Le monde moderne n’est pas mauvais : à certains égards, il est bien trop bon. Il est rempli de vertus féroces et gâchées. Lorsqu’un dispositif religieux est brisé (comme le fut le christianisme pendant la Réforme), ce ne sont pas seulement les vices qui sont libérés. Les vices sont en effet libérés, et ils errent de par le monde en faisant des ravages ; mais les vertus le sont aussi, et elles errent plus férocement encore en faisant des ravages plus terribles. Le monde moderne est saturé des vieilles vertus chrétiennes virant à la folie. G.K. Chesterton
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that « an unjust law is no law at all. MLK
President Johnson did not say ‘it had to wait, “He said, ‘I have a great agenda.’ …We did not expect him to commit. We were really kind of letting him know that we had to pursue voting rights. His agenda, I found out later, was that he thought that the Great Society…would be easier for him to bring first. If he had said that, we would probably have agreed with him. But we didn’t have a choice. We could not have had this bill without LBJ, but LBJ could not have passed it without Martin Luther King and others. (…) It was actually Robert Kennedy who signed the order allowing the FBI to wiretap all of us. …We knew we were bugged, but that was before LBJ. Andrew Young
There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.(…) We take the position that every person born in this country, when he reaches a certain age, that he have a right to vote . . . whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is. . . . I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination; where a [black] man’s got . . . to quote the first 10 Amendments, . . . and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it, and if we can, just repeat and repeat and repeat. And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end. (…) And if we do that we will break through. It will be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 [Civil Rights] Act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration. Lyndon B. Johnson
“I’ll have those n*ggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.
These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness.
Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. Lyndon Johnson
A year ago today, the internet went on strike and dealt the final knockout to censorship bills in the U.S. Congress, SOPA and PIPA. To celebrate, a bunch of the people have declared January 18th, ‘Internet Freedom Day.’ They’re asking people to help with a new holiday tradition of sharing one thing — on their blogs or social networks — that should never be censored. Doing that reminds us all that we can and will protect free speech on the web. For our part at Fight for the Future, as MLK Day is coming up, we realized that one thing that we all care about deeply that faces constant censorship is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It’s hard to find something that is as important to watch and learn from, yet since it is copyrighted until 2038, Youtube and other sites censor unabridged versions of the speech. You’re supposed to wait 25 years to share it. To celebrate both Internet Freedom Day and MLK Day, we made a video containing the complete 17-minute ‘I Have a Dream’ speech… so people can share it on Facebook, Twitter, and their blogs. Doing just that is a small act of civil disobedience to celebrate the freedom that Dr. King fought for and make sure his words reach people around the globe this weekend. Dr. King said, ‘one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.’ Screenhugger
Typically, a speech broadcast to a large audience on radio and television (and considered instrumental in historic political changes and ranked as the most important speech in 20th century American history) would seem to be a prime candidate for the public domain. But the copyright dilemma began in December 1963, when King sued Mister Maestro, Inc., and Twentieth Century Fox Records Company to stop the unauthorized sale of records of the 17-minute oration. Then, in 1999, a judge in Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. determined that the speech was a performance distributed to the news media and not the public, making it a “limited” as opposed to a “general” publication. That meant the speech, like other “performances” on CBS, was not in the public domain. That meant the King estate had the right to claim copyright and had standing to sue CBS, which had used a portion of the speech in a 1994 documentary, “The 20th Century with Mike Wallace.” (…) And yet, because CBS settled with the family out of court for an undisclosed sum, the law never fully considered the matter of the speech’s copyright. Today, the audio version of the speech can be hard to come by, and unabridged film footage of it has escaped the cultural memory banks of YouTube. The single unabridged video that had been floating around YouTube is now unplayable, thanks to a copyright claim by EMI. Excerpts from the speech can still be used under “fair use,” of course, like in this analysis of King’s rhetoric and various remixes. (My favorite MLK remix is not of the “I have a dream” speech but of the ’I’ve been to the mountaintop’ speech. But no one knows what the limits of “fair use” are, at least not until they receive a letter from the King family’s lawyers. At the family’s Web site, videotapes and audiotapes of the speech can be purchased for $10 a piece. The family controls the copyright of the speech for 70 years after King’s death, in 2038. Alex Pasternak
