WHISNANT: Cinematic wisdom

Many lessons about contemporary politics can be gleaned from the recently-released film Selma

In a 24-hour media cycle, it’s easy to feel like every tragedy is unprecedented in scope and that each crisis is the greatest we’ve ever faced. Looking at what happened in Ferguson and the strange confrontation currently unfolding in New York solely through the vacuum of cable news, it’s hard to understand why race relations feel so fraught in our particular historical moment. This is why Oscar favorite Selma is such a useful antidote to the poison of limited understanding. As it chronicles Martin Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in pursuit of what would become the Voting Rights Act, Selma draws a line between the heroes and villains of the past and those of the present day. Much has changed since 1965, but the film makes a compelling case that liberals and conservatives alike are well past due for an honest reckoning with their history.

For disaffected Obama-era liberals, the film shows how important social movements are for policy change. Though it has aroused controversy for perhaps being too harsh on Lyndon Johnson, Selma depicts a president sympathetic to progressive goals but hamstrung by political inertia. In order to make Johnson endorse changing federal voting regulations, King and other civil rights leaders skillfully organize activists and manipulate media coverage in one of the most dangerous outposts of Southern apartheid. Whether or not the film gets the specific timeline of LBJ’s endorsement of the entire civil rights agenda correct is irrelevant. Johnson’s evolution from racist to later saying “we shall overcome” while signing legislation to advance black freedom was directly enabled by a social movement that pushed him to do the right thing; the film only compresses that change to make a point. Contemplating Barack Obama’s legacy in New York Magazine, historian Jeffrey Alexander notes that the same logic applies to our own time. “There have been few social movements on the left during the Obama years,” writes Alexander, but “the exceptions” like “gay and lesbian movements and Hispanic mobilization around immigration” have pushed Obama to take remarkable rhetorical and policy positions like endorsing gay marriage before his reelection and suspending deportations for five million of the undocumented. Selma teaches us that often, if not always, our political leaders are only as effective as people outside the system push them to be.

More damningly, director Ava DuVernay ties a direct link between those who opposed civil rights legislation in the early 1960s and those hostile to improving the situation of African-Americans today. I can feel my conservative friends tired of liberals “playing the race card” during the Obama years rolling their eyes, but there is an ugly intellectual and political lineage the film investigates that has never been forthrightly addressed by the right. Writing in National Review, University alum Rich Lowry argues that the key lesson of the film is that, “It is not 1965,” and that, “the difference between demonstrators in Selma and Ferguson is the difference between dignity under enormous pressure in a righteous cause and heedless self-indulgence in the service of a smear.” What he neglects to mention, however, is that the magazine he edits was one of the main opponents of this “righteous cause” in 1965. William F. Buckley, widely revered by conservatives as perhaps the preeminent intellectual of their movement, wrote a column titled “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he claimed the consequences of letting blacks vote might be “violent and anarchic” because the white community as the “advanced race” must “thwart” the unenlightened black masses. Commenting on the actual Selma march in 1965, Buckley praises George Wallace for making some “very good points” while criticizing the “volatile” Martin Luther King, Jr. for standing against law and order. Most disturbingly of all was the magazine’s response to the Birmingham church bombing, which features prominently in Selma’s opening scenes. Rather than rightly recognizing the act as emblematic of the state-sanctioned terror that was commonplace in the Jim Crow South, the editors attributed the bombing indirectly to “revolutionary assaults on the status quo” against “the white cause” and “contempt for the law” within King’s movement. National Review’s creed is to “stand athwart history, yelling stop”; the magazine and the conservative movement it led (with 1964 Republican candidate Barry Goldwater opposing liberal civil rights legislation) certainly proved up to the task in the 1960s.

Though conservatives will certainly claim this history is irrelevant or that it was Southern Democrats (many of whom like Strom Thurmond later became Republicans as the white South changed its political affiliation) who were at fault for holding back progress on civil rights, there is ample evidence they haven’t fully cleansed themselves of past sins. Whether it’s the Ferguson police decrying “agitators” echoing Bull Connor’s language or Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise speaking in 2002 to a white supremacist meeting and describing himself in private “like [former Klansman] David Duke without the baggage,” it’s abundantly clear we are not living in any kind of “post-racial” society. This is not to say that all Republicans are racist or that Democrats are guiltless, as it was Bill Clinton who dramatically expanded the racist prison-industrial complex, but is the Republican Party in which crypto-Dixiecrat ideology lingers on in a zombified and disguised form. Rich Lowry is absolutely right that it isn’t 1965 anymore, but when a former member of the Ku Klux Klan received over 60 percent of the white vote in Louisiana just over twenty years ago and the Voting Rights Act that King and LBJ fought for has recently been gutted by a right-wing Supreme Court, we can’t get away from the fact that the lessons of Selma are all too timely.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

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