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Petition to change name of Griffith MS heading to LAUSD board

Mike Szymanski | July 10, 2015

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Movie poster advertises 'The Birth of a Nation,' directed by D.W. Griffith and illustrating a Ku Klux Klan member on horseback, 1915. Based on the novel 'The Clansman' by Thomas Dixon. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

Movie poster of ‘The Birth of a Nation.”

As the Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina State Capitol today, LAUSD teacher Jose Lara continued to drum up support for a petition to change the name of the David Wark Griffith Middle School because the director’s film “The Birth of a Nation” is racist, according to Lara.

“I have been extremely pleased with the way the word has gotten out, people are really angry,” Lara told the LA School Report. He hit the goal of 200 signatures in less than two days and now is shooting for 500 petition signers. “The school board knows about it by now.”

The next step, Lara said, is to take the petition to District 2 board member  Mónica García, who represents the east Los Angeles school. For a change to occur, a majority of the seven board members would have to approve a resolution. As of today, Garcia has said nothing publicly about the situation nor did her office return messages, seeking comment. Further, none of the public officials or state legislators who have the school in their district responded to requests for comment.

Lara said he was thrilled about a bill being proposed at the state level that would ban state and local properties after Confederate leaders. Two schools named after Robert E. Lee would have their names changed within two years.

“That doesn’t affect D.W. Griffith school, which is named after a racist,” Lara said.

Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic, which was based on a book called “The Clansman,” was protested as racist at the time of its release.

“It’s 2015, and children shouldn’t to a school named after someone who spread this racist propaganda,” Lara said. “It’s a place for education. To have a name like this on a school in this community is a contradiction.”

Reyna Hernandez wrote on the petition site: “The children, families and community at Griffith Middle school desire a school to be proud of. A school free of racism.”

Former student Rita Diaz signed the petition even though she now lives in Wentzville, Mo. She wrote, “We have known about the racist director since we attended this school, however we never had a voice. This is the opportunity to correct their mistakes and give our students something worthy to represent and be a part of.”

Many of the school alumni who are signing the petition thought the school was named after Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith, for whom L.A.’s largest park and observatory are named. That Griffith, although a philanthropist to the city, wasn’t a very nice guy and had a reputation of a raging alcoholic. He was convicted of shooting his wife in the eye.

“It doesn’t take much research to find out about D.W. Griffith,” said Lara, “and as a teacher I have a hard time seeing this as a school that honors this man.”

D.W. Griffith also directed a film about prejudice called “Intolerance” a year later in part as response to the negative criticism of “The Birth of Nation” and how it glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

The school was named in 1939, while Griffith was still alive. He died in 1948. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6535 Hollywood Blvd. In 1999, the Director’s Guild stripped him of his Lifetime Achievement Award, and Griffith has been commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.

At the time the school took his name, the neighborhood in East Los Angeles was predominantly Jewish and Asian. Some of the Buddhist temples from the era still stand. Now, the neighborhood is predominantly Latino, and the school population is 98 percent Hispanic.

Where do the name changes stop? Communities around the country are now debating whether schools named after such people as Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, should have their names changed because their namesakes owned slaves. (There is a Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles.)

“I haven’t yet weighed in on the Jefferson school yet, we have to take it on a case by case basis,” said Lara. “It depends on the diversity and sensitivity of the community.”

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