1. "‘Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’"

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1. "‘Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’"

Begin by reading "‘Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest," which provides important background about the film.

  • "‘Art [and History] by Lightning Flash’: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest"

  • What motivated Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith to engage in racist attacks on African Americans in the early years of the 20th century?

  • In what ways was Woodrow Wilson involved in the film Birth of a Nation? Why was his involvement significant?

  • Why did Griffith expect problems with the opening of the film? What steps did he take to counter the anticipated criticism?

  • Why did the NAACP decide to launch a campaign to censor this film?

2. NAACP: The Campaign to Censor Birth of a Nation

Read the following documents and respond the questions that follow. Downloadable worksheets are provided for some of the documents.

  • Jane Addams interview, March, 1915
    PDF worksheet version

  • Letter by Mary Childs Nerney, Secretary of the NAACP, April, 1915, to George Packard
    PDF worksheet version

  • New York Times reporting on a hearing in 1922 when D.W. Griffith decided to release Birth of a Nation

  • A photograph of the KKK’s 1925 march in Washington, D.C.

  • What were the main points in Addams’ critique of the film?

  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of her analysis of the film’s treatment of post-Civil War history?

  • How would you describe the tone of her comments?

  • Why did Addams, a white woman, serve as the spokesperson for the NAACP?

  • With whom did the NAACP meet to protest the showing of Birth of a Nation?

  • Why were these officials targeted?

  • To what extent were the efforts of the NAACP successful?

  • What issues were most troubling to Nerney? Why?

  • What is the tone of Nerney’s letter? Was it justified?

  • What reasons did Walter White give for petitioning the Motion Picture Commission to revoke Griffith’s permit to show Birth of a Nation?

  • On what grounds was the Commission authorized to revoke a permit?

  • Based on the information provided in this article, should the permit have been revoked? On what grounds?

  • What does the photograph of the Klan’s 1925 march in Washington, DC, tell us about the size and influence of the Klan?

  • Why did the NAACP, which had a record of defending First Amendment rights of free expression, urge officials to prohibit the showing of the film and/or delete certain scenes?

  • Why were local and state governments reluctant to censor Birth of a Nation?

  • What do these documents reveal about the NAACP as an organization?

  • What do these documents reveal about the nature, extent, and acceptance of racism at this point in American history?

  • Was the NAACP justified in trying to censor Birth of a Nation?

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