A century ago, censorship was justified to preserve morality and public safety. Both of these priorities were infused concerns with racial justice at that time. When Chicago passed its motion picture ordinance in 1907—the first instance of state regulation of motion pictures—the city targeted not just obscenity or depictions of crime (the most prominent targets of censors); it also banned films that “[exposed any race] to contempt, derision or obloquy.” In this case it was not African Americans but Jewish citizens who were at the forefront of banning racial ridicule.
Adolf Kraus, a prominent Jewish leader in Chicago, wrote the 1907 law, reflecting his concerns with anti-Semitic incidents, such as the discrimination against Jews in hotels and resorts as well as violence against Jews in Europe. Leading Jewish citizens in Chicago then were active as censors of films with Jewish characters. After consulting a Jewish committee, the head of Chicago censorship banned Rebecca’s Wedding Day, which featured a derogatory image of an overweight Jewish woman, and later recommended cuts to a film version of The Merchant of Venice. Jewish censors only gained power to police images of themselves, and free speech activists criticized their regulation of Jewish themes in film as an example of prejudice in censorship.