Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Today, This Blog Features Flick-Lit

Yesterday, on MLK Day 2015, this blogger went to see Ava DuVernay's "Selma." Just as MLK was controversial, this film about the Selma-To-Montgomery March has brought the LBJ apologists out of the woodwork. One of the most vocal critics of the film is Mark K. Updegrove, Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Updegrove was a young boy at the time of the events in Selma, but as keeper of the Johnsonian legend, he castigates the portrayal of LBJ in the film. This blogger had first-hand exposure to the machinations of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, out of office and devoting full-time attention to his own monument and presidential library, colluded with his successor — Richard M. Nxon — to violate the law of the land and orchestrate the removal and transfer of significant amounts of documents and records from the Archives of the United States of America in Washington, DC to the temporary HQ of the Johnson Library in Austin, TX. The staff in Austin feverishly photocopied every scrap of paper from the National Archives that contained any reference to Lyndon B. Johnson. Once the documents were copied for the documents collection of the Johnson Library, they were sent — sub rosa — back to Washington, DC. This bloger became aware of this violation of the law when he encountered empty boxes that supposedly contained the records of the National Youth Administration in Texas during LBJ's directorship of the agency. The empty archival boxes were explained after this blogger filed a grievance with the Office of Presidential Libraries. What came out of that complaint was a meeting between this blogger and the Deputy Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries. The Deputy Director pleaded that the National Archives were powerless to resist a direct order from President Richard M. Nixon. The explanation ran like this: LBJ made one of his famous phone calls to Nixon and said — in effect — "Now, Dick, you're gonna have a Library and you're gonna want to put copies of all of your presidntial papers on those Library shelves. All we want to do, down in here in Austin, is borrow those documents to make photocopies for my Library. This will establish a precedent for the Nixon Library." And we know how Richard M. Nixon liked to uphold the laws of the land. Was LBJ portrayed truthfully in "Selma"? This blogger sides with Ava DuVernay. If this is (fair & balanced) truth to power, so be it.

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[1] "Selma" Viewed By A March Participant (Bernard Weisberger)
[2] "Selma" Viewed By One Who Wasn't There (Charles P. Pierce)

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What I Know About Selma
By Bernard Weisberger

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I’m entering this ongoing discussion of the movie "Selma" because I have, so to speak, some skin in the game. I was there, first as one of the witnesses called for by Martin Luther King after Bloody Sunday, and again, after an interval back home, for the final rally in front of the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, this time with a delegation of U.S. historians.

My experience there puts me, with only slight reservations, solidly behind the makers of the film. It is magnificent in its depiction from start to finish of the violence that was unleashed against would-be black voters, the violence that was in fact everywhere in the post-Reconstruction South, the mainstay of white supremacy. All of the Jim Crow statutes were meant to provide a fa├žade of legality to what was in fact the nullification of the 14th and 15th amendments. But if black Americans tried to strike through the mask, it wasn’t the judiciary that stood in their way, or even economic harassment—it was the rope, the gun, the burning house and the burning cross. Remember Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s warning after Theodore Roosevelt brought Booker T. Washington to the White House for a conference on patronage and had him stay for dinner. “We will have to kill a thousand niggers before they will again know their place.”

"Selma" also shows clearly the courage of the ordinary black men and women who decided to submit no longer and who marched again and again into the mouth of hell—the clubs and whips and tear gas at the Edmund Pettus bridge, “armed” only with their bravery and willingness to commit themselves to the hard and dangerous tactic of non-violence preached by King, and the other leaders of SCLC, SNCC, and CORE.

The major complaints so far are the well-publicized charges of Joseph Califano, Johson’s assistant for domestic affairs at the time, and Mark Updegrove, the current director of the LBJ library. They say with some justice that the tension between Johnson and King inserted to heighten the drama of the film, is greatly exaggerated because Johnson was in favor of voting rights from the moment of his accession to the White House but had good reason for a slower timetable, and once he became convinced by unfolding events in Selma that the right moment had arrived, provided the crowning push for enactment. They also say, with considerably more justice, that the clear implication that Johnson collaborated with J. Edgar Hoover in furnishing the infamous “sex tape” to Correta King is an unproven lie and a vicious slander. I agree with them there, but it’s my own experience in Selma that keeps me from joining in their recommendation that the movie be ignored by viewers and by the judges who award Oscars.

