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Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever

“Selma”, the stunning new film based on Paul Webb’s screenplay and directed by the previously unheralded African-American Ava DuVernay, makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison with Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. Both films revolve around the circumstances attending the passage of key legislation affecting Black America: in the first instance, the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and in the second the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that sealed the doom of Jim Crow, a legacy of white America’s abandonment of Reconstruction.

“Selma”, however, has exactly what “Lincoln” lacked, namely the agency of Black self-emancipation dramatized by the Selma to Montgomery march. If Lincoln was seen as a wise benefactor of a sidelined Black population whose leaders like Frederick Douglass failed to materialize on screen, the prime mover in “Selma” is Martin Luther King Jr. who is played to perfection by David Oyelowo, the actor last seen as a cartoon version of a Black Panther member in Lee Daniels’s “The Butler”. He is far better served in this new film.

Both films pay close attention to period detail and use the speeches that are part of the backbone of American progressive politics, including Lincoln’s and LBJ’s. It is of some significance that the speeches given by King in “Selma” are only approximations of what he said in Selma since the King estate refused to allow the speeches to be used by DuVernay. So she wrote the words herself after steeping herself in the original for months.

And why did the King estate refuse to grant permission? Once again there is a Spielberg angle. Around the same time that Lee Daniels was trying to get “The Butler” made, he had an option to make “Selma” using Paul Webb’s screenplay. Since there was not enough money to make both films, he went with “The Butler”. We benefit from his decision since I am afraid that Daniels’s penchant for melodrama might have led to cartoonish results.

After Daniels abandoned “Selma”, Spielberg purchased the rights to King’s speeches in 2009 with the intention of producing his own film. One can easily imagine such a film making Lyndon Johnson another Lincolnesque figure, a Great Man of history challenging the forces of Deep South reaction with Black people an afterthought. Fortunately, DuVernay’s film is the one that got made.

The four main characters in the film are LBJ, George Wallace, MLK Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, two British actors who most often are cast as Americans, play Johnson and Wallace respectively. DuVernay made the wise decision to have them avoid impersonating their characters but focus more on revealing their psychological essence. Roth in particular is exceptional as the reptilian Wallace. As is the case throughout much of the film, a key scene that pits LBJ against Wallace in the oval office in the White House relies on their actual words. Imploring Wallace to think about how history will judge them 20 years in the future, Johnson is incensed by the racist’s reply—he does not care about history. This causes LBJ to explode: “Why don’t you just give the niggers the vote?”

History’s judgment on the Johnson presidency is decidedly mixed. Compared to the Democrats who have succeeded him in office, LBJ was a giant who pushed through some of the most important reforms since the New Deal, including Medicare and Medicaid. Like so many from my generation, I turned against him in 1966 after the war in Vietnam escalated to the point where I was facing the draft and a senseless war. What was the point of voting for a “peace candidate” in 1964 if he secretly planned to adopt Goldwater’s foreign policy?

Lyndon Johnson made the calculated choice to drive a stake into the heart of Jim Crow, a decision no doubt influenced by Black America’s refusal to put up with segregation any longer. The 1963 March on Washington and militant but nonviolent protests all through the South and many northern cities demanded “Freedom Now”, a slogan that MLK Jr. embodied. These mass actions put wind in Johnson’s sails but when it came to challenging a policy that he supported—the brutal war in Vietnam—he proved resistant to pressure until it reached such intensity that he decided not to run in 1968.

“Selma” is excellent at demonstrating Johnson’s support for civil rights as well as his tendency to see Black people in paternalistic if not racist terms. For an evenhanded treatment of his legacy, you might read the chapter on his presidency in Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, a book whose title was inspired by Nixon’s performance at a Gridiron Club dinner in 1970 where he and Vice President Agnew joked about the “Southern Strategy”, with Agnew speaking in Southern dialect. They played “Dixie” on two pianos to the delight of an audience that included George McGovern and other prominent Democratic Party liberals.

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In comparison to JFK, LBJ was a beacon of enlightenment. Despite the liberal veneer of the Kennedy administration, JFK appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

LBJ made it clear from the outset that he meant business. He opened up direct communications with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP in 1964 in order to put together the Civil Rights Bill that sought to make Jim Crow illegal. Johnson’s bold course persuaded a shrewd Nixon to develop a “Southern Strategy” that effectively delivered the resentful whites of the Deep South to the Republican Party.

Notwithstanding his desire to see change in the south, LBJ often regarded the grass roots civil rights movement as an annoyance or worse. After voting rights activists Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in Mississippi went missing (subsequently discovered to have been killed by the KKK), civil rights leader Robert Moses demanded that the White House authorize protection from Klan terror. The aforementioned Robert Kennedy, Johnson’s Attorney General, urged caution since SNCC, one of the major activist groups, was being aided by the Lawyer’s Guild, a “Communist Front” in Kennedy’s view.

When a NY Congressman advised Johnson to meet with the parents of Schwerner and Goodman, Johnson complained: “Every goddamn time somebody’s going to be missing, I got to meet with all those parents.” Even worse, Johnson approved the FBI wiretapping the Schwerner family’s telephones.

