Selma traduces LBJ (see Harrington), but what’s worse is its take on Martin Luther King’s deliberations in the days after the police riot on Pettus Bridge terminated the first major Civil Rights march in Selma.
That time after “Bloody Sunday” was one of many sequences during the 60s when King would end up “fire-fighting.” The late historian Lawrence Goodwyn coined that term to evoke what happens when leaders must cool out their own followers who are burning up with participatory democratic zeal. Goodwyn noticed the momentum of serious social movements often rests on the capacity of such leaders to encourage collective acts of strategic restraint without trashing principle or quashing insurgents’ spirits. When King was assassinated, the Movement lost not just an inspirational leader, but its indispensable fire-fighter. Selma, though, fails to help viewers grasp this dimension of King’s contribution to the Movement. Its muddle through the conjuncture after Bloody Sunday amounts to mystification.
King’s first response to the outrage on Pettus Bridge was to call for a second march through Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Folks from all over the country stepped up and longtime activists were hot to take it back to the place where John Lewis and others had been beat down only a few days before. But Judge Frank Johnson ordered the march be postponed, pending a hearing on Governor George Wallace’s petition to ban the protest. While there was no constitutional justification for denying marchers’ right to assemble, Judge Johnson took it slow when the Governor forced the issue. Johnson was no segregationist hack. His record on the bench had established him as the most important pro-Civil Rights jurist in the South. What’s more, he was a federal judge and the Movement aimed to cultivate a working alliance with feds in opposition to the segregated South’s local white supremacist law enforcement agencies.
King was in a bind. He didn’t want to cross the judge but he was alive to his people’s felt need to demonstrate their humanity in the wake of Bloody Sunday and he was (usually) in the business of heightening contradictions. After hearing out his longtime advisers (who couldn’t come to a consensus) as well as emissaries from LBJ (who pressed him to obey the judge’s order noting it was likely to be lifted after the imminent hearing), King decided he couldn’t call off the march. Minutes before it started, though, Leroy Collins (ex-governor of Florida and one of two representatives sent by LBJ)—gave King an out. Collins had gone directly to those in charge of the State troopers and Selma cops as they were mustering to block the march and (with King’s blessing) proposed “a face-saving solution for both sides.” King and company would march to the bridge but instead of challenging cops (and the judge) by heading out for the state capital, they’d turn around and go back to the church where they’d started from. The Alabama officers, including the infamous Sheriff Jim Clark, agreed to the deal (after consulting on the phone with someone whom Collins presumed was Governor Wallace). Though they insisted marchers follow a particular route to and from the bridge, which Clark mapped out on a scrap of paper. Collins rushed back to King with that map and made his plea. King worried the police might charge marchers even if he made it clear he meant to avoid a confrontation. But he promised he’d try to get his people to turn around after they reached the bridge. When the critical moment came later in the day, things got extra dicey as the cops suddenly backed off, opening up the way forward and seeming to tease King into starting for Montgomery. But he kept to the agreement he’d made with Collins and the cops did too. (In Collins’ words: “both sides kept their word to the letter.” Though that doesn’t quite explain the cops’ backing off—which may have been George Wallace’s attempt to coax King and/or other marchers into further flouting Judge Johnson’s injunction.)
Not much of this history made the cut in Selma. And that won’t do since King’s behavior on the bridge during the second march is one of the movie’s focal points. The script’s refusal to clarify why King turned around leaves the film with a hole in its heart/head. King is treated here not as a canny strategist with his eyes on the prize, but as a more mercurial figure. Selma’s audience is left without a clue. Was King’s choice on the bridge a sort of Christian whim? Or perhaps even a failure of nerve due to personal travails that had sapped his faith in himself? In the movie, his choice becomes a subject of an inconclusive, post-march dialogue between the soon-to-be-martyred minister James Reeb and another pious existentialist. But Selma ends up letting the mystery be. That’s not entirely false to the experience of most marchers who were confused by King’s move even as they followed him back to the church. Nor did King clear everything up in the aftermath of “Turnaround Tuesday” in part because he was going to have to testify before Judge Johnson and wanted to avoid going on record about exactly how the deal went down. That left him open to criticism from an ain’t-gonna-let-nobody-turn-us-around caucus, which included movement stalwarts such as SNCC’s James Forman. Selma touches on the pre- and post-march tensions between Forman and King (and ex-SNCC King allies like John Lewis) but it reduces political conflicts (with heavy back stories and future consequences) to personal quirks.