I was teaching at the University of Rochester at the time, and went down three days after Bloody Sunday with my colleague, Chris Lindley. We were put up in the George Washington Carver apartments with a family that might have faced eviction or other “punishment” for helping us. We were in fact told not to use their telephones to avoid possible identification of them by wiretaps. We were fed in the dining rooms of Brown’s Chapel by local women who were also putting themselves at risk of reprisal. We spent two mornings listening to pep talks laced with practical advice that made it plain what we might be facing in the scheduled demonstration marches to the courthouse in the afternoons. “Never leave the safety of the group for any reason. Carry soap and matches because if you are arrested; they won’t be provided in the jails. And, if you are being beaten, assume the fetal position to protect your vital parts as best you can. If you’re white and marching with a black partner who is attacked, do your best to protect him.”

Scary for sure. But there was also an air of confidence that the marches would go on until victory, and even some good natured joshing of each other by the various SNCC, SLC and DCVL (Dallas County [AL] Voters League) leaders who spoke to us.

As it happened, on both marches that I recall—shoulder to shoulder with the black citizens of Selma and with other Northerners who had come down, including priests, rabbis, and a couple of delightful nuns who were in the rank just ahead of me—we got nothing worse than some very dirty looks both from local police and white spectators. These did nothing to keep a number of the local black marchers from lusty, upbeat singing—marvelous adaptations of what I assume were gospel songs: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”; “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine”; “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”; and others I may have forgotten. I was reminded a bit of another long-ago movement outside the established framework of reform organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World. Its members, mainly loggers, transient farm workers, miners, stevedores and such, carried in their overalls pockets a “Little Red Song Book,” full of anti-capitalist parodies of well-known melodies that they kept on singing even when confined to jail in large numbers. Other than that, comparisons between the two radical popular revolutionaries fail, especially in the matter of nonviolence. But I believe that there is nothing like a good song to accompany a revolution that’s genuinely based on the enthusiasm of ordinary people.

That is why I still will see Selma again and recommend others do so. Quarrels over who gets the proper share of credit for the Voting Rights Act don’t interest me. There’s plenty to go around—for King, for the SNCC leaders, for LBJ in the final thrust. But most of all to the black Americans who stood firm—and without weapons—before brutality, ready to die with dignity rather than go on living as no better than slaves in all but name. The entire “second Reconstruction” of the nineteen fifties and sixties was a black led and black achieved victory. So I can understand director du Vernay’s annoyance at what looks like an attempt once more to focus on the part played by “benevolent” whites in high places.

That said I have two questions for fellow historians that I myself have trouble answering. As I said, I believe the “sex tape” innuendo against Johnson is both slanderous and false—more than a simple stretching or rearrangement of facts. What’s our general professional responsibility in this case? I choose to warn potential audiences, but urge them to see the movie for the good it does (especially to a younger generation, both black and white, that needs reminding that freedom comes with a price that those before them have paid.) But is there a tipping point beyond which a solution like that would only encourage more indefensible truth-twisting?

And while I don’t mean to single out LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove, his intervention in the quarrel is predictable and self-interested. The Presidential libraries themselves are a curious hybrid. They are both archives, but also monuments, built by the donations of friends of the President in question as a way of honoring and celebrating his deeds. On completion, they fall into the custody of professional historians. Should these men or women join in the praise parade? Or leave that to a co-director who could be recruited straight from an advertising agency or from the inner circle of the subject President? I’d be happy if HNN invites comments on the subject. (HNN Editor: Elsewhere on HNN Anthony Clark addresses the second of Mr. Weisberger’s questions concerning the federal funding of monuments to presidential egos.) Ω

[Bernard Weisberger taught history at Antioch College, Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester (chair of the history department), and Vassar College before becoming a full time freelance historian and a columnist at American Heritage. Weisberger has written more than a dozen books as well as numerous articles in popular history media and magazines. He received an AB (history) from Columbia University and both an AM and PhD (history) from the University of Chicago. Weisberger was among 20 distinguished professor including John Hope Franklin that participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.]

