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A Nationwide Fight a Century Ago for Civil Rights Captured in ‘Birth of a Movement’
February 6, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

One of the many benefits of Black History Month programming is the way it dusts off critical historical links that can fade into the mists of time.

In that spirit, PBS’s Independent Lens series revives some of the story of William Monroe Trotter (top), whose civil rights activism in the early 20th century included organizing protests against the film Birth of a Nation.

This new documentary, Birth of A Movement, which airs at 10 p.m. ET Monday (check local listings), focuses on the film while also recounting Trotter’s larger story.

Birth of a Nation (right), directed by D.W. Griffith and released in 1915, glorified the Ku Klux Klan, arguing that black people were so lawless, dangerous, uncivilized, and intellectually inferior to the white race that this vigilante organization was necessary to restore honor, decency, and basic American values.

There’s a tendency now, a century later, to see Birth as an artifact of a time when that perspective was considered a legitimate, arguable point of view.

It was, sadly, in some quarters, and Birth of a Movement notes how those quarters reached all the way to the White House. President Woodrow Wilson, it has been well and depressingly documented, was quietly working to establish a segregated America.

Birth of a Movement also reminds us, on a more encouraging note, that there was resistance. Women like Ida B. Wells and men like William Monroe Trotter stood up and were not discouraged when those in power turned their backs.

Trotter came from a well-to-do black family. He graduated with honors from Harvard and seemed to accept the heartening notion that post-Civil War America really could offer equal opportunity for all.

Then he got out of the “Harvard bubble” and realized that wasn’t true for the vast majority of black Americans.

He became radicalized, starting The Guardian newspaper to expose injustice. At times he joined forces with other leaders like W.E.B. DuBois (left), his classmate from Harvard, but he often broke away, feeling other black leaders were not bold enough.

He became respected enough as a leader that he met several times with Wilson himself, coming away increasingly disillusioned with Wilson’s indifference.

When Birth of a Nation was released, and it began to spark an immediate revival of the real-life KKK, Trotter started a campaign to get it banned from theaters.

Since he was based in Boston, he focused his efforts there, asking Massachusetts Gov. David Walsh and Boston Mayor James Curley to forbid theaters from showing it.

He was unsuccessful in that effort, but he mobilized thousands of protestors who were impassioned enough that Trotter was arrested after one rally and sent to jail for 30 days.

In the broader picture, he became a link in a long chain that led to the modern-day civil rights movement. Progress is a slow process.

On the cinematic side, Birth of a Movement talks with cultural historians who explain that Birth of a Nation was an important and well-made movie, and D.W. Griffith was a towering figure in early cinema.

Unfortunately, the real danger in Birth of a Nation didn’t come from the “colored race” it vilified, but the film itself.

By helping to spark the KKK revival, and by giving its blessing to those who felt blacks didn’t “deserve” better treatment than they received in Jim Crow America, it helped make millions of lives harder.

The good news is that long after Birth of a Nation’s message has been recognized for what it was, Trotter gets the last word.

The slogan of The Guardian was “For Every Right, With All Thy Might.”

 
 
 
 
 
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