Paramount Pictures’ ambitious “Selma,” depicting the bloody civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama (…) humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the colossal burden he faced in 1965 leading a fractious movement that was so perilous for his flock. But “Selma” misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship—contentious, the film would have you believe—between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the film, President Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a voting rights bill, which—according to the movie’s take—is getting in the way of dozens of other Great Society legislative priorities. Indeed, “Selma’s” obstructionist LBJ is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be “open season” on the protesters. This characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history. In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history. Yes, Johnson advocated stripping a potent voting rights component out of the historic Civil Rights Act he signed into law in the summer of 1964. A master of the legislative process—and a pragmatist—he knew that adding voting rights to the Civil Rights Act would make it top heavy, jeopardizing its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow, Johnson believed, and then we’ll tackle voting rights. And yes, King kept the pressure on Johnson to propose voting rights legislation. But Johnson, the political mastermind, knew instinctively that Congress would reject it. As King’s former lieutenant, Andrew Young, recalled earlier this year at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit: “Right after [Dr. King won] the Nobel Prize, President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn’t have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965, and gave very good reasons. [H]e kept saying, ‘I just don’t have the power. I wish I did.’ When we left, I asked Dr. King, ‘Well, what did you think?’ He said, ‘I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’” That’s exactly what the President wanted—and that’s what the Nobel Laureate did. And it’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of archival record. In a taped phone conversation between Johnson and King on January 15, 1965, the two spurred each other on. King pointed out that giving African-Americans unimpeded access to the ballot box in the Deep South would expand Johnson’s electoral base. And Johnson encouraged King to wage a campaign that would expose the worst of voting oppression and create a moral imperative to pass the legislation. (…) Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress. The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery. Mark K. Updegrove
The new film Selma has sparked a bitter public debate, mostly concerning the film’s representation of President Lyndon Johnson’s stance on voting rights and how much artistic license is appropriate for a biopic centering on a major historical event. Less discussed, however, is the degree to which the MLK estate’s tough stance on copyright affected the historical accuracy of the film—and has affected many other films and books before it. What is lost when a biopic cannot take full advantage of its main character’s rhetorical brilliance? And what alternatives are available for filmmakers that want to produce history, not hagiography, about MLK? Selma director Ava DuVernay may well have taken more license than artistically necessary in the confrontational scenes between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson. But inaccuracies in other significant parts of the film were forced upon DuVernay by copyright law. The film’s numerous scenes of King delivering powerful speeches regarding civil rights all had to be paraphrased, because the MLK estate has already licensed the film rights in those speeches to DreamWorks and Warner Bros., for an MLK biopic Steven Spielberg is slated to produce. The litigious MLK estate, controlled now by King’s descendants, has a long history of employing copyright to restrict the use of King’s speeches. The estate appears to have two objectives: maximize revenue and control King’s image. (…) During the summer of 2013, as the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the MLK estate restricted broadcasts of “I Have a Dream,” but it did not lock down the speech altogether: It authorized sales of DVDs of the speech, and it licensed AT&T to use segments of the speech in cell phone ads. Over the years, the MLK estate has also licensed King speeches to be used in ads by Alcatel, Apple, Chevrolet and Mercedes. And it received over $700,000 from the foundation erecting the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the right to use MLK’s speeches and likeness in the Memorial. How is it that one estate can control the use of speeches so central to American history 50 years after their delivery and 47 years after King’s tragic assassination? One reason is that King was a private citizen. Had King been a federal government official when he wrote his speeches, those writings would always have been in the public domain. But because King was the extraordinary national political figure who was not a federal employee, the copyrights belonged to him and passed to his estate upon his death. Another issue is that the term of copyright protection has grown increasingly long. (…) Thus, King’s speeches and other writings will not enter the public domain until at least 70 years after his death: January 1, 2039. Jonathan Band
Attention: une émasculation peut en cacher une autre !
En ces temps étranges d’idées chrétiennes devenues folles …
Où entre la rapacité et volonté de contrôle de ses descendants et une loi des droits d’auteurs devenue folle …
L’on se retrouve, après 47 ans d’attente et une véritable diffamation du président Johnson, avec un orateur aussi brillant que Martin Luther King …
Réduit à sa simple paraphrase ?
How the Martin Luther King estate controls the national hero’s image.
January 12, 2015
The new film Selma has sparked a bitter public debate, mostly concerning the film’s representation of President Lyndon Johnson’s stance on voting rights and how much artistic license is appropriate for a biopic centering on a major historical event. Less discussed, however, is the degree to which the MLK estate’s tough stance on copyright affected the historical accuracy of the film—and has affected many other films and books before it. What is lost when a biopic cannot take full advantage of its main character’s rhetorical brilliance? And what alternatives are available for filmmakers that want to produce history, not hagiography, about MLK?
Selma director Ava DuVernay may well have taken more license than artistically necessary in the confrontational scenes between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson. But inaccuracies in other significant parts of the film were forced upon DuVernay by copyright law. The film’s numerous scenes of King delivering powerful speeches regarding civil rights all had to be paraphrased, because the MLK estate has already licensed the film rights in those speeches to DreamWorks and Warner Bros., for an MLK biopic Steven Spielberg is slated to produce.
