A little more than a century ago, censorship was employed as a controversial tool in the cause of racial harmony. The D.W. Griffith Birth of a Nation film was, without doubt, a landmark film, running an epic three hours in length, with an immense cast and technical innovations including close-ups, fade-outs and a special musical score for orchestra. It was the first American film to be screened at the White House. When the film was released in February 1915, millions of Americans lined up to see it.
Except in Ohio, where Birth of a Nation was banned for more than two years. State censors objected to the film’s outrageous portrayal of African Americans. Charles H. Williams, speaking on behalf of the Ohio Board of Censors, specifically cited the portrayal of African Americans as justification for keeping the film out of Ohio:
Not only does [“Birth Of A Nation”] rekindle the feeling of sectional hatred, but it strongly tends to arouse hatred and prejudice among the coming generation against a race that is living in our midst, 160,000 of whom are in the State of Ohio. Too, there are eight millions of this race in the United States; and since the constitution of the United States guaranteed them equal rights, and having taken an oath to support the constitution, I consider it wholly unwise, unjust, dangerous and harmful to officially approve a film that reflects upon them and incites hatred toward them, retarding them in their progress, as this film does.
Griffith’s film was based on the best-selling novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. If Dixon’s sympathies were not obviously communicated by the title, his novel’s subtitle made his viewpoint crystal clear: “A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Producers of Birth of a Nation sent emissaries to Ohio, hoping to get the ban lifted. Rather than argue that the film was not racist propaganda, they mostly contended that censorship in general was bad and that censoring motion pictures was only the beginning of government interference in private freedom.
Among these emissaries was J.J. McCarthy, described as “general manager of the financial interests” behind the film. He was more direct. The Cincinnati Enquirer [October 5, 1915] reprinted the statement McCarthy issued from his room at the Sinton Hotel:
The protests of a few negroes are not based upon facts. Of course, if the negro is to be given special privileges over all other citizens then we are face to face with a strikingly new state of affairs in our political conditions.
Whatever the rest of Ohio thought, white Cincinnatians were vocal in agitating to see Birth of a Nation. As reported in Moving Picture World [April 1, 1916]:
That public sentiment In Cincinnati, as far as any reliable indication of it could be obtained, is overwhelmingly In favor of the picture, was shown by the production at the hearing in Columbus of seventy-six affidavits of leading citizens who had seen the picture, and all of whom declared that It was one of the finest they had ever seen, and entirely unobjectionable. The present postmaster of Cincinnati and his predecessor, who resigned recently, were among those whose affidavits were produced to this effect.
Ohio censors reissued their ban in 1916, a decision upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court, the only entity that had the power to overrule the Board of Censors. Eventually, Ohio censors relented in February 1917 and allowed Birth of a Nation to be exhibited in Ohio. Their two-year ban had survived lawsuits in state and federal courts, all of which supported the right of Ohio censors to impose a ban.
Throughout the ban, state censors argued that they objected not only to the insidious portrayal of African Americans in the film itself, but to the film’s inflammatory potential to incite racial unrest in Ohio. That fear came true in April 1917 when a large public demonstration in Cleveland against the film turned violent.
Once the statewide ban was lifted, Cincinnati responded with enthusiasm to “Birth Of A Nation.” In a report [March 17, 1917] on the first Ohio screenings, The Cincinnati Post identified the factors that appealed to white Ohioans:
The motif of the plot is a powerful appeal to those most elementary feelings, independence and racial pride.
A few days later, when Birth of a Nation had its Cincinnati premiere at the Grand Opera House on Vine Street, the Post’s critic [March 20, 1917] was even more specific:
There was considerable cheering and some fine, healthy hissing, both rendered in the proper places. . . . The hisses, mentioned above, came when South Carolina’s negro legislature passed a bill legalizing marriage between negroes and whites.
The Enquirer [March 21, 1917] claimed the two-year Ohio ban was nothing more than political pandering by a Republican Governor, Frank B. Willis, to the African American voters who helped elect him to office.
Once Birth of a Nation finally opened in Cincinnati, audiences responded. The Grand Opera House offered 85 performances of the film between March and April 1917. It is estimated that more than 100,000 tickets were sold for the Cincinnati showings.