“Basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people, I don’t know whether you realize it or not…they had been looked upon as saviors.” – Ella Baker
“King was assigned to us by the white power structure, and we took him.” – John Alfred Willams
The legend of Martin Luther King Jr. looms larger than usual this winter, even though it’s every January that we celebrate his birthday. One reason, obviously, is that there‘s a new Hollywood film out about him, which, while snubbed by the Oscars, has been embraced at the White House. The other reason is that the wave of black resistance sweeping the country today is often characterized as “a new civil rights movement,” and King—we are told—was the supreme leader of the civil rights movement.
However unfair the Oscar snub (whatever its faults, the film is a hell of a lot better, both historically and cinematically, than American Sniper) the most interesting argument so far about Ava DuVernay’s Selma remains the controversy over the relationship between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Former LBJ advisor Joseph Califano has publicly argued that King and Johnson were not at odds during the Selma campaign as the movie depicts, but that the African-American leader followed Johnson’s encouragement to nonviolently dramatize the obstacles that blacks had to voting in the South. The filmmaker shot back that this was “offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.” (the acronyms refer to civil rights organizations the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, respectively). But Califano’s assertion has gained traction because there‘s more than a grain of truth in it.
It isn’t that DuVernay is wrong to portray Johnson as a collaborator in J. Edgar Hoover’s police state—even presidential historians acknowledge that Johnson worked “diligently, and perhaps illegally, to suppress the efforts of grassroots civil rights activists…”
DuVernay distorts the record here in order to avoid one of the great problems of Martin Luther King’s career: his compromised position in relation to the white power structure. Califano may have jumped the shark when he wrote that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” but he hinted at a deeper truth—that the whole idea of Martin Luther King as “the Moses of his people” was largely established and maintained by members of the white elite. In January 1957, when King had only been an activist for a year and a half, he was contacted by Clare Booth Luce, conservative mogul of the Time-Life empire, and offered a cover story. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, Luce rescued King from a state of “helplessness”. In the aftermath of the famous bus boycott and its apparent victory, the City of Montgomery had shut down all bus lines after the Ku Klux Klan began shooting at black passengers, and commenced to enact a whole new wave of segregation laws—an early manifestation of the Dixiecrats’ “Massive Resistance” campaign which blocked King’s nonviolent movement throughout the late fifties. Luce, who was also US Ambassador to Italy, was explicit that she wanted to show off King to a skeptical global public who doubted that there was hope for racial equality in America. The Time article, meanwhile, was explicit that what it liked most about King was his pacifism and moderation; The reverend was “no radical,” they gushed: “he avoids the excesses of radicalism.” MLK’s first visit to the White House took place later that year. In its aftermath, King’s host, Vice-President Richard Nixon, approvingly told President Eisenhower that Dr. King was “not a man who believes in violent and retaliatory pro-Negro actions.” As King’s friend, the black journalist Louis Lomax once acknowledged, “certain white men and events would make the choice for King to become as famous as he did.”
The American Right has become notorious in recent years for mythologizing King as a one-dimensional conservative. But it won’t do for the Left to offer up their own whitewash, painting him as a lifelong opponent of the ruling class when he was anything but. Before the fifties were over, Nelson Rockefeller emerged as one of MLK’s primary sponsors. Rockefeller is often depicted as a progressive, but his major project of the time was escalating the Cold War by promoting the fiction of a “missile gap” between the US and the Soviet Union. His principle agent for spreading this hysteria was a Harvard political scientist named Henry Kissinger.
The truth is that King’s turn to radicalism was hard won. “In some ways,” Michael Eric Dyson has written, “King’s change was even more startling and consequential than Malcolm X’s…what is little appreciated is how…an element of Malcolm’s thinking got its hooks into King.” Pre-1965, King was a public supporter of US foreign policy and capitalism who preferred to rely on traditional political maneuvers, even as he supposedly represented a movement built on direct action (King scholar Clayborne Carson notes that the reverend did not initiate the bus boycott, the sit-ins, or the Freedom Rides, and only participated in them reluctantly).
How did this come about? Principally through the pressure put on King by militant activists associated with SNCC. When SNCC demanded an unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam in January 1966, King suggested a conditional ceasefire—but came around to SNCC’s position a few months later. When SNCC began calling for the election of black officials who were independent of the Democratic Party, King called for the election of more blacks within the Party—but the following year considered an independent campaign himself.
Leftists often laud King this time of year for his anti-imperialist statements, epitomized in the classic 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”. But a conversation with LBJ illustrates King’s agonizing reluctance on this cause prior to SNCC’s pressure. By 1965, two American pacifists, Alice Herz and Norman Morrison, had already perished setting themselves on fire to protest the war, yet King’s criticism of US aggression in Vietnam remained, in Michael Dyson’s words “a modest proposal” for negotiated settlement. Talking privately with Johnson, King seemed apologetic even for that. In an August 1965 phone call, LBJ pleads the victim (“…if they’ll quit tearing up our roads and our highways and quit taking over our camps and bombing our planes and destroying them, well, we’ll quit the next day…”) and then the Domino Theory (“If I pulled out… I think that we’d immediately trigger a situation in Thailand that would be just as bad as it is in Vietnam. I think we’d be right back to the Philippines with problems. I think the Germans would be scared to death…”) King responds with praise for “the breadth of your concern” in Vietnam which “represents true leadership and true greatness.”
