When “The Birth of a Nation” Came to Memphis

The news came in December 1915, that one of cinema’s most infamous films – which exalted, glorified and stoked white supremacywas soon coming to Memphis. Many in the community reacted with shock and contempt, while others greeted it with admiration and embraced its message, adding fuel to the further entrenchment of Jim Crow segregation and the revival of the Klu Klux Klan.

Special to StoryBoard Memphis, By Robert A. Lanier

In early 1916, one of the most famous, and infamous, motion pictures ever made came to Memphis. Even many young people today who have no interest in film history at least know of the picture, from studies in school or television documentaries.

“The Birth of a Nation” made history for a number of reasons. Movies began as a popular curiosity in the late 1890s. They were short and seldom attempted seriously to tell a story. They were silent, in black and white (unless occasionally hand colored), and were usually shown in small, uncomfortable storefront venues, often accompanied by a piano, and projected on a sheet or primitive screen of some kind. They earned their early name, “nickelodeons,” from the fact that they usually cost only a nickel.

By 1914, some larger and more elaborate film productions had been made, the Italian “Quo Vadis,” being an example. But in filming “The Birth of a Nation” in 1914 and releasing it across the nation in early 1915, the producer, Kentuckian David Wark (usually called D.W.) Griffith, used such a large cast, innovative camera work, a narrative story, and what today would be called “production values,” that he created a sensation. A special orchestral score for live musicians was composed to accompany the film.

Although today’s viewer would find it grossly primitive, it is famous and universally praised as a milestone in film history because of its innovations. It is equally infamous, because of the story it tells and the manner in which the story is told.

Thomas Dixon, Jr. was a highly successful author at the end of the 19th Century as a result of several rabidly racist novels he wrote about the American South. Two of the most famous were The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, which were said to have provided the plot to “The Birth of a Nation.”

The film is set in the South of the Civil War period. The hero and his family are depicted as aristocratic Southern whites in an idyllic “Old South,” while the war, supposedly started by the North, results in their oppression by Yankees and, especially, brute-like African Americans. The latter are portrayed as ludicrous ignoramuses filling the postwar seats of government and attempting to rape white women. In an expertly drawn finale, white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen ride to the rescue to the music of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The picture was said to have made such an impression on white Southern viewers that the moribund Klan was revived later in 1915.

The movie premiered on March 3, 1915, in New York City. It was soon booked at major cities across the country, but not without controversy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been founded in 1909 to represent the interests of African Americans who had, since slavery and Reconstruction, been the victims of repression, especially in the South, typified by constant lynchings. They and other Black, and some white, leaders were well aware of Dixon’s rabid writings and knew that a film inspired by them would be repugnant. They began to agitate, in the North especially, against Griffith’s picture, which was preceded by unusual publicity. In a number of cities and states outside the South, governmental entities attempted, with some success, to forbid the showing of the film.

Not only Dixon, the book’s author, but Griffith and many white Americans regarded the story as a substantially accurate portrayal of American history. Even President Woodrow Wilson was reported to have viewed it favorably, and had included a similar viewpoint in one of his earlier writings. The first serious attempt to form a branch of the NAACP in Tennessee came in May of 1914, a year before the notorious film. At that time, Bert M. Roddy, a prominent African American Memphian and an officer of the Solvent Bank and the National Business League, wrote to the national office of the NAACP to explore forming a local branch.

However, by a year later he had only been able to enlist seven other Memphians, and no substantial membership and charter was obtained until June 26, 1917.1 A leading Black banker and capitalist, Robert R. Church, Jr., along with most of the prominent members of his race in Memphis, formed the Lincoln League on February 12, 1916, but their stated primary purpose was voting strength in upcoming elections. No mention of the film as an inducement has been found, although it doubtless constituted at least an unconscious spur.2

As the film had cost approximately $100,000 (roughly the equivalent of $2,000,000 in today’s money) to make, and ran about four to six times as long as the usual movie of its day, the phenomenal admission price was set at from 25 cents to two dollars (perhaps $5 to $30 today) depending on the seats and time of showing. Thus, much was at stake in exhibiting this unprecedented opus, but more than money was involved. The social and moral effect of the film was profound. To most white Southerners it was validation of their treatment of blacks and of their sense of oppression by the North. To the African Americans, it was cruel and false slander which would perpetuate their treatment as inferior human beings.3

