Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thoughts about the greatness of Selma, truth, black and white unity, King and the clamor of racist patriarchs…


    The movie “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, is a subtle, restrained account of a period of  the most extreme American violence against black people, focused on the leadership and struggles of Martin and Coretta King as well as the many who joined them in Selma and around the country.   The experience DuVernay conjures, for instance, the horrific shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson in a restaurant in Selma,  his father’s grieving at the coroner’s office, Jimmie’s body seen through the glass and King’s compassion, is alive today in the movement Black Lives Matter! about the murders of  Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin...

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      The director sought to capture many people from the civil rights movement.  In immersing herself in the words of the time and employing extras from Selma today, she aimed to find the truth and did.  For the movie vividly captures the greatness and difficulties of the mass nonviolent civil rights movement, the most admirable way of doing social change that America, along with Tolstoy and Gandhi, has yet given to the world (John Brown is, in certain ways, a greater figure than King; King in the final two speeches, one to John Doar, a Johnson attorney, and one at the state capitol in Montgomery, both written for him by DuVernay, insists “Mine eyes have seen the glory.” There is  a resonance of King’s last speech in Memphis about longevity and the mountain top as well as of the original song, the marching song of the North in the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body lies a mouldering in the grave” (the words were written over by Julia Ward Howe – the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was largely fostered  to tame the memory of John Brown - but the original power still lives in them…)

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     Much pivots today on whether mass nonviolent campaigns from below, revealed in this film, offer a way out for a humanity threatened by endless war and climate change.

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     Coretta speaks of the death that was  always near. DuVernay, in the second scene in the movie, follows the little girls accompanied by a boy on the steps going down to the Church basement in Birmingham, talking about their hair and the last talking about how Coretta King does hers…

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     DuVernay is an extraordinary film maker, and this is a woman’s (and a documentarist’s, a  psychologist’s) way of seeing these moments of terrible violence.

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       She is the first black woman to direct  a movie financed by Hollywood (Oprah who plays extraordinarily the role of Annie Cooper, trying to register to vote, was one of the main people persuaded by the lead actor David Oyelowo to support the movie).  May she blaze a path - though she may also  return to small budget films, “$2 and a paper clip” as she puts it, precisely for the freedom they give…

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     When the Kings apartment and Meharry Medical College were bombed in Montgomery in 1955, Martin had told Coretta (this is not in the film) that he would not live to be 40.

      Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis at the age of 39…

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      This film is so powerful that during some of it, I wept.

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      In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” on NPR here, DuVernay spoke of a great problem.  A famous director – she kindly did not mention the name – had purchased the rights to King’s speeches and so, she could not use King's words in the film.  She spoke of the agony of going for long walks or waking up at night, trying to come up with words of equivalent power, like King but not mimickry.  She listened over and over again to King speaking, found echoes of his style even though she tried to avoid – and basically succeeded – imitation.  Where she faced a trap, the words she wrote are genuine art.
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Very few people could have done this:

“GROSS: Can you talk about trying to find the line between embodying - like, doing his best to embody King while at the same time not looking like an impersonation?
DUVERNAY: I mean, it wasn't even a line to walk. We just walked away from anything that felt very, very close to King. You know, it was intentional. There was no mimicry that was ever going to happen. (Laughter) I mean, that was our first order of business, to stay as far away from the two or three things that, you know, really peg King in terms of voice and in the vibrato and some of the quirks of his oratory. And we really focus on the spirit of him. You know, David doesn't look like King. David doesn't sound like King. But he kind of looks and sounds like King. You know what I mean? Like...
GROSS: Yeah, I do. (Laughter).
DUVERNAY: It's in there - you know what I mean? Like, it becomes - it starts to be in there somewhere. This is a cinematic exploration of this time and this space and spirit of this time. And so you just have to - you know, I won't even say get close but not close enough. I mean, we were actually trying not to be close. We were trying to just be in a range that felt comfortable because the closer you get to what's real, exactly as you said, you know, the more you invite comparison and contrast and all kinds of - you know, very much like all of this that's happening around questions of accuracy. This is not meant to be fact, right? I think it's Faulkner that says something like, we don't want facts; we want truth. And so that's really what we were going for, the truth of the matter, the heart of the matter, the spirit of the matter - and not to be, you know, kind of dealing with approximations and mimics and impersonations.
My understanding is that his estate did not grant those rights. Do you know why?
DUVERNAY: We didn't ask for the rights because it's widely known in our industry that those rights belong to another filmmaker [Poor, ridiculous, withholding Steven Spielberg]. So they're not - they're not available. We worked on a budget of $20 million...
GROSS: Oh, was that it? That this - somebody else, like, another filmmaker owns the rights?
DUVERNAY: Another filmmaker controls those rights. And, yes, we were on a very humble budget. I mean, this film is a $20 million film, as I said. It sounds like a lot, but, you know, in the grand scheme of moviemaking, you know...
GROSS: It's just a lot for you (laughter).
DUVERNAY: It's a lot for me 'cause I usually make, like, films with $2 and a paperclip.
GROSS: Exactly (laughter).
DUVERNAY: But it ain't a lot by Hollywood standards. It's actually quite humble and it's an independent kind of size. I mean, we're nominated for several Independent Spirit awards because we fit in budget-wise with the definition of indie film for that organization. And so, yes, it was small.
GROSS: So you were in the position of having to be Martin Luther King's speechwriter.
DUVERNAY: (Laughter) Yes, the unfortunate position. The - that, you know, who wants to have to rewrite that beautiful, beautiful, you know, gosh, that...
GROSS: How did you approach it?
DUVERNAY: With much terror and much procrastination. At any point that I had to do it, I would take a hike, I would meditate, I would walk, I would eat too much. I was like I don't want to do it, but, you know, it had to be done. And, you know, I would hike and I would listen to King's speeches in my earphones and really just try to - more than the cadence, which, yes, you know, there are couple tricks that he did to really rile people up. He spoke in triplet a lot. He loved to paint pictures in a certain way, but it was really about the content of what he was saying back to this idea of truth and fact.
I couldn't use the facts of the speech. I couldn't use the words. So I had to try to find the truth of what he was saying. And I would ask myself, what is he saying here? What is the idea he's trying to get across? At the end of our film, you know, I had to rewrite this radical idea that he had. This amazing idea that he had picked up on from another scholar that racism is a lie that's been told to white people to divert their attention from the challenges in their own life by the powers that be, that rich white men indoctrinate racism into poor white men to make them look at black people and not at the powerful white men, who might not be helping them as they should - a pretty radical idea. My thought was, you know what? Let's not not have this idea expressed in the film because we can't get the speech.
That idea is big enough, bold enough, interesting enough, complex enough, to be shared and it should be shared. And we just have to find another way to say it 'cause we can't afford those speeches. And we don't have the rights to those speeches. You know, but the idea itself should be heard. And so that was how we approached it and that's how I broke it down. I'd listen to the speech, I'd try to educate myself, challenge myself to understand what he was telling me, what he was telling us and then I just tried to tell that in a different way.
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The film was supposed to be made, one after the other,  by 5 different directors.  David Oyelowo, the British actor, had a vision that he would in his life play King.  He had as he put it “ a calling” (interestingly, Oyelowo and DuVernay may have given King an even more spiritual turn than he had in life - see here).  Oyewolo was not cast as King until the third or fourth the director.  A script had been written for Lee Daniels, the fourth, but then Daniels decided to direct “The Butler” and  the project was dropped.

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Oyelowo, alone, unusually, as an actor, pitched the idea.  He had worked with DuVernay on “Middle of Nowhere,” a previous documentary (“we shoot in rooms” on “$2 and a paper clip” in that case, “$200,000,” DuVernay says).  Remarkably, she was asked to be the director without any effort on her part to make this happen.

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     Oyelowo’s calling and conviction take one’s breath away.  DuVernay wonderfully describes  how David “self-determined”:

“DUVERNAY: No, I mean, he describes it as a calling, that, you know - he says that God told him that he was going to play Dr. Martin Luther King before he died. And, you know, he is a man of faith. And he - this got locked in his spirit. And he would never let it go, through five directors who originally told him, no, you are not King. The first director told him, no, you are not King. The film changing hands year after year... Finally, he gets cast by the previous director who was attached, Lee Daniels. Lee Daniels decides to go and make "The Butler" instead. David found himself an actor who knew he was going to play King without a film, without a director. And so he did what few actors do and more should. He self-determined. He took this thing, and he really is the reason why this film is coming out on Friday. He brought on, lobbied for, cajoled, pushed, pulled, convinced, pitched the producers to the idea of hiring, you know, a woman who had made an independent for $200,000 that he had worked with previously - me. He got that done. I did not pitch. I did not call. By the time I got the call from the producers, they were asking me if I wanted to explore being a part of the project. I mean, that's unheard of. He called Oprah Winfrey and said, hey, I got a project, and actually convinced her to come on board. I mean, those are two major pieces of this puzzle in a project that had been dormant, that he revived so that he could play this part that he knew was his - was meant to be his.”
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  When DuVernay took the project over, she rewrote much of the script.  But the original script writer had a contract saying his name alone be on the movie.  He insisted on that, a shameful bit of patriarchy and dishonesty, since – no kidding – what she wrote with King’s speeches was special.  In addition, the way she describes creating the voices, the truth of some 200 people in the movement, is remarkable.

