The Birth of a Movement:

How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights

In 1915, two men—one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

William Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe's father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including "Roaring Jake" Griffith, D. W.'s father—fled for their lives. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln's assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter's titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

"D. W. Griffiths' 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, may have been billed as the 'Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever,' but to African Americans of the Jim Crow era, it was a grotesque reminder of how invisible their true lives—their history and their dreams—were across the color line. Speaking out against the white-hooded nostalgia the film inflamed, William Monroe Trotter, Harvard's first black Phi Beta Kappa graduate and a leading newspaper editor, revived a protest tradition that would set the stage for the civil rights movement to follow. Distinguished journalist Dick Lehr's account of this racial debate is not only enthralling to read; it reminds us of the singular importance of 'the birth of' Monroe Trotter."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University







    He is an American original—a psychopath who fostered a following with a frightening mix of terror, deadly intimidation, and the deft touch of a politician who often helped a family in need meet their monthly rent. But the history shows that despite myths portraying him as a Robin Hood figure, Whitey was actually a supreme narcissist. In an Irish American neighborhood where loyalty has always been rule one, the Bulger brand was loyalty only to oneself. Whitey deconstructs Bulger's insatiable hunger for power and control.

    Building on years of research, Lehr and O'Neill examine and reveal the factors and forces that created the monster. It is a portrait of evil that spans nearly a century, taking Whitey from the streets of his boyhood Southie in the 1940s to his cell in Alcatraz in the 1950s to his cunning, corrupt pact with the FBI in the 1970s, and, finally, to Santa Monica, California, where for fifteen years he was hiding in plain sight as one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted. This is his story.

    "Whitey is the definitive word on the whole sordid saga of the Bulger mob. Expertly crafted, beautifully told." — Dennis Lehane, author of Live by Night.



    Black Mass has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger and Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly. The release date is September 2015. learn more

    Two boys—John Connolly and James "Whitey" Bulger—grew up together on the streets of South Boston. Decades later, in the mid-1970s, they would meet again. By then, Connolly was a major figure in the FBI's Boston office and Whitey had become godfather of the Irish mob. Connolly had an idea, a scheme that might bring Whitey into the FBI fold and John Connolly into the Bureau's big leagues. But Whitey had other plans. Black Mass is the story of what happened between them—a dark deal to trade secrets and take down Boston's Italian Mafia in exchange for "immunity"—that spiraled out of control, leading to murders, drug dealing and racketeering indictments. Ultimately, in what would become the biggest informant scandal in the history of the FBI, Whitey would find himself at the top of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

    Told in gripping narrative style by the Boston Globe reporters who covered the case from the beginning, Black Mass is a riveting epic crime story that is also a book about Irish America, about the pull of place, and about the ties that bind.



    The Boston police officers who brutally beat Michael Cox at a deserted fence one icy night in 1995 knew soon after that they had made a terrible mistake. The badge and handgun under Cox's bloodied parka proved he was not a black gang member but a plainclothes cop chasing the same murder suspect his assailants were. Officer Kenny Conley, who pursued and apprehended the suspect while Cox was being beaten, was then wrongfully convicted by federal prosecutors of lying when he denied witnessing the attack on his brother officer. Both Cox and Conley were native Bostonians, each dedicating his life to service with the Boston Police Department. But when they needed its support, they were heartlessly and ruthlessly abandoned.

    A remarkable work of investigative journalism, The Fence tells the shocking true story of the attack and its aftermath—and exposes the lies and injustice hidden behind a "blue wall of silence."

    "Dick Lehr gets inside the heads of cops, criminals, prosecutors and politics better than anyone I know. The Fence is a revealing expose of the blue wall of silence that endangers us all." — Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School.



    On February 26, 1986, Mafia underboss Gennaro Angiulo was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to forty-five years in prison. In The Underboss, bestselling authors Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill tell the story of the fall of the house of Angiulo. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, aided in part by the Irish Mob's Whitey Bulger, entered the Boston Mafia's headquarters in Boston's North End early one morning in 1981 and began to compile the evidence that would lead to the conviction of the entire upper tier of one of the most profitable and ruthless criminal enterprises in America.