“I can see no good that a play of this character can do. Memphis has a very large negro [sic] population and a great majority of them are law abiding. The relations existing between the races here could not be better and I seriously doubt the wisdom of permitting the production of any play that might be calculated to arouse any racial feeling.” ~E.H. Crump

Although white Memphis shared the mentality which revered the “Old South” myth, Memphis was unusual among Southern cities in that African Americans could vote. E.H. Crump, who was to dominate Shelby County politics for over 40 years, was elected mayor with the support of Black voters and served in that office from 1910 until he was ousted by unrelated court proceedings in 1915. Throughout much of his political career he courted and received support from the Black community.4 That is not to say that there was no discrimination against the minority, however, or that Crump did not share the usual white Southern prejudice. Upon learning that a U.S. senator had shared a meal of catfish with Blacks, Crump wrote, “What’s the matter with the world, anyway?”5 Racial segregation and racial bigotry reigned supreme, as elsewhere in the South.

The status of Memphis African Americans in the first decade of the 20th Century was revealed by a special edition of the leading newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, in March of 1910. The unusual content of the issue was undoubtedly intended to boast of the local government and local conditions. Under the heading, “Police Reforms,” we find this report:

Police Judge Harry P. Kelly has set his face as fierce as a flint against night prowlers and gambling dives, and between his policy in the court and the activity of the patrolmen on duty a number of the most notorious resorts in the city, places which have proved prolific breeders of crime for years past, have been put so completely out of business that some of the most notorious resort keepers of Memphis have left the city. Patrolmen have orders to arrest every negro [sic] found in the streets after 12 o’clock at night. If the negro arrested has a good excuse he goes free — after telling it to the judge. But he has to explain it to Judge Kelly first.

The “Police Judge” was actually the City Judge, a position of very limited legal authority but undoubted practical capacity for oppression in cooperation with the police. The court’s jurisdiction was limited to $50 fines, but incarceration for inability to pay a fine was a real possibility in those days. It seems likely that the Memphis police did not actually arrest every Black citizen found on the streets after midnight. Among other reasons, this would require the officers to take time to go to court. Knowledge of Judge Kelly’s policy, however, gave the police a powerful weapon for cowing helpless Black citizens who did not comply with police commands, no matter how arbitrary or illegal.

One motivation for the illegal curfew is revealed in the following boast in the article:

So effective has this course [i.e. Judge Kelly’s] proved that representatives of the steamboat lines doing business out of Memphis have personally congratulated Judge Kelly, and stated that they find it much easier to fill their crews of roustabouts than heretofore. Negroes who find that they will not be permitted to carouse all night, or roam the streets at will during the hours of darkness, find less objection to hiring out to work at good wages 6

One is tempted to recall the Black “roustabout’s” song “Old Man River”, in the musical “Showboat” wherein he sings, “…get a little drunk and you lands in jail…”

At the time of the Commercial Appeal article, however, E.H. Crump had recently been elected mayor and was beginning his influence on Memphis government. His somewhat more respectful attitude toward local African Americans had been noted by them. The Chicago Defender, perhaps the nation’s leading Black-owned and edited newspaper, stated in a report about the fatal shooting in Memphis in 1915 by a policeman of a Black woman, “The present administration has been very strict regarding the conduct of policemen, especially in too free use of the pistol, and has dismissed several who shot race [i.e. Black] men.”7

Crump had demonstrated further justification for his reputation of a protective (or patronizing) attitude toward local African Americans in 1914 when a play by Thomas Dixon, “The Leopard’s Spots” was scheduled for a live theatrical performance in Memphis. In this play, a mulatto man asked a white woman’s father for his consent to their marriage. The father replied:

I happen to know the important fact that a man or woman of Negro ancestry, though a century removed, will suddenly breed back to a pure Negro child, thick-lipped, kinky-headed, flat-nosed, Black-skinned…if you were to win her consent, a thing unthinkable, I would…kill her with my own hands, rather than see her sink in your arms into the Black waters of Negro life.

