The Birth of a Nation:

How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War

In 1915, two men—one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

William Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe's father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including "Roaring Jake" Griffith, D. W.'s father—fled for their lives. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln's assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter's titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

"D. W. Griffiths' 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, may have been billed as the 'Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever,' but to African Americans of the Jim Crow era, it was a grotesque reminder of how invisible their true lives—their history and their dreams—were across the color line. Speaking out against the white-hooded nostalgia the film inflamed, William Monroe Trotter, Harvard's first black Phi Beta Kappa graduate and a leading newspaper editor, revived a protest tradition that would set the stage for the civil rights movement to follow. Distinguished journalist Dick Lehr's account of this racial debate is not only enthralling to read; it reminds us of the singular importance of 'the birth of' Monroe Trotter."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University







    He is an American original—a psychopath who fostered a following with a frightening mix of terror, deadly intimidation, and the deft touch of a politician who often helped a family in need meet their monthly rent. But the history shows that despite myths portraying him as a Robin Hood figure, Whitey was actually a supreme narcissist. In an Irish American neighborhood where loyalty has always been rule one, the Bulger brand was loyalty only to oneself. Whitey deconstructs Bulger's insatiable hunger for power and control.

    Building on years of research, Lehr and O'Neill examine and reveal the factors and forces that created the monster. It is a portrait of evil that spans nearly a century, taking Whitey from the streets of his boyhood Southie in the 1940s to his cell in Alcatraz in the 1950s to his cunning, corrupt pact with the FBI in the 1970s, and, finally, to Santa Monica, California, where for fifteen years he was hiding in plain sight as one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted. This is his story.

    "Whitey is the definitive word on the whole sordid saga of the Bulger mob. Expertly crafted, beautifully told." — Dennis Lehane, author of Live by Night.



    Black Mass has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger and Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly. The release date is September 2015. learn more

    Two boys—John Connolly and James "Whitey" Bulger—grew up together on the streets of South Boston. Decades later, in the mid-1970s, they would meet again. By then, Connolly was a major figure in the FBI's Boston office and Whitey had become godfather of the Irish mob. Connolly had an idea, a scheme that might bring Whitey into the FBI fold and John Connolly into the Bureau's big leagues. But Whitey had other plans. Black Mass is the story of what happened between them—a dark deal to trade secrets and take down Boston's Italian Mafia in exchange for "immunity"—that spiraled out of control, leading to murders, drug dealing and racketeering indictments. Ultimately, in what would become the biggest informant scandal in the history of the FBI, Whitey would find himself at the top of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

    Told in gripping narrative style by the Boston Globe reporters who covered the case from the beginning, Black Mass is a riveting epic crime story that is also a book about Irish America, about the pull of place, and about the ties that bind.



    The Boston police officers who brutally beat Michael Cox at a deserted fence one icy night in 1995 knew soon after that they had made a terrible mistake. The badge and handgun under Cox's bloodied parka proved he was not a black gang member but a plainclothes cop chasing the same murder suspect his assailants were. Officer Kenny Conley, who pursued and apprehended the suspect while Cox was being beaten, was then wrongfully convicted by federal prosecutors of lying when he denied witnessing the attack on his brother officer. Both Cox and Conley were native Bostonians, each dedicating his life to service with the Boston Police Department. But when they needed its support, they were heartlessly and ruthlessly abandoned.

    A remarkable work of investigative journalism, The Fence tells the shocking true story of the attack and its aftermath—and exposes the lies and injustice hidden behind a "blue wall of silence."

    "Dick Lehr gets inside the heads of cops, criminals, prosecutors and politics better than anyone I know. The Fence is a revealing expose of the blue wall of silence that endangers us all." — Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School.



    On February 26, 1986, Mafia underboss Gennaro Angiulo was convicted of racketeering and sentenced to forty-five years in prison. In The Underboss, bestselling authors Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill tell the story of the fall of the house of Angiulo. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, aided in part by the Irish Mob's Whitey Bulger, entered the Boston Mafia's headquarters in Boston's North End early one morning in 1981 and began to compile the evidence that would lead to the conviction of the entire upper tier of one of the most profitable and ruthless criminal enterprises in America.

    Originally published in hardback by St. Martin's in 1989, The Underboss became a Boston Globe bestseller. Information uncovered during the course of Lehr and O'Neill's Black Mass investigations adds new dimensions to the story and the authors include this new material—including Whitey Bulger's cagey manipulation of the FBI—in The Underboss's revised text and in a new preface and afterword.



    On a cold night in January 2001, the idyllic community of Dartmouth College was shattered by the discovery that two of its most beloved professors had been hacked to death in their own home. Investigators searched helplessly for clues linking the victims, Half and Susanne Zantop, to their murderer or murderers. A few weeks later, across the river, in the town of Chelsea, Vermont, police cars were spotted in front of the house of high school senior Robert Tulloch. The police had come to question Tulloch and his best friend, Jim Parker. Soon, the town discovered the incomprehensible reality that Tulloch and Parker, two of Chelsea's brightest and most popular sons, were now fugitives, wanted for the murders of Half and Susanne Zantop.

    Authors Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff provide a vivid explication of a murder that captivated the nation, as well as dramatic revelations about the forces that turned two popular teenagers into killers. Judgment Ridge conveys a deep appreciation for the lives (and the devastating loss) of Half and Susanne Zantop, while also providing a clear portrait of the killers, their families, and their community—and, perhaps, a warning to any parent about what evil may lurk in the hearts of boys.

