Instead of getting lost in the “fact” checking about whose depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson is correct, let us get clear about the important lessons that the film Selma can teach us all—especially white people.
- White racism was and is ugly and murderous.
- Black civil rights activists were courageous and willing to die for what they knew was right and fair.
- The struggle for the vote for Black people was arduous and unforgiving.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., was determined and gifted at mobilizing Blacks and some whites to commit to the long struggle for the vote.
- Lyndon Johnson was most probably a racist, but politically came to support Black civil rights.
- Johnson supported civil rights activism and encouraged disruptive acts like the Selma March in order to utilize anti-Black violence for the political capital he needed to pass the Civil Rights Act.
- Blacks risked great physical harm and death in their struggle for civil rights. LBJ did not. LBJ could have joined the march and did not. He could have done many things and did not.
- Black people are and have been very forgiving. It is the only way they can/could survive the continuance of racism.
- Extraordinary alliances emerge from tenuous and problematic coalitions. It is important to work towards these possibilities as they emerge in new moments.
I take issue with the historians and others who criticize Selma and its director, Ava DuVernay for taking liberties with the “truth”. These charges are a diversion from the power of the film and the complexity of what “truth” means and who gets to define it. Contested history is the only kind that one should trust. I am reminded of Napoleon Bonaparte’s line: “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.”
Mark K Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, argues that the depiction of LBJ is “bastardized.” Really? What does one expect from a person with such a vested interest in LBJ’s legacy?
But more to the point, what exactly is a truth? The critiques would have you believe it is about the “facts.” But any fact is first interpreted and put in a frame of reference. So no fact is totally neutral to begin with. In a film depicting white racism, it should be no surprise that there would be disputes about which facts to choose and how to interpret them. Political history is made of exactly this: contested understandings of the “facts” of white supremacy.
It is really sad to me that when presented with an offering like Selma, the best many white people can do is challenge the “facts”. How about absorbing the horror of white supremacy as fact and trying to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter instead? Why not recognize how amazing these civil rights activists were; how their sheer will and unbelievable courage made a difference for all of “us.”
White people should be talking about how we can support the new nascent civil rights movement emerging from Ferguson, Mo. We should be grateful for Selma. It gives us an important moment for reflection, and for action.
Zillah Eisenstein is a writer, teacher and activist of anti-racist feminisms. She is the author of 12 books about the intersections of race, sex, gender and class. She is formerly a professor of political and anti-racist feminist theory and presently Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College.