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The Ownership Of History: Selma And The Way We Look At America
By Charles P. Pierce

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Now that I've seen the film, I can put the easy controversies aside, at least to my own satisfaction. First of all, the movie did get incredibly jobbed by the Academy, especially its director, Ava DuVernay, who has moments with her cameras that rival John Ford with their energy, Jane Campion with their stillness, and Martin Scorsese with their intelligent and risky composition. The attack on the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is as good or better than any action scene I've seen in any war movie, and it far surpasses the kilted grunting-and-groaning for which Mel Gibson won in "Braveheart," and the bloody war-porn for which people never will stop congratulating Stephen Spielberg. To me, the clearest message that DuVernay puts forth in this film is that it is, in every sense that matters, a war movie. Tactics are different. Nonviolent protest is the weapon wielded by one side, but it was a weapon nonetheless. That one scene on the bridge blows up the cotton-candy redemption myth of the Civil Rights Movement into tiny splinters. The people who led this Movement are the equals of any generals in American history, and John Lewis (to name only one person) is as much a combat veteran as John Kerry ever was. That is the truth of things that DuVernay puts front and center, shrouded in clouds of tear gas, throughout the movie.

Also, she has done real justice to those very leaders. David Oyelowo gives us a demythologized Martin Luther King, Jr., a flawed, doubting man who has moments in which he seems genuinely fearful of the forces he knows must be unleashed on both sides if his movement is to succeed. But DuVernay gives a proper pride of place not only to Coretta Scott King, but also to almost forgotten middle-rank leaders like C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton (played by Lorraine Toussaint, the patron saint of all "Law And Order" defense attorneys), and the irrepressible Hosea Williams, who is played with gusto by the great Wendell Pierce. Many of these actors got pretty well hosed as well, and DuVernay got the same kind of performances out of them that Oliver Stone got out of the actors playing minor roles in his historical dramas, which generally were the best parts of those movies that used history for a handball, giving us, among other indelible scenes, David Hyde-Pierce and Ed Harris — as, respectively, John Dean and Howard Hunt, on the Key Bridge at night, and Harris describing Richard Nixon as "the darkness reaching out for the darkness," which is still the best shorthand description of that old crook I've ever heard.

(One gripe I do have with DuVernay in this regard is that Ralph Abernathy, King's most loyal lieutenant, gets rather short shrift. Played by Coleman Donimgo, Abernathy, who spent most of his life working nobly in King's long shadow, has one nice scene in a jail cell with King, but then rather disappears from the film, which is sadly consonant to what happened to Abernathy after King's death.)

And speaking of bouncing history off the wall, DuVernay's portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is even worse than I heard it was. She turns him into such a melodramatic villain that you half-expect Johnson to tie Amelia Boynton to the railroad tracks. And the clear implication that LBJ was behind sending the salacious videotape to the Kings has to dial one just to get to "inexcusable." (God, will American liberals ever stop covering for the Kennedy brothers?) But I was expecting those. What I didn't expect was that DuVernay would turn two of Johnson's shining moments into equally cheap cartoons. Johnson's famous "We Shall Overcome" speech proposing the Voting Rights Act, the greatest speech by an American president in my lifetime, is rendered a kind of noodlish afterthought; Johnson as much as has his fingers crossed behind his back, and the peroration, which actually brought King to tears watching at home, is denied all of its power. (And, of course, King does not weep in the movie.) Also, though, during the events in Selma, Johnson had a legendary Oval Office meeting with George Wallace in which he worked Wallace over with every trick in his considerable arsenal, concluding, "George, when you die, what do you want them to say about you; 'George Wallace, he built,' or, 'George Wallace, he hated.'" (Wallace later told the assembled press that, had Johnson had another 15 minutes, Wallace would have been marching with Dr. King.) Needless to say, the meeting does not come off that way in the movie. Instead, it's more a meeting between two wary men who are not entirely adversaries.