The litigious MLK estate, controlled now by King’s descendants, has a long history of employing copyright to restrict the use of King’s speeches. The estate appears to have two objectives: maximize revenue and control King’s image. In the 1990s, the estate sued USAToday for publishing the full text of the “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, and the newspaper quickly settled by paying for a license and attorneys’ fees. The estate then sued CBS for including footage of the speech in a segment of its documentary series The 20th Century with Mike Wallace. In its defense in court, CBS argued that the speech had entered into the public domain because King had not complied with the notice and registration requirements of the Copyright Act of 1909. The trial court agreed with CBS, but an appellate court reversed and ruled in favor of the MLK estate on narrow technical grounds. (Specifically, although the speech was delivered to a live audience of several hundred thousand people and broadcast to millions more, the appellate court treated the delivery of the speech as only a limited publication of the underlying text that did not trigger the 1909 Act’s notice and registration requirements.)
The MLK estate also sued the producers of Eyes on the Prize, an Emmy-winning documentary series on the civil rights movement, for the use of unlicensed footage of King speeches. This litigation settled when the producers reportedly paid the estate $100,000. Because of this dispute (and similar issues with other rights-holders), the series was out of circulation from 1993 to 2006, when PBS finally renewed most of the rights and edited the remaining unlicensed footage.
During the summer of 2013, as the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the MLK estate restricted broadcasts of “I Have a Dream,” but it did not lock down the speech altogether: It authorized sales of DVDs of the speech, and it licensed AT&T to use segments of the speech in cell phone ads. Over the years, the MLK estate has also licensed King speeches to be used in ads by Alcatel, Apple, Chevrolet and Mercedes. And it received over $700,000 from the foundation erecting the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the right to use MLK’s speeches and likeness in the Memorial.
How is it that one estate can control the use of speeches so central to American history 50 years after their delivery and 47 years after King’s tragic assassination?
One reason is that King was a private citizen. Had King been a federal government official when he wrote his speeches, those writings would always have been in the public domain. But because King was the extraordinary national political figure who was not a federal employee, the copyrights belonged to him and passed to his estate upon his death.
Another issue is that the term of copyright protection has grown increasingly long. The first copyright act adopted by Congress in 1790 provided a term of protection of 14 years after first publication that could be renewed for an additional 14 years, for a total of 28 years. The initial purpose of the exclusive rights granted by the copyright law was to provide authors with an economic incentive to create works for the public good. At the same time, the duration of the author’s monopoly was limited so as to enable other authors to build on the first artist’s work.
Thanks to aggressive lobbying by publishers, the estates of authors and, more recently, the motion picture studios, Congress has repeatedly extended the copyright term. In 1831, Congress extended it to two 21-year periods after first publication for a total of 42 years; and in 1909, Congress extended the term to two 28-year periods for a total of 56 years. Then, in the 1976 Copyright Act, in an effort to harmonize U.S. law with the international law of the Berne Convention, Congress lengthened the copyright term to the life of the author plus 50 years. In 1998, Congress added 20 more years of protection, to the life of the author plus 70 years, citing the law of the European Union as an international precedent.
The extensions have always been retroactive, applying to works already in existence. Thus, King’s speeches and other writings will not enter the public domain until at least 70 years after his death: January 1, 2039.
In Congress’ rush to please copyright owners, it has lost sight of the balance the founders intended. A term of protection of “life plus 70” grossly exceeds the economic incentive any author needs to create a work while constraining the ability of new artists to build on the original. And term of life plus 70 is particularly unnecessary in the case of Martin Luther King; King did not need any economic incentive to write his eloquent speeches, let alone a term of life plus 70.
Jonathan Band is a copyright lawyer and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
LBJ and MLK were close partners in reform.
Mark K. Updegrove
December 22, 2014
For historians, watching a movie “based on” historical events often is an exercise in restraint. While the historian and filmmaker are both, by nature, storytellers, the former builds a narrative based on fact while the latter often bends truth for the sake of a story’s arc or tempo. Historians are wise to resist their pedantic urges and yield to a film’s creative license—as long as it doesn’t compromise the essence of the subject at hand.
To that end, Paramount Pictures’ ambitious “Selma,” depicting the bloody civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, gets much right. The film humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the colossal burden he faced in 1965 leading a fractious movement that was so perilous for his flock. But “Selma” misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship—contentious, the film would have you believe—between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In the film, President Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a voting rights bill, which—according to the movie’s take—is getting in the way of dozens of other Great Society legislative priorities. Indeed, “Selma’s” obstructionist LBJ is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be “open season” on the protesters.
This characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history. In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.
Yes, Johnson advocated stripping a potent voting rights component out of the historic Civil Rights Act he signed into law in the summer of 1964. A master of the legislative process—and a pragmatist—he knew that adding voting rights to the Civil Rights Act would make it top heavy, jeopardizing its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow, Johnson believed, and then we’ll tackle voting rights.
And yes, King kept the pressure on Johnson to propose voting rights legislation. But Johnson, the political mastermind, knew instinctively that Congress would reject it. As King’s former lieutenant, Andrew Young, recalled earlier this year at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit: “Right after [Dr. King won] the Nobel Prize, President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn’t have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965, and gave very good reasons. [H]e kept saying, ‘I just don’t have the power. I wish I did.’ When we left, I asked Dr. King, ‘Well, what did you think?’ He said, ‘I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’”
That’s exactly what the President wanted—and that’s what the Nobel Laureate did. And it’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of archival record.
