Today in History

Today in History: February 8

The Birth of a Nation

Poster
Cleveland [Ohio] Advocate
September 25, 1915.
The African-American Experience in Ohio: Selections from the Ohio Historical Society

On February 8, 1915, D. W. Griffith's controversial silent film, The Birth of a Nation, premiered in Los Angeles, California. Although local censors approved the film, city council members responded to concerns about the racist nature of the picture by ordering it suppressed. Released under the title, The Clansman, the movie debuted only after Griffith sought an injunction from the court.

Poster
"Elliot & Sherman Film Corp. ...Present D.W. Griffith's…The Birth of a Nation,"
Milwaukee; Riverside Printing Co., 1915.
Prints & Photographs Division

Griffith's story centers on two white families torn apart by the Civil War and reunited by what one subtitle calls, "common defense of their Aryan birthright." Promoting a skewed historical vision of a war-torn South further abused by carpetbaggers, scalawags, and radical Republicans, the film remakes Lincoln as a friend of the South. "I shall deal with them as though they had never been away," Griffith's Lincoln says. In The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan rushes in to fill the void left by Lincoln's untimely death and the chaos of Reconstruction.

The first part of the film begins in the antebellum period, takes viewers across bloody battlefields of the Civil War, through the burning of Atlanta, and ends with the assassination of Lincoln. Yet, the director never loses sight of the human side of these sweeping events—at least where white Southerners are concerned. The movie is as famous for its tender portrayal of family life as its imaginative use of the camera.

The Birth of a Nation advanced the art of cinema even as it enshrined racist stereotypes and historical myth in the new and powerful medium of film. Assisted by cameraman Billy Bitzer, Griffith packed his film with a virtual catalog of innovative film techniques. The Birth of a Nation introduced or remastered total-screen close-ups, night photography, outdoor photography, fade-out and panoramic long shots, as well as the liberal use of crosscutting between scenes to build suspense. Surgical editing and imaginative camera work were necessary to propel Griffith's three-hour-long epic.

Picket
"NAACP Protests the Screening of the Movie 'Birth of a Nation...",
New York, New York, 1947.
Prints & Photographs Division

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) immediately and effectively protested the film. Laden with stereotypes of happy slaves and lazy freedmen, as well as racist assumptions that African-American sexuality was inherently lascivious, The Birth of a Nation was considered a dangerous film. The crime of lynching black men, usually on trumped-up charges of sexual assault, remained a very real concern in 1915 and Griffith's movie effectively portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a defender of endangered white womanhood. Protest groups had the film suppressed in several places and Griffith quickly edited out some of the most egregious scenes including a segment depicting the castration of an accused rapist.

As the movie was screened across the country during the late 1910s, protest groups managed to prevent showings in a variety of locales including Ohio, West Virginia, and New York City. As late as the 1940s, the NAACP continued to picket the film and its efforts led the film industry to add prohibitions against ethnic slurs to its production code. Countering the film's negative stereotypes spurred African-American filmmaking.

Not surprisingly, uproar over The Birth of a Nation failed to prevent its success at the box office. The film remains among the most profitable movies ever made. However, heightened sensitivity to Griffith's racist viewpoint caused many who initially praised the movie to retract their statements. Contrary to the director's intent, The Birth of a Nation reveals more about early twentieth-century race relations than it tells us about the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Still, the film's contribution to the art of moviemaking is undeniable. The film’s importance is acknowledged by its inclusion on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Years… 100 Movies (1998).

cover of a piece of sheet music
"The Perfect Song,"
The Love Strain from D.W. Griffith's Gigantic Spectacle The Birth of a Nation,
Words by Clarence Lucas, music by Joseph Carl Breil, 1915.
Historic American Sheet Music: 1850-1920

Learn more about the people and controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation.

Up, Up, and Away…

Balloon in Air with Men Below
Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe Observing the Battle From His Balloon Intrepid,
Fair Oaks, Virginia, May 31, 1862.
Selected Civil War Photographs

Jules Verne, author of A Journey to the Center of the Earth (external link), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (external link), and Around the World in Eighty Days (external link), was born on February 8, 1828, in Nantes, France. His depictions of fantastic technological advances, including space travel and television, helped create the genre of science fiction. Inspired by Verne's popular novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, American reporter Nellie Bly bested the record of fictional Phileas Fogg, when she completed her 1889-90 circumnavigation in just 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds.

In 1863, French readers were enjoying Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon. Simultaneously, the United States Army was using balloons lofted by hydrogen gas in Civil War reconnaissance missions. The May 31, 1862, photograph above shows Professor Thaddeus S. Lowe observing a Peninsular Campaign battle from a balloon anchored by soldiers on the ground. After the war, balloons were used to create detailed images, called "bird's-eye views," of parks, cities, and even the fairgrounds of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia.

The Centennial--balloon view of the grounds
The Centennial—Balloon View of the Grounds,
[Drawn] from photographs by R. Newell & Sons and sketches by Theo. R. Davis, 1876.
Map Collections
Click on the map and use the MrSID viewer to appreciate this incredibly detailed engraving. Can you find Horticulture Hall?

Airships, or dirigibles, offered greater control over flight. Essentially motors mounted on helium or hydrogen filled balloons, airships contained propellers and rudders for steering the craft. By the early twentieth century, photographers used airships to create aerial photographs of U.S. cities. During World War I, rigid German airships, called "zeppelins," were used to bomb London and Paris.

Unfortunately, airships were accident prone. The crash of the Hindenburg, the largest rigid airship ever made, on May 6, 1937, essentially ended the use of dirigibles in commercial transportation. Ultimately, the airship gave way to the success of the Wright Brothers' heavier-than-air flying machine.

Army blimp at Lincoln Memorial
Army Blimp at Lincoln Memorial,
Washington, D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-circa 1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydcak, 1923-1959

  • The Library of Congress contains the largest Verne holdings outside of France. Some 400 rare Verne volumes, donated by Willis E. Hurd, make up the core of the collection. Through copyright deposit, the Library acquired many early English-language editions of Verne's stories. The Library's collections also include plays, films, and television productions adapted from Verne's works. Using the Library's online Catalog, perform an Author search on Verne, Jules to see records of these items.
  • Alexander Graham Bell and Harry Houdini were among those fascinated by human flight during the early twentieth century. Read Today in History features on these men as well as famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.
  • Known as "Lady Lindy," Amelia Earhart made her solo flight across the Atlantic on May 20-21, 1932. In 1935, she became the first person to complete the even longer flight from Hawaii to California. Palmist Nellie Simmons Meier prepared an Earhart palm print and character analysis in June 1933. This unusual document is available through the collection Words and Deeds in American History.
  • Visit The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress to learn more about their pioneering work which led to the world's first powered, controlled and sustained flight.

Airship entering hangar
ZR3 Entering Hangar First Time,
Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, circa 1924.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991