Birth of a Nation, the NAACP, and the Balancing of Rights
1. "‘Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’"
Begin by reading "‘Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest," which provides important background about the film.
- What motivated Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith to engage in racist attacks on African Americans in the early years of the 20th century?
- In what ways was Woodrow Wilson involved in the film Birth of a Nation? Why was his involvement significant?
- Why did Griffith expect problems with the opening of the film? What steps did he take to counter the anticipated criticism?
- Why did the NAACP decide to launch a campaign to censor this film?
2. NAACP: The Campaign to Censor Birth of a Nation
Read the following documents for homework and come to class prepared to discuss, either in groups and/or as a class, the questions that follow. Downloadable worksheets are provided for some of the documents.
- Jane Addams interview, March, 1915
PDF worksheet version
- Letter by Mary Childs Nerney, Secretary of the NAACP, April, 1915, to George Packard
PDF worksheet version
- New York Times reporting on a hearing in 1922 when D.W. Griffith decided to release Birth of a Nation
- A photograph of the KKK’s 1925 march in Washington, D.C.
- What were the main points in Addams’ critique of the film?
- What were the strengths and weaknesses of her analysis of the film’s treatment of post-Civil War history?
- How would you describe the tone of her comments?
- Was Addams’ critique effective? Why or why not?
- Why did Addams, a white woman, serve as the spokesperson for the NAACP?
- With whom did the NAACP meet to protest the showing of Birth of a Nation?
- Why were these officials targeted?
- To what extent were the efforts of the NAACP successful?
- What issues were most troubling to Nerney? Why?
- What is the tone of Nerney’s letter? Was it justified?
- What reasons did Walter White give for petitioning the Motion Picture Commission to revoke Griffith’s permit to show Birth of a Nation?
- On what grounds was the Commission authorized to revoke a permit?
- Based on the information provided in this article, should the permit have been revoked? On what grounds?
- What does the photograph of the Klan’s 1925 march in Washington, DC, tell us about the size and influence of the Klan?
Once you and your classmates have reviewed the details in these three documents, participate in a discussion about larger issues.
- Why did the NAACP, which had a record of defending First Amendment rights of free expression, urge officials to prohibit the showing of the film and/or delete certain scenes?
- Why were local and state governments reluctant to censor Birth of a Nation?
- What do these documents reveal about the NAACP as an organization?
- What do these documents reveal about the nature, extent, and acceptance of racism at this point in American history?
- Was the NAACP justified in trying to censor Birth of a Nation?