The release of the movie Birth of a Nation set off a firestorm of protests across the country. African-Americans rose up by the thousands to denounce the grotesque racism of the movie at a time when lynchings were still a terrible reality. Here in Boston, as elsewhere, there were demands that showings of the film be outlawed.
On the other hand, there were those who spoke out in support of the movie, seeing the tale of black lust for white women and the defense of white Christian womanhoon by the noble Ku Klux Klan as simply an accurate reflection of reality in the contemporary American South.
Note: the "Gus scene" that was censored from the film in some places involved a white woman who jumps to her death rather than allow herself to be raped by a black man.
Boston Daily Globe April 26, 1915
Defends Photo Play.
Rev Chauncey J. Hawkins of Jamaica Plain Declares Nothing Should Have Been Cut From It.
Rev Chauncey J. Hawkins in a discourse last evening in Central Congregational Church, Jamaica Plain, declared that there was no justification for the criticisms passed on the photo play "The Birth of a Nation."
He said in part: "Boston has been whipped into a state of hysterics that threatens to sweep people off their feed and will cause them to do something they will regret. I am in oppostion to the proposal that the Legislature take action in the matter, for I maintain that it will be in violation of freedom of the press and of public expression.
"In my opinion the play does not revive dead issues, but presents one that is particularly alive in the South today. I saw nothing immoral in the scene that was cut out by order of the court. It was merely distression, because it represents the position of white women in the South today."
Boston Daily Globe April 27, 1915
Clergy Oppose Sullivan Bill
Speak in Defense of "Birth of a Nation."
Huge Throng Attends Hearing Held in the State House.
M. Sumner Coggan Offers Substitute Measure.
Opponents of the bill to stop all public amusements "tending to create religious or racial prejudice or tending to incite riot" were heard yesterday at the State House by the Committee on Judiciary. About 500 people, with negroes greatly in the majority, crowded into a room with capacity for about half that number.
Colored men and women arrived early and the doors were finally locked with the stairs and corridors outside thronged. Several theatrical men were unable to gain admission.
Although Senator Norwood, the chairman, announced that the hearing would be adjourned if there were expressions of approval or disapproval, there were occasional hisses.
John F. Cusick conducted the hearing for the opposition, and the first speaker was M. Sumner Coggan, representing John R. Schoeffel, who offered a substitute bill to provide that the Mayor shall have power to stop a production if any part of it is obscene or immoral, or tends to injure the morals of the community. This bill also provides for an appeal to the Superior or Supreme Court.
In defense of a section making the proposed act operative Aug 1 next, Mr Coggan pointed out that the next theatrical year ends then, and said no radical step should be taken before that date.
"Russian censorship" was the term used by Rev Dr Chauncey J. Hawkins of Jamaica Plain in stating his objections "to placing any race above criticism." He said he saw "The Birth of a Nation" before the "Gus" incident was removed and found nothing objectional.
[the article continues here]
Boston Daily Globe May 3, 1915
Denies Truth Of What Pastor Says
Colored Man Interrupts Jamaica Plain Service.
The congregation in the Central Congregational Church, Jamaica Plain, was surprised last evening when almost at the close of the service a colored man sitting in a front pew arose and denied the truth of some of the statements made by the pastor, Rev Chauncey J. Hawkins in his sermon on "The Negro Problem."
Rev Hawkins a week ago spoke in favor of "The Birth of a Nation." His remarks then had attracted so much attention that last evening he said that, in support of his views, while not touching directly on the photo-play, he would try to give a general presentation of the negro question.
The colored man who objected to his statements last night was J. Thomas Harrison, a graduate of Tuskeegee and editor of "The Advocate."
Learning the subject of the sermon, he went to the church last night and took a front seat.
The sermon was followed by two reels of motion pictures on "Capital and Labor," and after they had been presented, just before the benediction, Mr Harrison rose and said he wished to reply to some points in the sermon. Rev Mr Hawkins invited him to the pulpit, but he preferred to speak from the floor.
"You told us," he said addressing the minister, "that the amount of crime among Southern negroes is shown by the fact that 95 percent of the prisoners in Alabama are colored. You said that skilled negro workmen in the South are fewer than 10 years before the Civil War. You said that the negro race has produced no great men, no leaders, and that the chasm between them and the whites in the South is growing. You even advocated lynching, explaining that Northerners cannot understand the crimes that necessitate it."
Mr Harrison denied the truth of all these statments and said:
That you should justify lynching shocks me, and in your implication as to its cause you are wrong. Of the 54 lynchings last year, only seven were for the 'usual crime.' Was it for that crime, do you think, that six negro women were lynched?"
History in the aggregate is not a particularly difficult subject. When brought down to the level of the individual, the difficulty increases exponentially. We have no trouble making judgement on the likes of Rev Hawkins, but what of his congregation, or the community they lived in? Did they hire him because of his beliefs, or in spite of them? And what happened after this matter was made public? Personally, until I know more, I'll suspend judgement on the good people of Central Congregational. I do have to wonder whether any of the current congregation know anything about this matter. Oh my!