The Author


Dick Lehr is a professor of journalism at Boston University. From 1985 to 2003, he was a reporter at the Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in investigative reporting and won numerous regional and national journalism awards. He served as the Globe's legal affairs reporter, magazine and feature writer, and as a longtime member of the newspaper's investigative reporting unit, the Spotlight Team. Before that, Lehr, who is also an attorney, was a reporter at The Hartford Courant.

Lehr is the author of The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston's Racial Divide, a non-fiction narrative about the worst known case of police brutality in Boston, which was an Edgar Award finalist for best non-fiction. He is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil's Deal, and its sequel, Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss.

Lehr was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 1991-1992. He lives outside Boston with his wife and four children.


The Birth Of A Nation' Revisits Century-Old Racial Tensions

Nearly 100 years ago, Boston found itself at the center of a revolution whose intensity grew for decades to come. At the center of it all was Boston journalist Monroe Trotter, renowned filmmaker D.W. Griffith and his landmark film, "The Birth of a Nation". read more

Whitey Bulger film Black Mass comes to Revere Beach, and suddenly it is 1981 again

It's the Whitey Bulger Gang, circa 1981, riding the wave of its unholy alliance with the deeply corrupted FBI. But this is not 1981. It's July 11, 2014—and it's not Whitey Bulger, but Johnny Depp. Nor is that Catherine Greig, but Sienna Miller. read more

What Whitey Bulger Means To Boston

The infamous Boston mobster Whitey Bulger is on trial after decades of alleged crimes, including 19 murders. Weekend Edition Saturday Host Scott Simon talks with Dick Lehr, co-author of "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mobster," about the trial. listen



A history of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), which triggered a substantial protest by Africans-Americans, who resented their vile portrayal in the film. Former "Boston Globe" journalist Lehr (Journalism/Boston Univ.; The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston's Racial Divide, 2009, etc.) reintroduces readers to William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), a crusading black journalist in Boston who was involved in a number of protest actions against institutional racism. The author frequently alternates the focus between Griffith and Trotter, so we learn their back stories along the way. His two principals were different in just about every way: Trotter's father, though born into slavery, somehow made his way to Boston; he fought with the 55th and 54th Massachusetts infantries. Trotter went to Harvard and became friends with William Lloyd Garrison and W.E.B. Du Bois. However, jobs were tough to find, so he set up his own newspaper, the Guardian. David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) was from Kentucky, "a child," writes Lehr, "in search of a bedtime story." Griffith tried acting, writing and directing, and he pioneered (if not invented, as he claimed) some narrative techniques that directors continue to employ. Trotter, becoming an activist, drew his bead on Booker T. Washington (too accommodating, Trotter thought); Griffith thought Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel "The Clansman" (about the heroic KKK) would make a great film. So the clash commenced. Lehr carefully charts the arcs of the dispute: the behavior of public officials (not good), the protests at the movie theaters, the actions in the courts, the responses of whites (they loved the film) and blacks (who despised it for its view of them as primitives). We learn a lot, as well, about the making and marketing of the film and its uneasy status today.

"A powerful rendering of an enduring conflict." view review


Dick Lehr's "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker" and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War provides an engrossing chronicle of the struggle between racial equality and freedom of expression symbolized by two powerful personalities: black crusader Monroe Trotter and legendary director D.W. Griffith. read more


In 1915, race relations in the U.S. were quite fragile with much unfinished business from the Civil War and Reconstruction, blacks still agitating for equal rights and whites still resisting. That year, filmmaker D. W. Griffith stunned the American public with his blockbuster film "The Birth of a Nation", recasting the image of the South as a chivalrous culture destroyed by Northern aggression that freed a barbaric people. Monroe Trotter, a fiery journalist and black-rights advocate, took issue with Griffith and his film, igniting a protest that sparked agitation across the nation. Griffith, a failed actor, was remarkably talented in the newly emerging art of filmmaking. He'd grown up listening to the tall tales of his father, a former officer in the Confederate army. Trotter's father had served in the Union army. Among the first black graduates of Harvard, Trotter was radicalized by the limits placed on race and the accommodationist rhetoric of Booker T. Washington. Journalism scholar Lehr skillfully builds the tension in the respective lives and careers of these two men—their trials and triumphs, frustrations and visions—as they head for a collision course on the issues of free speech and civil rights, with Trotter crusading to censor Griffith's film. This is a remarkable look at the power of mass media and the nascent civil rights movement at a pivotal time in American history.  


Representation, race, and censorship come into heated conflict in this page-turner by former "Boston Globe" reporter Lehr (journalism, Boston Univ.; Whitey). Centered on the release of the now-infamous 1915 film "The Birth of a Nation," Lehr tells the story of two flawed men—self-promoting Southern filmmaker D.W. Griffith and uncompromising journalist William Monroe Trotter—and their vehement public confrontation over the film's racist depiction of American slaves and slavery. Beginning with both men's family histories and continuing through their respective careers in entertainment and political activism, Lehr succeeds in drawing a tenuous parallel between the development of both Griffith and Trotter's personalities, from their highly influential father figures to their occasionally parallel moments of desperation and success. The book culminates, as expected, with the highly publicized battle in Boston over the censorship of Griffith's film. However, the larger story for the reader is Lehr's fascinating portrait of simmering American racial tensions moving into the early 20th century, and his spotlight on men and women who, intentionally or not, helped galvanize painful and necessary conversations about civil rights, race relations, and the power of mass media for decades to come.

VERDICT: Recommended for students and fans of film, race and ethnic studies, and U.S. history. view review


There have been a good number of books written about Boston's Irish mob boss, Whitey Bulger, and up to now "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil's Deal" by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill was the best one in my view. But Mr. Lehr and Mr. O'Neill have surpassed themselves with "Whitey." read more

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