PBS: Exploring American Extremism

ReadTheSpirit Editor

In early February, 2017, PBS will broadcast three documentary films about explosive touchstones in the rise of American extremism—and one about a Civil Rights hero. They are:

  • BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT—Subtitled “How The Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights,” the hour-long film airs on PBS’s Independent Lens series on February 6, 2017. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.
  • OKLAHOMA CITY—Exploring the worst domestic terrorist attack in the US, the two-hour film airs on PBS’s American Experience series on February 7, 2017. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.
  • RUBY RIDGE—Examining the 1992 confrontation with the white separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho, the one-hour film airs on PBS’s American Experience series on February 14, 2017. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.
  • JOHN LEWIS—GET IN THE WAY—Then, PBS turns to an inspiring profile of Civil Rights hero U.S. Rep. John Lewis who has been in national headlines recently. The one-hour film airs on February 10. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.


Do you think it’s unique that Civil Rights are under siege with the backing of right-wing media activists inhabiting the White House? On February 6, the PBS network will broadcast the true, tragic story of what happened when such forces converged in an earlier era.

In the documentary Birth of a Movement, PBS takes us back just over a century to a time when the U.S. president became an ally of right-wing media tycoons releasing a coast-to-coast tidal wave of what historians now describe as “racist pornography.”

Is this the first time you’ve heard this story? You’re not alone. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I occasionally talk with groups about the history of American media and I always get stunned reactions to the shocking 1915 story of Birth of a Nation. Most Americans today have never heard this story—unless they’re steeped in the history of silent cinema or the early years of the NAACP.

The movie in question is the infamous Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith—not to be confused with a 2016 movie of the same title. The president who broke with established Washington D.C. protocol to welcome a first-ever White House screening of a movie was President Woodrow Wilson. While most Americans might recall Wilson as an idealist during World War I, Wilson was better known in 1915 as a Southerner whose lifelong friend was Thomas S. Dixon Jr. In that era when Jim Crow laws were cropping up across the U.S., Dixon was the firebrand author of Birth of a Nation’s incendiary storyline about the need for the Ku Klux Klan to violently suppress African-Americans. For his part, Wilson was a Southerner who established and promoted Jim Crow rules throughout Washington D.C.

Then, here’s the real tragedy! By January 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had all but vanished. That all changed after the movie’s endorsement by Wilson, record-breaking crowds in movie debuts in various big cities and eventually unprecedented public protests against the movie organized by a pioneer of the NAACP. The original KKK had arisen after the Civil War, but had all but disappeared by 1915. However, sparked by the enormous popularity of Griffith’s movie—and President Wilson’s encouragement—the Klan was reborn and grew to its largest-ever membership by the 1920s.

In fact, until 1915, the Klan had never burned a cross. What later became its signature hate crime—burning crosses to intimidate African-Americans, Catholics, Jews and other minority families—was a vivid concept introduced in Dixon’s novel and Griffith’s feature film. Eventually, the KKK felt so embraced by the White House and the American people that a massive KKK march was organized in Washington D.C.—and the members no longer feared public identification. Most of the men marched proudly in their white costumes—without their trademark white hoods.

The film is based on Boston-based journalist Dick Lehr’s book about early African-American activist William Monroe Trotter who organized an astonishing array of public protests against the film in Boston. Trotter was a contemporary and sometime ally of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. (Although Trotter and Du Bois both opposed Washington’s appeasement on racial issues, all three opposed Griffith’s movie.) Various historians featured in the documentary argue that Trotter’s tidal wave of public protests and marches proved to be an early model for civil rights activism all the way into the 1950s and 1960s.

Viewers will meet a very impressive array of scholars. Among the African-American scholars who appear in the film are: Both Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Vincent Brown of Harvard, William Jelani Cobb of Columbia and Dolita Cathcart of Wheaton. Filmmaker Spike Lee adds a personal perspective on the story. Danny Glover narrates.

ReadTheSpirit urges readers to watch these films, perhaps visit the supplemental websites PBS provides—and discuss these issues with friends.



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