In 1916, A. J. Sampson of Phoenix Arizona, was Assistant Adjutant General of the Grand Army of the Republic’s (G. A. R.) Department of Arizona. He probably influenced the G. A. R. in the Grand Canyon State to wade into a dispute over whether a popular but controversial movie should be legally shown. The dispute within the state was hottest in Phoenix.
Sampson left Ohio to fight in the Civil War, and at one point commanded U. S. Colored Troops. After the disaster of the Battle of the Crater, Sampson wrote a newspaper account of operations in Petersburg in which he praised the courage of the black fighters. After the war, he began moving west, working as a lawyer in Missouri, in the Colorado Territory (where he became Attorney General), and in Phoenix, where he also invested in ranching and mining. Additionally, Sampson had a distinguished career as a Republican campaign speaker, a G. A. R. activist, and (probably not coincidentally) a holder of diplomatic appointments.[i]
Leaders of Phoenix’s small black community were pressing for a ban on “The Birth of a Nation,” D. W. Griffith’s stylistically groundbreaking but morally questionable film about the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Department Encampment of the G. A. R. of Arizona joined the call to censor the film, saying they’d seen it and “[i]t has not a single feature to commend it” and ought to be banned. The resolution quoted Democratic Governor Woodbridge Ferris of Michigan as calling the movie “an insult to the colored race and to the soldiers who fought under the Stars and Stripes.” Sampson delivered a copy of the resolution to Phoenix authorities.[ii]
It took until 1916, a year after its initial release, for “The Birth of a Nation” to reach Phoenix. As soon as the movie came out, Griffith’s publicity effort was nearly as comprehensive and masterful as the effects and artistic craft which went into his film itself. Griffith arranged showings in Washington, D. C. In addition to a private White House showing, Griffith exhibited “Birth” at the Raleigh Hotel in a late-February 1915 event in honor of Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, a Confederate veteran.[iii]
This showing symbolized the great public demand which the movie would attract. But the same Chief Justice who witnessed the showing in his personal capacity joined in giving a cautionary message to the movie industry in his official capacity. Right after attending Birth of a Nation, White joined a 1915 Supreme Court opinion denying movies the protection of constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press. Movies were a public exhibition like boxing matches, and could be regulated – and banned – like other exhibitions. [iv] And there were plenty of people who wanted state and local governments to use their Court-recognized authority to prohibit Griffith’s film, which they denounced as false and tending to provoke clashes between the races.
Like the Thomas Dixon novel on which it was based, “The Birth of a Nation” portrayed the South fighting a valiant struggle in the Civil War. After the South’s defeat, designing Northern politicians – eschewing the conciliatory ideas of the martyred Lincoln – plagued the Southland with evil carpetbaggers who exploited ignorant black voters and promoted misgovernment and lawlessness. Then the Ku Klux Klan rose up to fight carpetbag misgovernment and black crime, succeeding in liberating the South. Such was the historical tale given by the movie, through the viewpoints of the good-guy and bad-guy characters.
The movie attracted large audiences beginning with its 1915 release, though not everyone reacted in the same way. A new Ku Klux Klan, inspired in part by the movie, started up. Black organizations and activists, including the recently-formed NAACP, denounced the movie as defamatory to their people and unfit to be shown. Unsuccessful in most communities, the censorship effort worked in some places like Ohio and Kanas, which banned the film. While his movie was legal – and profitable – in most of the country, Griffith was incensed at the censors. Griffith published an eloquent pamphlet against censorship – a pamphlet which might have been issued by a modern civil-liberties organization.[v]
Phoenix shared America’s tension between embracing the new entertainment medium and guarding against films which exploited the public’s baser impulses.
In January 1912, on the eve of Arizona’s statehood, Phoenix set up a committee to refer sexually-immoral films to the City Council for banning. A stronger censorship law met a mayoral veto on free-expression grounds in 1913, but in 1915 the local government passed a new censorship ordinance. This law created a seven-member censorship board consisting of the four Commissioners (as the members of the now-renamed City Council were called), the mayor, the City Manager, and the chief of police. In addition to immoral or sexual-improper films, the new ordinance provided for banning movies which “shall in any wise tend to excite race hatred or prejudice.” This ban on racially-incendiary pictures was apparently provoked by a movie called “The [n-word],” based on a play of the same name.[vi]
The Arizona Republican, opposing the 1915 ordinance, represented Phoenix boosterism in favor of movies. The area was a great place to shoot western films, and besides, the movie industry provided a sources of jobs – and advertising, the paper noted. Specifically, the newspaper praised Romaine Fielding’s company and the free advertising his movies were providing for Phoenix and the surrounding area. The Republican averred that the movie industry had an effective self-censorship system, making state and local censorship unnecessary. The paper was sympathetic to an industry-supported Congressional censorship bill to displace the patchwork of local censorship regulations – though cautioning that the bill might infringe on states’ rights to decide what public entertainments were suitable for their communities.[vii]
The Birth of a Nation belatedly reached Phoenix in early 1916. As usual, the movie got saturation publicity – the Republican’s pages included fulsome praise of the picture. The Elk theater was reserved for showings of Birth.[viii]
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the new cinematic arrival. The small black community in the city, though subject to segregated schools, still had the vote, and thus could get attention from municipal officials.[ix] Mrs. Ella White wanted to make sure that the black community called the local government’s attention to Griffith’s movie.