At the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, Johnson mobilized the FBI to wiretap and snoop on civil rights activists in attendance as part of a strategy to isolate and prevent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) from being seated. He preferred the Dixiecrats over them since that would help “unify” the party. This left the MFDP and its Black supporters feeling betrayed. After the convention, LBJ’s press secretary Bill Moyers sent a congratulatory note to the FBI for helping to close the deal.

This was the context for the history that would unfold a few months later in Selma where King would organize the protests designed to put pressure on Johnson to adopt a Voting Rights Act. As the film makes abundantly clear, he favored such a bill but insisted to King that he be given time to consolidate the antipoverty programs and civil rights legislation that had been passed in 1964. In scenes that are the highpoint of the film, you see Wilkinson and Oyelowo wrestling over the pace of change in the oval office. For King, the urgency was not just over the murder of the three civil rights workers but the bombing at a church in Birmingham in 1963 that cost the lives of four young African-American girls. In every instance of Klan terror, the cops in combination with all-white juries failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. The only way to end state-sponsored terror was to change the state through Black voting power. That was what gave the Selma protests and the film its urgency.

That the film represented LBJ as resistant to mass marches in Selma and the immediate passage of a Voting Rights Act did not sit well with Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top domestic aide. In a Washington Post article dated December 26, he takes the film to task:

The makers of the new movie “Selma” apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.

In responding to Califano, the director tweeted a link to a July 8-13, 2013 New Yorker Magazine article by Louis Menand that unfortunately is behind a paywall. Titled “The Color of Law”, it provides useful background to the Selma events and includes a paragraph that effectively sums up the message of the film:

Johnson recognized the need for additional voting-rights legislation, and he directed Nicholas Katzenbach, soon to be his attorney general, to draft it. “I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise,” is the way he put it. But then progress slowed. Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait.

1965 was arguably the climax of the last period in American history when the government was willing to take bold action on behalf of African-Americans. There were two factors that made this possible. The first was the militancy of Black people who had showed an irresistible will to achieve freedom, at least in formal democratic terms. The American ruling class had decided that Jim Crow was not only an obstacle to the nation’s image abroad but that it interfered with a smoothly functioning capitalist economy that depended on a labor market not hampered by arbitrary racist distinctions.

The underlying assumption was that the American economy would remain hegemonic for the foreseeable future. A snapshot of Detroit in 1965 was one that featured happy and well-fed unionized auto workers, many of whom were Black, sending their children to college on a scholarship so that they would come out with a degree qualifying them for management positions at Ford—the American dream incarnate and one applicable to southern cities as well.

That dream was dashed many years ago, even when auto jobs were still available. Blacks rioted in the 1960s because there were simply too few jobs in industries that were just beginning to enter terminal decline in the Rust Belt.

By the mid-1970s, the Democratic Party had begun to shed its New Deal trappings and adopt the neoliberalism incorporated in the Carter presidency and that continues to this day. No matter how many times the Nation Magazine or Salon.com editorialize for a return to the New Deal as symbolized by an Elizabeth Warren or some other left-liberal hopeful, the big money will always be on the candidate who promotes austerity.

Even the most timid of social programs such as Obamacare are enough to drive big money into a frenzy. The Republicans will not be satisfied until the last remnants of the New Deal are dismantled and a return to the 1890s has been consummated. To make this possible, there must be a whittling away of democratic rights particularly those enjoyed by the Black population in the South that stands in the way of total Republican domination.

In one of the more powerful scenes in “Selma”, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a nursing home attendant and just one of many historical figures given their due in the film, tries to register to vote at the Selma courthouse. She is first asked to recite the preamble to the Constitution, which she does. Next she asked to provide the number of county judges there are in the state of Alabama, she again gives the correct answer: 67. But when she is asked to give their names, she realizes she is finished and walks out in anger and disgust.

While we are not quite at this stage, there are troubling signs that we are moving backwards politically just as we have been doing economically. Voting rights are under assault throughout the nation and particularly in the South. In 2013 the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 majority to strike down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that bans racial discrimination, a key provision meant to address the very abuse dramatized in the scene above.

Furthermore, the specter of state-sponsored terror is present today although in a somewhat different guise. In the 1950s and early 60s, it was men in white robes who were functioning as judge, jury and executioner. Today it is men in blue with badges that are taking the law into their own hands.

As a response to cop terror, young people are taking to the streets everywhere in the same spirit of the courageous protesters who faced billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. As such, they are running into the same resistance as King did back then, being blamed for raising tensions and “dividing the nation”.

Now more than ever, a new civil rights movement will have to confront the structural barriers to full equality that have been fundamental to American capitalism since the 1870s. It will take a fully aroused mass movement that does not only defend voting rights and seeks to bring police terror to an end. Underlying and fuelling such struggles is an economic system that promises nothing but continuing austerity and stepped up repression to intimidate those who want something better. Whether or not director Ava DuVernay had the current moment in mind when she decided to make “Selma” is almost beside the point because those who do see the film will make that connection for sure.

Louis Proyect manages the Marxism list and reviews films for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: lnp3@panix.com

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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