The Trouble with “Selma”

Sure.  Go see it.   David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King is nuanced and intelligent; Tim Roth has a good time as George Wallace, and even Oprah Winfrey manages to be convincing as Annie Lee Cooper, the formidable lady who famously slugged Selma’s sheriff Jim Clark before he smashed her head in with a nightstick.

Johnson and King's relationship feels like the focus of
Johnson and King’s struggle feels like the focus of “Selma”.  It shouldn’t be.

Yet for all its good intentions, “Selma” is yet another movie about Great Men.   At its center are Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. Much has already been written about the film’s inaccurate depiction of the political struggle between King and Johnson, not only by Johnson’s defenders, but by historians.   Most recently, these accusations have led to a defense of the film in The New Yorker.  This back-and-forth is interesting to artists like myself who work with historical material, but I feel they miss the point.

Here’s the trouble with “Selma”.   Bear with me. This goes on for a while.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement is not the story of Martin Luther King, and the story of the struggle in Selma began long before King and his men came to town.

The film nods its head in that direction in its opening scene when a dignified  Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, attempts to register to vote and makes impressive progress in the face of a county clerk who ultimately finds a way to reject her.  What’s missing is the context, the long-term organizing that led to that moment.

Amelia Boynton Robinson
Amelia Boynton Robinson

When I first wrote this post, I actually thought that scene involved Amelia Boynton.  A few folks corrected me, for which I’m grateful.   Boynton is certainly in the film, though plays a very minor role, precisely what she didn’t play in Selma’s own Civil Rights history.   Boyton herself registered in 1931, and she “vouched” for other black voters through the Dallas County Voters League, a process which almost invariably ended in their rejection from the rolls. Yet Boynton persisted.   She and her husband had been organizing in Dallas County, Alabama for thirty years. In fact, their son Bruce challenged Jim Crow policy at a Richmond bus terminal in 1958, a case that resulted in the  Supreme Court’s ruling that ended segregation on interstate travel and led to the Freedom Rides.

Then, there’s the matter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.   In one of the stranger moments in “Selma”, one of the men in Dr. King’s entourage addresses him: “The students are in town.”

Actually, these students had been in town for a long time. In 1961, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee scouted Selma as a possible base for action, and in 1962, Freedom Rider and SNCC Field Secretary Bernard Lafayette arrived in Selma in a battered Chevy and immediately got to work identifying local organizers like the Boyntons, holding meetings in their homes, and quietly, patiently, finding people to take risks: farmers who owned their own land, dentists who did not depend on a white clientele, young people who were fascinated by the Freedom Rider.

Given the backlash in Selma after Brown vs. Board of Education (which whites called “Black Monday) most black residents were terrified to work with Lafayette.    Yet one turning point was a savage beating.  Afterwards, Lafayette walked through Selma with his bloody shirt and bruised face and the local people knew that he wasn’t just passing through.  They began to face their own fear and join in mass Freedom Days of registration at the courthouse.

Here, I’ll quote from David Halberstam’s excellent account, The Children:

SNCC's Bernard Lafayette after Selma beating, 1963
SNCC’s Bernard Lafayette after Selma beating, 1963

“It almost did not matter, Lafayette decided, that when they went to the courthouse they were always turned away. The most important thing was no longer the reaction of the white authorities: the most important thing he was accomplishing in Selma was to break the barrier of fear among the blacks, which had paralyzed the community for so long; to show that all their goals were achievable, that the more risks they took, the bolder they would become, and sooner or later the feds were going to pay attention….that the requisite strength would not come from outside, it had to come from within” (429).

So these were the “students” who were in town. Over the course of years, they’d built on the work of local people and infused the fight for voting rights with new energy by being—themselves—models of fearlessness.

Then, into this town—on his White Horse, so to speak—comes Martin Luther King.

“Selma” treats the conflict between King and SNCC dismissively. The students are portrayed as petty and jealous.   A young man identified only as James has a chip on his shoulder. At one point, he says to his respectful fellow-student John Lewis, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about Martin Luther King.” This was James Forman, Executive Secretary of SNCC.

James Forman on the Selma March he opposed, 1965
James Forman on the Selma March he opposed, 1965

Forman is a fascinating figure, somewhat older than King, highly disciplined, and a strong critic of the Democratic Party. He had his reasons. He, along with most of SNCC, had  lost any faith they had in Democrats when the Party dismissed Mississippi Freedom delegates at the 1964 convention, and the disillusionment with King was more long-standing, beginning when he refused to take part in a Freedom Ride, and strengthening through their experience with what they saw as a cult of personality. Some SNCC people referred to him as “De Lawd.”
It’s worth reading the memoirs of  SNCC veterans like James Forman, Cleveland Sellers and Stokely Carmichael.  All claim that King was acting under Johnson’s orders in Selma, marching or postponing according to the will of operatives in the Democratic Party.   More generally, all criticized King’s style of leadership—the Big March followed by a push for legislation. Marches are cathartic, but SNCC believed they weren’t an effective way to organize.   Unlike the visits to the courthouse, they served no concrete purpose. They led to unnecessary violence, and put key leaders in jail,
So here’s the question, a real one that I probably have no right to ask the movie “Selma” to address:   the Voting Rights Act passes—and yes, certainly it can be argued that the march in Selma was a crucial factor in its passage, but what matters more, the vote Congress gave the people of Selma, or the courage women like Amelia Boynton inspired in the people of Selma?

You’ll say this is a false choice. Both things matter.   Every source I read—even the hard-line SNCC memoirs—don’t deny that the people of Selma invited King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to town.   My own political experience tells me that local organizers like Amelia Boynton probably didn’t pay much attention to divisions within the Movement and assumed that these petty differences can be resolved in the course of action, and in fact, SNCC did end up joining the march from Selma to Montgomery (along the way, beginning to organize the Lowndes County Black Panther Party, but I won’t write about it here).

Yet Selma brushes aside the story of Boynton and other organizers.   King marches, and they follow.

Actor Stephan James with real-life counterpart, Congressman John Lewis
Actor Stephan James with real-life counterpart, Congressman John Lewis

John Lewis,  who was the Chairman of SNCC at the time,  joined the Selma to Montgomery march in spite of SNCC’s own opposition.   Later a long-time  Democratic Congressman, he wrote a memoir of his own where he described his decision to participate in the march as an individual.  He was later quoted as saying:  “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

Given Obama’s presidency—the drone strikes, the growing gap between rich and poor, the prison-industrial complex, and surveillance tactics that would be J. Edgar Hoover’s wet dream—the statement should make you wonder about the meaning of leadership.

What happens when we’re led? And what can we learn from those who refuse to follow?

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