In a taped phone conversation between Johnson and King on January 15, 1965, the two spurred each other on. King pointed out that giving African-Americans unimpeded access to the ballot box in the Deep South would expand Johnson’s electoral base. And Johnson encouraged King to wage a campaign that would expose the worst of voting oppression and create a moral imperative to pass the legislation. See for yourself:
MLK: It’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states you didn’t carry in the South [in the 1964 presidential election], those five southern states, have less than forty percent of the Negroes registered to vote. I think it’s just so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. It will be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate vote that will really make the New South.
LBJ: That’s exactly right. I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination… If you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina—well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of was the president of a school at Tuskegee, or head of the Government department there or something, being denied the right to cast a vote. If you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can; pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, “that’s not right, that’s not fair.” And then, that’ll help us in what we’re going to shove [legislation] through in the end.
MLK: You’re exactly right about that.
LBJ: And if we do that, we’ll break through—it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting the ’64 Act… because it’ll do things even that ’64 Act couldn’t do.
LBJ used the crisis of Selma to compel reluctant lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act, which he signed into law on August 6, 1965.
Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.
The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery.
Four American presidents—President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Clinton and Carter—bore testimony to LBJ’s efforts at the Civil Rights Summit, where President Obama, in his keynote address, asserted, “Like Dr. King, like Abraham Lincoln, like countless citizens who have driven this country inexorably forward, President Johnson knew that ours in the end is a story of optimism, a story of achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this earth…He believed that together we can build an America that is more fair, more equal, and more free than the one we inherited.”
LBJ’s bold position on voting rights stands as an example of what is possible when America’s leadership is at its best.
And it has the added benefit of being true.
Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian, the author of Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, and the director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum.
January 4th, 2015
A controversy has emerged in the last two weeks around the civil rights film Selma, though not entirely the expected one, as LBJ historians and aides have criticized the film for falsely portraying President Lyndon Johnson as resistant to the idea of voting rights, and even suggested that Selma was “LBJ’s idea.” Director Ann DuVernay called the latter claim “jaw dropping and offensive.”
On Sunday morning MLK aide Andrew Young (played by André Holland in the film) told Up with Steve Kornacki that neither side had it entirely correct.
“President Johnson did not say ‘it had to wait,’” Young said. “He said, ‘I have a great agenda.’ …We did not expect him to commit. We were really kind of letting him know that we had to pursue voting rights. His agenda, I found out later, was that he thought that the Great Society…would be easier for him to bring first. If he had said that, we would probably have agreed with him. But we didn’t have a choice.”
“We could not have had this bill without LBJ, but LBJ could not have passed it without Martin Luther King” and others, Young said. “It’s unfair for anybody to talk about credit. Too many people gave their lives. Too many people risked too much.”
One point on which the film appears to be on weak footing: its suggestion that LBJ ordered the FBI surveillance and harassment of King.
“That I don’t think is fair to LBJ,” Young said. “It was actually Robert Kennedy who signed the order allowing the FBI to wiretap all of us. …We knew we were bugged, but that was before LBJ.”
Young added that he recently discovered a wiretap in his house that had probably been there since the 60s.
Watch the clip below, via MSNBC:
The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw
Joseph A. Califano Jr.
The Washington Post
December 26, 2014
Joseph A. Califano Jr. was President Lyndon Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969.What’s wrong with Hollywood?
The makers of the new movie “Selma” apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.
In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.
On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: “There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.”
Johnson then articulated a strategy for drawing attention to the injustice of using literacy tests and other barriers to stop black Southerners from voting. “We take the position,” he said, “that every person born in this country, when he reaches a certain age, that he have a right to vote . . . whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is. . . . I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination; where a [black] man’s got . . . to quote the first 10 Amendments, . . . and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it, and if we can, just repeat and repeat and repeat.
“And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.”
King agreed, and LBJ added, sealing the deal, “And if we do that we will break through. It will be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 [Civil Rights] Act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration.”
Selma was the worst place King could find. Johnson met with King on Feb. 9 and heard about King’s choice, a place where just 335 of about 10,000 registered voters were black — despite a population that was 60 percent African American. Johnson thought the public pressure generated by a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, would be helpful, and he hoped there would be no violence. But there was. On March 7, march leader John Lewis was clubbed to the ground; two days later, when another march attempt was staged, a white minister from Boston was killed. Summoned to the White House, Alabama Gov. George Wallace told LBJ that he couldn’t protect the marchers. That gave the president the opportunity to federalize the Alabama National Guard to protect them.
On March 15, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to propose his Voting Rights Act. When the president intoned the anthem of the civil rights movement, “And we shall overcome,” John Lewis, watching the address on television with King, said that King cried.