Selma’s director, Ava Duvernay, didn’t have to make the drama surrounding the second march to Pettus bridge a centerpiece of her movie, but having done so, the truth can’t be dissed as too much information.
Alec Harrington’s play, The Great Society, does better on this score. One of its most compelling scenes dramatizes King’s to-and-fros with LBJ’s reps and his own counselors during the run-up to the march. Harrington’s Q&A strays from the historical record too (as he allows here). Still, his staging of King et al.’s passionate intellection underscores the movement was a…movement of mind.
Harrington’s LBJ nods to King’s “political sense.” His/LBJ’s clarity about the need for fire-fighting beats Selma’s misfire. But Harrington seems unaware the following imagined exchange between LBJ aide Jack Valenti and the president invokes a test case that exposed LBJ’s worst political instincts.
VALENTI: [King] took everybody by surprise. The SNCC people were pissed.JOHNSON: Good. Now he knows how we felt during the shitstorm over the Mississippi Fuckin’ Democrats.
Harrington’s hero is referring here to what went down at the 1964 Democratic convention when the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party (MFPD)—a delegation organized by African Americans (with help from SNCC and other Civil Rights groups)—challenged the legitimacy of the regular whites-only Mississippi Democratic party. MFDP spokespeople—including the undeniable Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer—galvanized the convention as they made their case against the segregated Mississippi delegation. But LBJ didn’t want to offend the regulars since he was worried about losing white votes in the South. He came up with a plan that would’ve enabled the regulars to retain their 68 votes. The MFDP, meanwhile, was told to accept a “compromise” that would’ve left their members represented by 2 delegates-at-large. It wasn’t only the uneven terms that made LBJ’s attempt at fire-fighting a dud. LBJ and his agents treated the MFDP with contempt. They even insisted on vetting/picking the two black delegates they’d deigned to seat. Intense pressure was put on any liberal who continued to support the MFDP’s challenge to the regulars. And the democratic process at the Convention was corrupted. The compromise was rammed through the Credentials Committee as leaders of the MFDP were deflected by phony negotiations with LBJ’s reps in another room. “You cheated!” cried Bob Moses—legendary leader of MFPD/SNCC (who’s just turned 80)—when he realized he’d been faked out.
King was one of many liberal luminaries called in by the Democratic Party to get the MFDP to take their medicine. (Contrary to Harrington’s implication in his play, King knew better than LBJ what the sell-out felt like.) It was an ugly job but King didn’t dishonor himself. When he met the delegation he wouldn’t advise them to accept or reject the compromise: “Speaking as a black leader I want you to take this, but if I were a Mississippi Negro I’d vote against it.” Looking back, King’s candor looks pretty good. His honesty (and subtlety) then suggest why he became the Movement’s main man. Bob Moses, though, wasn’t moved by King’s negative capability. He followed King to the podium and (according to one witness quoted in Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire) “tore King up.” Moses insisted the MFDP wasn’t about bringing “politics to our morality”: “We’re here to bring morality to our politics.”
