MLK & Selma – the film, the history, & the future

Alabama troopers don gas masks, prepafing to gas marchers in Selma

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, requiring a much higher minimum wage; and the devastation of public education by taking money away from urban (mostly Black) public schools and removing them from democratic control.

Last night, Phyllis & I saw the film “Selma.” There has been a hullabaloo over its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson (mostly stirred by Johnson’s claque).

I was in Washington then, working at the Institute for Policy Studies, and we were close in touch both with Congressmembers 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 phons 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 assistant to a left-liberal Wisconsin Congressman who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee. So I was in the midst of that effort. I saw how 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 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 Act. 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.

The VRA did in fact work and made possible a huge increase in Black voting in the South.

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.

There were many Jews, way higher than the Jewish proportion of the American public, who were involved in the Mississippi & Alabama voting-rights campaigns. But they were almost all there as secular progressive activists with little or no focus on their being Jewish.

Of course at Selma there was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I am indeed disappointed that “Heschel” did not appear in the filmic version of the line of marchers at the third Selma March. But there were very few such Jewishly focused Jews in that effort.

The film did show for an instant a tall, thin, clean-shaven man wearing a yarmulke in its 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 activists.  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

Universal: 

Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

4 Comments

this article

Thank you. I will forward this tomorrow as my MLK. Jr day focus.

What we see

Thanks again for your reflections as someone who was actively involved in those historic events. I gave my sermon and led a discussion for MLK weekend on the Jewish involvement in civil rights from the Torah to the Civil Rights Movement to present issues. One of my congregant's father's, Rabbi William Frankel, marched in Selma and organized a delegation of Chicago rabbis to go with him. My childhood rabbi, David Jacobson, was one of three clergy who are credited with peacefully desegregating San Antonio. Another congregant, who grew up in NYC, spoke of being at the March on Washington with his activist mother. Some were religious, some were secular, but so many Jews were motivated by our history and/or our heritage to be active supporters of Civil Rights.

When I recently mentioned this heritage as one of my motivators to be at a local vigil for Michael Brown, local African American clergy affirmed their own memory and appreciation of this solidarity.

While the plot of "Selma" the movie was "not about us" who are not African-Americans, at the same time what absence of Heschel says to me is that the person who is so visible front and center to us, Rabbi Heschel, who to us represents the best of Jewish values and activism, was invisible to the director of the movie, or just an interchangeable man with a kippah. So what does that say about how we all focus in on our own group and don't see others as individuals?

Photos of MLK with supporters

I wonder how many different people search those photos of MLK with a variety of supporters to see if they can find someone they know personally who was there. Mine was a Catholic priest who later became a brother-in-law. I also had a niece who registered voters in thes1960's

THE FILM SELMA.

RESPONSE TO RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW’S MESSAGE ABOUT “SELMA!”

Dear Rabbi Waskow-
It was a pleasure to read your remarks about the film, “Selma,” and to learn more about Rabbi Heschel and Jewish involvement in the Selma marches. I remember the period of the civil rights movement quite well, it was a very emotional time; one could indeed feel very passionate about what was taking place in locations like Selma, AL. “Selma” is a film I, recently, saw with fellows from my Unitarian Universalist Men’s Group. We went to a late afternoon showing of the film, so that we could go to dinner and discuss it afterward. To a man they liked this film.
To me, this film came across like a hybrid, half documentary/ half dramatic film. I would give the film makers credit for doing a thorough job of compressing some very meaningful parts of civil rights history into a couple of hours. This was no mean feat, given all of the many and varied things that took place leading up to the final march. However, by doing this, it detracted from the normal character development and dramatic interplay that a fine film usually has.
Nevertheless, there were several tense scenes that I felt were quite believable, e.g., between Martin and Coretta Scott King, during which she regretted not having their own home, and between Martin and Lyndon Johnson, when Martin indicated that they could not wait any longer and had to proceed with their nonviolent protest. However, in both of these scenes the actors lacked the passion that I would have liked to have seen between them. In contrast, I felt the passion in John Lewis’ plea to Martin to continue leading their protest for voting rights, when Martin and he were in a car together. It’s too bad that the film only rarely had King show a great deal of emotion. There were a few glimpses of self doubt about whether or not he should persist in this particular struggle, and there was a very tender scene at the morgue with the elderly father of the young man beaten to death in the restaurant, but little else depicting emotion from Martin.
There was one very passionate confrontation, following the beatings in one of the marches, where one young man was determined to get a weapon to kill some of those white folks, and one of the leaders stood up to him and explained why they had to proceed nonviolently. To me, it was the most convincing statement of their strategy behind the Selma march.
Although Tom Wilkinson did not look anything like Lyndon Johnson, he certainly did a good job of acting like him. I, also, felt that David Oyelowo did a very good job of portraying Rev. King in his many moods, though he did not have the persuasive power in his public speaking voice that King did. Carmen Ejogo was a good choice for Corretta Scott King, as well. I, also, was taken by the song, ”Glory,” that was played in the film; its music and lyrics were by John Legend and Common.
I believe that the film emphasized the organizational consciousness-raising of the black community, so that these people could stand up for their rights as human beings. It was a given that there would be beatings, imprisonments and, possibly, even deaths; however, if enough black citizens braved whatever the white establishment dished out, and the black people managed to keep on coming to demand their right to vote, they would win in the end. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. enunciated this, and it did come to pass!
I enjoyed seeing Selma very much; it brought back that whole period of time to me.
Yours for a more positive future, John.
John P. Falchi 3955 Atascadero Drive San Diego, CA 92107

Add new comment