When news that this play was to be performed was received, a delegation of local African Americans went to city hall on April 9 to meet with Mayor Crump. Crump listened patiently to their objections to the performance and then met with the city board of censors, which had the authority to ban public display of films and plays which they thought objectionable. As a result of his pressure, they agreed to ban the performance. Crump explained to the press:

I can see no good that a play of this character can do. Memphis has a very large negro [sic] population and a great majority of them are law abiding. The relations existing between the races here could not be better and I seriously doubt the wisdom of permitting the production of any play that might be calculated to arouse any racial feeling.8

Memphis’s evening newspaper, The News Scimitar, took a similar position:

The city board of censors did well in banning Rev. Thomas Dixon’s play…This play is based upon race hatred, and it is a torch that when applied always inflames passions. Mr. Dixon merely seeks to commercialize and profit by racial animosities which he seeks to arouse. The people of Memphis both white and colored are living in peace and tranquility. There are bad men in both races, but the dominating element in both races is good, and nothing should be permitted to come in and destroy this good feeling and especially when the agency is sordid, and for mere money making purposes.9

Apparently the board was even sensitive to plays sympathetic to Blacks and critical of the “Old South,” for a similar position had been taken on former occasions and only recently they had banned a moving picture of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” 10

. . . a member of the Memphis Censor Board had seen the film in San Francisco and convinced the board to ban the film . . . [but] “the objections of the colored race to the showing of this picture were quietly overruled.”

Not all African American Memphians were deferential to white authority in 1915. C.J. Jones, anticipating an issue which would resurface a century later, was allegedly a “prime mover” in a suit against the U.S. government for $68,000,000 as compensation to the descendants of certain slaves for their labor from 1859 to 1868. Identified as a lawyer by The Commercial Appeal, Jones had allegedly received $1.75 from each of hundreds of such descendants in order that they be named as plaintiffs in the suit. The suit apparently received scant respect, for Jones was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to defraud through the use of the U.S. Mail. He was arraigned before U.S. Commissioner George H. Poole, who set a nominal bond and held him for “investigation by the grand jury.” Further details were notfound by this writer, but obviously his suit was held to be premature and unwelcome, if not illusory.11

Some Memphis courts, if not sympathetic to Black citizens, at least gave them their day in court. Federal court JudgeJohn E. McCall, hearing maritime jurisdiction (“admiralty”) cases, awarded $500 damages (perhaps $7,000 in today’s values) against The Daily Packet Company to a Black passenger on the steamer “Nettie Johnson”. The passenger became ill as a result of exposure to rain while in the Black section of theboat. In another suit, a Black waiter on an excursion boat of The Memphis Excursion and Packet Company accepted a settlement of $100 (perhaps now $1500) after suing for being struck with some blunt instrument “when he failed to perform duties outside of his regular employment.”12

In late 1915 it was learned that the film, “The Birth of a Nation” was to be shown in Memphis for one week starting the next January 3 at the Lyceum Theater on Second Street at Jefferson Avenue. The Lyceum had been built in 1894 and,like other downtown theaters was designed for stage performances. But it had also begun to accommodate the new movie phenomenon. The age of the “movie palace” had not quite arrived.13 Not everyone was accepting of the new motion picture form of entertainment. In an editorial during this time, The Commercial Appeal sounded a warning:

Dangerous acquaintances are made at the picture show when the young are in that adolescent stage and are easily to be persuaded. This is especially true of young girls who meet boys and are frequently subjected to temptations that their parents know nothing about.14

Perhaps live theatrical performances were viewed as less dangerous. The Lyceum preceded Griffith’s spectacular film with three days of performances of a farce called “A Pair of Sixes,” which had run for nearly a year on Broadway, and was described as “the story of two quarrelling partners.”15 The Orpheum, located on Main at Beale, which boasted that it had “The Best Of Vaudeville,” in early January headlined the Four Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, in “Home Again,” an effort staged and written by the great Al Shean. It included 15 other cast members, two elaborate sets of scenery, songs, dances “ensembles and specialties.” The boys shared the bill with the new Irish tenor Thomas Egan (because the great John McCormack eschewed vaudeville) and a dog act, “a group of trained leaping hounds, Meehan’s Canines.”16 Anticipation was concentrated on the Griffith film, however, which had already run 18 weeks in Los Angeles, 32 weeks in San Francisco, 13 weeks in Saint Louis, and 7 weeks in Kansas City, to say nothing of New York, Boston and Chicago, where records of both live and film performances were broken.17

