One evening toward the end of his tragically short life, Martin Luther King Jr. unleashed what must have been years of deeply stifled frustration and sorrow. Drinking alone, he thrashed about his empty hotel room in tears, upsetting furniture and banging on walls, screaming, “I don’t want to do this any more! I want to go back to my little church!” Hearing the disturbance from down the hall, his trusted aides, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, rushed to King’s side, removed a bottle of whiskey from his possession, and convinced him to lay down and rest.
Thrust into the public spotlight at the age of 26, King spent his remaining 13 years living out of suitcases, sleeping restlessly on airplanes, serving time in jail, raising money and, when he wasn’t mediating ideological and personal differences within a deeply factious civil rights movement, brokering the end of American apartheid. It’s tempting all these years later to remember MLK as a god, but he was very much human and conscious of his limitations. “Well,” he apologetically told associates the following morning, “now it’s established that I ain’t a saint.”
Few people would dispute the inestimable position that Martin Luther King holds in American history, or the cross that he bore for his millions of countrymen. Reconciling his greatness and fallibility is the same challenge that greets biographers of most towering historical figures. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act, the quantity and quality of scholarship on MLK is excellent. From the sweeping work of Taylor Branch, David Garrow and Clayborne Carson, to scores of academic monographs that visit different aspects of King’s political development, there is no shortage of important reading material. Lamentably, there is still no great movie—no biopic that measures up to Spielberg’s Lincoln or Attenborough’s Gandhi—works that humanize their subjects without betraying fidelity to historical rigor. Paramount Pictures and filmmaker Ava DuVernay clearly hoped to fill that void with Selma. Regrettably, they fell short by a mile.
As a movie, Selma has a lot to offer. The acting is marvelous (David Oyelowo captures MLK every bit as well as Daniel Day-Lewis imagined Lincoln), the cinematography is striking and—much credit to the director—the violence is startlingly real and intimate. Scenes depicting the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the massacre at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the murder of James Reeb are very difficult to watch. As they should be.
But from a historical perspective, Selma is a deeply flawed work. The film has already provoked considerable debate, particularly around the question of Lyndon Johnson’s role in pressing for federal voting rights legislation. On a more fundamental level, it mingles real, verifiable events with conspiratorial fiction. And for a film about a pivotal moment in MLK’s life, it obscures too much of King’s political and personal genius. The events at Selma stood at the juncture of every theological and practical dilemma that King grappled with in his public career: The limits and utility of nonviolence. The balance between civil disobedience and civil society. How an activist stays politically relevant. Selma skims the surface of these questions, but it never gets to the core.
Selma opens in late 1964, when King traveled to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. By that date, the historical record shows, he had already determined to stage his next campaign in Selma—the seat of Dallas County, Alabama, where black residents comprised over half the population but only about 2 percent of registered voters.
King’s strategy was at once simple and complicated. Since Congress had six months earlier passed the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in employment, schools and places of public accommodation, the movement had renewed its focus on voting rights—a giant piece of the civil rights puzzle that still required legislative remedy. From a numbers perspective, the decision made sense. As King explained to readers of the New York Times, “Selma has succeeded in limiting Negro registration to the snail’s pace of about 145 persons a year. At this rate, it would take 103 years to register the 15,000 eligible Negro voters of Dallas County.”
Most liberals understood that securing access to the ballot box necessarily comprised an important part of the “Great Society.” Indeed, in a phone conversation on January 15, 1965, Lyndon Johnson named voting rights as a centerpiece of the civil rights agenda and counseled King to galvanize support by “find[ing] the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina … And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can … then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.” (From the context of their conversation, it doesn’t appear that LBJ understood that King had already found his “one illustration.”)
On a more fundamental level, Selma was a hornet’s nest of racial violence. King’s own notes explain his thinking: 1. “nonviolent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights”; 2. “racists resist by unleashing violence against them”; 3. “Americans of conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation”; 4. “the Administration, under mass pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and remedial legislation.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been active in Selma since 1962, but now King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned to join the fray and “dramatize the situation to arouse the federal government by marching by the thousands to the places of registration.”