Moses didn’t re-up on his criticism of King when he was interviewed about the MFDP for the fine documentary Freedom on My Mind (1994). (Maybe King’s refusal to choose seemed less bad to Moses in retrospect? And/or Moses must’ve been aware his old plaint about the martyred King’s imperfect politics might seem righteous-to-a-fault.) But Moses still dammed LBJ’s—and the Democratic Party’s—betrayal of the MFDP. His rap is a sort of landmine for anyone locked on LBJ’s rehab:
You lost a group of young black people who were looking to…enter into real power-sharing. Then you also began to disillusion a generation of white people. [Moses is referring here to Freedom Summer vets who participated in organizing the MFDP.] The Democratic Party missed the chance to capture the energy and enthusiasm of the generation that set the tone for the 60s…What happened in 64 symbolized the situation we’re in now. The Party and the political leadership said: “Ok, there’s room for these kind of people.” And it was the professional people in our group who were asked to become—and did in fact become—part of the Democratic Party. But, on the other hand: “There is no room for these people—the grassroots people, the sharecroppers, the day workers.” There’s room for them as recipients of largesse—poverty programs and the like. But there’s no room for them as participants in power-sharing. A different scenario that could’ve worked its way out would have empowered the MFDP. There would have been struggle—vicious struggle. But not armed struggle. Once it got into armed struggle and riots. Then it got into polarization which we’re not out of yet.
Demotic voices in Freedom on My Mind back up Moses’ message from (and to) the grassroots. One of them recalls how he was finished with the Democratic Party after Atlantic City. Moses’s 1994 critique of the Party, though, seems slightly out of time in the Obama era. “Grassroots people” have surely figured as more than “recipients of largesse” during Obama’s two presidential campaigns even if true power-sharing still seems a bridge too far. Obama’s rise has brought folks into the political process who had never before felt like citizens per all those reactionary Youtube videos mocking black voters as deviant takers. I’m reminded too just now of a respectful story from back in 2008 about an Obama devotee—and newly registered voter—who was a single mom supporting herself and her child by dancing in a strip club somewhere in the Dirty South. She would’ve identified with one of Freedom on My Mind’s most winning witnesses—the late Endesha Ida Mae Holland. Ms. Holland was one of her hometown’s bad girls back in the early 60s. When SNCC folks first arrived in Greenwood, Mississippi, she checked them out, hoping she might be able to turn a trick. But her meeting with Moses et al. was life-changing. She livingly evokes the example of the older women in SNCC’s orbit:
It was so beautiful to see people like Ms. Lulabelle Johnson or Mrs. McGhee. They’d be walking with pride. Their titties would be sticking out in front of them a whole long way. Mama would say “you could see they titties a block ‘fore you see them”…They’d be marching and I remember trying to walk with that heavy step that they used—looked like the earth would catch their feet and hold them.
Mrs. McGhee and her family deserve a movie of their own. (And so much more!) Her three sons became known for their defiance of the caste system in the wake of 1964 Civil Rights Act. They fought back against beatings, cuttings and shootings. One was shot in the head at close range—the 38 slug broke his jaw and went down his throat. His mother kept the bullet a black doctor took out of him (after white medical personnel had left him lying on a gurney). At a certain point, Mrs. McGhee was done with turning the other cheek. Civil rights worker/volunteer lawyer Bob Zellner has recalled how in 1964 Mrs. McGhee once knocked out a Southern cop who’d tried to keep her from joining a parley between a lawyer for one of her sons (who’d been jailed) and her town’s chief of police. She was arrested but not charged after Zellner convinced the chief it would be embarrassing for the cops if the story got out:
It was, Zellner thought, a valuable lesson in race relations. “A new day is coming when a Black woman can just whip the yard dog shit out of a white cop and not have to account for it.”
But giddiness about the shape of things to come shouldn’t tempt anyone to forget Mrs. McGhee and her sons were outliers, even as their courage energized a generation of blacks coming of age in mid-60s Mississippi. What’s hardest to convey now about the strange career of Jim Crow is the pervasive sense of fear and shame that gripped black communities. Selma’s loud-as-bombs take on Southern terrorism can’t disguise a certain blankness about the dailiness of life down home. Holland and the other black elders who tell it like it was in Freedom on My Mind don’t double-shuffle around past humiliations. The most penetrating white commentator in Freedom, Marshall Ganz, adds on to their blue notes. He recalls how his run-ins with Southern cops made him crazy. And then he goes deeper, allowing he wasn’t stuck in a state of “powerlessness and rage.” He was a volunteer who’d come down for Freedom Summer and could go home anytime; he had no way of knowing from within what it was like for his black comrades to live out life sentences in the segregated South.