    Originally published in hardback by St. Martin's in 1989, The Underboss became a Boston Globe bestseller. Information uncovered during the course of Lehr and O'Neill's Black Mass investigations adds new dimensions to the story and the authors include this new material—including Whitey Bulger's cagey manipulation of the FBI—in The Underboss's revised text and in a new preface and afterword.



    On a cold night in January 2001, the idyllic community of Dartmouth College was shattered by the discovery that two of its most beloved professors had been hacked to death in their own home. Investigators searched helplessly for clues linking the victims, Half and Susanne Zantop, to their murderer or murderers. A few weeks later, across the river, in the town of Chelsea, Vermont, police cars were spotted in front of the house of high school senior Robert Tulloch. The police had come to question Tulloch and his best friend, Jim Parker. Soon, the town discovered the incomprehensible reality that Tulloch and Parker, two of Chelsea's brightest and most popular sons, were now fugitives, wanted for the murders of Half and Susanne Zantop.

    Authors Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff provide a vivid explication of a murder that captivated the nation, as well as dramatic revelations about the forces that turned two popular teenagers into killers. Judgment Ridge conveys a deep appreciation for the lives (and the devastating loss) of Half and Susanne Zantop, while also providing a clear portrait of the killers, their families, and their community—and, perhaps, a warning to any parent about what evil may lurk in the hearts of boys.

The Author


Dick Lehr is a professor of journalism at Boston University. From 1985 to 2003, he was a reporter at the Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in investigative reporting and won numerous regional and national journalism awards. He served as the Globe's legal affairs reporter, magazine and feature writer, and as a longtime member of the newspaper's investigative reporting unit, the Spotlight Team. Before that, Lehr, who is also an attorney, was a reporter at The Hartford Courant.

Lehr is the author of The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston's Racial Divide, a non-fiction narrative about the worst known case of police brutality in Boston, which was an Edgar Award finalist for best non-fiction. He is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil's Deal, and its sequel, Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss.

Lehr was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 1991-1992. He lives outside Boston with his wife and four children.


100 Years Later, What's The Legacy Of "Birth Of A Nation"?

One hundred years ago Sunday, the nascent film industry premiered what would go on to be its first blockbuster: The Birth of a Nation. As the house lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up the score, a message from director D.W. Griffith flickered on the screen: "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today." view

Q&A with Dick Lehr

In this televised interview Dick Lehr talks about his book, "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War," about the 1915 movie of the same title. view

The Birth Of A Nation' Revisits Century-Old Racial Tensions

Nearly 100 years ago, Boston found itself at the center of a revolution whose intensity grew for decades to come. At the center of it all was Boston journalist Monroe Trotter, renowned filmmaker D.W. Griffith and his landmark film, "The Birth of a Nation". read more

Whitey Bulger film Black Mass comes to Revere Beach, and suddenly it is 1981 again

It's the Whitey Bulger Gang, circa 1981, riding the wave of its unholy alliance with the deeply corrupted FBI. But this is not 1981. It's July 11, 2014—and it's not Whitey Bulger, but Johnny Depp. Nor is that Catherine Greig, but Sienna Miller. read more

What Whitey Bulger Means To Boston

The infamous Boston mobster Whitey Bulger is on trial after decades of alleged crimes, including 19 murders. Weekend Edition Saturday Host Scott Simon talks with Dick Lehr, co-author of "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mobster," about the trial. listen



No red-blooded American of today would favor censoring works of art. But while reading Dick Lehr's fascinating new book, "The Birth of a Nation," you may find yourself rooting for just that, in the form of a clampdown on the landmark 1915 film of the same name. It's a matter of historical context. At the time, numerous governmental bodies were using such vague standards as "hostile to the welfare of the general public" to chase shows and films out of theaters and to confiscate books and magazines sent through the mail. So if other works were being clobbered, why not "The Birth of a Nation," with its bigoted portrayals of black Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan? Getting "The Birth of a Nation" banned or censored was the goal of Monroe Trotter, the "crusading editor" of Lehr's subtitle. Not only was he one of the first black men to attend Harvard, he stood near the top of his class all four years and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. read more


As far as Hollywood is concerned, we're still fighting the Civil War: "Lincoln," "Django Unchained" and "Twelve Years a Slave" are just the latest in a long line of films, some distinguished and others shameful or just plain silly—or perhaps all three, like "Gone With the Wind"—that have depicted the war and its discontents. But the granddaddy of them all was D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," a cinematic breakthrough in 1915 that set the bar for all that followed.

