“Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to say to the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now.” Martin Luther King, Jr. 25 March 1965, address at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march.
Edmund Pettus. Lawman, senator, klansman, soldier. To be frank, I did not know Pettus’s credentials until last night, although I guessed three out of four epigraphs correctly when prompted. I never investigated because I never needed to. There are some things southerners don’t need to be historians to know because the struggle for and against white supremacy is written deep into our geography.
Unfortunately, it is now impossible to discuss Selma without acknowledging recent controversy over its so-called historical accuracy. Mark Updegrove (Director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum), Joseph A. Califano, Jr. (former Johnson aide), and David E. Kaiser (retired Harvard/Carnegie Mellon professor) are the leading voices in this debate, which argues that director Ava DuVernay exercised excessive creative license and soft-pedaled LBJ’s stance on voting rights legislation. Responses from other historians to this initial criticism have varied. Julian Zelizer (professor of history and public affairs at Princeton) will be writing a multi-part series for CNN about the “real story behind Selma” based on recorded White House conversations. Author Mark Pinsky argued that the film “ostracizes” and silences the work of Jewish activists. Others have taken issue with DuVernay’s interpretation of King (although no one can criticize David Oyelowo’s performance, which is masterful). In DuVernay’s King, historians see both undue attention focused on leaders at the expense of grassroots activists and the overshadowing of King’s political genius.
But it isn’t all bad. Just this morning, Peniel Joseph (professor of history at Tufts) has offered his thoughts to NPR about what the Selma backlash misses, and mainstream film reviews have been generally positive, including this wonderfully-written review from Wesley Morris. Seriously, if you only read one extended review, make it Morris’s.
Despite all this huffing about historical accuracy, only Joseph and Kaiser attempt to make the case as to why this conversation matters beyond academic nit-picking. First Kaiser, who argues that in slighting LBJ’s legacy, we damage the historical integrity of civil rights memory. He writes, “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.” Of course, there are historians who believe that preserving alliances with white institutions set back rather than propelled the civil rights movement. This is complicated stuff. But, for the moment, let’s agree that monumental legislation is a product of cross-firing actions across a spectrum of historical actors: lawmakers, politicians, activists, the press, the public. And, let’s also acknowledge that this cross-firing is at times extremely difficult to analyze and is often omitted from popular historical interpretation, from museum exhibits to feature films much to the frustration of historians.
But let’s also look at what Joseph has to say, because I am conceding some things to Kaiser based on the idea that all interpreted history is inherently flawed in some way. Why, then, has criticism of Selma from historians taken shape the way that it has? Joseph argues that such critiques “are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized, and shaped in large part by African-Americans.”
I am on the side of Joseph (and others) here. And let me raise a point about these public debates that has not yet been addressed: that we, as historians, cannot condemn the decline of history as a taught art while simultaneously snubbing popular history and those who make and consume it.
There would be no end to the linking of articles should I attempt to offer a selection of opinion pieces that warn of the decline of historical knowledge. Pieces on K-12 education, contingent faculty at universities, the employment prospects of history graduates, the under-funding of cultural institutions all signpost a potentially grim fate for the humanities in this country – one that is certainly linked to an academic disinterest from students of color. As a public historian, I have been part of debates concerning how best to put history to work in the world so that it engages (our current buzzword) “diverse” audiences. And over the years, I have heard some really smart people suggest really dumb ideas (myself included) about how to get someone – anyone – to care about history.
Selma will make people care. And they’ll care despite our debates.
Does that mean we shouldn’t have them? Not at all, but our tone here has been really, really weird. It has been authoritative, dismissive, snide, and detached. And worst of all, the tone used by some historians has actually put me off diving back into civil rights historiography because the debate has produced the same effect for which DuVernay is criticized: it reduces the complexity of the movement into a monolithic interpretation, in this case, the historian’s own.
What I love about Selma is how it shows the push and pull between activists and agents of the state. This is where historians believe the film becomes dicey, but I live in a world where civil rights exists in a textbook chapter and a 55-minute lecture. I live in a world where students – both black and white – write papers about Emmett Till and Rosa Parks and conclude with their relief that “racism is over.” I live in a world where Martin Luther King sometimes freed the slaves, according to test answers. During the film, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a student. As a student, I would see recognizable black leaders supported by committed black activists from a variety of organizations, religions, and geographies. I would see a smaller, but equally sincere contingent of white allies. And I would see members of both groups die horribly at the hands of white supremacists. I would see a president who favored his own solutions but ultimately concedes legislation. I would see black men and women gathered in churches and surrounded by death and uplift in equal measure. I would see bystanders with ambiguous motives and destinies. I would see white supremacy as more than men in hoods. This initial impression would not be radically different, and in fact would surpass in many regards, what students may encounter in the classroom.
And, thus engaged, I might wonder, “What became of Diane Nash? What did Viola Luizzo do before coming to Selma? Why did some of the activists wear suits and others overalls? Did John Lewis and Jim Foreman ever reconcile?” And if I wondered these things and dared to ask a historian, I would hope not to be dismissed because I was drawn to questions more ordinary than the political debate surrounding voting rights legislation. We all start somewhere.
A few historians will argue that historical accuracy in this matters because the narrative contributes to the view that “white people were hopelessly infected by racism and that black people could and should depend only on themselves.” I don’t get that sense from the film at all, and I am somewhat uncomfortable with that idea being presented as a point of concern made by white, elite academics to black audiences. Nevertheless, these individuals have a much richer grasp of history than me, and I would encourage them to speak to a general audience more often, not just when someone gets something wrong.
In the meantime, the next time I teach a survey of American history Selma will be available for home viewing and I am excited to see how the film improves the quality and depth of classroom discussions about civil rights.