Boycotting Selma Because LBJ Deserved Better
Selma movie still

Boycotting Selma Because LBJ Deserved Better

Can't go see it. This isn't funny.

I laughed many years ago when a student at SMU where I was an adjunct teacher said to me, "Everything I know about Vietnam, I know from Sylvester Stallone." The reference, which I did not think was ironic, was to the then recent 1985 film, Rambo: First Blood Part II.

But for the next four years of Reagan and then again through Bush II, I wondered if a majority of Americans got their basic theory of the Vietnam War from that movie. Somewhere along in there, an old friend in another part of the country said something to me that made me realize his impression of Dallas, where I have lived most of my adult life, came almost entirely from from Oliver Stone's JFK .

There has always been a chicken-and-egg conundrum for me about Hollywood and the fomentation of ignorance -- does Hollywood make us dumb or merely reflect how dumb we are already? It's especially true for some reason where race is concerned, as we have discussed here once already this week. The movie business surely is populated by lots of really smart and creative people, but it also seems to be home to an especially irritating subset of ethnocentric white people who think they are liberals.

See also: This 1998 Carter High School Cowboys Movie

Hence, you get really stupid movies like Mississippi Burning, released in 1988, in which the heroes of the civil rights movement were white FBI agents, or the 2011 film, The Help, in which the best way to portray the lives of black female domestics in the segregated South was through the experiences of a privileged white girl.

I don't mind the ones that passively reflect our dumbness so much. Hey, they're in the business of selling tickets. But I do harbor a deep personal objection to movies that deliberatley distort history in order to promote a wrong-headed meme. So I guess I have finally made up my mind not to pay for a ticket to Selma, the new movie about the Southern Christian Leadership march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

And by the way, this puts me in the extremely uncomfortable personal position of sticking up for LBJ, whom I will never forgive for the atrocity of Vietnam. (Nor do I forgive Nixon, Kennedy or Eisenhower). But I have been persuaded, neverthless, not to attend this film by the writing of Mark Updegrove, presidential historian and director of the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, and by an interview in The Washington Post with former Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young , both dealing with a key scene in the movie.

In that scene, MLK pushes LBJ to get a voting rights bill through Congress. LBJ arrogantly loses patience and refuses. Then LBJ unleashes J. Edgar Hoover on King.

Young, who was present for the conversation depicted in the film, told Karen Tumulty of the Post that the two leaders disagreed about the political timing of a voting rights initiative in the Congress, but Young said here was no arrogance or anger. Young said King walked out of the White House saying it was his job and the movement's job to give LBJ the political ammunition he needed to get a voting rights bill passed.

Updegrove offers a tape recording available on-line in which LBJ counsels King to expose examples of voter discrimination as a way of persuading the consciences of white voters:

"I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, [exposing] very simple examples of [voting] discrimination ... and pretty soon, the fellow that didn't do anything but drive a tractor will say, 'That's not right, that's not fair.' Then, that'll help us in what we're going to shove through [Congress] in the end."

The great lesson for me in Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on the history of the civil rights movement was that King set up violent clashes -- he sent children against dogs and water cannon knowing that dogs and water cannon would be used -- not as an expression of anger and defiance. He did it because he knew white people would finally see the evil of segregation and disenfranchisement. And they did. And that white awakening gave LBJ the edge of power he needed to get a voting rights bill passed barely a year after the scene in the movie.

Oh, thanks a lot, Selma movie. Now you've made me defend LBJ.
Oh, thanks a lot, Selma movie. Now you've made me defend LBJ.

Somewhere way over on one side of Hollywood, the stupid side, there's the version of history in which white FBI agents brought about desegregation. This new movie, Selma, doesn't sound like it's a stupid movie at all. It sounds smart, which may only make it worse that the new film commits a sin against history way over on the other side of the scale, by painting LBJ as a mean racist old white man.

If white people are moral automatons, if they are utterly incapable of changing their racist spots, then none of the history of white racial oppression including slavery itself is their fault. They were just acting out all that cruel cold DNA they built up living in those ice caves for millenia before the sun came out.

But if white people know the moral truth, if they knew in their hearts that slavery was a sin even as they practiced it, if a century later their elected leader, LBJ, fully understood the wickedness of disenfranchisement, then that means white people had consciences to which the movement was able to appeal.

I believe the truth of history is that the movement did appeal to the white conscience. I would concede that the white conscience is a work in progress. But if white people hadn't changed their hearts, we would still have Jim Crow and all the worst of it.

Sheron Patterson had a powerful piece in yesterday's Morning News in which she said Selma offers a useful message because it reminds the world, especially young people, of the power of protest. Other writers have made the same point with specific reference to Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner and the mood of unrest in the country today.

I want to agree with all of them. I believe protest brought about the civil rights act, the voting rights act and the end of the Vietnam War. But I don't believe you can sell people on the power of protest unless you can show them how and why it worked when it worked.

It never worked as simple defiance, as an expression of rage. Rage doesn't scare a racalcitrant majority into changing its mind. It just pisses the majority off. Effective protest is a mirror in which the doers of evil are seduced into exposing their very lowest nature, and that works because it awakens the better natures of most people, including white people.

One last note. The version told by Updegrove and Young is a great example of how the true story is always more interesting than the manipulated version. How much more is there to learn from LBJ's real and complicated role in history than from a simplistic movie caricature?

Anyway, I know some kid is going to tell me five years from now that everything he knows about LBJ he knows from Selma." I just want to be able to say, "Never saw it."

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