True to form, local authorities took the bait. Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark clapped over 2,000 activists in jail by the end of February 1965 and empowered his officers to rain down unspeakable violence on peaceful protesters. On February 18, state troopers beat and shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 25-year-old voting rights demonstrator. When Jackson died eight days later of his wounds, movement leaders conceived a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, where they would voice their grievances on the steps of the state capitol. The campaign’s climactic moment occurred on Bloody Sunday—March 7, 1965—when state and county law enforcement officers savagely attacked roughly 500 peaceful marchers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Actually, the word savage doesn’t begin to do justice to what happened that morning. Mounted policemen employed tear gas, electric prods, horse whips and batons wrapped in barbed wire. They pursued marchers who were running desperately in retreat. In 1965, news footage still needed to be flown to New York for national broadcast. That evening, ABC won the race. When the network broke into its regularly scheduled program—the television premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg—millions of viewers were confronted with gut-wrenching scenes that jarred the nation’s conscience.
Two more marches ensued—one, led by King, in which protesters proceeded to the bridge, knelt, prayed and turned back; and another, which culminated in a historic trek to Montgomery. Lyndon Johnson spoke before a rare joint session of Congress and demanded voting rights legislation. And the rest, as they say, was history. Except not in Selma.
Movies need to assume some creative license, and a few small embellishments or errors don’t necessarily sink a great enterprise, unless they are emblematic of deeper interpretive flaws. In this case, they are.
Since the film’s release on December 25, critics like Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, and Joseph Califano, a senior White House aide to Lyndon Johnson, have lashed out at DuVernay for her treatment of LBJ. In the film, they point out, LBJ is portrayed as King’s bitter antagonist—strongly opposed to compromising his sweeping domestic policy agenda by endorsing a controversial voting rights bill. Indeed, in Selma, LBJ’s character resolutely insists that he won’t touch voting rights in 1965. In real life, he informed King that he preferred to wait until that spring, by which time he expected to ram several important health, education and welfare bills through Congress. By the time this conversation occurred, his aides had been debating how and when to tackle the ballot box for several months. As early as February 28, LBJ already had Justice Department lawyers at work crafting policy options on voting rights. The distance between LBJ and MLK was a matter of weeks, not years.
DuVernay called the criticism “jaw dropping” and “offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it [Selma] so.” “Bottom line,” she continued, “is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”
DuVernay is entirely correct that Lyndon Johnson did not originate the Selma campaign. King decided on and launched the initiative well before his January 15 phone call with the president. But Updegrove and Califano only scratch the surface when they insist, correctly, that LBJ was committed to passing a voting rights bill in 1965 and that he relied on King to help build consensus for such legislation. More problematic than what the film ignores is what it invents out of whole cloth.
In Selma, LBJ instructs FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to coerce King out of Dallas County and away from voting rights. Deep into events, and with Johnson’s consent, the FBI mails to King’s home a tape recording of the civil rights leader engaged in an extramarital tryst. Moviegoers in the Upper West Side theater where I saw the film were deeply shocked and offended—shocked that the president of the United States would conspire to blackmail a civil rights hero, and offended that he did so in the service of choking off a peaceful campaign to secure voting rights for American citizens. The audible gasps from the audience contributed to the scene’s fundamental tension.
But here’s the hitch: It never happened. At least not that way. Hoover—arguably one of the most deranged and dangerous characters in the annals of American history—did in fact engage in extensive, extralegal surveillance of King’s hotel rooms, office and phone lines. (For that, by the way, we can thank Robert Kennedy, the attorney general who approved some of the taps—not Lyndon Johnson.) Hoover’s agents caught King in multiple incidents of extramarital sex; and they did send a compilation tape to his home, along with a bizarre, anonymous letter suggesting that he commit suicide to avoid public exposure and disgrace. But there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that LBJ knew about, let alone ordered, these actions.