When the march resumed a third time, on March 17, Johnson made sure the demonstrators would be protected. I was then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s special assistant. My job was to report to the White House every couple of hours on the progress and protection of the marchers until they reached Montgomery.
For the truth about Johnson, the Voting Rights Act and Selma, listen to the tape of the LBJ-MLK telephone conversation and read my numerous reports to the White House, which have been on the LBJ Presidential Library Web site for years.
All this material was publicly available to the producers, the writer of the screenplay and the director of this film. Why didn’t they use it? Did they feel no obligation to check the facts? Did they consider themselves free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story?
Contrary to the portrait painted by “Selma,” Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for “Selma.” The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.
Voir de même:
The Democratic Party’s Two-Facedness of Race Relations
The relentless conservative
« I’ll have those n*ggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years. »
~ Lyndon B. Johnson to two governors on Air Force One
I had never heard the above quote from Ronald Kessler’s book, Inside the White House before but my father had told me about LBJ’s terrible mouth and frightful personality.
If you listen to Democrats (many of you do — at least those who watch MSNBC and read the NY Times rabidly), you hear fanciful yarns spun so sweetly about how LBJ ended racism, segregation and voting inequality in America. They make him sound like Mr. Rogers.
How long will the Democrats continue their absurd charade? All the while claiming Republicans are racist, meanwhile the Democrats are the party clearly responsible for the contemptible Jim Crow laws. Let’s see how proud these secret, racist beliefs make current day Democrats. Let’s see how they like the real truth being told about their party.
When I was nine, a friend of my father’s worked in the LBJ White House and was unhappily close with LBJ. He was writing a book about his experiences with this foul-mouthed, racist president and somehow I got my hands on it. I was fascinated. I had never encountered such words or their rampant use — even when no vulgarity was necessary, an inside view of a president that 99.9% of the country never saw.
LBJ was an awful man. He only promoted and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act because he thought it was politically expedient. He disagreed violently and kept it a secret, something I think is unreservedly detestable. Or is it a common politician’s disease?
Let’s look at another quote attributed to « Great Society & Civil Rights Hero » LBJ:
« These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again. »
Could this be the type of man — it was whispered — who had his boss killed to get his job?
Here are more devastating quotes from the ‘party that cares’ (or pretends to care, to deceive voters):
« Mr. President, the crime of lynching . . . is not of sufficient importance to justify this legislation. »
— Sen. Claude Pepper (D., Fla.), 1938, spoken during a six-hour speech against the anti-lynching bill
« I am a former Kleagle [recruiter] of the Ku Klux Klan in Raleigh County . . . The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia. It is necessary that the order be promoted immediately and in every state in the union. »
— Robert C. Byrd, 1946, Democratic Senator from West Virginia, 1959-2010, Senate Majority Leader, 1977-80 and 1987-88, Senate President Pro Tempore, 1989-95, 2001-03, 2007-2010
President Truman’s civil rights program « is a farce and a sham–an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called poll tax repeal bill … I have voted against the so-called anti-lynching bill. »
— Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson (D., Texas), 1948, U.S. Senator, 1949-61, Senate Majority Leader, 1955-61, President, 1963-69
« I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes. »
— Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, 1961.
(Kennedy later authorized wire-tapping the phones and bugging the hotel rooms of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
« Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you’d find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they’d just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva. »
— Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D., S.C.) 1993, Chairman, Commerce Committee, 1987-95 and 2001-03, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, 1984
« I do not think it is an exaggeration at all to say to my friend from West Virginia [Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan recruiter] that he would have been a great senator at any moment . . . He would have been right during the great conflict of civil war in this nation. »
— Sen. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.), 2004, Chairman, Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, 2008
To add insult to injury for African-Americans, Bill Clinton, the absurdly-titled, « First Black President, » was apparently not as big a supporter of black Americans as his esteemed title would imply. In his book, Ron Brown’s Body, Jack Cashill first refers to Clinton’s White House as a place where « minorities, » such as Brown, « were not only exploitable but expendable. »
My final quote on race hypocrisy comes from our current President, Barack Hussein Obama:
From Dreams of My Father: « I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites. »
These quotes from Dems are why minority voters are starting to understand how they’ve been swindled into thinking that the Democratic Party best represents their interests. That’s worrisome for Democrats at large. The facts, coming home to roost, will create a major backlash against the Democratic Party.
Selma’s Missing Rabbi
Marching from Selma: John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Ava DuVernay’s film « Selma » is a remarkable depiction of a key moment in the civil rights movement, highlighting the strategic savvy, relentless courage, and human frailties of Rev. Martin Luther King, his inner circle of advisors, local grassroots activists, and the many other crusaders who traveled to this rural town to draw attention to the need for a voting rights bill in 1965. Although « Selma » was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, critics are justifiably outraged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ failure to nominate director DuVernay and star David Oyelowo (who plays King) for Oscars.