Casey Hayden’s testimony here about her road trip to Mississippi in 1963 takes the measure of that distance too. She wasn’t in terror on her trip. She didn’t witness a lynching or beating. Nothing physically fearsome happened, yet her memory still speaks to an overriding sense of dread. She hides on the floor of the car to avoid being seen sitting next to black guys. But she can’t help being a vector of danger to black males. When she slips out to pee in the nasty colored-only toilet at a gas station—“I didn’t use white only facilities”—her gesture of solidarity results in her scaring the bejesus out of an elderly black man who reacts reflexively to the sight of a strange white woman coming toward him out of a bathroom.
Freedom’s and Hayden’s gritty, tiny details about Great Fear are truer than Selma’s “beautifully shot” re-enactments of brutality. Oprah Winfrey’s presence early on signaled to this viewer the movie would get irreal. Though one reviewer for Vanity Fair(predictably?) celebrated her role as the “smartest bit of cameo-casting of the year”:
I like to think I suspend disbelief when I go to the movies, but as Annie Lee Cooper’s head smacked against the ground my reaction was strong and fierce: “Oh My GOD they did NOT just do that to Oprah!! To fucking OPRAH?!?!?”I came to Selma knowing the story of the march. In 10th grade we watchedEyes on the Prize and spent months writing essays on Civil Rights leaders. The image of Oprah in harm’s way shook me out of my complacency. I was engaged with the movie before this scene; after it I was riveted. For viewers less educated about the actual events, I imagine the effect may be even greater.
It’s wack (and vain) to imply Selma’s celeb-mongering beats the conscientious approach to the past taken in films like Eyes on the Prize or Freedom on My Mind. It’s also spits on the spirit of the movement. Ms. Lulabelle Johnson and Mrs. McGhee weren’t in it for fifteen minutes. Their minds were stayed on freedom.
If Oprah’s opening cameo hints the movie owes more to celebrity than history, “Glory”—the original song by John Legend and Common featured at the end—seals it with an inauthentic kiss-off that’s presentist and hoary. (Legend and Common’s lip-synched performance of “Glory” at the Grammys amounted to an auto-critique of their song’s shallow soul.) “Glory’s” shout-outs to protestors in Ferguson call to mind a ghettoside response to another “black” movie aimed to go where streets were watching. Ice Cube once described how Spike Lee’s disappointing X killed Cube’s crew’s interest in the movie’s subject—and their faith in conscious rap—though it was the hip hop generation that had brought Malcolm X back into the cultural conversation in the late 80s: “People felt like we already knew struggle and the Malcolm X movie just peaked it. After that movie went the whole power movement in hip hop. Fucking went and fell off a cliff and people just went back to the gangsta shit.”
Brothers and sisters with their hands up now won’t fall into apathy if they see Selma. But the movie might well leave them with an unhelpful take-away. When Selma takes a pass on the complex relationship between local civil rights organizers and the federal government in the King years, it implicitly makes common cause with contemporary moralizers locked on a dim antimony between “protest” and “politics.” Let’s hope those wannabe purists don’t keep community mobilizers from brainstorming about how to use feds. While local people’s priorities will only rarely match up perfectly with any president’s, fruitful alliances (or respectful disagreements) are possible. In the Obama era, organizers have a shot at playing an inside-outside game (especially when the president has told them “to shoot for the moon”). They shouldn’t blow off this opportunity or assume roots and feds are always at odds.
