a par with the efforts to suppress Garrison and Phillips in anti-slavery days. The Boston Transcript and Herald appear to believe that if one bill proposed should become a law any citizens who indulged in a fight over a play could stop it, and that any play with a lesson to teach or one which undertook to dwell on the weaknesses of a group of our citizens might easily be driven off the stage. The plan of an official censor for whom the Mayor is responsible, with such a trial as is provided in the pending Aldermanic ordinance in New York, seems for the moment the best way out.

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