Navigate to News section

MLK’s Greatness Wasn’t in His Dreams, but in His Ability To Seize the Moment

Why Hollywood gets social movements wrong: They are not the work of messy, failed organizations or misbegotten armies

Todd Gitlin
February 06, 2015
Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., in a still from Ada DuVernay's 'Selma.'(Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures)

Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., in a still from Ada DuVernay’s ‘Selma.’(Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures)

The Movie and the Movement

With the advent of Ada DuVernay’s Selma, a robust debate has ensued about whether the movie is unfair to Lyndon Johnson. It’s an instructive debate, and its bite has not expired after the passage of 50 years.

One virtue of Ada DuVernay’s Selma is to offer up a King for all seasons, compellingly inhabited down to his rolling Southern cadences by British actor of Nigerian-origin David Oyelowo. King was no Super-Moses gliding down to earth, all by his lonesome, fully formed, prime-time-ready to snatch goodness from the jaws of evil. King didn’t fly solo. He embodied and led a movement that he neither birthed nor controlled. He was primus inter pares, the supreme orator and undisputed leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), a cluster of variously talented African-American clergymen no more (or less) unified than the Apostles of Jesus.

SCLC was, in turn, one and only one of the central civil rights organizations of the 1950s and ’60s. Their inner group, like the others, quarreled among themselves and with rival groups. They maneuvered and sinned. They lost faith. They jockeyed for position. They negotiated. They learned. They reversed themselves. They made contact with local people and adjusted their plans to suit events and to address the moods they encountered and sometimes shaped. They were surprised. They were, in a word, human. Movements are like that. They are not perfectly geometric forms. They operate on many dimensions, not all of which are known to the protagonists. They plan, fail, revise, tire, think. By the time of the Selma march, designed to dramatize the barbarism of deep South racists, King and his allies had been at it for almost a decade, and much of that time they felt like failures.

The film has the merit of showing King not only courageous and rousing but conflicted, stuck, flawed, distracted, and despairing—even smoking! If anyone thinks that rabble-rousing is a simple matter of raising your voice and knocking out pearly phrases—or, in our age, sound bites—it will come as news that leadership is a craft of a high and intricate order, that it takes a human toll, and that it embraces the ability to fail, fail again, fail better (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett). In the tides of human affairs, there are individuals who are accomplished at the craft, individuals who grow more accomplished with experience, as well as individuals who lose their grip. King was one of the greatest, so great as to survive the hagiography that has been enshrined as a concomitant to the annual holiday that bears his name.

It’s a measure of Hollywood’s long history of misjudging social movements—so often treated as messy or failed organizations or misbegotten armies—that the tumult and disorder of movement life, elaborately if sometimes clumsily conveyed in the movie, should come as a revelation. The standard distortion is patterned on the simplicities of a crime story. In Alan Parker’s idiotic and insulting Mississippi Burning (1988), the heroes are everybody’s favorite FBI agents, played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, while Mississippi’s actual heroes, the organizers (chiefly black) and volunteers (almost entirely black), stumble around as walk-ons, more acted upon than acting. In Selma, the crime of white supremacy is rightly displayed as collective and unremitting. It is to the film’s credit that it gives us a sample, at least, of the staggering courage of the local Negroes (in the parlance of the time) who risked death to try to register to vote; of the tactical, strategic, and identity fights among the organizers; of the casual as well as murderous brutality that prevailed; of the lightning shifts that events imposed upon best-laid plans; and by implication, of the chaos that surrounds all—all—immense efforts to move the world toward a more decent place. For all this, Selma is welcome.


But What About History?

The significant controversy that has emerged over Selma, and rightly so, concerns Lyndon Johnson (well played, properly bearlike, by Tom Wilkinson). In December, former Johnson insider Joseph A. Califano, Jr., rose to defend the reputation of his onetime boss, going so far as to declare that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” He offered no evidence, and indeed there is none to be offered. It does no disservice to Johnson’s gargantuan achievement in moving the Voting Rights Act forward to say that Califano gilds the lily. But, as Amy Davidson pointed out in The New Yorker, the movie also does Johnson “a kindness” with an omission—discreetly avoiding the fact that during the days of Selma’s uprising, Johnson was considerably distracted by his major project, which was the planning of the “Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign in Vietnam as he headed down a slippery slope that cast into darkness his own indisputable contributions toward racial equality.

Then, in The New Yorker, former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus wrote of the King-Johnson relationship as a collaboration pure and simple that resulted in the introduction of the Voting Rights Act, featuring Johnson’s unprecedented personal appearance before Congress to give an amazing speech containing the unforgettable words, “We shall overcome,” a speech that even cynics like my then-self had to take seriously. Tanenhaus aptly quotes Taylor Branch, whose magisterial King trilogy is an essential source on the “historic collaboration” between Johnson and LBJ. But Tanenhaus smoothes away the much more tangled story that Branch carefully tells, neglecting the ample evidence of fierce disagreements between two titans.

Tanenhaus also neglects Johnson’s awkward attempt to cool King out, at one point, not only by dangling before him a hypothetical government position but by trying to convince him that Johnson’s Great Society bills are higher priority. “I don’t think you have any conception of the proportion of assistance that comes to your people in these bills,” the historical Johnson said to the historical King in a tape-recorded phone call.