Selma wastes a useable past moment of concordance when it underplays King’s reaction to LBJ’s speech announcing the submission of 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress. King never cried in public (according to John Lewis). (King may have aimed to save his emotion for his own public performances.) But when LBJ echoed the Movement’s catchphrase—“We shall overcome”—King broke down. White 60’s vets have been known to mock LBJ’s “ventriloquism.” (Bob Dylan, for example, is snooty about LBJ’s line in Chronicles.) But the testimony of James Bevel—one of the most creative Southern freedom-fighters—talks back to LBJ haters:
[I]f I was to rate the Civil Rights speeches of the ’60s…I would give that speech the number one place…I think it’s classical, in terms of rising above being a Southerner, being white, being anything…and just in that moment possessed by the spirit of being a man looking at America, looking at the Constitution, looking at the struggling people. And I think there was a genuine sense of love and respect that went from Johnson to all people. And I think it’s very clear in that speech that it is not a political speech. It’s more or less a sermon. And it was the same effect that I get when I hear good preaching. It’s, you know, it’s like this guy is really saying it and he’s not playing, and because he is saying it and because he is not playing something is going to be done. And it was like that’s the law. That the President is speaking…and people hear him and they know that he is right and they’re going to address the problem. And it was like, yeah, well, that is solved…
Bevel’s own patriarchal biases—he’d go on to organize the Million Man March in the 90s—may partly explain his deep responsiveness to the TCB vibe in LBJ’s speech. But if anyone needs confirmation the Movement wasn’t a Man’s Man’s Man’s world, they might checkFreedom On My Mind’s archival footage of a matriarch at the funeral of James Chaney—one of the three American civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Chaney’s mother stands at a church pew, wearing a black veil. She was a beautiful woman. An obvious comparison to Jackie Kennedy in mourning comes to mine. But there’s something different about Fannie Chaney—she seems a woman beautiful not by the standards of human beings or history but by those of rivers, rain, nature. She’s cradling her younger son’s head against her hip as she stares ahead at the nothingness they had to look forward to. Her boy is crying but still trying to sing “We Shall Overcome” along with other mourners.
It’s probably not fair to note there’s more emotion compacted in that thirty second flashback to the Chaney funeral than in all of Selma. But it seems just to note there’s a scene in another movie out now that makes grief sing. In Timbuktu—Abderrahmane Sissako’s film about everyday life under the recent Islamist occupation of that city—a woman is whipped for making music (which is haram along with playing soccer, going without socks or gloves, etc.) She begins to wail as the lashes keep coming. And her scream turns into a keen. It’s a desert spiritual. She shall overcome.
There are those on the left (and right) who resist the imperative to connect American civil rights struggles—including the latest post-Ferguson insurgency—with fights against Islamist fascists overseas. All politics is local and there are risks in rolling with a superficial globalized liberalism. But I don’t want any part of a left that ain’t trying to hear what contemporary Afro-American protestors have in common with that Malian sister-singer.
1 Selma addresses this aspect of King’s approach to raising “white consciousness.” There are teachable moments here, though scenes often slide from depicting history in the making into “timeless wisdom—and timeless wisdom is just platitudes.” To borrow a phrase from Adolph Reed’s prescient critique of Spike Lee’s X.
2 Hollywood product rarely cultivates a taste for democratic politicking. (That’s not entertainment.) Selma’s unresponsiveness to King’s fire-fighting calls to mind Marshall Ganz’s critique of last year’s biopic Chavez:
Cesar could be a brilliant strategist, a skill observable in agile and imaginative interaction with determined opponents, turning apparent weaknesses into sources of strength. But the film treats him largely as a creature of impulse, committed to be sure, but not the brainy strategist who took special joy, as he put it, in “killing two birds with one stone…and keeping the stone.”
3 Per David Garrow’s biography of King: “King was caught in a strange crossfire between movement workers seeking his assurance he hadn’t made a secret deal, and newsmen asking if he had not agreed to a turnaround so as not to breach the court order. It was extremely awkward.”
4 The president’s 2008 campaign was informed in part by the organizing tradition embodied by Moses and MFDP. Training sessions for campaign workers run by Marshall Ganz—a Freedom Summer Volunteer who went to Atlantic City with the MFDP (before moving on to work for years with Cesar Chavez)—helped shape the Obama “movement’s” attempt to bring morality to electoral politics. Ganz has since criticized Obama for acting more like a top-down executive than an organizer-in-chief. His criticism is serious. (I invite him to elaborate on it here in First!)