Moreover, the FBI sent the now famous “suicide letter” (and accompanying tape) to King on November 21, 1964; it lay unopened and buried under a stack of unread mail in King’s house until January 5. That day, Coretta Scott King accidentally opened the package and listened to the recording. What ensued between husband and wife was not pleasant. But all of this occurred well before the climactic events at Selma, and the historical record strongly suggests that Hoover was acting (and Hoover most always did) of his own accord.
The events surrounding Selma were dramatic enough by their own right—and LBJ was a sufficiently complicated person and politician, with motives both Machiavellian and pure—that it’s unclear why the filmmakers chose to thicken the plot.
Matthew Yglesias of Vox believes that critics of Selma deplore the film because “it doesn’t cast LBJ as the hero of the Voting Rights Act. But the fact that Selma doesn’t do this is part of what makes it important. Hollywood too often gives us films about race in America where the real heroes are conveniently white. Selma doesn’t.” This criticism misses the mark. The controversy over Selma should not be reduced to a debate about whether black activists exercised political agency. Of course they did. The deeper problem is that the movie doesn’t always get its portrayal of black activists right.
In fact, Selma’s treatment of black student activists is at times oddly patronizing. Early in the film, SCLC staff members James Bevel and Diane Nash warn King that he will face sharp opposition from SNCC activists who had been on the ground for over two years. The script would have you believe that these three adults considered the kids a well-meaning nuisance—teenage hotheads who were committed to the cause but lacking in political savvy. The scene is almost as patronizing as the fatherly dressing-down that King delivers to SNCC’s national chairman John Lewis several frames later.
In reality, the dynamic between King (who was in his mid-30s) and the students (many of whom were in their mid-20s) was dynamic and complex. Bevel and Nash would not likely have been derisive of SNCC or Lewis. The three activists were longtime friends and had formed the nucleus of the lunch counter sit-in movement in Nashville; they were all co-founders of SNCC. Though now members of King’s SCLC staff, Nash and Bevel were hardly institutional players. They were a radical and polarizing force within King’s inner circle. It was Bevel who first prodded King to send schoolchildren into the streets during the Birmingham campaign, a deeply controversial tactic that many older activists deplored. Within the movement, Nash was widely regarded as a stubbornly unyielding character. King kept them around because of, not despite, their edge.
To be sure, many younger activists in SNCC considered King a grandstander—they privately called him “De Lawd,” criticized his top-down leadership approach and thought there was no more dangerous a place to stand than between the preacher and a news camera. But MLK occupied a generational middle ground in the civil rights movement: Older leaders of the national NAACP abhorred his street tactics and took every opportunity to discredit and diminish him, some even going so far as to furnish the FBI with unflattering intelligence on the SCLC and its leader. King knew of condescension from elder black statesmen, and while he sometimes misfired, he made every attempt to work with the students. In Selma, he would have taken great care to take them seriously and win their support.
Moreover, by 1965 there was nothing immature about SNCC’s political sensibilities. Student activists understood how to channel and manipulate political power. From the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960, which brought businesses and local governments to their knees, to Freedom Summer, which forced a national political crisis, they were deft masters of protest, organization and pressure.
Selma does the students a disservice by unnecessarily subordinating their contribution to King’s. As with the film’s needless slander of Lyndon Johnson, the movie presupposes that credit is a zero-sum game. In reality, King deserves the lion’s share, but there’s still plenty of it to go around.
Much of Selma hinges on two plot lines: King’s struggle with Lyndon Johnson, and his attempt to save his marriage. In this regard, the film sacrifices as much to accuracy as to ambition. The movie suggests that King missed the first Selma march because he was desperately trying to repair his relationship with Coretta, who had just listened to an incriminating tape of her husband. But the famous “suicide letter” incident occurred many weeks before Bloody Sunday, and King’s reasons for skipping the march were more complicated.
In part, MLK took seriously several credible threats against his life; it does him no disservice to acknowledge that he was a prominent assassination target and weighed the risks associated with a four-day trek through the Alabama countryside. More importantly, King was loath to march until a federal judge could be convinced to void Gov. George Wallace’s ban against the procession. And this is a key point.