But, having seen the movie now, this seems like less of a real problem than it seemed in the abstract. It does get obscured in its importance both by the fact that DuVernay decided that she would make a war movie, and by the fact that this truly is the first film that shows the reality of the war waged against the Movement by the forces of organized American apartheid that does not have a white hero at its dramatic center. (DuVernay gives a good deal of time to James Reeb, the Unitarian minister from Boston who was beaten to death in the street, and there are a couple of neat little scenes between King and John Doar, the incredibly brave soul from the Department of Justice who seemed to be everywhere at the time. Martin Sheen does a brief turn as Judge Frank Johnson, whose ruling allowed the march from Selma to Montgomery to proceed.) Those movies — from the egregious "Mississippi Burning" to the mushheaded "The Help" — were far and away more false to the actual history than this one is. Given that long history, "Selma's" portrayal of LBJ seems less of an offense than what actually happened.

That said, "Selma" presents an even deeper challenge to us, and one that is completely apropos to the celebration of Dr. King's birth today. To whom does the history of the Civil Rights Movement belong? Some terrible things have been done to it, surely. It has been turned into an anesthetic balm for white America, and Dr. King has been made into a plaster saint who never said (or did) anything that ever got anyone upset. It has been turned into a weapon against issues on which Dr. King surely would have come down on the progressive side. In one of his last interviews that he gave, he came out strongly in favor of affirmative action, which gives the lie to all those people, white and black, who like to throw up one clause from his 1963 speech on the National Mall to make him the ventriloquist's dummy for decades of clever and protean racism. If you can't see the line between the scene on the bridge, and the decision to gut the Voting Rights Law, then you don't want to do so and there is nothing to be done with you at all. Leaving the history of the civil rights movement in the hands of white people has not worked out well at all.

But, still, the triumph of the movement — and the reason that the relentless rollback of that triumph that began in the 1980's, and which continues today, is so tragic — was an American triumph, as surely as Yorktown or the Bulge were. DuVernay does very well at showing all the various clergy, including Jim Reeb, who responded to King's call to march after the savagery on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the speech to which DuVernay gives such a casual wave, Johnson got up in front of Congress — and not just the Senate, as is depicted in Selma -- and made that point quite clear:

So I ask you to join me in working long hours-nights and weekends, if necessary-to pass this bill. And I don't make that request lightly. For from the window where I sit with the problems of our country I recognize that outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts. But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

"Selma" forces an important issue. If the Civil Rights Movement belonged to all Americans — and, therefore, if its memory belongs to all Americans — then that ownership must be an honest one. The Movement can no longer be a device by which white Americans feel good about themselves. It no longer can be used as history's truncheon against the legitimate social, cultural, and political aspirations of the people who are its truest heirs. For nearly 40 years now, the forces of reaction have tried to drown out this simple truth, or twist it beyond recognition so that they could use it for their own selfish purposes. For nearly 40 years now, the Republican party has married itself to a conservative movement that has sought to obscure the events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as surely as the tear gas once did, and to obscure those events for the purposes of gutting everything that was accomplished, and gutting everything that was accomplished for the same reason people didn't want those things accomplished in the first place.

So we hear that the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, which were aided within the government by a Democratic president and the kind of Republicans who don't exist any more, are somehow cheapened and lessened by what, say, Robert Byrd and Hugo Black did in their 30's, and nobody notices that there no longer is a constituency within the Republican party for extending the franchise. The Civil Rights Movement, orphaned by popular culture and misused in memory by people who are not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with the people depicted in Ava DuVernay's film, was an American war that culminated in an American victory, no more or less decisive than what was negotiated on the decks of the USS Missouri. It belongs to the country, which turns its back on that victory to its everlasting shame. Ω

[Charles P. "Charlie" Pierce is a sportswriter, political blogger, author, and game show panelist. Pierce is the lead political blogger for Esquire, a position he has held since September 2011. He has written for Grantland, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Sports Illustrated, The National Sports Daily, GQ, and Slate. Pierce makes appearances on radio as a regular contributor to a pair of NPR programs: "Only A Game" and "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" He graduated from Marquette University (BA, Journalism).]

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