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   A deep theme of the movie, and of the struggle in Selma, was about the role of white people, whether whites are inevitably slave-owners, segregationists and Nazis - George Wallace sealed himself, as  DuVernay’s words from Johnson, looking to history, convey, in this horror - or whether they, even at the time, are much more diverse, have an interest in and often contribute to the fight.

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“Bloody Sunday” in Selma was the ferocious attack, on horseback, of Sheriff James Clark, egged on by the Governor, on a night march of blacks.

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     King then called for everyone to come down and join in a new march to Montgomery (the Capitol) from Selma.  And a tremendous number of whites, mainly nuns and ministers, the great rabbi Abraham Heschel, and thousands of others (and some of the whites in and around SNCC) came.

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In a 1990 interview with Terry Gross, J.L. Chestnut, a black lawyer from Montgomery talks about how on bloody Sunday, he lost faith in the human race, in America, and especially in white people.   And then King made his call and many whites came (a third of the marchers).  And he regained his faith.  She replays his words in the interview with DuVernay:

“J.L. CHESTNUT: I had gone across the river early, across the bridge because would not let lawyers march. You know, you had enough foot soldiers. What we didn't have was enough lawyers. It didn't make sense to have lawyers in jail. So I had gone across the river early and - not knowing whether there would be a march, and they get to a telephone because once a march started, you would have the FBI, the president, everybody fighting over the one telephone.
So I went over there early to tie it up in case there would be a march. And I'd have to describe to the NAACP what was happening because they were paying the bill. And I was over there tying up the telephone, and I looked up towards the bridge. And there was John Lewis, who's now a congressman - John Lewis from Georgia, Atlanta - and his group of marchers coming toward this great line of state troopers and passing them. And I began to describe the scene over the telephone to New York. And then John and the group came face to face with the troopers. And I heard some voice, a state trooper who said, stop. This will be as far as you will be permitted to go. Turn around and go back to your churches.
And then John and the others begin to kneel and pray. And then I heard something that sounded like a tear gas canister hit the pavement. And then there was smoke, bedlam, confusion, blood, tears, cries and there were these big, hefty, possum and swinging billy clubs the size of baseball bats and coming down across the heads of women and children. My eyes were hurting, my head was hurting and New York was screaming over the telephone, what's going on? What's going on? And I tried to pull some women back out of the street, and it was just awful. It was one of the lowest days of my life.
And that day, I lost all faith in America. I lost all faith in white people. I said, my God, black people will never be citizens. We will never be what we ought to be in this land. And what is this? I have gone to Howard University. I'm a lawyer and officer in a white man's court and here are these people, trampling on my folk in the streets, blood everywhere. And they're trampling on the Constitution, and nobody does anything about it because these people are black. And I was just almost in tears.
And two days later, I had to revise and make a new assessment because white people and black people came from all over this nation that watched it on television, and they were thoroughly upset at what they saw. You know, it's easy to send a check down from New York and say, I'm with you. It's something altogether different to come down and lock hands with a black person and say, I'm ready to go to jail. I'm ready to die if necessary. And I saw hundreds and hundreds of people come from all over this land to join with us in this little town of my birth. And I had to look and reassess all over again. And my faith in this nation, my faith in the human race was restored.”
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DuVernay found Chestnut's words tremendously moving, and she has this theme in the film even more strongly.  Black folks led, but decent folks everywhere – “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere” – came out and joined.

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It is worth repeating this theme of the movie, the most important idea in the film, which is, sadly but unsurprisingly, unmentioned in any review I have seen so far except this interview:

 “At the end of our film, you know, I had to rewrite this radical idea that he had. This amazing idea that he had picked up on from another scholar [King was, by the way, a creative philosopher, learned in Plato and Hegel, and her term is apt] that racism is a lie that's been told to white people to divert their attention from the challenges in their own life by the powers that be, that rich white men indoctrinate racism into poor white men to make them look at black people and not at the powerful white men, who might not be helping them as they should [more accurately, who prey upon them, though to their own psychic and societal detirment – the point of nonviolence, as well] - a pretty radical idea. My thought was, you know what? Let's not not have this idea expressed in the film because we can't get the speech.

That idea is big enough, bold enough, interesting enough, complex enough, to be shared and it should be shared. And we just have to find another way to say it 'cause we can't afford those speeches. And we don't have the rights to those speeches. You know, but the idea itself should be heard.”

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When the way parted on the second march, the police/thugs stood down because of federal government pressure, King decided not to march.  He says in the film the long march through rural Alabama could not be protected; I am not sure that we know what passed through King’s mind, but it also shows how attuned King was to some of Johnson’s requests just then…

 President Johnson is shown worrying about the killings in the South – but Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Johnson did little to protect demonstrators; one of the things that so rightly upset John Lewis and James Foreman that Lewis was going to speak of it at the March on Washington two years before - and coming through very well in this film – but some of his treachery/patriarchy and looking down on King is also visible.

