In 1916, most of Saint John’s Black community took part in protests over the showing of the controversial American movie "The Birth of a Nation," directed by D.W. Griffith. The film, based on the novel and play The Clansman by Southern writer Thomas Dixon, was released in 1915 and became the top grossing movie of its age.
The historical epic told the story of two families caught up in the turmoil of the American Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction era (1865-77). Because of its negative depictions of African Americans and its portrayal of the Klu Klux Klan as heroes, "The Birth of a Nation" set off a wave of protests in the United States and was banned in some cities and states. It helped grow the membership and profile of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The movie, which began playing in other provinces in 1915, was set to be released in New Brunswick in 1916, the third year of Canada's involvement in the First World War. As in other provinces, it would be reviewed by the provincial board of censors, which could pass it as is, order certain objectionable scenes to be cut, or censor it completely. Starting in March, the Black community in Saint John, centered on St. Philips African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) church, began to organize to oppose Griffith’s film. It argued that the movie would harm relations between Whites and Blacks and went against Canada’s traditions of British fair play. The protesters also pointed out that New Brunswick Blacks had attempted to volunteer for combat units to fight for Canada and Britain overseas but had been denied. They tried to negotiate with the provincial government to allow the censor board to view the film a second time and consider cutting two objectionable scenes that stereotyped and demeaned Southern Blacks. The board watched the film a second time but "The Birth of a Nation" was displayed at the Opera House on Union Street without any scenes being deleted. (Image of St. Philips AME Church courtesy of Harold Wright )