Works of cultural significance that once earned the dubious distinction “Banned in Boston” included books by Ernest Hemingway and H. G. Wells, the Everly Brothers song “Wake Up Little Susie,” and the bare legs of the great dancer Isadora Duncan.
Boston’s long standing as perhaps the most puritanical hub of American cultural life helped muddle the city’s historical legacy, which also includes its rightful honorific as the “Cradle of Liberty.” In the home of the abolitionist movement, it’s a bitter irony that one work of art that played on unimpeded was “The Birth of a Nation,” the early cinematic masterpiece by film pioneer D. W. Griffith that faced heated opposition for its blatant racism when it opened in 1915.
The national protest against Griffith’s technically impressive but emotionally disturbing Civil War film was led by William Monroe Trotter, a Boston newspaper editor and activist once considered nearly as influential as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, other major African-American civil-rights leaders of his day. Trotter’s sustained effort to condemn the demeaning portrayals of black people in Griffith’s film is the subject of “The Birth of a Nation,” a notable new book by Dick Lehr, a Boston University professor and former Boston Globe reporter.
The coauthor, with Gerard O’Neill, of “Black Mass,” one of the first major detailed chronicles of Whitey Bulger’s criminal rise, Lehr takes on a much more noble subject here in reconstructing the life and times of the all-but-forgotten Trotter. Like the activist himself, Lehr’s book digs in to unfold a protracted struggle; like the filmmaking innovator Griffith, the author deftly manages competing story lines.
Beginning with the respective Civil War histories of the two subjects’ immediate forebears — James Monroe Trotter was a distinguished member of the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry, while the “blustery” Jacob Griffith joined Confederate forces at age 42 as one of the so-called “wild Kentuckians” — the book traces the concurrent rise to prominence of the veterans’ two sons. With narrative flair, Lehr toggles between their stories until the two men’s paths collide in the early part of a new century.
After the Civil War, James Monroe Trotter went on to a notable life as a music historian and the first black man hired by the US Postal Service. As a result, the junior Trotter had a comfortable and promising upbringing. At Harvard, he was the first black student ever elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
“He believed that upon graduation the world was waiting for him,” writes Lehr. Finding only job prospects that fell beneath his abilities, Trotter took on a new identity as an agitator for civil rights. With a renewed sense of purpose, he spoke out against accommodationist Washington politicians, launched the weekly Guardian newspaper, and cofounded the Boston Literary and Historical Foundation, a “forum for militant race opinion.”
Soon Trotter was a figure of national prominence, partnering with Du Bois in the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP, and imploring President Woodrow Wilson to reform the discriminatory policies of government agencies. It was Trotter’s testy meeting with Wilson in the White House that made him, in his day, a household name.
The three-hour “Birth of a Nation” has gone down in film history as a troubled landmark, a virtuoso achievement in terms of technique — featuring multiple camera angles, epic battle sequences, and the like — but one that has been overshadowed by its lurid scenes of black men lusting after white women and the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue. The film was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman,” which Trotter did in fact block when it was briefly staged as a play in Boston. (He called the writer “an unasylumed maniac.”)
A few years later, Trotter and his supporters pleaded their case against Griffith’s film first with Boston Mayor James Michael Curley (who typically enjoyed wielding his censorial power), and then with Governor David I. Walsh, a civil-rights proponent who promised to support the protest. At this point Lehr’s book, which has been humming along as he unspools the tales of the filmmaker and the activist, bogs down a bit in the details of Trotter’s lobbying efforts at City Hall and the State House.
Still, “The Birth of a Nation” recounts a period of American history that certainly deserves a fresh look. With the centennial of Griffith’s film approaching, it’s instructive to recall that the Klan, all but defunct by the turn of the 20th century, would be revived in the wake of the movie’s box office triumph to a membership of 100,000 by 1921.
Even Griffith, who presided over a massive public relations campaign to rebut claims that his film was racially inflammatory, would admit in later life that he felt it should no longer be shown to general audiences — only film students.
Trotter did manage to get the film banned during a second run in Boston, several years after the premiere. He also was credited with what some would call the very first “sit-in,” when he refused to leave a barber’s chair in Philadelphia after being denied a haircut on the basis of the color of his skin.
But like his onetime nemesis Griffith, Trotter would fade from view. Lehr quotes one young newspaper employee who said it seemed as though the aging editor was weighed down by the idea that “there would be no brilliant victory in his lifetime.” Maybe so, but the battle he waged helped give birth to a new nation.James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.” E-mail him at jamesgsullivan@ gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.