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Just outside the church headquarters, James Reeb, a white minister inspired by the civil rights struggle and King, says beautifully to a friend that King had done this incomprehensible thing, turning the march around when the way opened, through inspiration just as when one is preaching (or teaching or writing). Sometimes the river of inspiration flows, and one does something dramatically different, sees something different, from what one started out with, even intended.

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The two men are brutally attacked and Reeb murdered by white thugs.

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This, too, is a beautiful and horrifying scene.  But the morals and politics of the film go deeper.  In the last speech from the Montgomery Capitol steps, King speaks of the rule of rich whites over poor whites.  When a white father can’t feed his kids, it is easy to blame blacks… 

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But King’s and DuVernay’s thought is that whites have deep common interests, moral and democratic ones - all those people coming out - as well as economic ones, with blacks.

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This is the conclusion of the film; yet every bit of commentary not by Ava DuVernay – has missed this in favor of the clamor of important “Presidential” historians about how this is a great film, but the director should have been kinder to LBJ, a great New Deal hero of decent government policy.  But this is just racist patriarchy (actually, a mirror of LBJ’s attitude toward King, especially when he spoke out against Johnson’s aggression in Vietnam).  The clamor did inadvertently, however, get some people out to see the movie…

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That in a Hollywood movie, this deep democratic point about common concerns could have been made is remarkable (a similar point about men and women Chicano miners, and just briefly the support of other workers, including many whites. is made in “Salt of the Earth,” a great movie made by blacklisted actors in the early 1950s.  It was shown five times in New York, favorably reviewed by Vincent Canby in the New York Times, before the McCarthyists, including many Democrats, shut it down and deported the lead actress, Rosaura Revueltas, to Mexico).  For it justifies people in standing together, broadly speaking, for anti-racist and anti-war change, and a decent, non-aggressive democratic society.

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Moreover, poor whites in the South are no more uniform than any other group of people.  Because they were oppressed, they often joined blacks and fought back.  For instance, in Kentucky and Tennessee poor whites fought on the side of the North in the Civil War; I have found this mentioned in V.O Key’s Southern Politics once on p. 6, but not elsewhere in mainstream academia.  Whites, often led by blacks, joined the Southern Tenants Alliance a movement of hundreds of thousands of poor tenant farmers which preceded the multiracial Populist movement of the 1890s (See Mike Schwartz’s great book Radical Protest and Social Structure: the Southern Farmers Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-1890).    And it was very hard for the racists to break up this movement (the infamous change of Tom Watson played a big role).

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In 1905, lumber workers, black and white, in three Southern states, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana  formed a union led by the IWW.  Many were murdered by the militias of the three states (see Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World)

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     Finally, the Southern Tenants Union in the CIO (see Theodore and Dale Rosengarten’s story of Nate Shaw, All God’s Dangers), the campaigns to save Angelo Herndon, a black coal miner and organizer charged with “criminal syndicalism” and the Scottsboro boys, were all led importantly by blacks but whites played a big role.  For a consideration of all these movements and their significance for overthrowing an account, based on Max Weber, of putatively unbridgeable status differences, see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 10 “Democracy and Status.”

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When people rebelled in Detroit in 1967, many young whites participated. 

The level of separation, isolation, segregation is, however, dangerous.  When  black teenagers demonstrating were asked  by a New York Times reporter if there were ever any good white people, they said: “John Brown.”

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DuVernay is on to a deep and rich theme here.

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The effort to save LBJ from the thought that he was a mass murderer of nonwhite people in a war launched by Truman in supporting French colonialism, continued by Eisenhower in violating the Geneva Accords and creating South Vietnam and later escalated by Johnson, one which murdered some 3 million people in the small country of Vietnam, is an ongoing and important campaign in American politics and among some Presidential historians.  See here.  This does not include Julian Zelizer, “How LBJ Wrecked his Presidency” here. It is hopeless…

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In Errol Morris’s remarkable film interviewing Robert McNamara  “The Fog of War, “ a Johnson phone call from the oval office – LBJ had them recorded – recognizes that the American aggression is failing, yet says to Senator Richard Russell of Georgia: “I can’t be the first American president to lose a war.” Therefore, Johnson sends half a million troops for electoral purposes (George Downs and David Rocke has written about this in “Gambling for Resurrection” in Optimal Imperfections; so do I in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?).

