MLK & Selma – the film and the history

MLK faces Alabama state troops, donning gas masks as they prepare to gas demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus bridge

Tomorrow, all across America, the observance of Martin Luther King Day will be marked for the first time by not only social “service” but by strong social activism, demanding an end to renewed racism, in the model of “Black Lives Matter.”

 In Philadelphia, for instance, an MLK March will condemn not only racist behavior by the police but also the disemployment of millions of Americans, especially Blacks;  the enormous increase in economic inequality; and the  devastation of public education  by taking money away from urban public schools and removing them from democratic control.

Last night, Phyllis & I saw the film “Selma.” It is a Godsend that the film is appearing right now, as a Black-led multiracial movement to move forward toward demoracy in America once again gathers strength.

There has been a hullabaloo over its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson (mostly stirred by Johnson’s claque). Some have argued he was a strong supporter — even the initial planner — of the Selma campaign for voting rights. The film portrays him as a reluctant politician, forced into action by the movement.

I was in Washington then, working at the Institute for Policy Studies, and we were close in touch both with liberal Congressmmbers and with SNCC –— the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

My sense then and now was & is that Johnson absolutely had to be pushed hard by the street actions to make the ‘65 Voting Rights Act a priority.

Those who say he supported the Selma March &  Voting Rights forget, along with many other things, that nine months before the Selma events, he had the FBI tap the phones in the Misssissippi Freedom Democratic Party’s hotel rooms in Atlantic City to derail their challenge at the Dem Natl Convention. (Illegal & unConstitutional actions,  taken to protect his own political career.)  

Similarly with Selma — he held back as long as he thought the protests didn’t threaten his political future while his action would, and when it became clear he had no choice, he acted.

Some have argued that LBJ’s devotion to civil rights is shown by his role in civil-rights legislation before he became President: The “Civil Rights Act of 1957” was passed by the Senate in part through LBJ’s efforts. Johnson arranged for the bill to go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which probably would have been normal for such a bill — but “normal” meant death.  The Committee  Chairman was Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, and the Committee gutted the original text  so that the Act when passed  was meaningless. It had no effect on actual exclusion of Southern Negroes from voting.

Ditto for the “Civil Rights Act of  1960.” During the struggle over that one, I was legislative asst to a left-liberal Wisconsin Congressman who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee. So I was in the midst of that effort. Then too, efforts to write tough oversight of elections went nowhere and the Act had almost no effect.

It was not till after the sit-ins and freedom rides and the Great March for Jobs and Freedom of 1963 (which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in public accommodations and discrimination in employment including discrimination against women) and Freedom Summer 1964 and the Selma Marches that it became possible — even necessary — for the President to call for, Congress to pass, and the President to sign a real Voting Rights

The VRA did in fact work and made possible a huge increase in Black voting in the South.  Senate approval for this strong bill was made possible by bypassing the Judiciary Committee  — a tactic that might have been available to Johnson in 1957 and 1960.

I was delighted by one seemingly minor note in the film: It shows LBJ complaining that demonstrators outside the White House were chanting all night & “keeping LadyBird awake.”

In fact that chanting was organized by SNCC. After several nights,  Johnson invited them to meet with him. First thing he said was that the chanting was keeping him awake. One of them came back to the Institute next day and told us he had answered, “Mr. President, our people are losing their lives in the South. We really don’t care whether you are losing sleep.”

Who talks to a President that way? It was that kind of speaking and acting that made Johnson realize he had to act. It’s true that when he did, the text of the Voting Rights bill was strong, and it was magnificent for him to end his speech to Congress by saying,  “We shall overcome.”

The film is utterly clear about the FBI’s & Hoover’s campaign against King, and LBJ’s acquiescence in it.

To my surprise, it was also clear, though subtle & delicate, about King’s love affairs.

There has been a smaller hullabaloo inside the Jewish community about the film’s failure to show the presence of Jews as Jews in the Selma campaign.

I am disappointed that “Heschel” did not appear in the filmic version of the line of marchers at the third Selma March. But aside from him and a few other rabbis, the Jews –— and there were many, way higher than the Jewish proportion of the American public — who were involved in the Mississippi & Alabama voting-rights campaigns were almost all there as secular progressive activists with little or no focus on their being Jewish.

(There was a tall, thin, clean-shaven man wearing a yarmulke shown for an instant in the film’s version of the front rank of marchers in the third Selma March. He looked about as much UNlike Heschel as it is possible to be. But he was there.)

In 1965 I was among the barely-Jewish Jews who were civil-rights and antiwar actiivists. It took King’s death in 1968, the next week of Black uprisings and white police action, including Johnson’s order to the US Army to occupy Washington DC,  & the coming of Pesach a week later, to make me into a serious Jew.

When as a result I did write the Freedom Seder, I was joyful to include a remark of Bob Moses, a key leader of SNCC’s campaign for voting rights in Mississippi, about Charles McDew, SNCC’s second chairperson: “a black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity.”  But a Black Jew is not on the agenda of present Jewish Establishment organizations in their complaints about the film.

The film ends with brief notes on “where they went next” about MLK, LBJ, Coretta King,  John Lewis, etc. I wish it had also said: ”In 2014, by a 5-4 vote, the US Supreme Court eviscerated the most important section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by overruling the VRA itself and acts of Congress reaffirming it over the last five decades.”

I hope “Selma” wins the Oscar for best film. Not only is it coming out at the moment when race is again at the forefront of US history as the deepest fissure in our society, so it is therefore an important political act — but it is deeply emotionally affecting and intellectually/ historically  enlightening, a fine film.

It is the closest we have yet for a widely publicly available “Haggadah”  — Retelling – of one piece of the Black-led multiracial liberation struggle to move forward toward democracy in America.   As with the Jewish Passover “retelling,” it should be learned by the next generation —  – and the ones after that. I was pleased to see many kids present last night.

 Blessings of truth, memory, and active commitment — Arthur

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