5 Zellner’s version of the fight as recounted in Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995) takes on an almost comic valence.
When Mrs. McGhee tried to go in a cop slammed the door and stood in front of it, telling her she couldn’t go in there…She says, ‘The hell I can’t. I come down to get my son, Jake.’ He says, ‘you can’t go in there.’ And she says, ‘Bopp!’ – hit him right in the eye as hard as I ever saw anyone hit…I remember it just like a movie…I remember his eye swelling up and I remember thinking to myself, ‘God I didn’t know you could see something swell up…’ And he was losing consciousness and, sliding down on the door. Meanwhile, Mrs. McGhee is following on the way down. She’s not missing a lick…boom boom boom.—and every time she hits him, his head hits the door. Meanwhile he’s reflexively reaching for his gun, but the man is practically knocked out. By the second or third time she hit him, they’re trying to get out from inside the office…Everytime the chief would try to open the door it would hit the man – whomp – in the head again.”
Charles Payne jumped (in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom) from the many tales of the McGhee family’s resistance to contest standard ways of measuring the Movement’s historical progress.
Legislation serves our need to render history understandable by giving us convenient benchmarks, and we may therefore be tempted to exaggerate its significance. The bill [The Civil Rights Act of 1964] itself though may be less important than the willingness of people like the McGhees to insist that it be enforced. That insistence, I would argue, is the crucial break with the past not the legislation itself. There is nothing about the record of the post-war Federal government, the Kennedy administration not excepted, to suggest that Washington was going to enforce any more Black rights than it had to enforce.
Payne’s reference to Kennedy, though, might be a tell. It wasn’t the Kennedy administration that got the Civil Rights Act passed. That was Johnson’s achievement. Andpace Payne and Selma (and Moses?) it mattered LBJ’s administration was more committed to enforcing black rights than any previous one. (OTOH, ask anyone who grew up dodging punches in newly integrated Southern public schools during the 70s and they’ll teach you the civil war between blacks and whites didn’t end during the LBJ administration.)
6 By contrast, the only actor in Selma who seems up to bearing the burden of the past is the one who plays the father of (the murdered) Jimmie Lee Jackson.
7 The phrase is from Darryl Pinckney’s NYRB review of Selma.
8 Beyonce’s lip-synched “Lead Me On”—which she linked with Selma where it’s covered by another pop gospel singer pretending to be Mahalia Jackson—was another turn-off.
9 Darryl Pinckney was steered by Cornel West (No doubt!) to one Reverend Osagyefo Sekou—a pastor from Boston who’s spent a lot of time in Ferguson lately trying to “incarnate a theology of resistance of the historically othered.” Pinckney talked up Sekou’s notions of resistance in a NYRB report on his own recent trip to Ferguson:
To Sekou, it matters how we define political participation. “If it’s only the ballot box, then we’re finished.” He sees voting as “an insider strategy,” one without much relevance to a town like Ferguson where two thirds of the adult population have arrest warrants out against them. Things don’t come down to the vote, they come down to the level of harassment as people get ready to vote, he added. Sekou ventured that given the little black people have got for it, voting fits the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result.
There’s more to politics than the franchise, but it’s B.S. for this Westy fantast to disparage voting by black populations. (And NYRB should be shamed for providing a platform for his “liberatory” pieties.) There are plenty of towns in the St. Louis area (like Ferguson) where black majorities are at the mercy of local law enforcement regimes presided over by white elected officials. It would be…insane if organizers didn’t try to increase black turnout in local elections.
10 Ben Chaney would grow up to join the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army where he pursued armed struggle. He was convicted of killing a white Southerner in the early 70s. He ended up doing 13 years in prison. His life story takes you back to Bob Moses’ truth attack on LBJ and the Democratic Party, yet Ben Chaney’s pain probably shouldn’t be processed into anyone’s crisp narrative.