Fighting Race Calumny
The Crisis (May & June, 1915), reproduced from the original
AN INSTANCE OF THE WAY THE N.A.A.C.P. WORKS
THE CHRONOLOGICAL RECORD OF THE FIGHT AGAINST THE “CLANSMAN” IN MOVING PICTURES
We are advised by our Los Angeles Branch that “The Birth of a Nation,” a picture play founded on Dixon’s “Clansman,” is running in that city and that the branch has been unable to suppress the play because it has the approval of the National Board of Censorship, located in New York.
Advance announcement of this performance in New York appears in the local press.
We go to the office of the Board of Censorship and request:
The names of the committee who approved the picture so that we may ascertain its character from someone who has seen it; the names and addresses of the National Board of Censorship; a list of the cities where the film has been released; the possibility of arranging for an advance performance when the film could be reviewed by the entire Board of Censorship and a committee from our Association.
We appeal to the Chairman of the National Board of Censorship, Mr. Frederic C. Howe, for an advance performance and it is arranged.
We write a letter to the members of the National Board of Censorship stating our position in regard to the picture.
The National Board of Censorship and a committee from our Association are invited to attend the advance performance on March 1. We were at first promised twelve tickets; later the number is cut to two by the office of the Board of Censorship and colored people are excluded.
The National Board of Censorship meet after the performance and (according to their Chairman, Dr. Howe), disapprove certain incidents in the first section of the film and practically the entire second part. No communication in regard to this action is sent from the office of the Board of Censorship to the N.A.A.C.P.
The owner and producer of the film are summoned by the N.A.A.C.P. to the Police Court on the grounds that they are maintaining a public nuisance and endangering the public peace. They are represented by Martin W. Littleton. Chief Magistrate McAdoo rules that it is not within his jurisdiction to stop the performance unless it actually leads to a breach of the peace.
We write for a statement of the disapproval of the play by the Board of Censorship. We do not get it. We request all our members in New York and vicinity to write letters of protest to the press.
We again write to the Board of Censorship for a statement of their disapproval of the film and also request a copy of the statement of release which is being sent to other cities, and a list of the states where bills for public censors are pending.
We are advised by a member of the Board of Censorship that the action of the Board on March 1 in disapproving the film was not official. No communication on the subject comes from the office of the Board.
Prominent members of our Association, Mr. Jacob H. Schiff, Miss Jane Addams, Dr. Jacques Loeb, Miss Lillian D. Wald, as well as several prominent white Southerners, see the play. All agree in condemning it.
The National Association brings criminal proceedings against Aitken and Griffith, owner and producer of the film, and retains James W. Osborne as attorney.
We send a letter to the moving picture trade calling their attention to the action of Aitken and Griffith in producing this play after it has been disapproved by the National Board of Censorship.
We appeal to the Commissioner of Licenses to stop the performance under that section of the penal code which applies to public nuisances.
We are advised that the Board of Censorship is seeing the play in its revised form. We attend the same performance and find that only slight changes have been made.
Miss Jane Addams who has witnessed the play at our request, gives an exclusive interview condemning it to the Evening Post, which is sent out by the National Association to the press of the country. None of the New York papers carried this except the Post which, we understand, is the only paper in New York that has refused the advertising for “The Birth of a Nation.”
We are officially advised by the office of the National Board of Censorship that the film has been approved by the Board. Some of the members present tell us that the producer was even cheered when he came into the room.
We are asked by the Board of Censorship to retract our letter sent to the moving picture trade. We do not.
We request of the Board of Censorship the addresses of their committees and again ask for a list of the cities where the film has been released and a list of states where bills for public censors are pending. We do not get this information.
We write the Mayor requesting him to use his authority to suppress the play as an offense against public decency and as endangering public morals; also on the ground that the effect of the picture is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.
A review of the play in the New Republic for March 20 published under the title “Brotherly Love,” is mailed by the N.A.A.C.P. for editorial comment to five hundred newspapers.
The New York press breaks its silence by publishing the “story” of the split on the Board of Censorship over the vote on this film.
We are advised by the Mayor that he will receive a delegation from our Association. We invite all churches, clubs, and organizations interested, in New York and vicinity, to unite with us in appearing at this hearing.
We attempt to arrange a procession to the Mayor’s office. License is refused on the ground that it might lead to a breach of the peace.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association refuses to co-operate with the National Board of Censorship in working against the bill for a public censor pending in Pennsylvania, because of the action of the Board on this play.
Hearing before the Mayor with following speakers: Dr. Frederic C. Howe, Chairman of the National Board of Censorship; Dr. William H. Brooks, Pastor of St. Mark’s M. E. Church; Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Editor of The Crisis; Dr. Stephen S. Wise, Rabbi of the Free Synagogue; Mr. Fred R. Moore, Editor of the New York Age; Mr. George E. Wibecan, President of the Brooklyn Citizens’ Club; and Mr. Oswald Garrison Villard, President of the New York Evening Post Company, and Vice President of the N.A.A.C.P.
The following organizations were represented: The colored and white ministry of Greater New York, the Citizens’ Club of Brooklyn, the Committee of One Hundred of Hudson County, N.J., the National League of Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the United Civic League, the Columbus Hill Civic League, and the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs.
The Mayor told the delegation which overflowed the Council Chamber that he had seen the film and that he agreed with all that had been said about it. He felt that it might perhaps incite to breaches of the peace and had already so advised the management of the theatre and the owners of the film; the latter had consented to cut out the two scenes which had been particularly objected to and the play would be produced in that form for the first time that night. This, the mayor was careful to say, had been done without any attempt on his part to exercise any power he might be given by statute. The breadth and force of such powers were in doubt, he said, but if it was found necessary to take the matter up again he would take such steps as were authorized by law.