It would be too much, I suppose, given Hollywood conventions, to expect director DuVernay to have stepped off the obvious narrative track to take account of what else Lyndon Johnson was busy with during the Selma days. And there’s another, simultaneous tragedy that cries out for recognition. During the days after an Alabama Negro named Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally shot in the stomach by an Alabama state trooper, in a wrenching scene to which the film devotes a full measure of attention, Johnson was silent about the killing, in part because he was preoccupied with launching the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign over Vietnam, which was originally intended to run for eight weeks but lasted, in fact, more than three and a half years, to the dying days of his administration. By the end of 1967, with 11 more months of bombing to come, the Pentagon had dropped 864,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam—more than all the tonnage dropped during the Korean War and all the tonnage dropped in the Pacific during World War II. The CIA estimated that by the time the bombing ended just before the 1968 election, American bombs had inflicted about 72,000 civilian deaths on North Vietnam.

It’s of no small interest, in retrospect, that King, speaking in Washington in the midst of the Selma crisis, took time to declare: “The war in Vietnam is accomplishing nothing.”

It’s also of no small interest, perhaps deserving a final where-are-they-now title, that the trooper who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson was finally convicted—of manslaughter—in 2010, 45 years after the killing; and sentenced to six months in prison.


“King Is No Good”

As for the baddest of bad guys, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was actually more poisonous than the movie shows. Hoover had long thought King “no good.” Obsessed with the need to “prevent the rise of a black ‘Messiah,’ ” Hoover authorized buggings and wiretaps, smeared King, “that burrhead,” and tried to drive him to suicide. The movie, seized by the more soap-operatic potential of the FBI’s release of a King sex tape to King’s wife, underplays the letter that accompanied it, only recently unredacted to reveal these memorable passages:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all us Negroes. … No person can overcome the facts, no even a fraud like yourself….[Y]ou filthy, abnormal animal. … You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. … [Your bedmates are] “filthy dirty evil companions” and “evil playmates,” engaged in “dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk. … King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance).

That reason: 34 days hence, King would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

In the movie, Hoover (played by a suitably loathsome Dylan Baker) tells LBJ: “We know there’s tension in the home already; we can weaken the dynamic, dismantle the family.” There’s no evidence that Johnson knew these details, but Hoover was just getting started, as DuVernay might have recorded in her where-are-they-now credits. According to the University of Delaware historian Gary May, author of the recent, excellent book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, after Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who drove to Alabama to help, was murdered by Klansmen while ferrying demonstrators from Montgomery back to Selma, Hoover, concerned to cover up the fact that there was an FBI informant among the Klansmen who killed her, told Johnson, falsely, that her body showed “numerous needle points indicating that she may have been taking dope.” The Klansmen attacked her, as May writes, because they saw “this colored man … snuggling up pretty close to the white woman … it had all the appearances of a necking party.”


Inside and Outside Is the Same Game

DuVernay, Califano, Tanenhaus—what they are disputing is not ancient history. It’s a feel for how justice develops in the present, and in presents to come.

King and Johnson, radically different, mutually infuriating, were still mindful of their division of labor. King, feeling his way, put Johnson on the spot—not by denouncing him as a bourgeois lackey, or threatening to bolt to the GOP, but by adroitly checking his cards and refusing to overplay his hand. King and his cluster of leaders were well aware that the moment was propitious. Politics is like that. Good timing isn’t everything, but bad timing always trumps good will.

One lesson of Selma is that when the right politicians are in office and the right movement leaders are leading the right movement, laws and practices change. The genius of King was to recognize that not only was Johnson president but both the Senate and House were made up of pro-civil rights majorities, combining (Northern) Democrats and Republicans. Their need was mutual: King’s need for Johnson, to tie Gov. Wallace in knots and protect the demonstrators; Johnson’s need for King, to precipitate a crisis that could get a law passed (and, in time, put new voters on the rolls to compensate for the Democrats’ loss of the white supremacists). For a brief time, the inside game and the outside game, for all their frictions, converged. Those are the sweet spots where history becomes fluid and change is possible.

Insider and outsider—they sometimes look, each to the other, like distinctly alien species. But the boundaries between them are not fixed. Outsiders can turn insiders (John Lewis, stupendously courageous SNCC organizer turned congressman). Insiders, less frequently, can head to the wilder, more bracing air outside. But miraculous moments arise when, even through gritted teeth, the two camps can boost each other’s fortunes—or destroy them.

In 2011, the Occupy movement, hell-bent on utopia, shunned talk of mere reform—even as there were time-limited prospects with a Democrat-controlled Congress—while liberals, for their part, tossed away opportunities to converge on a reform program. Outsiders, failing to recognize that outsiders need insiders, went limp in the face of the 2014 mid-term elections, letting the electorate dwindle without putting up enough of a fight, even as 1965’s voting rights are rolled back. Likewise, the post-Ferguson post-Garner “We can’t breathe” movement had better think carefully about what’s winnable now that Bill De Blasio is mayor and Michael Bloomberg is not.

Auspicious moments do not last forever. When outsiders blow off their need for insiders, they become prisoners of their own self-righteousness, making common cause with the enemies of progress to ensure their own defeat. Perhaps the purest expression of King’s political genius was his understanding that an uncertain and at times agonizing alliance with the liberal president of the United States who was bombing North Vietnam and whose spies sought to destroy his family, was infinitely preferable in every dimension to a de facto alliance with the governor of Alabama, who wanted segregation to live forever. The clarity of King’s vision made it possible for him to inspire millions of people to dream of a better country.

It was, in fact, Johnson’s vision as well. In his final speech, in 1972, a sort of valedictory just before he died, Johnson told an audience of civil rights leaders that the civil rights progress made since he ascended to the White House “has been much too small. We haven’t done nearly enough. I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and couldn’t do more than I did.” (Mark Harris’ careful reconstruction of the Johnson-King complexities is apropos.) The luminous King would have assented. They collaborated to make the moment that was there to be seized.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.