How ‘Selma’ Diminishes Dr. KingRoundup
tags: MLK, civil rights movement, Selma
... As a movie, Selma has a lot to offer. The acting is marvelous (David Oyelowo captures MLK every bit as well as Daniel Day-Lewis imagined Lincoln), the cinematography is striking and—much credit to the director—the violence is startlingly real and intimate. Scenes depicting the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the massacre at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the murder of James Reeb are very difficult to watch. As they should be.
But from a historical perspective, Selma is a deeply flawed work. The film has already provoked considerable debate, particularly around the question of Lyndon Johnson’s role in pressing for federal voting rights legislation. On a more fundamental level, it mingles real, verifiable events with conspiratorial fiction. And for a film about a pivotal moment in MLK’s life, it obscures too much of King’s political and personal genius. The events at Selma stood at the juncture of every theological and practical dilemma that King grappled with in his public career: The limits and utility of nonviolence. The balance between civil disobedience and civil society. How an activist stays politically relevant. Selma skims the surface of these questions, but it never gets to the core.
Selma opens in late 1964, when King traveled to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. By that date, the historical record shows, he had already determined to stage his next campaign in Selma—the seat of Dallas County, Alabama, where black residents comprised over half the population but only about 2 percent of registered voters.
King’s strategy was at once simple and complicated. Since Congress had six months earlier passed the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in employment, schools and places of public accommodation, the movement had renewed its focus on voting rights—a giant piece of the civil rights puzzle that still required legislative remedy. From a numbers perspective, the decision made sense. As King explained to readers of the New York Times, “Selma has succeeded in limiting Negro registration to the snail’s pace of about 145 persons a year. At this rate, it would take 103 years to register the 15,000 eligible Negro voters of Dallas County.”
Most liberals understood that securing access to the ballot box necessarily comprised an important part of the “Great Society.” Indeed, in a phone conversation on January 15, 1965, Lyndon Johnson named voting rights as a centerpiece of the civil rights agenda and counseled King to galvanize support by “find[ing] the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina … And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can … then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.” (From the context of their conversation, it doesn’t appear that LBJ understood that King had already found his “one illustration.”) ...
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