As historian Harvard Sitcoff explained, by 1965, King’s nonviolent philosophy, deeply influenced by Gandhi, had evolved from “satyagraha, peaceful persuasion to change the hearts and minds of oppressors, to duragraha, tactical nonviolence as an effective means to coerce a demanded end. Once an ethic, nonviolence was now a tactic.” In his early days as a movement leader, King led the citizens of Montgomery in an act of withdrawal—the decision not to buy bus tickets. It was coercive, but passively so. Between 1963 and 1965, nonviolence became an active course, calculated to manufacture chaos and disorder. He was essentially giving white America a choice: Follow the letter and spirit of its own laws, or face the collapse of the country’s civil and political institutions.
To argue credibly that white Americans should obey the law, King knew that civil rights activists needed also to adhere to it. In Letter from Birmingham Jail, he grappled with the tension between civil disobedience and commitment to civil society. “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws,” he wrote. “This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. … The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”
The implications of this argument were radical, for who was to decide which laws were just, and which were unjust?
King skipped the first Selma march, in part because he wanted to cloak his actions in the approval of the federal judiciary—not because his wife was angry with him. In the film, he makes a flash decision to turn the second march around out of concern for the safety of his followers. This representation, too, is problematic. In reality, King had been negotiating quietly with federal officials and White House emissaries. He knew that he had to stage some form of protest to release the pent-up frustration of his activists, but he did not want to violate Judge Frank Johnson’s temporary injunction against a march. The turnaround tactic, originally suggested by one of LBJ’s envoys, was an elegant way to thread the needle.
There may be no public figure in modern American history as deeply steeped in, and serious about, ideas as Martin Luther King. In an era when post-adolescent fascination with Ayn Rand passes as serious thinking, we should be in awe of King’s deep engagement with Mahatma Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber. King challenged us to think. That’s a difficult attribute to capture in a movie. Selma tries, but doesn’t succeed.
Selma may have missed the mark, but that doesn’t stop us from looking back critically on the events that took place half a century ago. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in restaurants, hotels and all other places of public accommodation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed most of the remaining obstacles to black electoral participation, reordered daily life in the 11 former states of the Confederacy as well as border states like Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and Delaware. As late as 1965, only 6.7 percent of African-Americans in Mississippi and 19 percent in Alabama had surmounted the complex of legal and extralegal measures in place to prevent them from exercising the franchise. But Southern resistance crumbled in the wake of congressional action. By 1970, roughly two-thirds of African-Americans in these Deep South states were registered to vote. White Southerners now had to grapple with the long-term prospect of black representation at all levels of government, and with the more immediate reality of political power sharing. Edgar Morton, a state legislator from Louisiana, marveled that he had “never shook hands with a black person before I ran for office … the first time I shook hands it was a traumatic thing.”
Jim Crow had not simply been about political power and physical separation. It was a way of thinking and living. “Desegregation was absolutely incomprehensible to the average southerner,” said an attorney from Greensboro, “absolutely unbelievable.” “How can I destroy the lingering faces of Stepin Fetchit, Amos & Andy, Buckwheat and all the others?” wondered a college student from North Carolina. “[My] world view is still strongly rooted in … a rural, agrarian, black-belt county, which is, in many ways, the same way as it was in 1900.” One Arkansan observed that “[r]acism permeated every aspect of our lives, from little black Sambo … in the first stories read to us, to the warning that drinking coffee before the age of sixteen would turn us black. It was part of the air everyone breathed.”
Observing the scene outside Montgomery’s Jefferson Davis Hotel in March 1965, the irascible New York City newspaperman Jimmy Breslin wrote, “You have not lived in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing ‘…we are not afraid…’ and then turn and look at the face of the cop near her and see the puzzlement, and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over.”
“This thing here is a revolution,” a white businessman confided to Breslin. “And some of us know it. The world’s passed all of us by … unless we start to live with it.”
The events of 50 years ago left a profound mark on American history. Getting right with that history requires fidelity to what occurred and a deep understanding why it happened. Anything short of that standard will not do.