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‘The Birth of a Nation’ Galvanizes a Movement #SouthOfUnionSquare

Street View of 70 Fifth Avenue, Map data © 2020 Google; Photo of W.E.B. DuBois in 1918 from Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the 20th century, the area south of Union Square attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations, many of whom were challenging accepted American social and cultural ideals.

The release on February 8, 1915 of The Birth of a Nation — a silent white supremacist propaganda film credited with both resurrecting the Ku Klux Klan and creating the blueprint for the modern epic Hollywood blockbuster — catalyzed an important chapter in this neighborhood’s development as a place of social transformation and the development and regulation of the film industry in America. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures were two of the groups at the forefront of the fight against The Birth of a Nation’s disturbing content and rampant misinformation. Interestingly, both organizations were housed at 70 Fifth Avenue, a 1912 12-story Beaux Arts-style office at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street in this neighborhood.

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

“The worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is,” wrote New Yorker film critic Richard Brody in 2013. The insidious nature of the film’s subject matter was fortified and amplified by director D.W. Griffith’s technical artistry and innovation. At film’s climax, “​​Griffith cross cuts to the gallant Klansmen galloping furiously to the rescue, accompanied by the sounds of a live orchestra playing Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ The white women are rescued, the natural racial order of things is restored and a new nation is born — with rigid color lines…American moviegoers had never seen anything like it: spectacular battlefield panoramas, operatic melodrama, thrilling chase scenes — the full power of cinematic art pulling at their heartstrings and quickening their pulses. By all accounts, rapturous white audiences responded with tears, gasps, applause, hisses and raucous cheering.” 

Photo of the 1917 Silent March, from NYPL via Wikimedia Commons

Civil Rights activists along with allied progressive social and political organizations immediately understood the danger of this film. The NAACP, founded just a few years earlier in 1909 to fight discrimination, violence, and defamatory and demeaning public representations of black Americans, lead the charge in organizing New York City protests against the film, its egregious historical inaccuracies, and its deeply offensive portrayal of Black people. In 1914, the NAACP moved into the newly-built 70 Fifth Avenue as its new headquarters. W.E.B. DuBois of the NAACP wrote 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.” 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. Robust protests of The Birth of a Nation took place in Boston, under the leadership of newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter and the Boston branch of the NAACP which prompted many theater owners across the country to demand significant edits prior to screening, while in some cases the film was successfully banned. 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.

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

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 were headquartered at 70 Fifth Avenue, it’s possible that this interaction happened in person, within the building itself. The National Board of Review was founded in 1909 to fight government intervention in the film industry and is known today simply as the National Board of Review. In its 113-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 their stamp of approval for movies: “passed by the National Board of Review.” In explaining the role and work of the organization in 1926, its Executive Secretary Wilton A. Barrett wrote:

“The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, 70 Fifth Avenue, New York City, is a trained, volunteer, disinterested citizen organization, composed of upwards of three hundred people reviewing films in New York City before they are released for general exhibition to the public, with associate, advisory members and affiliate citizen groups in many localities across the country. The National Board is opposed to legal censorship and in favor of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures, publishing classified lists of, and information about them, and building up audiences and support for them through the work of community groups, in order that the producers may be encouraged to make the finest pictures and exhibitors to show them, and the people in general helped to a response to the best that the screen has to offer. This places the emphasis on making the public conscious of its taste in, and giving it a voice in the selection of its entertainment.”

When approached by the NAACP’s Nerney, the National Board of Review’s Howe agreed with her 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 re-screening 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.

A title card added to the opening credits of “The Birth of a Nation” following the protests of Civil Rights organizations and censorship boards like the NAACP and the National Board of Review, both located at 70 Fifth Avenue.

Unfortunately, the film was consistently re-released throughout the Silent Era and even released with sound and commentary in 1930. Following the film’s release, the Ku Klux Klan “re-launched” in December 1915 with new branding and merchandise often sold at screenings of The Birth of a Nation. The Klan reached its peak of power in the United States in 1924 with over 3 million members. The “new” Klan’s founder William J. Simmons openly claimed that Birth helped tremendously in recruiting new members. The repercussions of the negative influence of The Birth of a Nation can still be felt today: there was a surge of “Lost Cause” Confederate monuments erected in the years following the film’s release that still dot our landscape, the technical achievement of the film is still taught in film schools the world over, and the artistic formula of the film underpins a great number of Hollywood masterpieces.  “If you talk about it only as technological achievement and the brilliance of D.W. Griffith, then I think this is unfortunate. If you talk about it as representative of racism and white supremacy and America’s history in this regard, then I think that’s very different,” Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, told NPR. “The Birth of a Nation is a film that represents racism. It is at the foundation of what would become Hollywood. So if this is at the root, then it shouldn’t be a surprise when..there have been discussions about the lack of people of color being nominated for the Oscars. In my mind, this is very much a branch that grew out of the tree that was Birth of a Nation,” he added.

A timeline of Confederate monument construction in the United States courtesy of the “Whose Heritage?” project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

To honor the ongoing fight for Civil Rights and Social Justice in New York City and the United States as a whole, Village Preservation passionately advocated for the landmarking of 70 Fifth Avenue which resulted in the building’s New York City Landmark designation in May 2021. 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. In September 2021, the New York State Historic Preservation Office issued a determination of eligibility for the district to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, all the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission needs to do is follow suit to protect this irreplaceable district.

With the new mayoral administration and influx of new council members, Village Preservation is releasing new information, programs, and initiatives about the area South of Union Square. To learn more about the neighborhood, check out our new and frequently updated Virtual South of Union Square Map and Tours. Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. To help landmark these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here

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