Dear readers,

I saw the movie SELMA. It left me stunned. I just couldn’t let go. Yes, I was there—for the last march—the celebratory one, which may have given it extra power for me. But most of the audience seemed similarly overwhelmed. It brought back a period that is sometime hard to remember in the gut. We need that energy again to tackle the critical issues we face today.


I found, to my surprise, that the way Lyndon B. Johnson was dealt with was very positive and hardly deserving of the uproar it has caused. Goodness gracious! It shows a man with good intentions, not to be taken for granted given his background, but also a practical political mind, not eager to engage in losing battles or losing powerful allies. Is that unfair to LBJ? It is what we admire about him and probably what created King’s successful effort to get a voting bill passed. Perhaps, I am trying to recall, the movie suggests that LBJ may have sent the FBI after King—which maybe he did? Or didn’t?

But of course it gets a lot of things wrong. The SNCC leaders, who are miffed at being overwhelmed by King’s plans, were hardly children. In fact, I am reminded, they were more or less the same age as King, and it was their work made that event possible. That does not come across in the somewhat patronizing scene where King lectures them about real life. For those who probably know the story best, there were probably omissions that distort the history of the times more seriously than the way it shows LBJ.

It strikes me as odd that this is where so many critics have spent their energies. Maybe why it was easier for the Oscars to ignore the film? Yes, this is decidedly a film that “glorifies” the civil rights movement—showing it mostly at its best. (Meanwhile, millions of dollar are made by a movie that glorifies war—The Sniper.)

My thanks go out—wholeheartedly—to those who enabled me to have that renewal of hope by remembering what we once did. And must do again. We need a new voting rights act as much as we did a half century ago. Our new and “improved” system for counting votes—not to mention who gets to vote—has made a mockery of that great victory at Selma. It is past time for us to imitate the actions of those SNCC workers, and of the many heroes who made Selma and the Voting Rights Act possible.

4 Responses

  1. The critiques I read stated that the movie made it look like Johnson used the FBI to target MLK when in fact that wasn’t the case. Hoover definitely targeted King, however. So the reviewers were questioning why Johnson, not Hoover, was being made to be King’s antagonist. Sounds like they weren’t totally off-base if they’ve got the history right.

  2. Strongly agree with your well written, insightful column, Deb. Overall, “Selma was extremely well done.” Some questions can be raised about a few historical details.I like the fact that you cited some details re King’s relationship with SNCC. You are the first person I’ve seen to raise these points. Kudos to you.

    I marched in Wichita decades ago, and have been on many marches, iincluding one of the day that the nation celebrated. Here’s a link to newspaper column I wrote about the many families that joined the march.

  3. Saw the movie last night, and was deeply moved by it. I thought it was particularly effective in showing how carefully the march was strategizedd… the Civil Rights movement was not the spontaneous outpouring of emotion against injustice… it had to be carefully choreographed. And I thought the movie did well in showing the complexity of the movement, even Malcom X’s small piece. It was very difficult to get all of that into the film, and I thought it was well done. I do think to much emphasis was put on LBJ’s role… I thought LBJ was portrayed as a solitary figure, and while I thought the dialogue acknowledged the complexity of his satisfying all his constituencies, it didn’t provide much of a visual image of this complexity. I also thought the film fell into the trap of portraying the white supremacists that historiical revisionist narratives often do… as utterly evil and other. This strategy has the effect of giving an impression that segregation was about a “few bad apples,” gorillas if you will. So it absolves the viewer, in my opinion, of examining the very deep roots of white supremacy in mainstream American world view. And that hasn’t changed. Nevertheless, a powerful film… and finally we get to see MLK the man.

  4. We had an early review from our neighbor, a Tuskegee Airman who tried to register to vote in Selma and was among those who brought the SCLC to Selma. He said it was a result of the work of SNCC to raise black consciousness that they did this, not in spite of it.

    Now for a follow up – how Jim Crow became institutionalized in our education and criminal justice systems. Have you read Michelle Alexander’s book?

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