“Selma” On My Mind

Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel (with Dr. Ralph Bunche in between), marching from Selma to Montgomery

Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel (with Dr. Ralph Bunche in between), marching from Selma to Montgomery

After weeks of controversy over “Selma” and especially the scenes of head butting between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson, I was a little surprised when I finally saw the movie during this MLK day weekend (I do not live in a city that was graced with the pre-release). As I quickly learned, “Selma” is not essentially about MLK or LBJ. It is, of all things, about Selma.

Its 42-year-old director, Ava DuVernay, says of the film: “It honors the people of Selma, but it also represents the struggle of people everywhere to vote.” This it does faithfully and movingly. “Selma” illuminates a struggle—a movement of church ladies, teenagers, and old men—that materialized in a small town long before King entered the picture.

Still, there are questions. These begin with the portrayal of Johnson but extend to other gaps in the film—including what I’ll describe for now as the case of the missing yarmulkes.

Thankfully, the makers of “Selma” did not want to produce what DuVernay refers to as yet another “white savior” movie. Best known of this genre is “Mississippi Burning,” a film I enjoyed even though the designated saviors were FBI agents (the men who otherwise stalked and harassed King with a fervor they did not generally bring to the fight against the Klan). It was long past time for Hollywood to serve up a civil-rights movie with “saviors” of color.

Thoughtful people, however, are asking if DuVernay really had to cast Lyndon Johnson as the antihero, the one who stood in the way of voting rights for southern blacks, until he got out of the way. I’m not sure if she did.

True, the movie overdramatizes the LBJ-MLK tension. Arguably, the real conflict between the two came not over civil rights, in 1965, but over Vietnam, in 1967. “Selma” also depicts Johnson as moving more slowly on voting rights than he truly did. At the same time, the film doesn’t paint LBJ as an enemy of voting rights. It makes clear enough that his issue was not with the concept of black voting rights, but with the timing of legislation to make that happen. The distance here between fact (as related by biographers such as Robert Caro and Taylor Branch), and fiction (in this movie) is well short of what some critics had led me to expect. And don’t forget we’re talking about a Hollywood movie, not a PBS documentary.

Johnson was no villain, and I don’t think he is portrayed as one, in “Selma.” I can’t say plainly that any major figure is cast as pure villain (even the depiction of segregation-loving George Wallace is somewhat nuanced), or as pure savior, for that matter. That’s what makes the film so compelling and humanizing.

Some have argued that the problem with the film’s narrative strategy goes beyond its treatment of LBJ. As Leida Snow writes in the Jewish Daily Forward, these have to do notably with “the contribution that thousands of white people, many of them Jewish, made to the Civil Rights Movement.”

A Scene from Selma You Won’t See in “Selma”

Indeed, a mini-dispute has surfaced over Selma and the Jewish question. (Snow’s article is titled “‘Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.”)

The most celebrated among Jewish civil rights activists was Abraham Joshua Heschel, the incomparable theologian, philosopher, and rabbi. Heschel was a close friend of King’s, and he rushed to Selma after MLK sent him an urgent telegram, asking for the rabbi’s help. There, he marched with King in the front row of demonstrators on their way to Montgomery. A United Press International photo of the rabbi, with his unruly white hair, bushy beard, and yarmulke-beret, became a lasting image of the civil rights movement, and of black-Jewish relations. It’s an iconic scene from Selma, the march, you won’t see in “Selma,” the movie. The film, in its final scene, shows the front row of marchers as they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But, unless I blinked and missed something, it appears to be, imaginatively, an all-black row. There’s no Heschel figure.

I wish there were such a character or clear image in “Selma.” I wish we could see the yarmulkes worn not only by rabbis including Heschel but also throngs of young black men who donned them in solidarity with the Jews who had turned out. In the movie, the James Bevel character does go around in a knit skullcap, which the real James Bevel (one of King’s lieutenants) had been sporting for years, in homage, as he often explained, to the Hebrew Prophets. His wife, Diane Nash (played by Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned black Catholic from Chicago, is portrayed in her plaid, parochial-school skirt.

Anyway, the skullcaps of Selma became a symbol not just of black-Jewish relations. They signaled an interracial, inter-religious movement that hit stride in Selma, in March 1965. The civil rights movement was universalized as never before, at that moment. It was no longer just an African American movement.

This is hypothetically another movie I’d wait in line to see, but it’s not DuVernay’s movie, and why should it be?

