The right to vote is actually a canard: voting has not ushered in a golden age where African Americans live in harmony and equality with white folks. To guarantee the inefficacy of the golden key, the Roberts Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The critics of "Selma" who rage that the film did not pay homage to the passage of the Voting Rights Act would better save their vitriol for the Roberts Court (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) who ought to wear white hoods instead of their black robes. In the swirl of the controversy, Amy Davidson speaks truth to white privilege and the sanctification of Lyndon Baines Johnson. If this is (fair & balanced) film criticism, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Why "Selma" Is More Than Fair To LBJ
By Amy Davidson
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There is a scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” an otherwise outstanding film, that has not aged as well as it might have. It comes just after Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, has seen his client, a black sharecropper named Tom Robinson, unjustly convicted of rape, despite Finch’s impassioned defense, and he is left to pack up his papers. The main, whites-only section of the courtroom has emptied out, but the people in the “colored balcony” are still seated, all in a posture of weary resignation. Little Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, has snuck up there, too, to watch. Then, as her father turns to go, the black spectators slowly rise. An older man, Reverend Sykes, played by William Walker, nudges Scout:
Miss Jean Louise? Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing.
The reverend says it without anger; his expression, on which the camera lingers, is one of sadness redeemed by awe at Atticus Finch’s courage. Peck later said that, when Walker delivered the “your father’s passing” line, “he wrapped up the Academy Award for me.” (Peck won for Best Actor; Walker was not listed in the film’s credits.) For Scout, it is a moment of revelation. She glimpses what the scene suggests is the essential transaction of the civil-rights struggle: black Americans’ bestowal of loving gratitude on sympathetic white Americans who are willing to recognize their rights.
There is no scene like that one in “Selma,” the new film about a voting-rights campaign in Alabama in early 1965, during which three protesters were murdered, dozens more were badly beaten, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black leaders were imprisoned. Perhaps that cinematic absence helps to explain why, in certain circles, “Selma” has been greeted with outrage. The complaint is that the film is unfair to Lyndon B. Johnson—that it is a scandal, an insult, a lie. Joseph Califano, a former Johnson aide, in a particularly furious attack in the Washington Post, asked if the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, and her colleagues felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead.” Califano wrote that “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” And, despite nominations for Best Picture and Best Song, neither DuVernay nor David Oyelowo, whose performance as King is an act of utter alchemy, are up for an Academy Award. (My colleague Richard Brody wrote that he had considered a nomination for Oyelowo “a well-deserved lock.”)
Califano’s charge, in short, is that the film
falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.
In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted—and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.
Califano, though, misrepresents “Selma” the movie and Selma the history. The movie does not, for example, portray L.B.J. as “only reluctantly behind” the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed be a gross distortion. (See Robert Caro’s work for the best analysis of Johnson’s stealthy passion for the cause of equality.) It does portray him as disagreeing with King about the timing of the bill—which, to be fair, he did. On other points, though, Califano is simply rewriting history.
How, one might ask, was the Selma campaign, whose origins within the civil-rights movement are well documented, “LBJ’s idea”? Exhibit A, for Califano, is the transcript of a phone call between L.B.J. and King on January 15, 1965. The conversation, Califano claims, shows that it was Johnson who revealed the importance of voting rights to King (“There’s not going to be anything though, Doctor, as effective as all of them voting”); “articulated the strategy” for him; explained that it would be helpful to “find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina”; and then “seal[ed] the deal” with a final exhortation about how much they could accomplish. King, in Califano’s telling, then hurried off to fulfill this brief, and returned, like a dutiful messenger, with Selma.
There are problems with this account, both textual and contextual. The transcript does not match the story Califano tells—not unless one is deaf, as he and his former boss may well have been, to what King was actually saying. Did it embarrass Califano at all, when he played the recording, to notice how often Johnson interrupted King, or talked over and past him? For that matter, did it occur to either of them that King, in 1965, two years after his “I Have a Dream” speech—where he shared the stage with the widow of Herbert Lee, who had been murdered for his efforts to register voters—might have been well aware of the importance of voting rights, and might have been able to “articulate a strategy” for Johnson? It would be hard to find a purer example of what might be called POTUS-splaining.
And then there is the context. In At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years (2006), Taylor Branch writes about the same phone call, and where it fits in the relationship between King and Johnson. “Johnson in the White House was intensely personal but unpredictable—treating King variously to a Texas bear hug of shared dreams or a towering, wounded snit.” In an earlier call, just after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, L.B.J. had told King “how worthy I’m going to try to be of all your hopes.” But then, Branch writes,
Johnson had turned suddenly coy and insecure. Having consciously alienated the century-old segregationist base of his Democratic Party, he refused to see King, pretended he had nothing to do with his own nominating convention, and lashed out privately at both King’s Negroes and white Southerners.
“Just as suddenly,” according to Branch, came the January 15th phone call, in which “Johnson had rushed past King’s congratulations to confide a crowning ambition to win the right for Negroes to vote…. King, on his heels, had mumbled approval. He did not mention that he was headed to Selma for that very purpose—knowing that Johnson would not welcome his tactics of street protest.” In other words, at the time of the conversation in which Johnson, in Califano’s telling, came up with the “idea” for Selma, King was already on his way to the city; other organizers were already there. Soon afterward, Branch writes, “Johnson’s mood had turned prickly again,” and, in a subsequent meeting, “he insisted on his prerogative to choose the content and moment for any voting rights bill.” (Karen Tumulty, citing Branch in a piece on the controversy in the Post, writes that he “has his own film project in the works,” and had declined to comment.) As Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker last year, “He asked King to wait.”