« Selma » has triggered controversy for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant and occasionally hostile ally of the civil rights movement. That debate is over a contentious sin of commission, but critics could also fault the film for a glaring sin of omission: the absence of identifiable Jews and Jewish clergy – particularly Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – from the film.
As the film reveals, there were actually three marches that began in Selma and were supposed to end in Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, as part of the civil rights movement’s campaign to pressure Johnson and Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The first march began on March 7 with 600 marchers. State troopers and local cops attacked the unarmed marchers with tear gas and billy clubs while the activists were trying to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march, which became known as « Bloody Sunday, » ended on the bridge. Two days later, the marchers tried again. The presence of national media intimidated the state troopers, who stepped aside the let them pass, but – as depicted in the film – King, after getting down on his knees to pray, had second thoughts. He turned around the led the marchers back to a church. He later contacted federal officials, demanding that they protect the protesters along the entire march because Alabama Gov. George Wallace refused to do so.
On March 15, President Johnson delivered his most famous speech before a televised joint session of Congress, where he announced that he would introduce a voting rights bill and uttered the phrase « we shall overcome » to declare his solidarity with the civil rights movement. King believed that the momentum had shifted and decided to resume the march. LBJ committed to send in the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard (under federal command), federal marshals and the FBI to guarantee the marchers’ safety. The third march began on March 21. They arrived in Montgomery, 54 miles away, three days later and held a huge rally the following day at the State Capitol building.
All the film clips of those events reveal that most of the marchers were African Americans. Director DuVernay was understandably and justifiably making a movie about a movement led and populated primarily by black people. Indeed, we don’t need another film about the civil rights movement – like « Mississippi Burning, » « Ghosts of Mississippi, » and « The Help » – that focuses primarily on white allies and sympathizers.
In addition to King and his wife Coretta, the film portrays many of the movement’s key leaders (John Lewis and Diane Nash of SNCC, Reverend Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Andrew Young, James Orange, Amelia Boynton), the unsung rank-and-file activists (one of them brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey), King’s sometime rival Malcolm X, several of the movement’s major antagonists (including Sheriff Jim Clark and Gov. George Wallace), and important political allies (including President Johnson and Assistant Attorney General John Doar).
« Selma » does show that the Selma-to-Montgomery march involved a significant number of white supporters. The film also reveals that many white clergy, wearing clerical collars and other religious garb, participated in the Selma events. In one scene, King is seen hugging a Greek Orthodox prelate (surely meant to be Archbishop Iakovos) who made his way to Selma. Another scene shows a group of white segregationist thugs beating and killing James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who came to Selma to join the march.
Rabbis and the Civil Rights Struggle
But missing from the movie is any depiction of even one Jewish rabbi participating in the Selma crusade. Among white activists in the civil rights movement, Jews – secular and religious — were disproportionately involved. But rabbis, mostly from the North and California, were particularly visible because they usually wore yarmulkes at rallies, meetings, and protests. Rabbis were part of the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington (where Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke prior to King’s « I Have a Dream » oration), and local efforts to integrate schools and challenge racial discrimination in housing. In 1964, King asked his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, New Jersey to recruit other rabbis to participate in a protest campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, a hotbed of segregationist resistance. All 16 rabbis, including Dresner, were arrested for engaging in civil disobedience.
A handful of Southern rabbis participated in the movement, as documented in Mark Bauman and Berkley Kalin’s The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s and Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. But most Southern rabbis were reluctant to be too conspicuous in light of Jews’ precarious social position in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Only a handful of Southern Jews were hard-line segregationists. Most Southern Jews were moderates on racial issues and quite a few were liberals. Some were openly supportive of civil rights and many were quietly helpful – for example, by making financial contributions to civil rights organizations.
But many Southern Jews feared that obvious Jewish activism in the movement would trigger a hostile backlash among anti-Semites, including boycotts of Jewish-owned stores and Jewish lawyers and other professionals, and violence targeted at Jewish homes. Many Southern synagogues were bombed during the civil rights movement. In October 1958, for example, segregationists bombed Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, whose Reform rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was an early and outspoken supporter of racial integration and a friend of Dr. King. This and other violent incidents certainly led many Southern rabbis and congregations to fear it could happen to them if they lent their support to the movement for racial equality.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (carrying the Torah) in Montgomery
Most of the rabbis who came to Selma represented Judaism’s Reform wing, the most liberal of the factions within organized Jewry, but a number of rabbis from the more religiously traditional Conservative wing joined them. In addition to Dresner, the marchers included rabbis Maurice Eisendrath (president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), Albert Friedlander (rabbi for Jewish students at Columbia University), Herbert Teitelbaum (who led a congregation in Redwood City, California), Gerald Raiskin (Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California, Joseph Gumbiner (director of UC-Berkeley’s Hillel), Joseph Weinberg (Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco), Saul Berman (Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel), Mathew Simon (spiritual leader of a Los Angeles congregation), Steven Riskin (New York City’s Lincoln Square Synagogue), William Braude (Temple Beth-El, Providence, R.I.), Saul Leeman (Cranston Jewish Center in Rhode Island), Nathan Rosen (director of Brown University’s Hillel), Maurice Davis (Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation), Arthur Lelyveld (Cleveland’s Fairmount Temple), William Frankel (Beth Hillel Congregation, Wilmette, Illinois), Sidney Shanken (Temple Beth-El, Cranford, N.J.), Allan Levine ( Temple Emanuel of Rochester, N.Y.), Andre Ungar (Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, N.J.), and Perry Nussbaum (whose synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, MS, was bombed in 1967).