On December 21, 1915, as the time for the showing of “The Birth of a Nation” drew near, a tiny article headed “Pastors Oppose Film Play” appeared in The Commercial Appeal, buried on page nine. It reported that, in a resolution adopted the day before, “Baptist ministers” (not otherwise identified) called upon the mayor and other city authorities to “take such necessary steps as will preclude the exhibition of the picture, feeling that the best interest and happiness of the people demand it.”18

Who were these ministers? What was their race? Diligent inquiry by this author in available sources provides no answer. We are left to speculate that, like the earlier protesters to the stage play, they were probably all African Americans. No doubt they included Rev. Thomas Oscar (“T.O.”) Fuller and his friend Rev. Sutton E. Griggs, a prominent Baptist pastor who had moved to Memphis in 1913 and was a strong opponent of the works of Thomas Dixon and an advocate for interracial harmony.19 The leading Memphis scholar on the careers of local Black ministers, Rev. Randolph Meade Walker, is confident that Fuller would have played a leadership part in the delegation. Having come to Memphis in 1900 to pastor the First Baptist Church (Lauderdale,“colored”), he was the most influential Black minister at the time.

Griggs was minister of Tabernacle Baptist Church. Both were known as “accommodationists,” meaning that they tried to work within the reality of the power structure.20 Unfortunately for the protesters, E.H. Crump was no longer the mayor. He had been ousted from office by a lawsuit and replaced temporarily on November 15 by Commissioner George C. Love.21 Whether Crump’s benevolent attitude toward banning Dixon’s racist works would have been strong enough to oppose the showing of a film as spectacular, successful and popular (with whites) as “Birth” seems doubtful. Small local productions were one thing, but this national phenomenon was another. 

The Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] Tribune, an established African American newspaper, had reported on November 16, 1915, that a member of the Memphis Censor Board had seen the film in San Francisco and convinced the board to ban the film because it would stir race prejudice and “would have a bad moral effect on the community.”22 As this report, if accurate, preceded the ministers’ appeal to Mayor Love, it appears that he overruled the board, and it was so reported in a movie magazine, wherein it was stated on January 15, 1916, that “the objections of the colored race to the showing of this picture were quietly overruled.”23 Surprisingly, no reference to these events can be found in the white Memphis newspapers, and the local Black newspapers which apparently existed at the time can no longer be found.24

Despite The Commercial Appeal’s editorial warning about the dangers of movie theaters in general, mentioned above, an editor of the evening News Scimitar (probably 62 year-old Canadian-born Michael W. Connolly) looked forward with eager anticipation to the coming of “one of the greatest films ever produced in all the world,” which was “of great historical merit.” It was felt that it “so far outstrips” the original motion pictures which had been exhibited “in little, stuffy rooms.” 

Still image from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” (various sources)

The opposition to the film in other parts of the country was attributed, somewhat opaquely, to “accident or perhaps …erroneous business policies” in a “cheap and a nasty advertising trick.” It was asserted that such a trick was used successfully to boost attendance at the live stage shows of “The Clansman” earlier, in an effort to arouse the hostility of “the colored race” against it. Race prejudice was aroused about that “cheap and meretricious play,” but there was nothing in “The Birth of a Nation” to inflame the ill-feeling of the “colored people” in any section of the country, it was said, in a bizarre view of the film. Moreover, it was asserted that…

The Southern negro cannot be easily fooled, because many of them know by experience, and the rest know by tradition, the conditions that have existed here before and after the war. And they can learn from this objective teaching much that will be of common value to them.25

