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Petition calls for Griffith Middle School name change over racism

Mike Szymanski | July 8, 2015

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A scene from “The Birth of a Nation”

A petition inspired by UTLA social justice activist Jose Lara is calling for the immediate removal of the name D.W. Griffith from an East Los Angeles middle school because his 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

The demand follows nationwide calls for the removal of Confederate flags from public spaces in the aftermath of the June 17 shootings of nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church by a suspect who said he was motivated by racism.

“After a Klansman murdered nine people in South Carolina, this should be a no brainer,” Marian Sunde wrote when she signed the petition. “Don’t stall, study the question, worry about backlash, just do the obvious, correct thing.”

David Wark Griffith Middle School, at 4765 E. 4th St., has 1,400 students 6th through 8th grade. One percent of the students are white, one percent are black, and 98 percent are Hispanic. It is in Mónica García‘s District 2. The school opened in 1939.

Lara was recently named the 2015 Social Justice Activist of the Year by the National Education Association (NEA). He said the idea for a petition came after he read an NPR story about Griffith’s film, which made Klansmen look like heroes.

The three-hour film starts with the scroll: “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” The film was originally called “The Clansman” and is based on a book that glorified the KKK.

Some of the black characters were played by white men in black face, and the film ends with Klansmen riding in to save the South from black rule during Reconstruction.

At the time of its release, it was considered racist propaganda and there were widespread protests. The KKK used the film as a recruiting tool. Dick Lehr, author of “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War,” writes, “[Griffith] portrayed the emancipated slaves as heathens, as unworthy of being free, as uncivilized, as primarily concerned with passing laws so they could marry white women and prey on them.”

“Our kids should not go attend a school named after someone who glorified the KKK,” wrote Leopoldo Urias who signed the petition.

Gabriel Cabrera added, “It is absurd that we have come this far with civil rights and we still have to attend a school that is named after someone responsible for mass killings of minority communities.”

A history teacher from Downey, Silvio Vidal, wrote, “As a history teacher, the rise of the KKK is part of the content I’m required to teach. How can a school bear the name of a man who made a racist movie glorifying the KKK?”

A few former students who signed the petition said they knew nothing of the significance of Griffith’s name. Brenda Mejia said, “I attended this middle school and was unaware of the history behind David Wark Griffith up until now and do not support his film.”

Marcela Chagoya, of Monterey Park, wrote, “I am signing this petition because it’s crucial that our future leaders, the children of today, learn that the past is meant to be learned from and used as a stepping stone to CHANGE the present and future of our society. The past is not meant to be perpetuated or idolized, especially when it promotes discrimination and hate based on ethnic differences!”

Lara said he planned to present the petition to the school board after he collected more than 200 signatures. He almost reached that goal in less than 24 hours.

“Please help us gain more traction and educate the public on the truth about D.W. Griffith and his film ‘Birth of Nation,’” Lara wrote. “You might as well have a confederate flag flying outside of the school!”





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