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All those Vietnamese lives and American lives manipulatively wasted to get LBJ elected again – and he had to abandon the race in 1968 because, mercifully, this racist aggression was losing so badly and millions of people protesting. Aside from his war criminality (aggression is the crime of war), Johnson was not an honest or honorable man.  Yet all the Presidents, including Obama, and idealizers of Presidents want to perfume him…

(Presidential biographies/hagiographies are still the fashion on the Times’ best seller list; that Thomas Jefferson was, at last, “the monster of Monticello” – an op-ed by Paul Finkelmann criticizing a biography foolishly downplaying Jefferson as a slaveholder, asserting it was merely a "modern" concern; anybody ask Sally Hemmings and her descendants? – could be mentioned in the Times, but no story or op-ed yet tells how black Patriots were most of the dead and the leading fighters at the decisive Battle of Yorktown on the American side: see my Black Patriots and Loyalists).

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As “Selma” is linked to today's Black Lives Matter! movement against racist police murders, so this ideological effort to perfume LBJ is linked to Obama “ignoring” Bush and Cheney on torture and having no trials for war criminals who were high officials.  Ideas and movements have consequences, future resonances.  No trials for these criminals – the aggression for oil in Iraq  and widespread torture, revealed by Abu Ghraib and supported by every Bush official but Colin Powell –  is also a striking example. Of course, Obama did send to jail John Kiriakou, a CIA officer who told the truth - but one wonders whether criminals, now sadly including Barack, are behind bars or in high places...

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     The movie “Selma” contributes to understanding the importance and difficulties of mass nonviolent resistance and calling to account American policing (America has 2.3 million people in prison, 25% of the world's prisoners; a noter 5.1 million are on probation).

     Celebrating LBJ is linked to current wars and war crimes (drones, too).

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      The war in Iraq and Abu Ghraib also contributed centrally to the conversion to “jihad” of Algerian-French brothers who did the horrific murders in Paris.  See Juan Cole's fine "Paris Terrorist was Radicalized by Bush's Iraq War, Abu Ghraib Torture" here.

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          There is a dialectic between racist murders (ISIS, too) and French and American striking out through colonialism and the racism, poverty and trauma it breeds, as well as aggression and torture against whoever they can reach (in France, poor North Africans).

      But is every American, even those who fight the brutalization of Palestinians, responsible for war or every white American slavery or segregation or the prisons? Are all the French who protested the war in Algeria or who detest colonialism responsible for its horrific legacies?

     This dialectic is an incredibly dangerous thing because ignoring the causes of Muslim violence and elevating racist predators to power - the Republican Party except to some extent Rand Paul, Marine Le Pen -  will increase the downward spiral of aggression. torture and internal oppression in the West and the Arab world.

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Under the Kennedys, J. Edgar Hoover started bugging King’s (and others’) phones.  Nonviolent protest for civil rights – that was not what US government, at least in its covert operations, stood for.  Discrediting the civil rights movement and all militant activities against segregation was what Hoover, often with at minimum acquiescence of Presidents, was about.

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In “Selma,” DuVernay uses the very effective device of typing brief FBI reports over the shots of  the meetings and demonstrations  going on.  She got access to them because they are real.  One “historian” actually tries to say that this was Kennedy’s fault and LBJ didn’t go in for such things…

And pigs have wings…

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What can be said for LBJ is that he fought for programs to help the poor and had unique abilities, given his long experience as a leader of the Senate, that is, as a manipulator  in pushing such things through.  He is shown doing it during the movie not just for the Civil Rights Act but for the Voting Rights act.

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And when LBJ gave that speech after Selma in which he said “We shall overcome,” Martin King was watching it and tears, as “Selma” shows, came to his eyes.  That was beautiful and important.  The Voting Rights Act wouldn’t have happened if LBJ had not been President (or not in nearly the same way) and Julian Zelizer and others are right to make this point.

(Despite the debilities of the genre, Zelizer also acknowledges the movement of blacks from below being vital in civil rights.  See here.)

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But actually it is not just vital – without this movement led by blacks but with whites as well – there would have been no legislation.  LBJ would have gone on being a good old boy, with a lot of racism

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And DuVernay shows – and intends to show – the truth of LBJ and reveals that he was both at times an ally and a manipulator.  She gives him credit for his actions and does not depict him as the same as – but rather very different from – George Wallace.  And she says rightly as I will explain below how one might see LBJ largely as a villain (there is a lot of material...) and how she intentionally did not.  Here are her words:

“GROSS: As we've been saying, your film focuses on three voting rights marches that were intended to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. But only the third succeeds in getting to Montgomery. That third march, President Johnson provides federal protection for the marchers. And by the third march, he's introduced the Voting Rights Act. You've been criticized by some people, including Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson administration, for making LBJ into something of a villain. And what Califano and several historians say is that, you know, LBJ was for the Voting Rights Act, but he knew he didn't have the votes to get it passed. So he couldn't really move forward until he knew it would actually get somewhere. And a couple of places have quoted a phone call between LBJ and Martin Luther King that was recorded. So I'm just going to read a quote from that. So Martin Luther King has been saying to the president that, you know, if black people actually get the right to vote in the South, it will be great for Democrats 'cause black people will go to the polls, and they will vote for Democrats.
And President Johnson says, (reading) that's exactly right. I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination. If you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina - well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of was the president of a school at Tuskegee, or head of the Government department there or something, being denied the right to cast a vote. If you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, that’s not right; that’s not fair. And then, that’ll help us in what we’re going to shove - the legislation - what we're going to shove through in the end.
And Martin Luther King says, (reading) you're exactly right about that.
And LBJ says, (reading) and if we do that, we'll break through. It'll be the greatest breakthrough of anything. Not even excepting the '64 act - the Civil Rights Act - because it will do things that even that '64 act couldn't do.
So what are your comments on the criticisms and those who say that this example, this phone call is an example of how LBJ wanted to pass the Voting Rights Act? He needed Martin Luther King to help him do that. He wasn't opposing King. He wanted to be an ally with King in getting the bill passed.
DUVERNAY: Well, the first point you had said is that people see LBJ as a - that I painted him as a villain, which is not what I was trying to do. If I wanted to paint someone as a villain, particularly LBJ, there's a lot I could do in that regard. [!] I did not have that intention. People cheer for LBJ in the film. He makes a triumphant we shall overcome speech at the end that gets some of the most applause in this film that we've taken around the country at this point. And that's what it was intended to do. So he's not villain-ized - getting a lot of really hate-filled tweets from people saying, you villain-ized him [what a lot of racist enthusiasm for LBJ!]. I was like, have you seen the film? Not yet. OK, well, why don't you check out the film? So I think, you know, in terms of the conversation you read, to me, it's Johnson outlining King's strategy that was already in play. The SCLC strategy, the SNCC strategy - I mean, in the very op-ed that you speak of, Joseph Califano actually writes the words that Selma was LBJ's idea and cites that very phone call that you just read, which is absurd because we know that the black citizens on the ground, that Amelia Boynton, who was a citizen of Selma who had been working around this since the 1930s - the voting rights - with her husband in that county, in Lowndes County, was the very one who invited Dr. King to Selma to illustrate these ills. We know that the whole idea of amplifying and illustrating, you know, a racial oppression was the whole - the whole modus operandi of SCLC and SNCC and CORE for years before this call was made. So the idea that he wasn't simply outlining what was already being done and kind of cosigning on that - but the idea that that call demonstrates that it was his idea is a head-scratcher. But beyond that, you know, our intention was not to say anything other than these were two great minds who were in a chess match at times. It wasn't a skip through the park that they came to this Voting Rights Act. I mean, the very fact that these citizens had to walk and march twice unprotected, unassisted, to face state troopers with no federal aid - that was a big point of contention. Yes, the president did come on board eventually. Yes, he did eventually order the federal protection. Yes, he did pass the Voting Rights Act. Yes, there were nuances and challenges to - as far as what was happening in Washington that made him have to take pause and kind of play a tactical game with timing. But the bottom line is this is what we show in the film. It was a timing issue. And King was always saying the time is now. The time is not to wait. And that's all we do in the film. I mean, I think this has all been a bit overblown, especially because this film is not about LBJ. This is a film that's about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma. And one of those allies turned out to be, eventually, LBJ.”

***
At Coretta Scott King’s fundeal a few years ago, former President Jimmy Carter spoke of her husband: “Martin Luther King was the greatest political leader my state has ever produced and perhaps the greatest political leader this country has ever produced.”

Instead of the clamor of publicity for LBJ, to cease, perhaps we should listen to Carter’s words (even if they overpraise leaders)…

***

Social movements from below have generated every decent moment in American history, especially the Native American Resistance to conquest – not quite “in” American history until now as those with human and not racist sympathies are writing about these events – see here.  This is true, for example,  of the American Revolution and the Civil War – Lincoln was a great leader, though he only freed blacks in the South on January 1, 1863, two years after the War started, and also presided, reluctantly,  over the mass murder and cordoning in camps/reservations on inarable land of indigenous people  in the West, an ignoble war of genocide as the war against the South was against genocide.

***

Similarly,  the union movement – the Toledo Auto Workers strike, the San Francisco general strike and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Wagner Act - and every other great movement of reform (the Harlem – 1964 -  and Watts – 1965 - Rebellions during Vietnam, along with the civil rights movement helped convince the elite that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were necessary…).

