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‘Birth of a Movement’ sheds light on historic Boston protest

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

When D.W. Griffith released “The Clansman,” the 1915 film later known as “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, it led to a resurgence that saw the struggling hate group reach its highest-ever membership.

Now, a documentary, “Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster,” recounts the story of how the film galvanized the modern Civil Rights Movement with its dual strategies of protest and legislative change. At the center of the movement’s strategies and the tumultuous protest over the original film’s screening in Boston was newspaper publisher William Monroe Trotter, whose Guardian newspaper was a precursor to the Bay State Banner.

The new documentary, set to air on PBS Feb. 6, will premier at a special screening at the Somerville Theatre on Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.

The event will feature a panel of experts from the film in a discussion following the screening. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Vincent Brown of Harvard, Dolita Cathcart of Wheaton College and Robert Bellinger of Suffolk University — all of whom are featured in the documentary — will be on the panel. Barbara Lewis, director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, will moderate the discussion.

The documentary draws on film experts, historians and academics, including Spike Lee as well as Gates, and features outgoing NAACP Boston Branch President Michael Curry reenacting Trotter as he appeared in the area.

“Birth of a Movement” situates the film’s release in the historical context of the segregationist laws enacted in the post-Plessy v. Ferguson era, including the re-segregation of federal jobs during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. It also details Trotter’s collaboration with W.E.B. DuBois, with whom he attended Harvard College.

Lauded to this day by film critics for its then-groundbreaking techniques, the film opened as “The Clansman” to acclaim in Los Angeles in February of 1915. The film generated controversy, portraying the Klan as a savior of the nation in restoring the racial hierarchy in the South after Reconstruction. Soon after, filmmaker D.W. Griffith prevailed upon then-President Woodrow Wilson, himself a segregationist, to screen the film at the White House.

“The Clansman” was the first motion picture ever to be shown at the White House. The screening, and Wilson’s approval of the film, helped Griffith overcome the controversy surrounding the film.

By the time the film came to Boston, then showing as “Birth of a Nation,” Trotter and other black activists sought to stop the run, appealing to then-Mayor James Michael Curley to censor the film. After Curley refused, Trotter and members of the Boston Branch of the NAACP organized a march on the State House that turned out several thousand protesters.

At the same time, the black activists prevailed upon the Massachusetts Legislature to re-constitute the city’s Censorship Board. While none of their efforts succeeded in stopping “Birth of a Nation” from completing its run in Boston, the tactics Trotter advocated and helped execute — pairing direct action with a legislative strategy — lived on in the DNA of the Civil Rights Movement.

Michael Curry says Trotter’s fight should inform the way activists react to current civil rights challenges.

“It’s critically important for every American, especially African Americans in Boston, to know the history behind William Monroe Trotter’s efforts to stop the showing of D.W. Griffith’s racist propaganda film,” he commented. “Along with the Boston NAACP, Trotter was able to mobilize thousands of Bostonians to march on Downtown Boston. There is a lesson in this today, as we face other indignities and inequities that should awaken the Trotter in all of us.”