By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915) played an important role in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1910s and 20s. Based off of the 1905 novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film portrayed the Klan, not as the anti-Black terrorist organization that it was, but as the valiant defenders of the Reconstruction-era South. It was seen by over 4 million people in its initial run and approximately 200 million more before World War II thanks subsequent re-releases in 1921, 1922 and 1930. At this same time, the Klan expanded from practically nothing in 1915 to 4 million members at its peak in the mid-1920s.
Even at the time, people recognized that the racially charged film posed a threat to Blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tried to organize a national boycott out of fear the film would be dangerous. And it was. Not only were Klan recruiters operating just outside the in some towns, in Lafayette, Indiana a white man murdered a black teenager after seeing the movie and there were reports of assaults by gangs of armed white men in other cities. Blacks and their allies organized mass demonstrations against the film in Boston and Philadelphia. The film was banned in Ohio, Colorado, and twelve mid-Western cities on the grounds that it was too inflammatory.
There was a movement in Elmira to ban the movie here. It was scheduled to open at the Lyceum Theatre on evening of January 3, 1916. On the evening of January 2nd, a group of concerned Black citizens met at the Temperance Hall on Dickinson Street to organize a protest. Like the national NAACP, they were appalled both by the film’s depiction of blacks and its capacity to incite inter-racial conflict. After some discussion, they formed a committee to draft and present the following petition to the mayor calling for the film to be banned in the city:
“We, the colored citizens of the city of Elmira, N.Y., protest against the D.W. Griffith photoplay…known as The Birth of a Nation on the grounds that it will embitter and disorganize society, because it has reactionary effects on the political life of the community. Because it is a travesty on history – a breeder of racial antipathy, magnifying the fault of the colored race, while glorifying the lawlessness of the whites. Because the producer seems to have followed the principal of gathering together the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among the colored people and showing them as representatives of the entire race. Because it is shown to humiliate and embarrass the blacks and misrepresent a cause to northern whites. Last but not least, it is contrary to our Lord and Savior, who said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The committee represented a wide cross section of Elmira’s Black community. It was chaired by Peter White, a pressman for the Elmira Advertiser newspaper. From the wealthier end of the spectrum it included Rev. William Coffey, the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Zion Church, and small business owners Don Cameron (barber) and Walter F. Steward (housepainter). Other members included James Armstrong, an unskilled laborer; Guy Powell, a railroad porter; and Joseph Thompson, a chauffeur. They hired white attorney Michael O’Connor to help them present their case to Mayor Harry N. Hoffman.
|James Armstrong, unskilled laborer and activist|
On January 3rd, every paper in the city ran the petition. Mayor Hoffman arranged for a special review of the film by City officials in order to evaluate the film. After careful review, Mayor Hoffman decided to allow the Lyceum to show the film, but demanded that several particularly offensive scenes be cut, including the attempted rape of a white girl by a man in black face. During the ensuing lawsuit brought by the theater, the attorneys for the city successfully argued the mayor’s right to censor such a morally dangerous film.
An unknown number of Chemung County residents saw the film, but it was probably a lot. It ran twice a day for a week and the local trolley lines offered discounted rides to out-of-town movie goers. The reviews in local newspapers were mixed. The Elmira Herald said that the Blacks had just cause to be upset, but warned viewers not to take the movie too seriously. The Elmira Star-Gazette described it as “the most stupendous motion picture spectacle ever attempted,” but conceded the faults of Blacks may have been exaggerated. Only the Elmira Advertiser was unequivocal in its condemnation saying: “as a great spectacular production this photoplay is a success. As a historical representation of the times and period it is supposed to depict, it is worse than a failure: it is rank libel.”
|Program for the Birth of a Nation, shown at Lyceum Theatre, week of January 3, 1916|