***

King was  martyred in Memphis on April 4 1968 for leading a poor people’s movement and supporting a sanitation workers’ strike with the amazing slogan: “I am a man!”

***

The movement in Selma, as is shown by DuVernay in the psychological difficulties King experienced, and the words of John Lewis, reminding King who he was when King felt he could not lead so many to be slaughtered, help make this relationship clear: even good leaders from below result from movements they help call into being and are given courage by those movements.

***

 The religion of leaders, as Occupy and Black Lives Matter! and many other modern movements show, is not the way forward, however admirable the leaders – and this powerful and painful  film – are.

***

But LBJ was not a good human being.  Vincent Harding, who wrote King’ speech on Vietnam and was a fast friend and almost alter ego (later in Vincent’s life, I became one of his many friends and brothers), thought the words he had wriiten for King about Vietnam led to his being murdered.  See here.  He always considered LBJ responsible (the King family, by the way, does not believe James Earl Ray was the killer – not that the government or the commercial press cares about their opinion.)

***

I will now tell three stories, not in this film, which further justify the treatment of LBJ in the film  as a good but often very flawed leader about civil rights, what a President is at best, and about Vietnam, something worse.  The stories also reveal  LBJ and some associates and  Presidential “historians” as racist patriarchs.

***

First, among the most important events that led up to Selma were Mississippi Freedom Summer project and the emergence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, both done through canvassing in the community by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Stokeley Carmichael was among the leaders of this movement; he was a friend of King’s – who personally invited Stokely to his speech on Vietnam where Stokeley sat in the front row – and lived for a time with Vincent and Rosemary Harding, in Atlanta, five doors down from King.

***

Freedom Summer contacted, recruited and was ultimately led by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a black sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, who tried to register to vote and was beaten.  Teaching at Iliff School of Theology for 25 years, Vincent Harding founded the King-Gandhi-Fannie Lou Hamer Center.  Mrs. Hamer was the most inspiring leader of the civil rights movement.  Her words and voice in singing spirituals – what could lift you right out of yourself... – were vital.  See the segment of eyes on the prize on Freedom Summer and the Democratic Convention – 50 minutes - here and also my post on "Freedom Summer,  the MFDP and the transformation of modern American politics: an error of Peniel Joseph" - a complement to this essay on Selma -  here.

***

In late summer, 1964, there were two rival Mississippi delegations to the Democratic Convention that would nominate LBJ for President.  One was the white Democratic Party/Klan delegation in suits (the Klan was always led by politicians at the top).  It was "the official delegation." 

The other was of poor black folks, mainly sharecroppers, from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party led by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.

***

Testimony before a Convention committee about what life was like for blacks in the Jim Crow South was nationally televised.  LBJ was not frightened by King speaking (King supported his nomination). But he was frightened of losing the South if Fannie Lou Hamer’s words were carried on the air – see the Eyes on the Prize segment here.

As a result, he gave a press conference at the White House praising Texas Governor John Connelly, seriously wounded when  President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas 9 months before.  He did this – the elite and reporters understood because the timing of the statement was bizarre – to cut away from Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony.

***

What are LBJ historians to do with this material? 

***

The Committee was led by Senator Walter Mondale (later Presidential candidate), a liberal truckling to  not upset Johnson.  It decided on a “compromise” between the two delegations.  The white delegation was to be seated.  But the Convention would allow two delegates to be seated from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and for 1968, require an expanded vote on delegates.

***

Fortunately, the racists went home.  In “Eyes on the Prize,” a creepy white usher refuses to let an old black woman in the MFDP sit in the Mississippi seats.

***

Joseph Rauh, of Americans for Democratic Action, having shephered the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the hearing, but never a person who led anything, says, emptily, in “Eyes on the Prize” : “You fight as hard as you can and then you compromise.”

***

Fannie Lou Hamer spoke of being too tired to wait any longer (the 350 years King speaks of eloquently in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” here). 

***

Because support from the federal government was so important in civil rights, Martin King did ally himself with LBJ.  He was sometimes sent by LBJ to do what LBJ wanted.  So King tried to talk Fannie Lou Hamer and the MFDP into accepting the “compromise.”  This was not a high point for King and he failed.

***

Further, the community actions of SNCC, Mississippi Freedom Summer and the MFDP transformed the Democratic Party nationally into a multiracial organization.  That was to the great credit of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael and others, and not centrally to either Martin King or the SCLC (one can love King and underline this point…).  SNCC and not SCLC stood for canvassing the community (and the scorn of some SCLC leaders for SNCC organizers, shown in “Selma,” reveals a boneheaded elitism.  Note once again that King , who had a broader vision, mainly did not share this.)

