The Birth of a Nation, released nationally in 1915, is considered one of the most controversial films ever produced. Directed by D.W. Griffith, the son of a Confederate soldier, and inspired by Thomas Dixon's book, The Clansman, the three-hour film depicts events of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. It was called a "brilliant masterpiece" for its pioneering filmmaking techniques.
The film's vicious portrayal of African Americans, its pro-slavery stance and glorification of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan launched protests around the country by the recently created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Civil rights activists in Portland, including Beatrice Morrow Cannady, vehemently protested the film's showing, arguing it was explicitly racist, historically inaccurate and reinforced African-American stereotypes. According to Cannady, the film offered a "false and erroneous excuse for discrimination and segregation."
Despite initial protests, The Birth of a Nation played to sell-out crowds in Portland and enjoyed rave reviews. Newspaper articles describe audiences as emotionally charged - "cheering when the Ku Klux Klan rode into sight" forcing "the negroes to disarm."
The Birth of a Nation was released many times over the years and as a "talkie" in 1931. It was voted one of the top 100 American films by the American Film Institute in 1998.
Cannady was a popular public speaker and especially enjoyed visiting high schools and colleges. She used her talks to educate students about African-American history and literature, and talked eloquently about the progress and accomplishments of the "Negro race." The following is an article that appeared in the Reed College Quest after one of Cannady's lectures.
From Reed College Quest, December 9, 1931. Courtesy of Reed College, Special Collections and Archives
Mrs. Beatrice Cannady-Franklin, Oregon's outstanding crusader for negro rights, addressed a large gathering of the Social Science club last Wednesday evening. Mrs. Franklin is a firm believer in the ability of the negro to contribute something to American culture. She is bitterly opposed to those who think the negro has nothing to offer and that he should only absorb American culture.
Mrs. Franklin maintains that the only way that we are able to change people's thoughts or attitudes is to change the conditions which create these thoughts. In accordance with that conviction she has been attempting to impress upon the high school students of Portland the accomplishments of the negro when he is given a chance to develop himself. Several papers written after these talks proved to be most interesting reading.
Mrs. Franklin gave statistics to prove that negroes were quite frequently lynched for crimes which they did not commit. She stated that more whites were convicted for the crime of rape in New York County alone in one year than negroes charged with that crime in the whole of the United States in a five-year period.
The negro, so the speaker claims, finds it impossible to be dealt with justly in Southern courts. They are falsely accused of being vagrants and pay the fine and imprisonment imposed by hiring out as workers on the plantations or a certain period; frequently these unfortunate victims of circumstances are never released from this form of bondage. Another method of suppressing the negro is prohibiting him from getting out of debt; this is done by claiming that his produce is never quite enough to pay his back grocery bill.
In reply the question of the negro's attitude toward the mulatto who is pale enough to pass as a white, Mrs. Franklin stated that, if the "passing" is done for economic reasons, most negroes will praise the person so doing; if it is done for other reasons, they will frequently give the "passer" away by accusing him of being a negro.
Mrs. Franklin is the editor of the Advocate, the only negro paper in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1927, Cannady was invited to participate in the fourth Pan African Congress in New York City organized by William DuBois, president of the NAACP. It was a great honor for Cannady and illustrated her national prominence in the field of race relations. Her white and black friends organized teas in Portland to help defray the cost of the trip. Cannady returned to Portland and decided to organize a miniature Pan African Congress at Central Library. The local newspapers called the two-day event a "tremendous success." Click here to read pages from the program and to see a newspaper photo of one of the exhibits (hover over images to page forward and back).
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