What I Know about Selma

tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma

Bernard Weisberger taught history at Antioch, Wayne State, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Vassar before becoming a full time freelance historian and a columnist at American Heritage.

Related Link:  "What Selma means to the Jews" by  Susannah Heschel

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 statues were meant to provide a façade 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 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.)

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