Selma, the Sequel

Celebrated as a civil rights milestone, the three marches in Selma, 50 years ago, also ushered in a new style of social and political advocacy. In the March 18 issue of The Christian Century, I write about what many of the marchers went on to do, after Selma, and the faith-based movement they made. (By the way, the Century has a website worth checking every single day.) Here is the Selma piece, in full:

Fifty years ago, thousands marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were led by an eye-catching row of marchers, including a bearded rabbi, an unidentified nun in flowing habit, and Martin Luther King Jr. The third Selma-to-Montgomery march, which began on March 21, 1965, is rightly remembered as a watershed in the struggle for civil rights. Less known is how Selma refocused the lives of many, black and white, who gave the march its spiritual hue.

The trek to Montgomery began with more than 3,000 of the civil-rights faithful, whose ranks swelled by the thousands along the way. In that initial vanguard were several hundred clergy and untold numbers of lay religious activists from around the country. Voting rights became law five months later, just as many who had marched were letting loose their faith in a wider field of activism, taking on a host of social wrongs. They and others forged a new style of advocacy eventually known as the “prophetic style.”

Until the 1960s, white church people were easy to spot at a civil rights protest in the South, because they were scarce. Standing out among them was William Sloane Coffin, the 30-something Yale chaplain and a former CIA agent. In May 1961, Coffin made front-page news nationwide because he was white, well connected—and leading a group of Freedom Riders, who rode interracial buses across state lines to challenge segregated transportation in the Deep South. He emerged as the brash young face of incipient white solidarity with southern blacks.

In the next few years, religious involvement in civil rights—beyond black churches—gradually grew. In Selma, it was finally brought to scale.

On March 7, police brutally assaulted several hundred marchers, mostly young black men attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the event is dramatically and faithfully rendered in the movie Selma. In response, King issued an urgent plea for a “Ministers’ March” to Montgomery. Within a couple of days, an estimated 400 members of the clergy were wandering Selma, many of them having flown in with one-way tickets.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jonathan Daniels had an epiphany during a recitation of the Magnificat prayer at the Episcopal Divinity School. The white seminarian dropped everything to go see the humble exalted in Alabama.

In New York, renowned Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel momentarily agonized over whether to travel on the Sabbath. Two years earlier, he had met King at a national conference on religion and race in Chicago, where the two became fast friends. “The Exodus began,” said Heschel at his opening address there, “but it is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

Heschel was outspoken, but had never quite taken to the streets before. Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, there he was, marching with King in the front row.

After Selma, many intensified their activism and broadened their faith-and-justice lens. Jonathan Daniels stayed in Alabama, living with a black family, fighting in the trenches to register black voters, and earning a stay in county jail. In August 1965, at the age of 26, he was shot dead by a segregationist construction worker moonlighting as a sheriff’s deputy.

That summer, King turned his attention to the subtler humiliations of northern racism. Soon, he and his family were tenanting in Chicago as he shifted his focus from lunch counters and voting booths to knottier problems such as housing and employment. King was also trying to reason with new, harsh adversaries, ranging from white northerners to black militants who dismissed his inclusive, interracial vision of a “beloved community.”

Seven months after Selma, some of its alumni pivoted to a different cause altogether. They formed a national organization that came to be called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. Its leaders included Heschel, Coffin, radical Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and then-Lutheran pastor (later Catholic neoconservative) Richard John Neuhaus. The New York-based coalition spearheaded some of the first broadly based mobilizations against escalated warfare in Southeast Asia.

It was this group that brought King firmly into the antiwar fold, with his then-controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in April 1967. At the time, King called the war “an enemy of the poor,” linking the expense of intervention in Vietnam to the lagging War on Poverty at home. By the end of that year he was announcing the Poor People’s Campaign, an interracial effort for economic justice. It was King’s last crusade, a dream unfulfilled.

Through these struggles, King and others nurtured a style of politics rooted most deeply in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a politics of vehemence and passion.

If this loosely bundled movement had a bible—other than the actual one—it was arguably Heschel’s 1962 book The Prophets. This study of the ancient radicals helped usher out the soothing spiritual happy talk lingering from the 1950s. Heschel wrote jarringly (and admiringly) that the biblical prophet is “strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Hypersensitive to social injustice, the prophet reminds us that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Heschel also explained that a prophet feels responsible for the moment, open to what each hour of unfolding history is revealing. “He is a person who knows what time it is,” the rabbi wrote, checking his watch.

The book caught on among spiritually minded civil rights workers. After perusing its pages, a young aide to King named James Bevel started going around in a knit skullcap, his way of paying homage to ancient Israel’s prophets. On the day of the final march in Selma, scores of other young, black, and presumably Christian men also chose to incongruously sport yarmulkes. Andrew Young, one of King’s top lieutenants, has recalled seeing marchers arrive with copies of The Prophets in hand.

