The Birth of a Nation, which opened in March 1915, was simultaneously a landmark in the history of American cinema and a landmark in American racism. The film depicted the South, following the assassination of President Lincoln, as ruled by rapacious African Americans, who by the film’s end were heroically overthrown from power by the Ku Klux Klan. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attempted to mount boycott of the film, but it failed to stir significant white opposition. The NAACP changed its tactics; this April 17, 1915, letter from NAACP national secretary Mary Childs Nerney described the organization’s efforts, largely in vain, to get local film censors to remove particularly racist scenes. The NAACP’s ongoing national campaign to censor the film produced decidedly mixed results. Despite success in Boston and Chicago in securing several minor cuts in the film’s release print, by year’s end distributors could show The Birth of a Nation almost anywhere in the country.
April 17, 1915.
Mr. George Packard
1522 First National Bank Bldg.,
My dear Mr. Packard:
I am utterly disgusted with the situation in regard to “The Birth of a Nation”. As you will read in the next number of the Crisis, we have fought it at every possible point. In spite of the promise of the Mayor to cut out the two objectionable scenes in the second part, which show a white girl committing suicide to escape from a Negro pursuer, and a mulatto politician trying to force marriage upon the daughter of his white benefactor, these two scenes still form the motif of the really unimportant incidents, of which I enclose a list. I have seen the thing four times and am positive that nothing more will be done about it. Jane Addams saw it when it was in its worst form in New York. I know of no one else from Chicago who saw it. I enclose Miss Addam’s opinion.
When we took the thing before the Police Magistrate he told us that he could do nothing about it unless it lead to a breach of the peace. Some kind of demonstration began in the Liberty Theatre Wednesday night but the colored people took absolutely no part in it, and the only man arrested was a white man. This, of course, is exactly what Littleton, counsel for the producer, Griffith, held in the Magistrates' Court when we have our hearing and claimed that it might lead to a breach of the peace.
Frankly, I do not think you can do one single thing. It has been to me a most liberal education and I purposely am through. The harm it is doing the colored people cannot be estimated. I hear echoes of it wherever I go and have no doubt that this was in the mind of the people who are producing it. Their profits here are something like $14,000 a day and their expenses about $400. I have ceased to worry about it, and if I seem disinterested, kindly remember that we have put six weeks of constant effort of this thing and have gotten nowhere.
Mary Childs Nerney, Secretary.
Source: NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.