Ella White’s husband George was a Pullman porter, a comparatively prestigious position within the black community at the time. He had a shocking experience when visiting Temple, Texas in 1915. A mob lynched a black man accused of multiple murders. At one point the mob accosted George White, but left him alone after being satisfied that White wasn’t involved with the murders. George White brought this vivid experience back to Phoenix and shared it with his wife Ella. Birth of a Nation had a lynching scene in which the Klan lynchers were portrayed sympathetically.[x]
Mrs. White got to work among her connections to mobilize the black community in favor of censoring Birth. She started with the Arizona Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, a civic organization which had been founded (coincidentally?) shortly after the Texas lynching the previous year, and of which Mrs. White was president. With the clubwomen mobilized, Mrs. White also enlisted the support of local black churches and a prominent black businessman, William P. Crump. City officials now got a large number of petitions from blacks who wanted the inflammatory movie banned in Phoenix.[xi]
At a meeting of the city Commissioners, the Commissioners and the mayor considered the petition and promptly constituted themselves a censorship board. They ordered Birth of a Nation banned.[xii]
A Republican editorial complained that the authorities were censoring a pathbreaking movie merely to please black voters. In its news columns, the Republican ran an article covering different perspectives on the issue. John Walthall, whose brother Henry starred in the movie, said that the activists misunderstood Birth – the villains were not the blacks, but the carpetbaggers. The “ignorant and supersititous” blacks of Reconstruction simply showed forth the presumably better qualities of “the negro of today.” The paper also interviewed Ella White so as to get “The Colored Viewpoint” (as a subhead in the article put it). White, in the paper’s seemingly-accusing words, “admitted” starting the local campaign against the film. Denouncing “the terrible effect of that picture,” White appealed to city residents: “We are working for the uplift of our people. Cannot the public sacrifice its desire to view a production for the general good? All we ask for is fair play.”[xiii]
William P. Crump wrote to the Republican calling attention to an apparent election dirty trick – a purported “Colored Voters Committee” had credited the mayor with banning Birth, but Crum said no such committee existed. Crump’s main point was that the movie incited racial violence and hatred. If Birth was popular, it was popular among the same kind of people as “those who crowd theaters to view ‘Sapho,’ ‘Hypocrite,’ ‘Damaged Goods,’ and other potentially immoral and licentious plays.”[xiv]
To be continued…
[i] “God Alone Knows the Degree of Their Misery: An Ohio officer at the Crater,” Dan Masters’ Civil War Chronicles, July 13, 2019, https://dan-masters-civil-war.blogspot.com/2019/07/god-alone-knows-degree-of-their-misery.html.
[ii] Sampson to editor, The Arizona Republican, April 22, 1916, p. 4; “Gov. Woodbridge Nathan Ferris,” https://www.nga.org/governor/woodbridge-nathan-ferris/. The Arizona Republican would change its name to the Arizona Republic in 1930, see Arizona Republic – Ballotpedia.
[iii] The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Henry B. Walthall, 1915. The movie was based on Thomas Dixon, The Clansman; A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1905). “Chief Justice and Senators at ‘Movie’,” The Washington Herald, February 20, 1915, p.4; “Edward Douglass White, 1910-1921,” https://supremecourthistory.org/chief-justices/edward-white-1910-1921/. The story of the movie’s reception is told (though without the Phoenix events) in Melvyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of all Time” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Dick Lehr, The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014). My general discussion of the movie’s censorship odyssey comes from these sources.
[iv] Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm’n of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (February 23, 1915). This decision was overruled almost four decades later, in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952).
[v] “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan,” https://www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film. David Wark Griffith, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America (Los Angeles: No publisher given, 1915).
[vi] “Ordinance No. 501,” Arizona Republican, January 22, 1912, p. 2; Arizona Republican, January 19, 1913, p. 16; “Commission is Censor Board,” Arizona Republican, June 5, 1915, p.6; “Ordinance No. 50,” Arizona Republican, June 5. 1915, p. 9. The play on which “The [n-word]” was based was a vivid melodrama with a lynching, a Southern governor who is secretly black, and a racial-uplift theme. Edward Sheldon, “The [n-word]”: An American Play in Three Acts (New York: MacMillan, 1915). The play’s author called the play’s title “ironical.” Eric Wollencott Barnes, The Man Who Lived Twice: The Biography of Edward Sheldon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 65.
[vii] “Romaine Fielding’s Payroll $15,000 a Month to Phoenix,” The Arizona Republican, April 6, 1915, p. 1; “The Movies,” The Arizona Republican, June 8, 1915, p.4; “We Always Have a Remedy,” The Arizona Republican, June 9, 1915, p. 4; “A Federal Censorship,” The Arizona Republican, January 14, 1916, p. 4.
[viii] “Birth of a Nation is Booked Here,” Arizona Republican, February 28, 1916, p. 10.
[ix] Bradford Luckingham, Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989), 62-65.
[x] Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 58-59; “Negro Burned at Stake in Temple,” Arkansas Democrat, July 31, 1915, p. 10.
[xi] “Colored Women of Arizona Organize,” Arizona Republican,August 15, 1915, p. 10; Crump’s Letter to the editor, Arizona Republican, March 4, 1916, p . 4; Luckingham, 63-64; Flamming, 59; “Proscription of a Picture,” Arizona Republican, March 3, 1916, p. 12.
[xii] “Commission Votes to Stop Birth of Nation,” Arizona Republican, March 2, 1916, p. 12; “A Ban on a Picture,” Arizona Republican, March 3, 1916, p. 4.
[xiii] “A Ban on a Picture,” “Proscription of a Picture.”
[xiv] Crump’s letter to the editor.