Anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of movie history knows about the stature of D.W. Griffith and his controversial masterpiece, “The Birth of a Nation.” Likewise, it’s hard to imagine making it through February (Black History Month) in an American elementary school without becoming familiar with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.
Alongside of this cast of familiar and historically monumental figures, a new book by a veteran reporter and journalism professor introduces Monroe Trotter, a man whose life story is as remarkable as these others and who, in his day, wielded comparable influence in this nation’s early 20th century struggles over civil liberties and civil rights.
Dick Lehr, whose investigative reporting at The Boston Globe earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and who now teaches at Boston University, subtitles his new book “How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.” This seems a bit of an overstatement. As Lehr thoroughly documents, protests over the racist content of the film indeed led to lengthy, ugly and sometimes violent protests, but the battles were more about the proper role of government censorship and the still combustible question of freedom of expression — even when that expression offends people and foments civil unrest. And, as the feelings expressed in the film and about it revealed, fighting over racial matters a half-century after the end of the Civil War hardly needed reigniting.
The first half of the book works primarily by paralleling the biographies of Griffith and Trotter, whose destinies were shaped in each case by their larger-than-life fathers. Griffith’s was a blustery alcoholic who served in the Confederate Army and the Kentucky State Legislature and never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if it reflected heroically on himself and his people. It was Griffith’s father who instilled in the son his view of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which later drew him to the themes in Thomas A. Dixon’s novel “The Clansmen,” which he adapted into his landmark cinematic achievement.
Trotter’s father fought with the Union Army’s all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment. The first black man to reach the rank of lieutenant, the elder Trotter also fought against unequal pay between white and black soldiers. After his military service, he held the highest position then available to a black man, recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, a post previously held by Frederick Douglass.
The younger Trotter benefited from his father’s elevated station and graduated from Harvard, having excelled academically and socially. It was only after college that he learned that, despite his brilliance and ambition, his professional opportunities were limited because of his race.
Griffith’s early career pursuits also were thwarted, in his case by a lack of talent. He was a professional stage actor for a decade, never rising above a supporting role. He later had an ignominious turn as a playwright before finding his true calling in the infancy of the motion picture industry.
Monroe Trotter’s lack of business opportunities led him to his fate as a newspaper editor and provocateur, first rising to prominence as a foil to Booker T. Washington’s previously uncontested position of racial accommodation. Trotter gained supporters for his opposition to Washington’s emphasis that only certain lines of work were appropriate for blacks. But Trotter’s unyielding stance was perceived in many circles as too aggressive and a threat to his people’s chances for advancement.
Fellow Harvard alum Dubois agreed with the substance of Trotter’s views but not his methods. Ultimately, Dubois emerged as a leader in the NAACP as the most prominent liberal black to oppose the “Bookerites” while Trotter was marginalized as too radical.
Even so, Trotter helped elect Woodrow Wilson governor of New Jersey. Later, after Wilson became president, Trotter was granted an audience and complained about the president’s lack of action in desegregating the federal government. Standing up to Wilson re-established Trotter’s standing as an important civil rights figure and positioned him to lead the protest in his hometown of Boston when Griffith’s divisive photo-play traveled to the birthplace of the Abolitionist movement.
Griffith, meanwhile, had arranged a White House screening of his film, and the president’s apparent enjoyment of the movie was one of the director’s primary defenses against its attackers.
Lehr’s detailed narrative of the various legal hearings during the early part of 1915 over whether the movie could legally be banned (ultimately, it could not) costs the book some of its character-driven verve. But “The Birth of a Nation” is an important account of a volatile moment in the eternal debate over how a free country regulates unpleasant expressions of those freedoms.
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