Selma, Lynching, and Civil Rights

February 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

I’ve been on something of a Civil Rights binge recently. This includes watching the movie Selma and making my way through Taylor Branch’s classic trilogy of the Civil Rights Movement. So far, I’ve read the first volume, Parting the Waters, and am halfway through the second, Pillar of Fire. What has struck me as I’ve read Branch’s books is the utter oppression that blacks in the South were living with (and often dying from) during that era. It’s not that this history was unfamiliar to me, of course. But I never truly appreciated the depth of the discrimination and violence aimed at African Americans from the entirety of Southern society until I read Branch, where the reader is confronted with one jaw-dropping incident and description after another. A thousand pages in, after the umpteenth anecdote of blacks being arrested for getting beaten up by a white mob or trying to register to vote, one forms a whole new appreciation for the challenges and achievements of the movement.

Selma does a good job of providing a small but important window into this history. It’s not without its flaws as a film (I found it to be slow and plodding at times), but it’s nonetheless gripping and stirring, and David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., is tremendous and worth the price of admission alone. What to make of all the controversy about the movie’s depiction of LBJ? Many observers, especially fellow progressives (especially whites), seem intent on harping on the so-called inaccuracy of the LBJ depiction. Having read more of this history, I have to wonder if they doth protest too much. Perhaps it’s true that Johnson was less hesitant in collaborating with King on the passage of the Voting Rights Act than the movie makes out, but I also think it’s very easy to forget that the federal government was often dragged kicking and screaming during this entire era of legislative and judicial advances. Southern state and local governments, of course, were much worse than that. JFK was often openly hostile to the rights struggle before his death in 1963, and of course Hoover’s FBI actively sought to destroy King and to impede the larger movement. In any event, I suspect director Ava Duvernay’s movie is not nearly as removed from the historical record as some people are arguing.

This brings me to the release of an important lynching report by the Equal Justice Initiative, which documents nearly 4,000 lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. While the report ends more than a decade before the events depicted in Selma, a line can be drawn straight from those lynchings to the furious resistance to civil rights by white Southern society in the 1950s and 1960s. On its Twitter feed, the EJI has been posting snippets of a historical record that has continued to be ignored and dismissed. Here are a few examples:




This report calls to mind the lynching-related sources available in our Milestone Documents service, which include documents from Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, and the NAACP on this subject. For its part, the EJI is apparently planning an effort to erect markers and memorials at these lynching sites across the South, which I think is very smart. The thing about history as an area of study is that we all have a tendency to put it in a box and to think that what we are today has no relation to what came before us. Instructors at every level focus enormous energy to disrupt this thinking. In the case of the Civil Rights Era, even I have to admit that it feels very ancient, and that’s a testament to how much has changed in the South and in the country at large since the 1960s. Still, we don’t have to look very far to see evidence to the contrary. The very legislation at the heart of Selma was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, leading to a wave of state efforts to tighten restrictions on voting. I was disappointed that the movie made no mention of these recent events.

I for one hope that more filmmakers–especially filmmakers of color–take on this part of our nation’s history. At the same time, I hope that organizations like the EJI continue to confront us with an uncomfortable and ugly past that is not as distant as it might seem.

Neil Schlager


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