***

Andy Goodman, my friend from first to fourth grade at Walden School in Manhattan, went to Philadelphia, Mississippi and was murdered his first day there, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner, by a mob led by the sheriff and the preacher Edgar Ray Killens.  See here.  DuVernay’s point about whites being part of the struggle is, once again, profound.

***

Second, in 1965, LBJ also made a speech at Howard, retailing Daniel P. Moynihan’s racist and sexist theory that racism had vanished in the United States (that he was supposed to be an academic "expert" - part of a grand committee of racists on the Harvard faculty including Edward Banfield and Richard Herrnstein -  on this matter reveals that one should listen to ordinary nonwhite people, the real experts about this matter)…and that the supposed matriarchal structure of the black family was responsible for boys who did not succeed (William Ryan’s Blaming the Victim dissects Moynihan's drivel).

LBJ was no hero of anti-racism but he did, to his credit, as the Presidential historians underline, work for the passage of voting rights.

***

Third, in 1965, King went to Watts for LBJ to chill out the rebellion against police murders (once again, this is today’s news; see "Police killings: US 459 Britain and Japan 0 here).  But King learned from black teenagers.  For they did not see a civil rights leader for nonviolence nor were they impressed with King’s Nobel Prize; they just saw a preacher in a suit with an unworldly attitude.

    Now, actually, what King had courageously faced in the South, as the film shows, was much more horrible than what blacks faced in the North and West (let alone what LBJ faced…).  And the movement he was part of had much that these teenagers might have learned from.  But King could not answer their question: does the US government use nonviolence to settle its conflicts? 

    It is still as good a question under Barack Obama, the admirer of King and Gandhi but user of drones and the secret Joint Special Operations Command – a private Presidential army of 65,000 – on 12 missions every night as it was in 1965 and 1967...

***

    When confronted by black teenagers about the war and violence, King thought deeply about it. He finally spoke out about American violence in a way that no one could miss only after conversations with Thich Nat Hanh who would liken King to a Boddhisattva, one who gives his own life out of compassion so that others can survive or heal, 3 months before he was shot.  Here are King’s words from "A Time to Break Silence," April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was killed in Memphis:

      My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

***

Listen also to these words about how heartening Johnson’s “war on poverty” had once seemed to King and yet how the Vietnam War was a war against the poor, black and white.

   “There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

***

Today Obama has a trillion dollar military/intelligence budget as the middle class becomes impoverished and wages have stagnated since the 1970s for the bottom 80% of American income earners. 

The “Republicans,” the party of big imperial authoritarian racist government, vote endlessly to extend war as their latest plots on Iran reveal  (some libertarians and conservatives, however, do not – see, for instance, Come Home America/antiwar com here.)   American militarism continues to be, as King named it, a  demonic destructive suction tube.

***

Though Johnson knew what King had said was true (recall his remarks to Senator Richard Russell), he called out some 168 newspapers and obsequious blacks.  They denounced King without reading the speech: King had spoken on a subject other than civil rights and "ruined his influence" (the New York Times led the way...). 

Talk about racist patriarchy...

LBJ withdrew (any) FBI protection from King.  At the least, Johnson worked over time to create the environment in which King, fighting to realize the war on poverty with a poor people’s movement, was crucified.

***

But wasn't President Johnson interested in "the war on poverty"?  One could imagine a decent and self-confident human being supporting a poor people's movement from below (but capitalists objected) and actually making serious arguments - Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy did not because there were none - for the War.

***

To praise Lyndon Johnson (and Barack is one who does, also) is to be a fool...

***

King had spoken to his reasons for giving the speech and the doubts that he had worked through and that others might have.  But he and others in SCLC did not expect the viciousness with which he was attacked. King's words, of course, make Johnson look empty/evil (a “hungry ghost” in the Buddhist phrase, his deed better forgotten).  One is wise and insightful and brave, the other filled with genocidal lies which  the US carried out, at his command, in Vietnam:

   “For those who ask the question, 'Aren't you a civil rights leader?' and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: 'To save the soul of America.' We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes,
I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath --

America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be -- are -- are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”

***

  In the last year of his life, King became the leader of a multiracial poor people’s movement waging a mass nonviolent fight for measures for the poor to lift themselves up and as a vision, for  democratic socialism (see Vincent Harding’s poetic reflections on these changes: Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero).  He gave class solidarity around an anti-racist program, as the last speech in the movie “Selma” emphasizes, a poignant formulation:

      “Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

***



That speech is as apt today as the day, nearly 50 years ago, it was written.  It underlines the refusal of Barack Obama to allow prosecution of the torturers and make America clearly on the side of stopping war and torture.  These are the stakes, once again, in overpraising LBJ  You can read King's speech over aloud here, and you will have an experience, as vivid as seeing “Selma,” of the greatness of this movement and its promise for democracy in America and the world.

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