Her way was to channel the likes of Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) along with other grassroots activists. A Selma citizen, Boynton had been active since the late 1940s in a small group of locals called the Dallas County Voters League. She was the one who, first, invited the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to set up shop in Selma, and then, in 1965, called in King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Fittingly, in the movie, when King (David Oyelowo) decides to lead a third march, a third and successful attempt across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Boynton is in the room. King turns to her and says: “We’re going to finish this, I promise you that, Miss Amelia.” It’s one way that DuVernay “honors the people of Selma.” Miss Amelia is, by the way, still with us, at 103 years old.

Many others from far off places did eventually come to Selma, especially for that last march all the way to Montgomery. These were people not of color, for the most part, but of faith. They were nuns, priests, ministers, rabbis, church ladies, and others.

Some of them were undoubtedly so-called “24-hour prophets,” who flew in for the day, for the thrill, rarely if ever to be heard from again. Most were the real thing. They tended to espouse a theology grounded in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, whose greatest articulator was Rabbi Heschel. Simply put, it was a theology that called for standing with the weak and, when necessary, confronting the strong.

“Selma” the movie is what happens when the weak, or formerly powerless, finally get to tell this story, using their own lens. …read more

Inertness, U.S.A.

Posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Part of what fascinates me about the civil rights struggles of the 1960s is that, through these upheavals, America changed. Compare that to today’s inertness: we can barely budge on gun control and the minimum wage (for examples), despite overwhelming support among Americans for change on those fronts.

Yes, there are real questions about how much progress towards racial justice we’ve made. What’s clear is that a little over a year after the May 1963 “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And five months after the Selma to Montgomery march came the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. Which particular piece of landmark legislation has followed the Occupy Wall Street protests?

More to the point: How did change happen, half a century ago?

That question often comes up—and is answered all too readily. Many are quick to credit the vision, courage and sacrifice personified by the civil rights heroes. Others just as quickly recite with Bob Dylan that the times they were a-changin’. (Consider the reforms that washed over the Catholic Church during those years at the Second Vatican Council, which bookended Birmingham and the Civil Rights Act from 1962 to 1965.) Many still would single out the strategy of nonviolent confrontation, the purpose of which was to create an air of crisis.

One could also be impressed by the accidents of that history, arguably including the career of Martin Luther King. Earlier this year, I wrote about how, in 1954, the young MLK had a dream—to become a tweedy tenured theology professor. A year later, Rosa Parks sat on the bus and catapulted the reluctant neophyte pastor into the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Add to this the accidental presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. One could argue we wouldn’t have had a Civil Rights Act in 1964 or a Voting Rights Act in 1965, without LBJ in the White House. Or those landmarks might not have been enacted until later. But it’s also true that King, Parks, and other storied figures, with their moral vision and mass movement politics, expanded the realm of the possible. That enabled Johnson to work his legislative magic.

Mysteries of Social Change

In their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath made the simple observation: “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.” Nonviolent direct action was one clear innovation. As King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, those who engage in such resistance are not “the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” in an unjust system. In Birmingham, the explicit strategy was to bring the brutality of segregation into the open by provoking it.

In addition, during the early 1960s King and other spiritual radicals—notably his friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel—resurrected the tradition of prophetic discourse. That is, the style of denouncing social evils and chastising the powers that be, while envisioning a radically better future, as King did in his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Such a religious challenge to the status quo was a distant cry from the soothing spiritual happy talk of the 1950s. King and company issued their jeremiads, but they also usually managed to join prophecy with civility, social struggle with social friendship.

Those varied elements converged in Birmingham 50 years ago. In early May of 1963, thousands of children as young as six years old strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown. And, in a bracing display of cognitive dissonance, King declared: “Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.”

During the protests, King projected through his megaphone not only resoluteness, but also a longing for what he had limned on other occasions as a “beloved community.” It was a vision of solidarity between whites and blacks, rich and poor. And it was vitalized—with not just love but power, with both confrontation and a spirit of cooperation.

Whether that rare combination of moral and political sensibilities made the civil rights crusade successful is hard to say with certainty. There are too many imponderables. It should be noted too that King, depressed and guilt-ridden at the end of his abbreviated life, began to see himself as a failure, partly due to the unrealized dream of economic justice for all, both blacks and whites.

What we know is that by the end of the Birmingham campaign, there were thousands of freedom-chanting children jamming the city’s prisons. There was the thick air of crisis that King and others had prayed for, and there were the heartfelt pleas for love and reconciliation in the throes of intense agitation. All that provided what every movement for social change seems to need—the element of surprise.

I wouldn’t venture much further in trying to explain the developments of May 1963, any more than I’d pretend to unravel the mysteries of change. Perhaps these are best left as perennial questions. …read more

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