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Hollywood’s Racist History: Did They Know What They Were Doing?

The treatment of Blacks in movies was horrendous from the start. The very first blockbuster, Birth of a Nation, glorified the Ku Klux Klan and placed blame for all the nation’s problems on the Black man and woman. The effects of these images forced Blacks to the defensive at every turn. Certainly, many of the whites who resisted Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights crusaders were reacting to the highly negative criminal images of Blacks they knew only through Hollywood movies. The question is not whether the images were racist—they were. The question is whether the image makers knew the damage those images could—and did in fact do—to the Black man and woman.

The most potent testimony to this question pre-dates the worst of the anti-Black images and comes from an unassailable source—the founding charter of the Anti-Defamation League. In 1908, Sigmund Livingston, a Bloomington, Illinois lawyer, initiated a B’nai B’rith division to counter the prevalent public ridicule of Jews. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 1913 charter:

For a number of years a tendency has manifested itself in American life toward the caricaturing and defaming of Jews on the stage, in moving pictures. The effect of this on the unthinking public has been to create an untrue and injurious impression of an entire people and to expose the Jew to undeserved contempt, and ridicule. The caricatures center around some idiosyncrasy of the few which, by the thoughtless public, is often taken as a pivotal characteristic of the entire people…

The League’s “ultimate purpose,” the charter read, “is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against, and ridicule of, any sect or body of citizens.” Jewish scholar Nathan Belth writes that

The stage and screen especially were to be watched carefully. If it was “apparent that a play gives an unfair or untrue portrayal of a Jew,” the vigilance program “would endeavor to prevent its production in its offensive form, or if already staged…secure the elimination of the objectionable matter.” The image of the Jew stamped into the minds of Americans was that of the cheater, the arsonist, the deliberate bankrupt, the lecher, liar and miser—a man to whom a penny dishonestly earned and greedily saved was the purpose of life. As we shall see, such stereotypes were laying the groundwork for mob violence and organized hate groups.

The ADL was keenly aware of the power of images and indeed was formed with the expressed purpose of stopping them. It tasked itself to view, examine and analyze EVERY movie and staged image for its racially slanderous content and then to actively move to suppress it. From their inception in 1913, the ADL knew exactly what they were looking for.


NATHAN GLAZER, Jewish sociologist, taught at UC Berkeley and Harvard.

“If the Establishment acts stupidly to increase race prejudice and hatred, Jews must bear part of the responsibility. For it is not only in the mass media and as intellectuals that Jews play a significant role in shaping what this country thinks and does; they also play such a role as part of the major power centers of the nation—business, government, the universities.”