After King’s assassination in 1968, Heschel and many other Selma veterans pressed forward (though not for long, in the case of Heschel, who died in late 1972). In 1968, Coffin became a household name as he stood trial for aiding and abetting draft evasion through his counseling of young men. So did Berrigan, who exceeded Coffin’s comfort zone by napalming draft records. In keeping up their prophetic ministries, they and others also spawned an assortment of imitators.

In the late 60s and early 70s, student antiwar radicals mimicked the so-called “prophetic style,” denouncing and confronting like the spiritual radicals but adding contempt and sometimes even violence to the mix. They designated themselves, in the words of counterculture leader Tom Hayden, a “prophetic minority.” Later on, from another ideological galaxy, came Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, which explored the boundaries between prophetic denunciation of perceived social evils and demonization of one’s opponents.

In these and other imitations, much of the prophetic spirit was lost—and the tone. King and likeminded clergy of the 1960s may have been quick to denounce and confront, but they scarcely if ever demonized or even denigrated. Typically they managed to blend strong moral convictions with degrees of civility and good will often unseen in politics today.

Issues that galvanized the 60s clergy still haunt us today. Racism, poverty, and war remain with us; even voting rights is a present-day cause, due most notably to the voter ID laws passed by a majority of states. The “Black Lives Matter” uprising against police violence has exposed racial chasms in many cities. Jails are increasingly packed with poor people who committed minor offenses or were unable to pay court-imposed costs. In 1968, King considered the level of the federal minimum wage to be beneath dignity; today, adjusted for inflation, it’s worth substantially less.

Such challenges invite a theological perspective—and a prophetic one. It’s not hard to find people acting on that impulse, people like Kim Bobo of Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, who has crusaded against wage theft while invoking Nehemiah’s censure of plundering the poor. She and many others breathe life into a far-flung movement that hit stride 50 years ago on a bridge in Selma.

…read more

“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

Was the March on Washington Really Part of a Violent Struggle?

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

There have been many threads of coverage and commentary surrounding the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, and one of them is naturally about nonviolence: The nation’s leadership had assumed that the march would turn violent, but August 28, 1963, turned out to be one of the most notably peaceful days in the history of the District of Columbia.

Still, the nonviolent character of the movement that the march defined is being questioned. There has been some interesting historical revisionism surrounding Rosa Parks and other civil rights figures who, unlike Martin Luther King, were less-than devoted to nonviolence as an abiding moral principle. (For my take on that, go here.) And now comes a book that, among other provocations, makes the case that King’s struggle was arguably a violent one.

The author is Benjamin Ginsberg, and his forthcoming title is The Value of Violence (Prometheus Books). This month, the Johns Hopkins University political science professor summarized his thesis in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ginsberg declares in the article that the tactics used by proponents of nonviolence (he names King and Gandhi) “were far from nonviolent.” How so? Because they were “designed to provoke violent responses” from local authorities and thus elicit sympathy from the public.

He cites the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama (though a much better example would be the Birmingham crusade in the spring of ’63, which was clearly aimed at getting Bull Connor to respond with brutal force). He also points out that the Selma action led to the Voting Rights Act passed five months later and—more significantly in his mind—to an “army” of federal law-enforcement officials in the South. These authorities “wielded the power to suppress white resistance to the registration of black voters.”

Ginsberg contends that “in essence,” the Selma protest succeeded because “the protesters’ allies”—meaning the feds—“had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes.” (A bold assertion, considering the foes included men who had a capacity for lynching.)

It’s not a new idea. During the movement’s early years, the representatives of respectable opinion, including those in the Kennedy administration, argued similarly. They worried that the civil rights campaigners were fomenting violence in reaction to their confrontational brand of nonviolence. For his part, King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that those who engage in such resistance merely “bring to the surface” and shine a light on the violence inherent in an unjust system. It’s a long stretch to call this violence.

The confusion was understandable at the time. Those were the days before people had any real grasp of nonviolence as a strategy of social change. Circa 1963, you were either a pure pacifist (passive, in other words) or someone who preferred the violent approach. There was no separate category for active nonviolent resistance, as there has been since not only the civil rights victories but also other great nonviolent struggles, notably the ones that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe.

Now there is such a well-known category, although not quite in Ginsberg’s thinking. Police dogs, peaceful (though provocative) protests—they’re all the same. They’re all part of the scheme of political violence, as he sees it.

I should quickly add that Ginsberg, who chairs the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins, isn’t critical of the historic civil rights movement, on that score. He has a broader agenda—to debunk the now-familiar view in some quarters that violence is “not the answer” to our problems. It is very often the answer, he asserts. “Violence and the threat of violence are the most potent forces in political life,” he writes contrarily, in a challenging thesis that bears revisiting when the book comes out. …read more

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