Ultimately, King embodied a kind of neutral zone that the power structure and the radical grassroots kept trying to push toward their respective goalposts. He once acknowledged that “I have to be militant enough to satisfy the militant, yet I have to keep enough discipline in the movement to satisfy white supporters,” and even admitted at the end of his life that the entire “black church has often been a tail-light rather than a headlight” in the movement.Selma builds up MLK as a decisive leader and strategist, but he was more often a follower and a figurehead.
Although DuVernay claims to defend the honor of the SNCC militants, it is she who paints an offensive portrait of them. When SNCC leader James Forman criticizes King’s media grandstanding and dependence on whites in the film, it’s portrayed as the competitive chest-thumping of a bitter young upstart . Yet in reality, the first person to raise this critique wasn’t some insecure man-child, but an experienced black woman who’d been organizing her people since King was in diapers. Ella Baker was a veteran NAACP organizer who mentored Rosa Parks, and went on to work under MLK in the late fifties. She found him to be an out-of-touch narcissist who was more interested in promoting his book than promoting voter registration. When she left to help found SNCC in 1960, she warned the students about the phenomenon of the “charismatic leader…It usually means the media made him, and the media may undo him…such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.” Militant deviation from King also arose from SNCC leader Gloria Richardson, another mature woman with a grassroots constituency. King originally refused to aid her working-class chapter in Cambridge, Maryland unless he was paid $3000 for speaking, but later invited himself to town after rioting broke out in 1963. Richardson told him that her campaign was going fine (it turned out to be one of the most successful of the period) and that him and his aristocratic style were obsolete in Cambridge.
That isn’t to say that men like James Forman were never incendiary, just that they were fired-up with a purpose. After King made a secret agreement with the White House on March 9 to halt the second Selma march (which the foremost historian of the campaign, Gary May, calls “King’s lowest moment as a leader”) Forman led students in a uncompromising sister campaign at Montgomery that broke away from nonviolence, and declared that “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off!” This was a risky move given that black riots had swept the Northeast the previous summer, and an armed civil rights militia, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, was beginning to sweep the South. But it was only at this point that Lyndon Johnson introduced the voting rights bill to Congress and sent federal troops to Alabama to intervene between police and protesters. Needless to say, King’s backroom deal and Forman’s bold leadership aren’t included in the movie. (Another SNCC leader, John Lewis, is depicted favorably in the film, but only because he’s a loyalist to King and LBJ. In 1966, he would lose his chair in SNCC due to his devotion to the Democratic Party, a loyalty which has since served him well in his 30 year Congressional career.)
These historical distortions aren’t just academic: they affect how we view militancy and moderation today. If activists and supporters aren’t aware of the contribution that rowdy non-nonviolent marches made to the campaign, they might instead chalk it up to King’s horse-trading, and thus submit to elite calls for tighter leadership and a cooling-off period—a course that would undermine the crucial momentum of the movement. (Selma producer Oprah Winfrey has said it’s precisely her intention to divert protesters into King’s “strategic” model.) If they come to associate the archetype of the well-funded, well-connected leader with strategic wisdom, they may find themselves embracing the next faux messianic figure who emerges to channel revolutionary energies into reformism, despite the fact that decades of liberal church leadership have brought real losses to the black community, including rollback of the Voting Rights Act.
Claims that Selma’s success somehow breaks the mold of Hollywood depictions of black struggle are dubious at best. That the filmmakers are women of color doesn’t change the fact that the film is fundamentally a King biopic that entrenches the Great Man theory of history. Meanwhile, commenters have noted that the most memorable sequences of the film feature white racists brutalizing helpless black bodies. “History as a horror movie” wrote The Washington Post approvingly, going on to compare the film to 12 Years a Slave. As Azealia Banks said in her trenchant, courageous interview about racism last month, “It’s really upsetting…that they’re still making movies like 12 Years a Slave. I don’t want to see no more fucking white people whipping black people in movies.”
The post-Ferguson movement is making 21st century history with its overall refusal of accommodation and martyrdom. Yet the historical narrative Selma reproduces threatens to paper over the necessary divisions among today’s protesters with a romanticized view of a “black united front” that never quite was. Lecturing the young militants, one liberal leader recently claimed that for all their “different ideas,” King and SNCC ultimately “came together to dialogue.” She doesn’t mention that this dialogue usually began with the moderate leader apologizing for “the betrayal of my own silences” (to use King’s words in “Beyond Vietnam”). Al Sharpton has been called out by activists repeatedly for his riot-shaming and victim-blaming, yet rather than apologizing, the great patriarch has tried to bad-jacket them as “provocateurs.” But the street kids made this movement. If any false messiah tries to push them away from the table, they should borrow a page from SNCC, and knock the fucking legs off.