Having spent over two years in Selma, I can attest that the look of Selma is as remembered — but the history is not.
Why is SNCC portrayed as noisy but impotent? Was that Jim Forman without his roar? Was that a gay guy in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference but not acknowledged as such? Was there only one woman in the Movement? Was that Andy Young with little to say? And is Ralph Abernathy portrayed accurately? What about the many others?
Why is U.S. President Lyndon Johnson depicted as evil while U.S. Federal Judge Frank Johnson of Montgomery is portrayed as a deity? Both Johnsons were tarnished by racial politics, as was Martin Luther King, who badly stumbled during the second Selma march, dubbed "Turn Around Tuesday." Judge Johnson caused that stumble.
Did President Johnson worry only about his career and image, not values? Nonsense! He was a working politician — you remember Medicare, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act? Trying to legislate something worthwhile during his time in office — and he also wanted to be reelected. Wow! What an insight? Was he also heartless? Yes, remember Vietnam.
Judge Johnson became the most prominent desegregationist judge in the country. For two decades, either alone or in combination with other judges, he desegregated 107 school systems, buses, bus terminals, parks, museums, mental institutions, jails and prisons, airports and libraries — but he detested any efforts to achieve that equality by methods outside of the court system, even the peaceful passive resistance advocated and practiced by Dr. King.
Judge Johnson also despised "Black Power" as much as he did the beliefs and tactics of the Ku Klux Klan. He denounced, what he called, black militant philosophy that "a person may, if his cause is labeled "civil rights" or "states rights" [an equation of SNCC with the Klan], determine for himself what laws and court decisions are morally right or wrong — and either obey or refuse to obey them." Such beliefs, said Johnson, are entirely foreign "to our "rule-of-law" theory of government."
After the first march in Selma had ended in March of 1965, with the savage events of "Bloody Sunday," Dr. King and the civil rights leadership sought a federal injunction to protect the marchers in a second planned march — to take place two days later.
Instead, Judge Johnson issued an injunction forbidding the next march, which exacerbated the tensions within the civil rights community and presented Dr. King with a set of difficult options.
If King obeyed the injunction, the magnitude and intensity of the throngs already assembled — and still arriving in Selma — could be dissipated. He also had to contend with the distinct possibility that SNCC would march no matter what he decided. If, on the other hand, he disobeyed Judge Johnson, he would be defying the most renowned civil rights-friendly judge in the nation, as well as the power of the federal government itself — at about the very time that landmark civil rights legislation (the Voting Rights Act) was expected to come before Congress.
Dr. King decided to march but with a reservation few were aware of: when the marchers came to the scene of the Sunday carnage, he led the gathering in prayer and then turned the crowd back. Dr. King, whose successes had been based on nonviolent resistance — both legal and extra- legal — chose not to overtly defy Judge Johnson.
The judge succeeded where almost every Southern sheriff, legislator and Governor had failed. He discredited King in the eyes of his followers, especially with the more militant civil rights groups. Yes, the two Johnson's and King were tarnished human beings but their combined efforts brought us the vote! And much more.
It is noteworthy that in the end credits, the film makers state that not everything in their movie is precise: multiple characters are combined as one, dates are compressed, etc. Of course! It would take a five-hour film to show the story as insiders know it and the audience would reject its length.
I am reminded of a CSPAN show years ago dealing with the accuracy of John Wayne's film, The "Alamo." All the critics but one listed its innumerable errors; the outlier congratulated the film for having caught the essence and the spirit of the times depicted.
So did those responsible for "Selma."
Those who see it will remember its depiction: the youth, who know almost nothing of those times; and most of their parents, who know not much more. But they will all come away with a gut feeling about good against evil, fighting for ones values — and winning!
The old timers like us will have to settle for not fulfilling our memories but appreciating the film achievement of many, especially director, Ava DuVernay.
Copyright © Don Jelinek
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