The Uses and Abuses of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Photo: The March on Selma; King with Ralph Abernathy and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

In Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was all about the film Selma. As the local newspaper reported:

The Queen City shined in the spotlight Sunday as thousands of people welcomed the cast and crew of the movie “Selma” to town and marched on the same bridge that changed history 50 years ago.

The film’s director Ava DuVernay, its producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, star David Oyelowo, and [rapper] Common and John Legend who together wrote the movie’s powerful song Glory were all in Selma for the historic day….

Of course, celebrities joined King in Selma at the time of the actual march. But they were there to give support to the civil rights movement, not to publicize a film.  There's no doubt that in their own minds, Winfrey and company believe they are honoring King, and not building up momentum for their movie. Selma, in fact, tanked at the box office and did badly compared to the other Oscar “Best Picture” nominees, and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the film that  broke the box office weekend record.

Criticisms of the historical inaccuracies of the film, and of director DuVernay’s distortions, continue to grow. On Sunday, Maureen Dowd devoted her column to the issue, and for once got things right. It is a shame, she writes, that young people who learn about Selma from the movie will see the relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson through the director’s lens. “The director’s talent,” she puts it, “makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

It is true that LBJ stalwarts, like Joseph  Califano, Jr. in his angry , exaggerated Johnson’s role, seeking to make him the one who pushed for civil rights rather than King and the movement. But if you read the piece by the African-American writer David Lewis in a 2006 article in The New Yorker, where he quotes from the second volume of  Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume biography of King, you will learn about the real relationship between King and Johnson:

[Branch] briskly relates how Johnson moved from annoyed doubt about Selma to outright collaboration within a matter of weeks. He urged King to expose the worst of voting conditions in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, but he could hardly have had in mind the brutal reaction of Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark. For King’s purposes, however, Clark and his deputies were ideal—studio-cast thugs guaranteed to provoke national outrage and instigate federal intervention….

[Branch’s book] vividly captures the exact hour when the political order of the Deep South finally invalidated itself in the eyes of mainstream America. The carnage inflicted by municipal and state police at the bridge and along the marchers’ route of retreat accomplished for voting rights what song, prayer, and marching had not.

In essence, the civil rights movement upped the ante and led to a changed America, while in Lyndon Johnson they found a sympathetic Southern politician who might have tactically disagreed with the pace that King demanded, but who approved of his goal. Of course, DuVernay argues that she was making a film, and that she is not a historian or a documentarian. That is a cop-out. On the one hand they push the film as a depiction of the truth; and when they are caught creating stick-figure villains, they reply by saying accuracy isn’t the point. One cannot have it both ways. Or as Dowd writes, “filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.”

And now, yet another distortion in the film has come to light. Last week I wrote about the downgrading of the role of Ralph Abernathy. Now Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, has publicly written about her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose key role in support of the march was also erased from history in Selma. She writes:

The religious inspiration that led us to Selma continues, and the photograph of my father marching in the front row there — with King, Ralph Bunche, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian — has become iconic. What a pity that my father’s presence is not included in “Selma.” More than a historical error, the film erases one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement, its inclusiveness, and one of King’s great joys: his close friendship with my father. The photograph reminds us that religious coalitions can transcend and overcome political conflicts, and it also reminds us that our Jewish prophetic tradition came alive in the civil rights movement. Judaism seemed to be at the very heart of being American.

Not only was King’s friend Rabbi Heschel erased from the film, most people do not realize that King was a defender of Israel and stood in solidarity with the Jewish state against its enemies.  King considered himself an ally of American Jews in their common fight for civil rights.  As Dumisani Washington writes, “Israel’s enemies refuse to accept the fact that the unparalleled civil rights champion of the 20th century was a staunch, vocal supporter of Israel and loyal friend to the Jewish people.” King had said the following:

Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.

All this leads me to end with what is perhaps the most disgraceful celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy -- the decision by two universities to have the '60s revolutionary  Communist Party activist Angela Davis chosen as the speaker to commemorate King’s life and vision. That honor is given her by the Univ.of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Davis is a hater of Israel, a defender of terrorist groups that fight Israel, and, as I pointed out in an earlier column, a woman who melded together black nationalism with Marxism-Leninism. She was an unabashed defender of the Soviet Union, a lifelong Stalinist who fought with the Soviet leaders to fight movements of democracy anywhere in the Soviet bloc, and a woman who condemned that period’s dissidents as traitors to socialism. Those associated with her at the time called King “da Lawd” and “Uncle Tom King.” To have someone who opposed King’s politics and tactics honor him today is the height of hypocrisy.

As for Selma, it is perhaps necessary to have new generations learn about the brave people who fought to fulfill America’s democratic promise. The March on Selma as it actually occurred was dramatic and a significant turning point.  It did not need Hollywood filmmakers distorting the contributions of LBJ, Ralph Abernathy, Abraham Joshua Heschel and others to the achievement of the Voting Rights Act to honor the bravery of those who risked their lives in nonviolent protest. The truth, on its own, is enough.