Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Selma' Is History: Removing the Shadow of Bondage

In 'Selma' vs. History, writer Elizabeth Drew presents her concern that the film is filled with glaring historical inaccuracies in its portrayal of President Lyndon B, Johnson. Indeed, she doesn't appear to recall anything about the film except the encounters between Dr. King and LBJ. However, the nuances of a complex interpersonal relationship such as that of King and Johnson aren't so easily characterized in terms as to what the two believed of each other. All we have left are the impressions of those present at some of their meetings and whatever written record either of them left about their encounters. I'm not familiar with LBJ's writings; indeed, I don't know if there are any. However, I know Dr. King's body of work well. 

I think that there are many who are unaware that King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is the fifth chapter of a much larger work entitled Why We Can't Wait, in which Dr. King takes to task the molasses like pace of civil rights for the Negro. He opens the book by stating that the year is 1963 and declares the disturbing reality that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools with all deliberate speed had in fact been met with “all deliberate delay.” 

He also comments on the irony of 1963 marking the celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, “The pen of the Great Emancipator had moved the Negro into the sunlight of physical freedom, but actual conditions had left him behind in the shadow of political, psychological, social, and intellectual bondage.” 

I cannot help but believe in writings such as this book, and in particular chapter 5, "Letter From Birmingham Jail," King included LBJ in his frustration with those who objected to his use of civil disobedience and felt that patience and use of the court system was called for in the fight for civil rights. For me, the most powerful statement in the essay is the following, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” 

It is long past time for people of good will to stop talking and to listen. Selma is about King and the civil rights struggle, not about LBJ. The filmmaker is a black woman, Ava DuVernay, and her perceptions have been formed and shaped by being black in a racist society. She didn't set out to thank LBJ for his magnificence in supporting civil rights; nor should she have. What contribution LBJ made, he and every other American who professed to believe in the founding documents of this country owed to us and to themselves. I offer them no collective praise for doing the right and just thing. Certainly, it is appropriate to offer thanks on an individual level to anyone who assists you in a difficult task, but collectively, white participation in the civil rights struggle was no more noble, no more of a sacrifice that that of any of the black Americans who also marched and died. 

LBJ and Dr. King came from very different Americas. The things that Johnson never had to question--traveling where he liked, entering any establishment that he liked, voting, buying a house, going to college, sending his children to school--where not a given for the America in which King lived. The idea that they were in full accord on the issue of civil rights is ludicrous. Under other circumstances, the two would have never met and certainly not ever have had a conversation as presumed equals. Both of these men worked to dismantle Jim Crow and segregation in this country, but to insist that any hint of discord and lack if agreement was unlikely is absurd.That both kept those things reasonably quiet for the good of advancing their shared cause is rational. LBJ was not only a white male, he was the most powerful white man in this country. I can't decide if it's naivete, stupidity, or wishful thinking that makes so many white people insist on focusing on how King and LBJ were in constant accord and any attempt to suggest there was dissension is an injustice to history. The film 'Selma' captures the essence of the reality of a relationship in 1963 between a black civil rights leader and a white southerner who was the President of the United States. 

I am weary of the notion that black people should be grateful to whites who assisted in the civil rights struggle, as if they had no reason to do so other than angelic altruism. It was no more than they should have done. We are as American as any other group in this county. We built this country with our blood and tears just as did any other group. We are Americans and the shame is that it took so long to accord us what we were owed.


C. Dancy II - The Political Agitator said...

Excellent reading!

Capt. Fogg said...

When I Was in high school in the late 50's and early 60's, we would hear hints in American History classes that abolitionists were overly hasty because after all, mechanization would soon have made large numbers of agricultural slaves redundant. Never one to get along with my teachers I did ask what would have become with all the 'surplus population' of slaves. Would they have been liberated and given a pension? I did want to but didn't ask the teacher how patient he would be if someone were legally raping his sister -- I mean he would surely give it up eventually. . . right?

Historical movies usually disappoint people who remember the day, and at a time when living memory is fading away, many of the errors and evasions and even inventions in them tend to become part of history.

One of my many sad regrets in old age is that when I was 20 I didn't go along with a friend of mine who marched from Selma to Montgomery. "what good will it do?" was my response. Bart died young and never did much with his life. But he did that.

Gerry said...

I saw "Selma" a couple of days ago in Phoenix and I have also been reading "Death of a King" by Tavis Smiley about King's last year. I do not think there could have been a better actor found to play Martin Luther King, and I thought Tom Wilkinson played LJB quite well as did Tim Roth play the Governor of Alabama with chilling effectiveness. I hope many Americans will see this movie just to witness some facsimile of what actually took place that would be closer to accurate I think than what white movie makers might come up with. That has to be a given. Without powerful black leaders like Oprah Winfrey I doubt this movie could have been made. Just her name on the credits as a producer is going to convince many Americans this movie has been made with considerable integrity and respect for the truth. You can't ask for more than that.

Capt. Fogg said...

"I am weary of the notion that black people should be grateful to whites who assisted in the civil rights struggle, as if they had no reason to do so other than angelic altruism. It was no more than they should have done. We are as American as any other group in this county."


Some have observed that African Americans are the true heart and soul of America as Kerouac used to say.

Of course you're right, as you usually are, but I don't think one can condemn or ignore people who fought hard for equality or dismiss their zeal and support just because it was a moral obligation to do it. I'm still glad when people work for justice instead of choosing not to. Regardless of the price or consequences of the moral choice, or even the impure motivations to do the right thing, the moral choice is the moral choice. Why blame people for making it?

Would the martyrdom of people like Medgar Evers or Dr. King and all the anonymous others be more sacred if all "white" people were segregationists? Their success, their reward, their heroism was in making coalitions, making friends and allies and converts.

No movie ever tells a story without bias, but at least it's a reminder. What's more important I think, is the sequel. Coming soon to a future near you.

veganelder said...

Melissa Harris-Perry conducted an excellent interview with Ms. DuVernay that should be viewed by anyone who is moaning about the depiction of LBJ in the movie. She is obviously an excellent director and the interview is a fascinating look at her approach to the subject matter of the film.

Your point that whites who assisted in the civil rights struggle is only what all who call themselves Americans should have been doing is spot on. It is rather peculiar for members of a group to sit around and look for accolades for assisting the victims of injustice when that injustice originated from that very same group looking for pats on the back.

The civil rights movement is a testament to the efforts of the black community to ask/demand that America live up to the ideals that it pats itself on the back for everyday.

Thank you for your writing, the interview can be seen here: http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/selma-director-duvernay-joins-mhp-extensive-interview