We adjourn our legal case with the idea of discontinuing it if the changes promised by the Mayor are made in the film.
We see the play in its second revised form and find again that only unimportant changes have been made and that the two particularly objectionable scenes still remain the motif of the second part.
We again appeal to the Mayor calling his attention to the fact that these scenes which he promised the delegation should be eliminated have not been cut out.
Miss Rosalie Jonas, a native of New Orleans, with other prominent Suffragists in New York, file protest with the Mayor against the play.
We are advised by the Mayor that he has been assured by the producers of the film that they will meet his wishes in the matter of elision.
(To be continued, and we trust concluded, in our next.)
| The Protest on Boston Common, May 2, 1915
June 1915 issue of The Crisis
We gave last month a chronology of the fight of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against Tom Dixon’s latest libel. This is a continuation of that narrative.
“The Birth of a Nation” is now being shown in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and is booked for Chicago for the summer. In each place our branches have protested. In Los Angeles they got no results. In San Francisco a few objectionable scenes were eliminated.
In Des Moines, Iowa, the play cannot be presented because of the fact that Mr. S. Joe Brown some years ago introduced an ordinance which was passed prohibiting plays arousing race feeling.
In Ohio, Cleveland and Toledo branches and other agencies co-operating, kept out the play, “The New Governor,” and think they can keep this out of the State.
The center of the fight has been Boston.
The film interests attack The Crisis as an “incendiary” publication. They explain Jane Addams’ criticism by declaring that she saw only half the film, which is absolutely false; and they declare that the film had the endorsement of the President of the United States, George Foster Peabody, Senator Jones of Washington and others.
A hearing was held before Mayor Curley. Many prominent persons took part. A letter to us saying: “When the hearing was over a little bout occurred between Moorfield Storey and Griffith. It seems in the Boston papers that Griffith had promised Mr. Storey $10,000 for any Charity he would name if he could find a single incident in the play that was not historic. Mr. Storey asked Mr. Griffith if it was historic that a colored lieutenant governor had locked a white girl into a room in the Capitol and demanded a forced marriage in South Carolina? Mr. Griffith only answered, ‘Come and see the play’ and held out his hand to Mr. Storey. Mr. Storey drew back and said, ‘No sir,’ refusing to shake hands with him.”
George Foster Peabody, in a public letter, calls the film “unfair to the Negro and to the white equally and a traversity on sound peace principles.” Senator Jones writes: “I never endorsed it,” and continues, “the character of the second part of the play became evident before it began and I did not stay to see it.” The Rector of Trinity Church, Boston, calls the film “untrue and unjust.” Persons unconnected with this organization threw rotten eggs at the screen in New York City.
A new feature is added to the film in Boston “portraying the advance of Negro life.” A prominent New York lawyer informs us that this was done at the suggestion of Mr. Booker T. Washington. Colored citizens of Boston are refused tickets to the first exhibition of the film. The colored people persist in demanding tickets and eleven of them are arrested including Mr. W.M. Trotter, editor of the Guardian, and the Rev. Aaron Puller. All were discharged except the two mentioned.
Great protest meeting in Faneuil Hall presided over by Frank B. Sanborn. Governor Walsh of Massachusetts promised to advocate a law which will enable such films to be suppressed.
The state police of Massachusetts refuse to permit “The Birth of a Nation” to be exhibited on Sunday.
The Massachusetts court orders elimination of the rape scene in the film. Large hearing before the legislature.
Mrs. Carter H. Harrison, wife of the former mayor of Chicago denies that she ever approved the film. “It is the most awful thing I have seen. It would arouse racial feeling. I am a southerner and you naturally would expect me to oppose such pictures as this.”
Clergymen representing six Protestant denominations protest against the film.
The secretary to the President of the United States replying to W.H. Lewis, of Boston, and to Bishop Walters, writes:
“Replying to your recent letter and enclosures, I beg to say that 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.”
A committee of the Massachusetts legislature reports a bill which is a compromise between several proposals. This bill places unlimited powers of censorship in the hands of the Mayor, the police commissioner and the chief justice of the municipal court. This bill has passed the lower House and is before the Senate.
Mass meeting of 2,500 persons at Tremont Temple to protest against the film. Ex-President Eliot, Dr. S.M. Crothers, Dr. F.M. Rowley, Miss Adelene Moffat and Mr. Ralph Cobleigh were among the speakers. A mass meeting was also held on Boston Common. Mr. Cobleigh declared that Dixon had told him that the object of the film was the ultimate deportation of 10,000,000 Negroes from the United States, and the repeal of the war amendments, President Eliot said that this proposal was “inconceivable and monstrous” and “an abominable outrage.” He continued:
“A more dangerously false doctrine taught by the play is that the Ku-Klux-Klan was on the whole a righteous and necessary society for the defence of Southern white men against black Legislatures led by Northern white men. This is the same sort of argument being used by the Germans to-day, that a contract may be destroyed as a military necessity. Undoubtedly, grievous conditions existed in the South, but they did not justify the utter lawlessness and atrocities which marked the trail of the Ku-Klux. There can be no worse teaching, no more mischievous doctrine than this, that lawlessness is justified when necessary.”
The Rev. A.W. Puller was discharged by the court while Mr. Trotter was fined for assault on a policeman, but entered an appeal. The judge blamed the ticket seller chiefly for the disturbance.
Telegram from the Chicago Branch, N.A A.C.P.:
Mayor Thompson has unqualifiedly refused license to the photo-play “Birth of a Nation.”
C. E. Bentley, Treasurer, N.A.A.C.P.