Other critics of “Selma” have been offended by the idea that Johnson wanted King, and a voting-rights bill, to wait in line behind the President’s other legislative priorities. But that’s exactly what the historical record shows, including the January 15th transcript. In it, Johnson tells King that he wants his “people” to lobby “those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you” in support of Medicare and Johnson’s education and poverty bills. Those were the priorities; they needed to get through without any filibuster. After those bills are passed, Johnson says, “then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters.” It was the protesters’ attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge that changed Johnson’s timetable. Their first attempt ended with a brutal assault by local law enforcement—Bloody Sunday. The White House sent John Doar, an official in the Justice Department (who had earned the protesters’ trust), to try to talk King out of making the second attempt, urging him to abide by a federal injunction blocking the march. (This is the legal mess behind the exquisitely filmed moment in “Selma” when Oyelowo, as King, leads protesters to the middle of the bridge, only to turn them back.) It is ahistorical to insist that a film show how civil-rights leaders ought to have experienced Johnson, given his fine intentions, and not how they did. There is no question that Johnson was deeply, viscerally committed to civil rights—no question historically, and, again, no question in “Selma.” It is also the case that the White House waited several days after Bloody Sunday before making an official statement about the violence, and that it did not, in that interim, respond to urgent requests for federal protection, including sit-ins at Administration offices. Sending in federal marshals or troops, at that point, might have been politically risky; it might have played into the hands of segregationists. One way or another, by the time either of those things happened, another man, a minister from Boston, was dead, and Johnson had set his staff scrambling to write a draft of a speech, and to assemble a voting-rights bill that he’d send to Congress sooner than he had planned.
The next source of offense is the film’s suggestion that Johnson at least abetted J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I., in his vicious campaign against King. Perhaps it is fair to give Johnson a pass when it comes to Hoover’s dealings; Hoover may have technically worked for him, but he was Hoover. At the same time, a recording of another phone call between Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach, his attorney general, makes it clear that Johnson knew that Hoover was tapping King—“that must be where the evidence comes from … with some of the women, and that kind of stuff.” Katzenbach tells the President that the King wiretap was one that his predecessor, Robert Kennedy, had authorized, and “which I’ve been ambivalent about taking off.” DuVernay artificially, and somewhat clumsily, crams a decade’s worth of murkiness into the narrow time frame of the Selma campaign. The character most compromised, though, is not Johnson but King. The film is fairly merciless when it comes to his infidelities, which harmed both his family and his work. “Selma” is neither a demonization nor a hagiography of either man.
Reading Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.
Indeed, after hearing all of the pro-L.B.J. complaints about the movie, it can be disorienting to watch scenes like the one in which Johnson tells off George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, saying that he isn’t willing to go down in history paired with “the likes of you.” The climax of the film is Johnson’s address to Congress, in which he stunned the chamber with the ambition of his legislative plan, his invocation of America’s soul and its destiny, and his use of what had been seen as a slogan of the streets: “We shall overcome.” In DuVernay’s staging, there is no doubt that Johnson means it, and that what he has just done is epochal. Her film is fair to Johnson; the portrayal is multifaceted and respectful, and fully cognizant of his essential commitment to civil rights. What “Selma” is not, though, is cartoonish or deferential. Is that, again, the problem?
Maureen Dowd, in the Times, wrote about seeing the movie “in a theater full of black teenagers,” and worriedly noted that, in the scenes with L.B.J. and M.L.K., the young people “bristled at the power dynamic between the two men.” They would now see Johnson “through DuVernay’s lens. And that’s a shame.” None of the teen-agers would want to stand up as L.B.J. passed. Indeed, there is no moment in “Selma” where King really thanks Johnson or, Hollywood-style, puts his hand on his shoulder and tells him, “You’re a good man.” If that’s what the “Selma” critics crave, there are plenty of movies that offer it. (There is almost such a scene in “Selma”—it takes place between two black characters, King and John Lewis, played by the excellent Stephan James).
At the time of Selma, Johnson was fifty-six years old. King was thirty-six; he was thirty-nine when he was murdered. Taylor Branch, describing the night of Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, describes the frantic, late revisions—“the pale aides who raced between typewriters … a motorcade waiting to transport him to the Capitol.” In the limousine, on the ride over, Johnson read over some late changes to the text, which included “words of disapproval” for protesters who, among other things, “block public thoroughfares to traffic,” Branch writes. “Changing his mind, Johnson struck the latter paragraph to avoid the misimpression that marginal annoyance reflected his true feeling.” A few minutes later, speaking to Congress and a national television audience, a Southern President said, “The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. Ω
[Amy Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker, having joined the magazine in 1995. She focuses on politics and international affairs. She edits profiles and features. Davidson attended Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude (Social Studies). After graduation she worked for about 18 months in Germany. Her editing contributions to The New Yorker have won the National Magazine Award and the George Polk Award. Davidson is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.]
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