‘The Birth of a Nation’ sparked decades of racial violence. This Jesuit understood its unholy power.
As we approach the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and experience a growing recognition of its horrors, it is worth remembering a question raised by Daniel Lord, S.J. (1888-1955), one of the most influential Catholic priests in the United States from the 1930s to the 1950s. Did the rise of the movie industry fuel the flames of racial hatred in the United States?
Lord grew up in Chicago but moved to St. Louis for his Jesuit training. Ordained as a priest in 1923, he was soon assigned to become national director of the “Queen’s Work” office in St. Louis—named for Mary, the mother of Jesus or “The Queen of Heaven.” The office had been created to promote the Jesuit sodality movement. Sodalities were religious clubs at Catholic high schools, colleges and parishes. At their peak some 13,000 sodalities existed across the United States and Canada. During his career Lord also wrote some 230 pamphlets that sold over 25 million copies to educate Catholics on living out their faith.
Lord had a great interest in theater and then movies. From his infancy, his mother took him to live theater, everything from vaudeville to opera. He witnessed the beginnings of the movie industry, from the early Kinetoscopes to nickelodeon theaters. He watched a movie crew film a bank robbery scene using the front of the synagogue in his neighborhood. He also performed in amateur theater as a child and throughout his education. Later in life, he would write some 70 plays for children, as well as religious plays, musicals and pageants. Some of his productions had casts of over 1,000.
Did the rise of the movie industry fuel the flames of racial hatred in the United States?
By a fluke he saw all the silent movies that came out in the 1920s. His Jesuit community saw only a few films a year, but several Jesuits were assigned to screen all the films to find the few appropriate ones. Since Lord played the piano for the silent films, he got to sit in on the films being reviewed. Because of his background in theater and knowledge of movies, he was then chosen as the Catholic technical adviser for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 movie about Jesus, “The King of Kings.”
Lord went to Southern California to spend a week on the set. His biggest contribution was to get DeMille to greatly reduce the somewhat salacious opening sequence, in color, of Mary Magdalene prior to her conversion. Lord also helped write the title cards for the film. Lord and DeMille remained friends for life.
Several years later, Lord was tapped to write the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code, later called the Hays Code, providing moral guidelines for films (though someone else took credit for writing it). Lord, knowing the power of movies on audiences, wanted movies to be made that spoke to the best instincts of people, not their worst.
At the end of his life, Lord wrote his autobiography, Played by Ear. One story in the book that stands out is his description of seeing the movie“The Birth of a Nation,” based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel and play The Clansman. D. W. Griffith directed the silent movie in 1915, and it is widely recognized as a milestone in movie production. At three hours, it was the longest movie ever produced up to that point. It included many cinematic innovations, such as a full musical score written for live orchestras in each theater. The movie also popularized the use of close-ups, fade-outs and battle scenes, with hundreds of extras made to appear as thousands.
Daniel Lord, knowing the power of movies on audiences, wanted movies to be made that spoke to the best instincts of people, not their worst.
The movie was also incredibly racist, portraying the noble white South in its fight against Black people (white actors in Blackface), who were portrayed as evil, and presenting the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. Although there were protests against the film in some places, it was widely popular.
In the spring of 1915, Lord had just completed his Jesuit training in philosophy. That summer he went home to visit his parents in Chicago, and he took his mother to see the newly released “The Birth of a Nation.” He described the experience in Played by Ear:
But deep down inside, I recall being troubled. Up to that moment I had not been even aware of a Negro problem. Now I walked from the theater wondering why the audience did not in a mob surge to the Negro district of Chicago’s growing Bronzeville and burn the Negro dwellings about the inhabitants’ ears. The deep hatred that Dixon had written into The Clansman had been blown high and hot in the film. Griffith, whether he meant to or not, made many persons hate Negroes and dread any emancipation given them. And I knew that I was in the presence of a medium [the movies] so powerful that it well might change our whole attitude toward life, civilization, and established customs.
Lord went on to note how influential Griffith’s propaganda could be:
I had become acquainted with the Ku Klux Klan through Sherlock Holmes and his adventure of the orange pips. Now I thought of them as the Marines riding to the rescue of poor, oppressed, besieged, endangered whites. No doubt about it, the horrible bigotry of the KKK which sprang at the throat of the Catholic Church and American liberties not a decade later rode to its brief and ugly triumphs largely on a road down which had dashed Griffith’s clansmen.
Four years later, in 1919, the very thing that Lord had feared took place in Chicago: a race riot in which 38 people died. There were many other such riots in the wake of the film. Did “The Birth of a Nation” lead to more mass race violence in America?
Here is some of the history of such violence. There were many race riots—some might be better labeled as “race massacres”—in the South after the Civil War, from 1865 to1899. And these are the major race riots in the United States in the 1900s before the movie:
1900: New Orleans, La.
1906: Little Rock, Ark., Scooba and Wahalak, Miss.
1908: Springfield, Ill.
1910: Slocum, Tex.
1910: Riots across the nation after a victory by African-American boxer Jack Johnson.
In 1915, “The Birth of a Nation” was seen in theaters.
1917: East St. Louis, Ill. (perhaps 200 African Americans died); Chester, Pa.; Lexington, Ky.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Houston, Tx.
1919: Riots took place in 25 cities, including Chicago. In the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas, somewhere between 100 and 237 African Americans died.
1920: Ocoee Massacre (Ocoee, Fla); some 60-70 African Americans died.
1920: West Frankfort, Ill.
1921: Tulsa Race Massacre (Tulsa, Ok.); somewhere between 150 and 300 African Americans died.
How could "The Birth of a Nation" not have been a factor in creating moral outrage at perceived—and often false—injustices?
More such violence took place in the 1920s through the 1940s. Some of these riots were set off by a crime committed by an African American against a white victim. But often these riots started over false rumors that such a crime had been committed. Frequently, there were imagined fears that African-Americans wanted to kill all whites.
So what was the impact of “The Birth of a Nation” in setting the stage for this violence? There is no way to prove or disprove causality. And other factors were at play. The disruptions caused by mobilization for World War I and then demobilization played a role as whites and Blacks competed for jobs. But how could the film not have been a factor in creating moral outrage at perceived—and often false—injustices? The movie also justified violent responses to such fears outside of the legal system.
Imagine, in 1915, seeing the first epic movie ever made. The viewers would have never experienced such a spectacle before. Yet this momentous occasion was used to promote and fuel racial hatred.
Among his many projects in the years that followed, Daniel Lord undertook serious efforts to fight racism. In segregated St. Louis, he helped to create theatrical productions with racially-mixed casts that included songs and skits directly attacking racism. He also wrote against racism and promoted desegregation of Catholic institutions. He saw all humans as equals and could not understand prejudice, especially racial prejudice.