Politics

Efforts against Confederacy names, Ku Klux Klan film director spread in California

D.W. Griffith Middle School, named after a Hollywood director who made a film about the Ku Klux Klan, could be renamed if supporters of a petition get their way.
D.W. Griffith Middle School, named after a Hollywood director who made a film about the Ku Klux Klan, could be renamed if supporters of a petition get their way.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
D.W. Griffith Middle School, named after a Hollywood director who made a film about the Ku Klux Klan, could be renamed if supporters of a petition get their way.
The Confederate flag is seen flying on the Capitol grounds a day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she will call for the Confederate flag to be removed on June 23, 2015. The flag and other Confederate symbols, such as statues of famous figures, have been at the center of a heated debate following a shooting at a historic black church in Charleston. That debate has extended to California, where Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda on Wednesday, July 8, 2015, introduced SB539 to bar state and local properties from taking the names of elected leaders or senior military officers of the Confederacy.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Listen to story

00:51
Download this story 0MB

The call to remove names associated with the Confederacy has reached Southern California and has expanded to include a famous Hollywood director known for a film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan.

Activists launched a petition this week to strip the name David Wark Griffith from a middle school campus in East Los Angeles.

Better known as D.W. Griffith, the movie director was an early film pioneer. He is credited with shooting the first film in Hollywood and perfecting the intimate close-up. However, it was “The Birth of a Nation,” labeled as Hollywood’s first blockbuster, that earned him the most praise and contempt.

“This film is horribly racist,” said Los Angeles teacher Jose Lara who helped launch the petition. Many film scholars agree.

Meanwhile, a bill banning the naming of schools and roads after notable confederates leaders been introduced to the California Legislature.

Senate Bill 539 backed by Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda would bar state and local properties from bearing the names of elected leaders or senior military officers of the Confederacy. Public places currently named after them would need to have a name change.

The Sacramento Bee reported that the mayor of Fort Bragg, a town in Mendocino County named for a Confederate general, said he was assured that the bill would not apply to the names of cities. 

Efforts to strip public places of the names have been spurred by the massacre of nine black churchgoers during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, last month. A Confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina House is the subject of a heated debate in that state over whether it should be removed.

The killings prompted calls nationwide for the renaming of schools bearing names of Confederacy leaders. Two Southern California schools named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee — one in Long Beach and another in San Diego — have been swept into that debate.

California also has a Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the president of the Confederacy.

Now, D.W. Griffith's apparent support of the KKK cause is prompting demands that his name be struck from public property.

Griffith's film is set during and after the Civil War and depicts slavery with nostalgia. The Klansmen are portrayed as horseback-riding heroes trying to maintain racist institutions in the former Confederate states.

After its 1915 premiere, civil rights leaders successfully banned the film in some cities but it showed in many other cities. It was the first blockbuster film. In 1939, after Griffith’s career had fizzled, Los Angeles schools officials named a school in East L.A. after Griffith.

“We need to rethink DW Griffith’s role in American history and really think about should we be glorifying him naming our schools after him,” Lara said.

Although Griffith directed hundreds of other films not considered racist, his “The Birth of a Nation” marked him by critics. He directed “Intolerance,” a film about prejudice, partly in response to his critics.

Lara said he helped start the petition in light of the national discussion about removing confederate symbols and name from schools, roads and other public properties. Lara wants to hold community forums in the fall on the developing issue.

If the petition is successful it wouldn’t be the first time that D.W. Griffith’s legacy has been challenged. In 1999, the Director’s Guild of American stripped his name from its list of lifetime achievement award winners. Griffith also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This story has been updated. The Associated Press contributed to this report.