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The NAACP and National Board of Review Confront “The Birth of a Nation’s” Racism from 70 Fifth Avenue

On February 8th, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist film The Birth of a Nation debuted in Los Angeles, California. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the movie was a kind of confederate monument, helping to inspire the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and catalyzing an increase in violence against Black Americans. The story of this horrifying film, its wildly and troublingly “successful” reception, and the organized resistance against it, cannot be told without mention of the 1912 12-story Beaux Arts-style office building at 70 Fifth Avenue. This structure, in the unprotected area south of Union Square for which Village Preservation is seeking landmark protections, housed a large number of progressive organizations that propelled, and collaborated around, some of our country’s most significant social justice movements. The NAACP and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures were two of the groups that operated within the walls of 70 Fifth Avenue in 1915, and both participated in confronting The Birth of a Nation. Founded the same year, and sharing the same office building and several executive board members, these organizations redefined how we remember this chapter of civil rights and film history.

70 Fifth Avenue, 2012.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 as a biracial social justice organization seeking to end bias and discrimination against African Americans and ensure their equality of opportunity in the United States. Founded by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, Bishop Alexander Walters, Rev. William Henry Brooks, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells, among others, the new organization’s first public meeting was held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. DuBois was named the organization’s Director of Publicity and Research, and started what would be the official organ of the NAACP, The Crisis magazine. The NAACP was located at 70 Fifth Avenue from 1914 until the mid-1920s. During this period, lynchings were commonplace and occurred with impunity; states were developing legislation to ban interracial marriages; and in his first year in office (1913), President Woodrow Wilson officially introduced segregation into federal government agencies, establishing separate workplaces, bathrooms, and lunchrooms for blacks and whites. Having grown rapidly in its first years to twenty-four branches and three thousand members, the NAACP was in need of more space, bringing it to this newly-constructed commercial building at 13th Street just below Union Square.

The Crisis, 1918. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures, as it was originally named, was founded the same year as the NAACP — 1909 — by a coalition of Progressive social activists to fight government intervention in the rapidly developing film industry. The self-described “trained, volunteer, disinterested citizen organization” became the National Board of Censorship shortly thereafter, when it absorbed the responsibilities of local boards across multiple cities. Then, in 1916, following a 1915 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of state censorship of motion pictures, it became the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. This name change represented a major shift in the Board’s policy. Rather than regulating the standards of morality in motion pictures as it previously had, it would work to enhance the education of public viewers and represent the public opinion. The Board went on to recommend movies, release reviews, and publish the National Board of Review Magazine — in 1950 replaced by Films in Review. What is now known simply as the National Board of Review was located at 70 Fifth Avenue from the 1910s until at least 1949. Over the course of its 111-year existence, the Board played a profound role in shaping the motion picture industry in America, single-handedly deciding what content would or would not appear in film by either granting or denying its stamp of approval for movies: “passed by the National Board of Review.”

The Birth of a Nation film cover, 1915. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Birth of a Nation opened in 1915, the NAACP’s second year at 70 Fifth Avenue. According to Jennifer Fronc, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the film was received with a tremendous amount of fanfare. It was shown for the first time in New York City in a theater in midtown for $2 — a much higher cost than most movies of its time — and it was accompanied by a large orchestra. In some cities, theaters showing the movie had ushers dressed up as characters of the film. President Woodrow Wilson even showcased the The Birth of a Nation himself at the White House, the first such showing ever in the presidential residence.

It was amidst this deeply troubling national environment that the NAACP launched its campaign against The Birth of a Nation, condemning the way it distorted history and portrayed derogatory and discriminatory images of Black Americans. As documented by Professor Fronc, W.E.B. DuBois claimed that “a new art was used, deliberately, to slander and vilify a race.” He argued that the film was “a public menace…not art, but vicious propaganda.” And while he recognized the dangers of limiting expression, he urged that “without some limitations civilization could not endure.” Alongside the NAACP, The Crisis also called for an outright ban on The Birth of a Nation, also denouncing its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its violent depictions of Black Americans.

Letter from Lillian Wald to May Childs Nerney, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

May Childs Nerney, a secretary of the NAACP, ran the organization’s nationwide campaign against The Birth of a Nation, obtaining letters, securing petitions, planning protest parades, and contacting elected officials. Along with the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade organized two years later, the NAACP’s protests of the film are today remembered as, arguably, the first large public demonstrations for Black American civil rights in the country.

As part of her efforts, Nerney contacted Frederic C. Howe, the chairman of the National Board of Review’s Executive Committee, to request that the Board take a stance against The Birth of a Nation. Considering that the NAACP and the National Board of Review shared office space at 70 Fifth Avenue, it’s possible that this interaction happened in person, within the building itself. Howe agreed with Nerney’s assessment, fearing that the film would cause “race riots” in the South. Receiving the NAACP’s formal objection to the film, the Board decided to overturn its Review Committee’s original decision, and requested that the General Committee conduct a rescreening to review the film more closely. The General Committee proceeded to “pass the first half of the picture subject to minor changes,” and condemn parts of the second half that “might create race hatred and prejudice.” Although Howe and a number of other members of the National Board of Review supported the NAACP’s campaign, one of its most influential leaders, W.D. McGuire, did not, and continued to facilitate its distribution. This created a division in the organization, and following the events surrounding The Birth of a Nation, some of the Board’s more progressive members decided to leave.

NAACP Silent Protest Parade of 1917. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Strikingly, a letter from Henry Street Settlement-founder Lillian Wald to May Childs Nerney held at the Library of Congress reveals that Wald was involved in planning a protest of the The Birth of a Nation, further illuminating how connected the NAACP was with other important figures and organizations in our neighborhoods.

Over its next years at 70 Fifth Avenue, the NAACP continued to confront lynchings and race-based violence; discrimination in voting, housing, and employment; and the proliferation of demeaning, derogatory, and dehumanizing representations of Black Americans in the media. While here, the organization challenged the newly-instituted segregation within the federal government; began harnessing the power of litigation that would culminate in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision; established an anti-lynching fund and brought national attention to the oft-overlooked crime of lynching; pushed anti-lynching legislation approved by the House of Representatives; organized the Silent Protest Parade down Fifth Avenue, the first protest of its kind in New York City; and so much more.

Without a doubt, the NAACP and National Board of Review’s shared history is inextricably linked to 70 Fifth Avenue and the neighborhood south of Union Square. To learn more about the two organizations and the campaign against The Birth of a Nation, check out the recording of our program “The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, and Cinema below 14th Street” featuring Jennifer Fronc, or read Fronc’s book Monitoring the Movies: The Fight over Film Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century Urban America.

70 Fifth Avenue is just one of many sites we have identified as part of the film, civil rights, and African American history of the neighborhood South of Union Square. Check out our South of Union Square” Film History Tour, African American History Tour, and Civil Rights and Social Justice Tour to learn more about the extraordinary people and places we have documented in this historic neighborhood. Here you will find a trailblazing labor organization at 80 Fifth Avenue, the New York City Woman Suffrage League at 10 East 14th Street, and much more:

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