The Lyceum Theater devoted a full page in the Sunday, January 2, 1916 edition of The Commercial Appeal to advertising the week’s run of “The Birth of a Nation” which was to start the next night.26 The ad boasted that the film cost $500,000, featured 18,000 people, 3,000 horses and a “Grand Operatic Score,” interpreted by a symphony orchestra of 30 musicians brought from New York. Scenes depicted included “Plantation Days in the SunnySouth,” “Horrors of Carpetbag Rule,” “Founding the Invisible Empire [the KKK]” “Wild Rides of the Ku Klux Klan” and “The South Restored to Love and laughter.” For the music, Griffith produced something new to silent films: the synchronizing of a complete symphonic score with the appearance of the important characters and the enactment of the principal scenes. The orchestra was supplemented by part-singing behind the scenes, including “old wartime tunes.”27

As it allegedly was “indorsed by a greater number of prominent men in all walks of life, including priests and ministers, than any other entertainment ever offered to the public,” the Griffith epic predictably opened to ecstatic reviews in the white Memphis newspapers.28 Although the entertainment reviewer of The News Scimitar conceded that slavery was “the prime cause of the war,” enthusiasm was undampened.29 

Hugh Higbee Huhn, The Commercial Appeal’s drama critic, wrote that motion pictures seemed to have reached perfection with the film. He made special reference to what he considered Griffith’s moderation of Dixon’s chief excesses, writing that, “wisely, and with consummate discretion, the malignant features of Thomas Dixon’s hot-headed novel have been eliminated.” Unless he refers to the racist rhetoric from the play, quoted earlier herein, it is difficult to see to what Huhn refers. He does, however, concede that, “There is a certain indulgence in romance where the Ku Klux episodes are illustrated.”

Huhn was touched by the harp obligato for “the more pathetic scenes” and the “bugle corps for the more martial ones.” He noted few dry eyes when “Home Sweet Home” was played as background to the postwar return of Confederate soldiers, and was cheered to hear“the old Rebel yell” from the audience during battle scenes. The theater was sold out.30 The News Scimitar called the film a “great photodrama” and an “extraordinary achievement,” wondering whether motion pictures would replace textbooks in public schools.31

The tolerance of The Commercial Appeal for the sympathetic portrayal of the Klan in the Griffith film is perhaps reflected in the comments of its editor, C.P.J. Mooney some five years later, when the newly-revived Klan entered politics and indulged in anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant agitation, in addition to its racist activities. A Roman Catholic, Mooney wrote:

In view of the fact that the original Ku Klux Klan was an organization of the purest and most high minded southerness, [sic] inspired with the loftiest sort of purpose, and that it saved the south from a fate more terrible than that of military defeat, it is both presumptious [sic] and impertinent on the part of this body [the new KKK] to adopt the name and regalia of the previous one.32

Griffith’s film broke all attendance records in the amusement annals of Memphis. Lines formed daily at 8 a.m. at the Lyceum box office and lasted until 9 p.m. Even the balcony, usually out of favor, was filled. The enthusiasm was so great that Lyceum manager Frank Gray was able to prevail on the New York distributors to grant Memphis another week of exhibition. However, as the movie was contracted to be in Hot Springs on January 17, no further extension could be granted.33 The film continued to tour the South, however. It opened a three day return engagement in Chattanooga on February 28 and a similar run in Knoxville on March 2.34

While no record of the reaction of the Memphis African American community to actually viewing “The Birth of a Nation” has been found, and neither can the identities of the “Baptist ministers,” whether Black or white, who anticipated the worst, their fears could only have been justified by the experience. It seems safe to say that the spectacular success of the film with the white community must have lent impetus to the local movements to form a chapter of the NAACP and the Lincoln League.

With perhaps unconscious irony, the Williams’ World Famous Colored Singers, “The favorites of Two Continents,” who boasted of 130 performances in London, England, were booked at Church Park in Memphis for January 10 during the run of the film. Their advertisement noted that they were under the auspices of the LeMoyne Alumni Association, and that “White friends are invited.”35

Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981). Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection

For further reading on the NAACP’s official protest and arguments for banning “Birth of a Nation,” review this archived rare book on display with the online Library of Congress: Fighting a vicious film: protest against “The birth of a nation.”

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