But in the front row of the march, only two persons to the right of King (with Ralph Bunche between them), was Heschel. Captured in an iconic photo with his long white beard and yarmulke/beret, he looked like the stereotype of a Biblical prophet. The photo also shows the marchers in the front line incongruously wearing flower leis, which a minister from Hawaii had just given them.
Anyone familiar with the events at Selma is aware of that photo and of Heschel’s presence. All film directors have the artistic freedom to decide how they want to portray historical events, but Heschel’s absence from that scene in the movie could not be an simple oversight.
Indeed, King called Heschel « my rabbi. » In many ways, Heschel was an unlikely activist. His transformation from Talmudic scholar to civil rights and anti-war protester is a remarkable story on its own.
Heschel: Scholar and Activist
Heschel (1907-1972) was born in Warsaw, Poland. His parents were Chasidim, members of a spiritually intense Orthodox Jewish sect, and descended from generations of distinguished rabbis. As a teenager, he demonstrated a precocious ability to understand lengthy treatises of Jewish law and to write his own commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. He also had a personal charisma that others saw as confirmation of his spiritual and leadership qualities.
But Heschel resisted this destiny. On a daily basis, he continued to practice Orthodox rituals, but his intellectual curiosity would not allow him to follow the path chosen for him. He convinced his family to let him attend a secular university and a liberal nontraditional rabbinical college. He first went to a secular high school in Vilnius, Lithuania, then to the University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 for a dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. The next year, he completed his studies at the rabbinical college. He emerged from this education well versed in Western philosophy, history, and art as well as Jewish subjects.
The 1935 publication of his revised dissertation made his reputation as a major scholar. The book advanced the then-radical thesis that the Hebrew prophets were serious critics of the social injustices of their eras but that their ideas remained relevant to injustices in contemporary times.
It would have been difficult for Heschel to avoid thinking about social injustice; his academic career began just as the Nazis took power in Germany. He was deported back to Poland in 1938, then fled to England. In 1940 he found haven at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the seminary that trained Reform Jewish rabbis, as part of an effort to rescue European Jewish scholars from the Nazis. While living in Cincinnati, he tried to rescue his family members, including his mother and sister, but without success: they were murdered by the Nazis.
In 1945 Heschel moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, the rabbinical seminary linked to Conservative Judaism, a branch more closely aligned with Heschel’s religious views but less comfortable with what would become his progressive political activities. At JTS he published several important books on Jewish theology, including Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1952), and Man’s Quest for God (1954).
Heschel’s knowledge of Christian theology led the Vatican to seek his advice when, in 1960, Pope John XXIII sought to repair relations between Catholics and Jews as part of the Ecumenical Council, the original name of the Second Vatican Council. Over four years, Heschel met with the pope’s representatives and with the pope himself. He had a significant influence on what became the landmark 1965 statement « Nostra Aetate » (In our time), a turning point in Christian-Jewish relations. It reversed centuries of standard Christian teachings about Jews, including no longer blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and refraining from calling for Jews to convert to Catholicism.
Heschel and King
In January 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled « Religion and Race. » It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech) .
Heschel began his speech by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:
« At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. »
Later that year, Heschel was invited to a meeting of religious leaders with President John F. Kennedy. The day before the event, Heschel sent the president a telegram about civil rights, asking him to declare the nation’s racial inequality a « state of moral emergency » and to act with « high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. »
King and Heschel stayed in close touch, sharing both theological and political ideas. After the first Selma march, « Bloody Sunday, » Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency’s failure to protect the demonstrators.
On Friday March 19, Heschel received a telegram from King inviting him to join the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel flew to Selma from New York on Saturday night and was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The photograph of Heschel walking arm in arm with King has become iconic of the coalition of Jews and blacks during the civil rights era.
Heschel later wrote:
« For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying. »
Heschel was also the most visible traditional Jew in the antiwar movement. Having escaped Nazism, Heschel was acutely aware of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. « In regard to the cruelties committed in the name of a free society, » he wrote, « some are guilty, all are responsible. » In announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he cited Leviticus: « Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor. » Opposition to the war, he declared, was a religious obligation, « a supreme commandment. »
He worried that most Americans were indifferent to what he described as the criminal behavior of their elected government. « I have previously thought that we were waging war reluctantly, with sadness at killing so many people, » he wrote about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. « I realize that we are doing it now with pride in our military efficiency. »
In October 1965 Heschel spoke at an antiwar rally at the UN Church Center and proposed a national religious movement to end the war. He quickly went to work putting that idea into practice. The National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam was founded in January 1966, with Heschel, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus as cochairs. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, agreed to be acting executive secretary.
