NAACP Protests Birth of a Nation

The Racist 1915 Silent Film Provoked Controversy

Following the 1915 release of DW Griffith’s racist film “Birth of a Nation,” the NAACP mobilized across the country, including Spokane, to protest the film.

In 1915, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was a fledgling organization fighting for racial equality in the United States. The release of Birth of a Nation that year galvanized the young organization. The film was a landmark in early cinema but was also virulently racist. A historical melodrama, Birth of a Nation cast the Ku Klux Klan as heroic figures, and portrayed southern Blacks in racist stereotypes. Worst yet, the film sparked a revival of the KKK and increased racial violence against African Americans.

The NAACP petitioned the National Board of Censorship to ban the film, and when that effort failed the organization continued petitioning for the most outrageous and inaccurate scenes to be removed. Throughout 1915 and 1916, activists protested scheduled showings of the film in their towns, including Tacoma, Portland, Los Angeles, and Spokane.

When Birth of a Nation was scheduled to be shown in Spokane local activists challenged its arrival. They called for the newly added ‘race prejudice’ clause in Spokane’s Censorship Ordinance to be applied to the film, as it was likely to incite racial hatred or rioting in the city. JC Argall, a member of the censorship commission, had expressed distaste for the film and like-minded works and advocated for censoring or banning the showings.

In 1915 the NAACP said their efforts in Spokane had so far been unsuccessful. "Despite protests," read an article in The Crisis, "the play is running ... without the elimination of any of the objectionable scenes." The article reported that the most offensive scenes had been removed from the film before it showed in Chicago and Boston.

In one case, protestors used violence. When the Clemmer Theater hired actors to dress as mounted Klansmen in front of the theater to promote the film in 1916, a mob of men pulled the faux Klansmen from their horses and beat them. “Rocks and sticks flew, yells were given, horses frightened, and a large crowd assembled,” reported the Spokesman-Review. The paper noted that “attacks had been made on the riders before.”

The NAACP continued its fight against the film into the 1920s as it continued to make rounds in the country without much official intervention. The NAACP’s publication The Crisis followed the situation closely, reporting on protests in many major US cities and tracking the progress made towards censoring the film. Efforts to ban the film succeeded in Portland and New York City, but it took years of campaigning and raising awareness by NAACP activists.

Opposition to The Birth of a Nation sparked the founding of the Spokane NAACP in 1919. The chapter continues its work today.