Griffith was hailed as "the teacher of us all" by Charlie Chaplin, himself a great cinematic pioneer. The fade-out, the soft focus and the creation of scenes of alternating close-ups and long shots—Griffith didn't personally invent any of these innovations, but he used them to stunning effect in "The Birth of a Nation." In the process, he helped create the rhythms and language of modern visual storytelling and, at 190 minutes, the modern epic. "To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel," wrote film critic James Agee.

But Griffith's artistic triumph was also a horrifyingly racist movie that celebrated white supremacy, helped restore the pernicious myth of the antebellum South as a chivalrous society and slavery as a benign institution, and slandered African-Americans as hapless children or vile sexual predators. The release of the movie triggered legal action, riots and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

In "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War" a lively and well-researched book about the film, Dick Lehr focuses his lens on two men: Griffith, the Kentucky-born son of a slaveholder who wrote, produced and directed it; and William Monroe Trotter, the Boston-born son of a slave who, as a fiery editor of a pro-civil-rights newspaper, led the effort to have the film banned. Both were difficult, complicated and blustery men prone to self-aggrandizement and outlandish rhetorical flourishes. Mr. Lehr, a longtime journalist and a professor at Boston University, nicely draws the parallels between them even as he chronicles their bitter divisions over race, politics and culture.

Trotter was born in 1872 and came of age in Boston at a time when a handful of gifted blacks were making personal breakthroughs in white American society. He was the first black student to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude. But afterward he drifted from job to job, working as a clerk at several stores and as a mortgage broker, until he found his true vocation at the age of 29 as co-founder and managing editor of the Guardian, a radical weekly newspaper based in Charlestown.

The Guardian attacked white racism but saved its strongest invective for the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington, whites' favorite black leader, who prescribed self-improvement and humility to his fellow blacks as a response to systemic racism. Never one to mince words, Trotter labeled Washington "the traitor within." He scorned Washington's approach as nothing more than servility, insisting that this was the wrong strategy to take at a time when lynching was making a comeback in the South. "Is the rope and torch all the race is to get under your leadership?" he asked Washington rhetorically.

After Trotter helped break up a public meeting in Boston where Washington was scheduled to speak, the educator returned the favor by hiring spies to dig up dirt on the editor and bring libel suits against the Guardian while funneling money to a rival black paper.

Along with former Harvard colleague W.E.B. Du Bois, Trotter in 1905 helped create the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the NAACP, founded four years later, eclipsed Trotter's organization. Trotter was too much of a one-man band. His friendships and business partnerships, writes Mr. Lehr, were inevitably sabotaged by his "bumptiousness and egotism, and eagerness for notoriety."

While Trotter was crashing into the treacherous barriers of racial politics, David Wark Griffith was stumbling through a dubious career as a journeyman theater actor and playwright. Born outside Louisville in 1875, Griffith had grown up a simple farm boy, "steeped in the tradition of a Lost Cause that saw slavery as a gentle, paternalistic feature of the southern way of life; secession as a logical response to the North's belligerent intrusion into the South's affairs," as Mr. Lehr puts it.

After the death of his boozy and bombastic father, Griffith's family had to sell their deeply mortgaged country home and head to the city. Louisville had eight playhouses, and the young man caught the theater bug, working as an usher and stagehand before hooking on as an actor. He spent 11 years enduring meager pay, bad food, dubious companions, fleabag boardinghouses and poor reviews, one of which called him "a man of deplorably finite acting prowess."

Griffith was rescued from mediocrity by the birth of the movie business. In his memoir, "The Man Who Invented Hollywood" (published posthumously in 1972), he couldn't recall exactly where or when he first saw a moving picture but said that he was impressed by the size of the audience and, at the same time, convinced that "I could write far better scenarios than were being shown." In December 1907 he joined Thomas Edison's fledgling American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. as an actor, but by the following June he had made the jump to director.

