Beacon Street Diary blog

It's only a movie

Last month on January 15, President Obama hosted a screening of the critically acclaimed film Selma. The movie recounts the1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. It opens with Dr. King's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo and ends in Montgomery, Alabama a little more than three months later. But the story extends far beyond those miles and few months; it is a microcosm of the Civil Rights Movement.

Cobleigh's editorial on "The Birth of a Nation" in The Congregationalist, 22 April 1915
click to enlarge

One hundred years earlier, a far different film was screened in the White House. Sponsored by President Woodrow Wilson, The Birth of a Nation became the first film ever shown in the presidential residence. D.W. Griffith's film included actors in blackface and heroic portraits of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. While the film was wildly popular, there were violent protests across the country. In Boston the fight against showing the film was led by William Monroe Trotter, editor of The Liberator. Along the way, Trotter was betrayed by many, but The Congregationalist assistant editor, Rolfe Cobleigh advocated for the cause in person and in print from his headquarters here at Congregational House.

In his most recent book The Birth of a Nation, Dick Lehr recounts the public confrontation that "roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights." It was complicated and messy, setting the standard for the civil actions of the 1950s and 1960s and continuing to the present day.

Lehr used CLA resources in the course of his investigation.

At the Congregational Library and Archives visitors can access numerous issues of The Liberator and bound volumes of The Congregationalist. Dick Lehr's book is available to our members at the library.