On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, a bigot, saying she is treating minorities as potential votes. She fought back Thursday, saying, "He's taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America's two major political parties."
Clashes between white police and minorities in some cities have drawn the nation’s attention, with the reactions further polarizing Americans. The downtown Chesterton sign proclaiming “all lives matter” no doubt irritates the Black Lives Matter folks, who see their point as being lost by “all lives matter” campaigns — and vice versa.
That’s the modern backdrop for a national controversy that erupted 100 years ago in Northwest Indiana.
The birth of a controversy
D. W. Griffith’s film, “The Birth of a Nation,” was released in 1915. The nation’s first real blockbuster film remains as controversial today as it was then.
That film, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, hardened the lines in the civil rights battle. It gave white supremacists a symbol to rally behind, and it helped the black civil rights movement coalesce.
Just days before “The Birth of a Nation” played to record crowds at the Orpheum Theatre in Hammond on Aug. 28, 1916, two black men visited Hammond Mayor John Smalley’s office. They wanted to implore the mayor to prohibit the showing and said they represented the 500 black people who lived in Hammond at the time.
The mayor wasn’t in his office when they visited.
“I was in Peoria when ‘The Birth of a Nation’ showed there, and it created a feeling between blacks and whites which was unjust. The picture stirs up that feeling wherever it is seen,” one of the men said. “We object to its being shown here. We intend forming a colony and having our own church and theater in Hammond,” said the story in The Lake County Times.
Cara Caddoo, assistant professor of history and media studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, is an expert on the topic. She was fascinated when I read that quote to her Thursday.
Black Americans were exhibiting and attending movies at their churches during that era of segregation. The revenue from the films went toward building bigger churches and paying for their operations.
Results of film
Those black churches would spawn civil rights leaders some 50 years later, when people such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brought more protests and successes in ending segregation.
The movie's 1915 release came during an era of Jim Crow laws, when segregation was the rule of the land in the South. It also was an era of great migration, with blacks heading to the West and to the North, where they found work in factories.
The Aug. 17, 1916, article about the film being shown in Hammond mentioned that two years before then, there wouldn’t have been a protest against the film because there wasn’t a significant black population in Hammond.
“They are being imported by industries, and there are at least 500 in the city now,” the story reported.
The film also was shown at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso, with a 20-piece orchestra, on Dec. 14-16, 1916. There’s no recorded protest in Valparaiso that I could find, but Valparaiso wasn’t integrated until 1969.
The Hammond protest, however, was by no means unusual. The NAACP branch in Los Angeles protested the movie, and the demonstrations spread around the country and to other nations. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, formed a new NAACP branch to protest the movie and other racist films, Caddoo said.
“All of these people were communicating with one another,” she said. “We can call it the first mass black protest movement of the 20th century.”
These protests were by the first freeborn generation of black Americans. One poignant quote said they needed to revive the spirit of the ‘60s — the 1860s, not the 1960s. In the 1860s, blacks fought for freedom in the Civil War, Caddoo said.
For white supremacists, “The Birth of a Nation” offered a template for a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The white robes and hoods KKK members wore were the result of the film, not of careful study of the Reconstruction era, Caddoo said.
They saw that movie as a statement on the ideal condition of America, she said.
Klan in Indiana
Indiana was a center of KKK resurgence. At one point in the 1920s, the Klan exerted control over the Indiana General Assembly and some state officeholders.
On Sept. 30, 1922, The Lake County Times reported on the Hammond appearance of KKK principal Dr. L.A. Brown of Atlanta, Georgia, resulting in a “monster meeting” that filled Harrison Park. The crowd was estimated at 12,000 people.
“It was agreed that the turnout was the largest ever drawn to a gathering in Hammond,” the story said.
The KKK, Brown said at the time, “is a Christian, benevolent, beneficial order” that “has an educational platform in which it attempts to teach Americanism throughout America.”
The Klan took a hard line on immigration.
“No man not born in America can join,” Brown said.
The Klan was a Protestant organization that attacked Catholics and immigrants as well as blacks.
A changed nation
After “The Birth of A Nation,” the country changed, as did the world.
The United States joined in World War I and then in World War II. That helped solidify the nation’s position as an international powerhouse, with a military now scattered across the globe.
But the world changed, too. Formerly colonized countries were gaining independence, and they were primarily populated by black, brown and Asian people. The United States started to pay more attention to black protestors in the 1960s as a result, Caddoo said.
There’s a long way to go, as a July 14 Gallup poll acknowledges. Gallup said 57 percent of Americans expressed hope that a solution will be worked out to improve black-white relations. Another 40 percent said there’s no hope.
“It’s a long struggle that has continued through the ages,” Caddoo said.
People are asking many of the same questions about equality as they did during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign to earn the Democratic nomination for president nonetheless succeeded in bringing national attention to issues of parity.
Thomas Newsome is third vice president of the Gary chapter of the NAACP. Since “The Birth of a Nation” came out a century ago, “Why sure, there’s been progress. There’s been quite a bit of progress,” he said.
“We still have a ways to go. We can always be better. We have to start respecting all people for who they are and what they are."
So how do we make this happen?
“People need to have blinders,” Newsome said. “We need to look at other people as though color didn’t exist.”
If that finally happens, it will be the birth of a nation far different from the one D.W. Griffith portrayed in 1915.