Griffith, who had cut his teeth composing vaudeville playlets, segued easily to writing, producing and directing one-reel films of 15 minutes or less. In five years, he made some 480 short films—he called them "photoplays"—honing his craft, mastering film editing and creating visual melodramas. Fed up with low pay and lack of recognition, Griffith left Biograph in 1913 and set out on his own. His first project: an adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr.'s best-selling novel, "The Clansman," whose affection for the Old South and contempt for the Reconstruction era mirrored Griffith's own.

A great book deserved epic treatment, Griffith believed, and he set out make a film of three hours. He gathered his talented crew of young actors—including Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper and Walter Long—and filmed the tale of two friendly families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, one Northern and the other Southern, torn apart by the Civil War and its evil aftermath, Reconstruction. "I could just see these Klansmen in a movie with their white robes flying," Griffith would fondly recall.

But the film's depiction of Reconstruction is where the poison of Griffith's racism truly takes hold. Two evil black characters, Silas and Gus—both played by white actors in black face—rise to power within the Reconstruction regime in South Carolina. They are violent, hypersexual predators who lust after white women. In the film's most harrowing scene, Gus pursues the virginal Flora as Griffith's camera cuts back and forth between the feral black man and his white prey. She comes to a cliff's edge, while the camera zooms in on Gus's crazed expression. As he steps toward Flora, she jumps to her death.

The movie perpetrated every twisted racist stereotype. "Every man who comes out of one of our theaters is a Southern patriot for life," crowed novelist Dixon. Even Griffith's loyal black maid was shaken when she saw the film, telling him: "It hurt me, Mr. David, to see what you do to my people." (Mr. Lehr doesn't record Griffith's response.)

With Dixon's help, Griffith launched a clever marketing scheme full of false statements and exaggerations. Ads claimed that the movie cost $500,000 to make and employed "25,000 soldiers in action in battlefield." (Both numbers were wildly inflated.) Dixon even persuaded Woodrow Wilson, a fellow Southerner, to allow a screening in the East Room—the first movie ever shown at the White House.

Du Bois and other NAACP leaders tried to raise money to make a competing film called "Lincoln's Dream" but failed. After that they went from city to city to protest screenings and sought, with little success, to get the film banned. Some progressives felt queasy pursuing censorship even against such a vile film.

Monroe Trotter had no such compunctions. He pleaded with Boston Mayor James M. Curley to ban "The Birth of a Nation," arguing that "the film excited hatred for colored people." Curley, who found Trotter insufferable, held a public hearing three days before the film was due to open—Trotter and Griffith were both in attendance, perhaps the only time they ever crossed paths. The mayor adjourned the session with no decision and directed the city censor (every major city had some official censorship mechanism in those post-Victorian days) to watch the movie and report back. But before the censor could do so, Griffith staged an advanced screening. The result was rave reviews. "You sit overpowered by the beauty and magnitude of the pictures," wrote one journalist.

Trotter and his supporters then turned to the Massachusetts legislature, which easily passed a bill expanding the state's censorship laws and establishing a three-member panel to enforce standards. The panel refused to act against the film, and a local judge upheld their decision. Thus on the night of the film's official Boston premiere in April 1915, Trotter led a group of protesters who caused a mini-riot, provoking police violence. Some managed to get inside the theater, setting off stink bombs and throwing rotten eggs at the screen. No matter: The film went on to play a record 360 times. Across the country, "The Birth of a Nation" was a huge hit. It also gave the NAACP a national profile: The organization conducted a campaign of protests and legal action in cities across the country.

The toxic legacy of "The Birth of a Nation" endured. In November 1915, inspired by the movie, a dozen Georgians gathered on Stone Mountain outside Atlanta to relaunch the KKK.

scores flocked to the Klan, Trotter's star faded rapidly. Depressed by ill health and financial difficulties, he fell or jumped from the rooftop of a Boston boardinghouse in 1934. Griffith lived until 1948, long enough to tell an interviewer that he regretted the bitter discord the film had unleashed. "The Negro race has had enough trouble," he said.

