This Day in History

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This Day in History - HISTORY
Updated: 8 hours 13 min ago

D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of A Nation' Opens, Glorifying the KKK

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 7:30am

On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a landmark film in the history of cinema, premieres at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. The silent film was America’s first feature-length motion picture and a box-office smash, and during its unprecedented three hours Griffith popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to the art today. However, because of its explicit racism, Birth of a Nation is also regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made. Actually titled The Clansman for its first month of release, the film provides a highly subjective history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Studied today as a masterpiece of political propaganda, Birth of a Nation caused riots in several cities and was banned in others but was seen by millions.

David Wark Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of an ex-Confederate colonel. His father died when he was seven, and he later dropped out of high school to help support his family. After holding various jobs, he began a successful career as a theater actor. He wrote several plays and, on the advice of a colleague, sent some scenarios for one-reel films to the Edison Film Company and the Biograph Company. In 1908, he was hired as an actor and writer for the Biograph studio and soon was promoted to a position as director.

Between 1908 and 1913, Griffith made more than 400 short films for Biograph. With the assistance of his talented cinematographer, G W. “Billy” Bitzer, he invented or refined such important cinematic techniques as the close-up, the scenic long shot, the moving-camera shot, and the fade-in and fade-out. His contributions to the art of editing during this period include the flashback and parallel editing, in which two or more separate scenes are intermixed to give the impression that the separate actions are happening simultaneously. He also raised the standard on movie acting, initiating scene rehearsals before shooting and assembling a stock company of film professionals. Many of these actors, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Lionel Barrymore, went on to become some of Hollywood’s first movie stars.

Taking his cue from the longer spectacle films produced in Italy, in 1913 Griffith produced Judith of Bethulia, a biblical adaptation that, at four reels, was close to an hour long. It was his last Biograph film. Two years later, he released his epic 10-reel masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, for Mutual Films.

Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, tells the turbulent story of American history in the 1860s, as it followed the fictional lives of two families from the North and the South. Throughout its three hours, African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate, and dangerous. In the film’s climax, the Ku Klux Klan rises up to save the South from the Reconstruction Era-prominence of African Americans in Southern public life.

Riots and protests broke out at screenings of Birth of a Nation in a number of Northern cities, and the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (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, such as meetings of Congress, Civil War battles, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, were meticulously recreated, lending the film an air of legitimacy that made it so effective as propaganda.

The Ku Klux Klan, suppressed by the federal government in the 1870s, was refounded in Georgia in December 1915 by William J. Simmons. In addition to being anti-black, the new Klan was anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant, and by the early 1920s it had spread throughout the North as well as the South. At the peak of its strength in 1924, membership in the KKK is estimated to have been as high as three million. There is no doubt that Birth of a Nation played no small part in winning wide public acceptance for an organization that was originally founded as an anti-black and anti-federal terrorist group.

Of Griffith’s later films, Intolerance (1916) is the most important. Hailed by many as the finest achievement of the silent-film era, it pursues four story lines simultaneously, which cumulatively act to prove humanity’s propensity for persecution. Some regard it as an effort at atonement by Griffith for Birth of a Nation, while others believe he meant it as an answer to those who persecuted him for his political views. Intolerance was a commercial failure but had a significant influence on the development of film art.

Griffith went on to make 27 more films. In 1919, he founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin.

Before D. W. Griffith’s time, motion pictures were short, uninspiring, and poorly produced, acted, and edited. Under his guidance, filmmaking became an art form. Despite the harm his Birth of a Nation inflicted on African Americans, he will forever be regarded as the father of cinema.

Teen gunman kills 17, injures 17 at Parkland, Florida high school

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 8:58am

On February 14, 2018, an expelled student entered Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others, in what became the deadliest shooting at a high school in United States history.

Dressed in a maroon shirt adorned with the school logo, Nikolas Cruz exited his Uber outside the campus at 2:19 p.m. He approached the school wearing a backpack filled with magazines and carrying a black duffel packed with his legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

School staff had been warned after Cruz’s expulsion for "disciplinary reasons" in 2017 that the troubled teen was a risk to student safety. So when a staff member saw him outside, he radioed a “Code Red” to initiate a lockdown of the school. It was too late.

Cruz entered the high school’s Freshman Building, on campus—which was mostly filled with freshman students—at 2:21 p.m. and unpacked his rifle in a stairwell. According to NBC Miami, freshman Chris McKenna, 15, spotted Cruz there and received a chilling warning from the gunman. “You better get out of here. Things are going to start getting messy.” McKenna ran outside, where he spotted Aaron Feis, a coach and school security monitor who took him to the baseball field 500 feet away and turned back to “check it out.”

Cruz exited the stairwell into a first-floor hallway, firing a stream of bullets down the corridor, shattering windows and shooting through doors. In just under two minutes, he murdered 11 people and injured 13 others. He then headed up the stairs. He was on the second floor for less than a minute, firing but hitting no one, before going to the third floor where he killed his last six victims, and injured four more in the final 45 seconds of the attack.

Terrified students ran for their lives. Others remained holed up, hiding in classrooms, closets and bathrooms, desperate to reach their parents. Many began broadcasting the horror on social media through video and live posts.

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Cruz left the hallways and went to the faculty lounge, where he set up a bipod—like a tripod on which to rest the gun—reloaded his weapon and began firing, like a sniper, at the fleeing students outside. Only hurricane impact-resistant glass in the windows kept the death toll from growing.

In all, Cruz’s attack lasted less than four minutes and left 17 dead. At 2:28 p.m., just seven minutes after entering the building, he ditched the rifle in another stairwell and left the school, attempting to blend in with the crowd of escaping students. The gunman successfully left the campus, running to a Walmart at 2:50 p.m, stopping at a Subway restaurant to get a drink and eventually heading to McDonalds. He was apprehended shortly thereafter after being spotted by a Broward County police officer.

“He looked like a typical high school student, and for a quick moment I thought, ‘Could this be the person who I need to stop?’” said Officer Michael Leonard in an interview after arresting Cruz.

The devastation felt by the Florida community—once considered the safest city in the state—was immeasurable. Previous school shootings throughout the country had prompted Stoneman Douglas (and other schools) to practice active shooter drills, and the school had employed an armed officer on campus. But it hadn’t been enough to stop the carnage. Chants for “No More Guns!” broke out at candlelight vigils and over a thousand people showed up to funerals in the days after.

Student survivors took to social media to make their anger known, giving interviews and becoming activists for gun safety legislation. One student, David Hogg, went from school newspaper reporter to activist when his plea to legislators in a CNN interview went viral.

Please, take action,” he begged lawmakers.

On March 24, less than six weeks after their lives were shattered by violence, students helped organize the March for Our Lives, a demonstration in support of gun violence prevention. Students across the country were encouraged to stage walkouts, and a rally was held in Washington, D.C. There, anti-gun violence protesters from around the country—some survivors of school shootings, and others whose daily lives were affected by gun violence—celebrities, and other activists, spoke to a crowd of thousands, demanding legislative change.

Three weeks later, Florida Governor Rick Scott, a supporter of the NRA, responded. He signed a bill imposing a 21-year-old legal age requirement for gun purchases and a three-day waiting period on all gun transactions. The law also controversially permitted the arming of some school employees.

The change didn’t stop in Florida. According to the New York Times, state legislatures passed 69 gun control measures in 2018, mostly after the shooting. It was more than three times the amount of legislation passed in 2017.

Nikolas Cruz was charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. As of February 6, 2019, Cruz was still awaiting a trial date.