Today in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. The silent film was America’s first feature-length motion picture and a box-office smash and popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to the art today. Because of its explicit racism, Birth of a Nation is also regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made.
Originally titled The Clansman for its first month of release after Thomas Dixon’s novel of the same title, black Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate, and dangerous for an unprecedented three hours.
Riots and protests broke out at screenings of Birth of a Nation in a number of Northern cities, and the NAACP embarked on a major campaign to have the film banned. It eventually was censored in several cities, and Griffith agreed to change or cut out some of the film’s especially offensive scenes.
Nevertheless, millions of people happily paid to witness the spectacle of Birth of a Nation, which featured a cast of more 10,000 people and a dramatic story line far more sophisticated than anything released to that date. For all the gross historical inaccuracies, certain scenes were meticulously recreated lending the film an air of legitimacy that made it effective as propaganda. Of Griffith’s later films, Intolerance (1916) is the most important.
Griffith went on to make 27 more films. In 1919, he founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Despite the harm his Birth of a Nation inflicted on black Americans, he is regarded as the father of cinema.
Today in 1910 the Boy Scouts of America was founded by William Boyce in Washington, D.C., modeled after the British Boy Scouts.
Today in 1918, the United States Army resumed publication of the military newsletter Stars and Stripes.
Begun as a newsletter for Union soldiers during the American Civil War, Stars and Stripes was published weekly during World War I from February 8, 1918, until June 13, 1919. The front page of the newspaper’s first World War I issue featured A Message from Our Chief, a short message from General John J. Pershing: “The paper, written by the men in the service, should speak the thoughts of the new American army and the American people from whom the army has been drawn. It is your paper. Good luck to it.”
At its peak during the war, Stars and Stripes reached a circulation of 526,000.
Stars and Stripes resumed publication during World War II; circulation reached 1,000,000. It has been in continuous publication in Europe since 1942 and in the Pacific since 1945. In these two regions, Stars and Stripes reach 80,000 and 60,000 readers respectively. It also publishes a Middle East edition as well as an electronic edition on the Internet.
Happy birthday John Ray Grisham, Jr., lawyer, politician, and author, born today in 1955 at Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Grisham is known for his popular legal thrillers. Grisham wrote his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989) after hearing the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim; in the book, he imagined what would have happened if the victim’s father had murdered her assailants. His next novel was The Firm (1991). Grisham’s next two books, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993) topped best-seller lists.
In 1996 Grisham took a hiatus as an author to return to practicing law. He represented the family of a railroad worker who had been killed and won his clients a jury award of close to $700,000, the largest verdict of his career.
Grisham has penned more than 20 books and sold over 250 million copies worldwide. Grisham is one of only three authors to sell two million copies on a first printing (the others being Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling).
In 2006, he published his first work of nonfiction, “An Innocent Man,” and in 2009, he released his first short story collection, “Ford County.” Nine of his books, along with one unpublished manuscript, have been adapted for film.
His latest novel is The Racketeer (2012).
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!” – William T. Sherman, 1861
“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” — William T. Sherman, April, 11, 1880
Happy birthday William Tecumseh Sherman, Union Civil War general, born today in1820 at Lancaster, Ohio.
Sherman received recognition for his military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the “scorched earth” policies that he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States. His march through Georgia and the Carolinas undermined the Confederacy’s ability to continue fighting. He accepted the surrender of all the Confederate armies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida in April 1865.
As Commanding General of the Army (1869–83), he was responsible for the U.S. Army’s engagement in the Indian Wars over the next 15 years, in the western United States. His Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. By Himself (1875) were published in two volumes.
Sherman died February 14, 1891 at New York City. He was age 71. He is buried at St. Louis, Missouri.
Rest in peace Charles Weedon Westover, later known as Del Shannon, rock and roll singer and songwriter, who committed suicide today in 1990 at his home at Santa Clarita, California. He was age 55.
Shannon was born December 30, 1934, at Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recorded “Runaway” (1961), his only song to reach number one on the Billboard chart. Other popular songs were “Hats Off to Larry” (1961) and “So Long, Baby” (1961). He was more popular in England than the US.
Suffering from depression, Shannon committed suicide with a .22-caliber rifle while on a prescription of the anti-depressant Prozac. His remains were cremated and scattered.
Shannon’s widow would later file a lawsuit against Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Prozac. The suit was eventually dropped.
Shannon’s posthumous album, Rock On, was released in 1991.
Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
Rest in peace, Tong Lee, member of a Chinese gang who was convicted of murdering a rival gang member, executed today in 1924 at Carson City, Nevada.
Lee’s execution was the first death sentence carried out with lethal gas. Gas was adopted by Nevada in 1921 as a more humane method of carrying out its death sentences, as opposed to the traditional techniques of hanging, firing squad, or electrocution.
Lethal gas was largely replaced by lethal injection in the late 20th century.