Dear David Kaiser...Why I Don't Care That You Think Selma Gets LBJ Wrong
There are few things I need to state right off the bat - 1. I have not watched the movie Selma...yet.
2. I did not watch Exodus Gods and Kings
3. I am a Christian. I am black. I am a woman.
Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice.
I, too, watched in horror as the events and details surrounding those names unfolded.
And I kept silent.
I didn't take to this blog to share my personal thoughts and feelings. I didn't post my feelings on a Facebook status or tweet them on Twitter. My timelines were already bombarded with others speaking out in anger, in sadness, in disappointment, and in ignorance.
Then two nights ago, On January 10th, after kissing my husband (a black man) goodnight I got in bed. I went scrolling through my Facebook timeline and I came across this article by David Kaiser, "Why You Should Care That Selma Gets LBJ Wrong." I saw it was featured on Time.com and decided to click it and read it before bed.
"Even in the movies and especially in this one accuracy matters."
That raised my eyebrows and piqued my interest even more. I continued reading...why does the accuracy of this movie matter especially?
I didn't want to jump to conclusions and assume that the reason the accuracy of this Selma movie mattered was because it is a movie with a Black director and Black actors headlining and the strong pull it is having on Black and White audiences alike. But as I continued reading I couldn't help but feel there was a hidden agenda. An agenda that revealed itself in the last two paragraphs of the article.
"Selma’s distortion of LBJ’s role is important, I think, because it contributes to a popular but mistaken view of how progress in the United States can occur. The civil rights movement won its greatest triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s by working through the system as well as in the streets; by finding allies among white institutions such as labor unions, universities and churches; and by appealing to fundamental American values. Beginning in the late 1960s a very different view began to take hold: that white people were hopelessly infected by racism and that black people could and should depend only on themselves.
Selma contributes to that view. It not only leaves out much of the story of how the Voting Rights Act was passed, but also fails to illuminate how further progress might be made in the future. We still have serious racial problems in this nation. We can only solve them by working together based on shared values. That is what both Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson understood, and that is why they both deserve to be remembered for their enormous achievements today."
In the article David Kaiser also complains about the portrayal of white characters in general -
"With only one exception—federal judge Frank Johnson—the white characters in Selma are either villains (including LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace and Sheriff Clark of Selma), timid wimps, or victims..."
While Kaiser acknowledges that LBJ was slow to push the Voting Rights Act through to Congress Kaiser attributes the delay to simply being a matter of timing, saying,
"Having spent nearly 25 years in Congress, Johnson was acutely sensitive to the issue of legislative timing....In 1965, a voting rights bill would probably mean a new filibuster, so Johnson undoubtedly wanted to get at least some of his other major tasks accomplished before it came up. "
Well Dear Mr. Kaiser,
I don't care that you think Selma got LBJ wrong and portrayed other white characters poorly in your opinion.
As I stated before, I have not seen Selma yet, but your history opinion is not one I will consider when I do watch it.
The problem with your article is, that once again, you're making it about White people.
People are not watching Selma for LBJ. People are watching Selma because they are interested in the life, work, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I simply cannot understand why it is so important to you that White people receive some kind of credit.
Anyone who has real knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement knows that there were White people who were passionate and committed to the Civil Rights movement. These people understood that the inequality and ill treatment of Black people in the United States at that time was wrong. Stories have already been told of students who left the comforts of their Northern universities to become Freedom riders and work on the front lines.
But to say that the Civil Rights movement found its greatest triumphs by aligning with white institutions is simply untrue.
You named labor unions. As a historian you know better than most that labor unions were not a powerful force in America at that time. Maybe labor unions had the numbers but they did not have major sway. In fact, after King worked as a champion for the Civil Rights movement he championed the cause of workers and unions. In fact, he died in Memphis where he was preparing to march with striking sanitation workers.
Churches. You listed churches as one of the white institutions. As a Christian I can correct you and tell you that churches are not a white institution they are a GOD institution. Even the ones that were predominantly White. And yet it was the Black church, as a GOD institution, that served as the meeting place for Black people to discuss their problems and plans of actions. It was the Black church, as a GOD institution, that spread the word about boycotts and marches, uniting communities to the cause of justice.
Mr. Kaiser please make no mistake, it was the unity among Black people and their commitment to non-violence and the movement, even to the point of death, that won the greatest triumphs of the Civil Rights movement.
It was Black people who walked for miles to work during the Birmingham Bus Boycott.
It was Black people who were spit on and beaten.
It was Black people who were shot with water hoses and mauled by police dogs so that Black people could be treated as equals.
Thank GOD for the invention of television because it was these disturbing images of Black people being treated unjustly in the South that helped to incite the support of White people across the country.
So yes, there was White support but if Black people had never dared to take a stand then who is to say Jim Crow laws would have ever been abolished or that we would have a Black president today.
The Voting Act of 1965 was not a triumph sir, it was justice.
LBJ could afford to take his time with passing the voting act. You state that he undoubtedly had other major tasks he wanted to accomplish first. But just state the truth plainly - the voting act was not a priority for LBJ. And why should it have been? It did not affect the lives of the American majority. But for Blacks in the south it was a matter of life and death.
Slavery officially ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 and yet it took another 100 years (1965) for Black people to truly begin to experience true equality and justice.
1965 was only 50 years ago and today we are still seeing a justice system, a true white institution, that is questionable in its treatment of Black people.
We do agree on one thing though Mr. Kaiser, and that is that in the accuracy of movies matter.
Ever since Black people have been in American film they have been portrayed and treated poorly when compared to White People. Film has been a medium that has continuously perpetuated negative stereotypes of Black people.
Hollywood has managed to make movies about Africa, most recently Exodus Gods and Kings (Yes, Egypt is in Africa), and yet somehow Black people are nowhere to be seen. (I won't even touch on the historical and Biblical inaccuracies of that film).
So excuse me if I see your gripe about the white characters in Selma being villains, timid wimps or victims as lame. Black people have been portrayed as worse. On the big screen, in both factual and fictional films, Black people have been portrayed as angry, illiterate, boisterous, oversexed, or else desexualized. In short Black people have often been portrayed as less than human.
You also made the mistake of making the view - that Black people could and should only depend on themselves - synonymous with the view that - white people were hopelessly infected by racism. I believe this was a reference to the rise of groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. But Black people learning to love, take care of, and rely on themselves does not mean that all White people were written off as racists.
That's why even today I cannot understand the uproar around comments like this one from Rapper Kendrick Lamar,
“What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting – it starts from within.”
What Kendrick said is true. In the 1950s and 60s Black people started seeing results in their efforts when they started taking themselves and their situations seriously. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example of that. And from what I hear, from sources more credible than yourself, Selma does a good job of showing that.
My main source-
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch
My credentials -
They don't matter. I write and that's enough.
Special thanks to the amazing professors in my African American studies courses at the University of Florida.
Jamaica born but Black history is my history.