—Mr. Frankel, former director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend."

read more


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. read more


A history of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), which triggered a substantial protest by Africans-Americans, who resented their vile portrayal in the film. Former "Boston Globe" journalist Lehr (Journalism/Boston Univ.; The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston's Racial Divide, 2009, etc.) reintroduces readers to William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), a crusading black journalist in Boston who was involved in a number of protest actions against institutional racism. The author frequently alternates the focus between Griffith and Trotter, so we learn their back stories along the way. His two principals were different in just about every way: Trotter's father, though born into slavery, somehow made his way to Boston; he fought with the 55th and 54th Massachusetts infantries. Trotter went to Harvard and became friends with William Lloyd Garrison and W.E.B. Du Bois. However, jobs were tough to find, so he set up his own newspaper, the Guardian. David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) was from Kentucky, "a child," writes Lehr, "in search of a bedtime story." Griffith tried acting, writing and directing, and he pioneered (if not invented, as he claimed) some narrative techniques that directors continue to employ. Trotter, becoming an activist, drew his bead on Booker T. Washington (too accommodating, Trotter thought); Griffith thought Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel "The Clansman" (about the heroic KKK) would make a great film. So the clash commenced. Lehr carefully charts the arcs of the dispute: the behavior of public officials (not good), the protests at the movie theaters, the actions in the courts, the responses of whites (they loved the film) and blacks (who despised it for its view of them as primitives). We learn a lot, as well, about the making and marketing of the film and its uneasy status today.

"A powerful rendering of an enduring conflict." view review


Dick Lehr's "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker" and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War provides an engrossing chronicle of the struggle between racial equality and freedom of expression symbolized by two powerful personalities: black crusader Monroe Trotter and legendary director D.W. Griffith. read more


In 1915, race relations in the U.S. were quite fragile with much unfinished business from the Civil War and Reconstruction, blacks still agitating for equal rights and whites still resisting. That year, filmmaker D. W. Griffith stunned the American public with his blockbuster film "The Birth of a Nation", recasting the image of the South as a chivalrous culture destroyed by Northern aggression that freed a barbaric people. Monroe Trotter, a fiery journalist and black-rights advocate, took issue with Griffith and his film, igniting a protest that sparked agitation across the nation. Griffith, a failed actor, was remarkably talented in the newly emerging art of filmmaking. He'd grown up listening to the tall tales of his father, a former officer in the Confederate army. Trotter's father had served in the Union army. Among the first black graduates of Harvard, Trotter was radicalized by the limits placed on race and the accommodationist rhetoric of Booker T. Washington. Journalism scholar Lehr skillfully builds the tension in the respective lives and careers of these two men—their trials and triumphs, frustrations and visions—as they head for a collision course on the issues of free speech and civil rights, with Trotter crusading to censor Griffith's film. This is a remarkable look at the power of mass media and the nascent civil rights movement at a pivotal time in American history.  


Representation, race, and censorship come into heated conflict in this page-turner by former "Boston Globe" reporter Lehr (journalism, Boston Univ.; Whitey). Centered on the release of the now-infamous 1915 film "The Birth of a Nation," Lehr tells the story of two flawed men—self-promoting Southern filmmaker D.W. Griffith and uncompromising journalist William Monroe Trotter—and their vehement public confrontation over the film's racist depiction of American slaves and slavery. Beginning with both men's family histories and continuing through their respective careers in entertainment and political activism, Lehr succeeds in drawing a tenuous parallel between the development of both Griffith and Trotter's personalities, from their highly influential father figures to their occasionally parallel moments of desperation and success. The book culminates, as expected, with the highly publicized battle in Boston over the censorship of Griffith's film. However, the larger story for the reader is Lehr's fascinating portrait of simmering American racial tensions moving into the early 20th century, and his spotlight on men and women who, intentionally or not, helped galvanize painful and necessary conversations about civil rights, race relations, and the power of mass media for decades to come.

VERDICT: Recommended for students and fans of film, race and ethnic studies, and U.S. history. view review


There have been a good number of books written about Boston's Irish mob boss, Whitey Bulger, and up to now "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil's Deal" by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill was the best one in my view. But Mr. Lehr and Mr. O'Neill have surpassed themselves with "Whitey." read more

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