Their first act was to send a telegram to LBJ, signed by twenty-one clergy, including King and prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, urging the president to extend the bombing halt that had begun the previous Christmas and to pursue negotiations with the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. Over the next few months, the group recruited additional clergy and organized rallies, fasts, vigils, and other forms of protest. Heschel drafted position papers, raised money, recruited Jewish clergy, gave numerous speeches, and led a two-day fast at a New York church to push for an end to US bombing of North Vietnam.
On January 31, 1967, the organization–renamed Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) to be more inclusive–organized its first Washington, DC, rally. More than 2,000 people, clergy and laity, from forty-five states participated, including the leaders of the nation’s major Jewish and Protestant denominations. They met with their congressional representatives and picketed in front of the White House. Heschel electrified the audience with his speech, « The Moral Outrage in Vietnam, » later published in Fellowship, the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation:
« Who would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. In the sight of so many thousands of civilians and soldiers slain, injured, crippled, of bodies emaciated, of forests destroyed by fire, God confronts us with this question: Where art thou? »
The next day, Heschel joined a small CALCAV delegation in a forty-minute meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They attempted, without success, to persuade him to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam and begin peace negotiations. By early 1967, CALCAV’s leaders knew that King was preparing to make public his growing opposition to the war. Heschel, along with other major religious figures, accompanied him as he delivered his major antiwar address at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4.
During the 1968 annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, Heschel was honored by his fellow Conservative rabbis for his social activism and his contributions to Jewish scholarship. King was the keynote speaker, and the rabbis feted him by singing « We Shall Overcome » in Hebrew.
King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel’s home that year, but he was assassinated a few weeks before the Jewish holiday. Heschel was the only Jew to deliver a eulogy at King’s funeral service.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.
The Color of Law
Voting rights and the Southern way of life.
July 8, 2013
On February 18, 1965, a civil-rights worker named James Orange was arrested in Marion, Alabama, on charges of disorderly conduct and contributing to the delinquency of minors, and was thrown into the local jail. Orange had organized a march by young people (“minors”) in support of a voter-registration drive being run by several groups, including the one he worked for, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose president was Martin Luther King, Jr.
That night, four hundred people gathered in Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church, in Marion, and prepared to walk to the jail, about a block away, and sing freedom songs. They left the church at nine-thirty and ran into a police blockade. Ordered to disperse, they were attacked by fifty or more state troopers and other law-enforcement officials wielding clubs. Street lights had been turned off or shot out; white vigilantes were on the scene; reporters were attacked and cameras were smashed. No photographic record of the night survives.
As Gary May tells the story, in “Bending Toward Justice” (Basic), people still in the church, hearing the screams outside, ran out the back, chased by the troopers. One of those who fled, Cager Lee, was struck on the head, fell to the ground, and was kicked. Lee was eighty-two; he was five feet tall and weighed a hundred and twenty pounds. But he escaped, and ran into a café, where he saw his daughter Viola and two grandchildren, Emma Jean and Jimmie Lee Jackson. When troopers stormed the café and began beating people, Jackson tried to protect his mother. He was shoved up against a cigarette machine and shot twice in the stomach by a trooper named James Fowler. Jackson managed to get out of the café but was beaten over the head until he collapsed on the street. He lay there, bleeding, for thirty minutes. Eventually, after a nearby hospital was unable to treat him, he was driven by a black undertaker, in a hearse, to a hospital in Selma, thirty miles away.
Jackson was twenty-six years old, and an Army veteran. He had tried five times to register to vote, without success. While he was in the hospital, Colonel Al Lingo, the director of public safety for the state of Alabama, placed him under arrest for assault and battery with intent to murder a peace officer. But on February 26th, eight days after the shooting, Jackson died. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, generally regarded as the greatest legislative achievement of the so-called “classical phase” of the civil-rights movement—the phase that began in 1954 with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education—had three martyrs. Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first.
This is the act a key provision of which was struck down last week by the Supreme Court, in the case of Shelby v. Holder. (Other important provisions remain in effect.) The act is celebrated because it was enormously effective in giving African-Americans the vote—far more effective than Brown was in integrating schools—and because it gave African-Americans something desegregation alone could not give them: political power. After Shelby, Congress can rewrite the law, but a Congress that cannot pass a farm bill is unlikely to craft new legislation protecting minority voting rights. The moral and political will that characterized the era for which the act has stood as a prime symbol may have run its course.
At the time of Brown, securing the right of African-Americans to register to vote looked to be the most attainable goal in the campaign to overthrow Jim Crow. Both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy Administrations, wary of intervention in what they preferred to characterize as a local matter, believed that voting fell within the purview of the federal government. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, is explicit: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Even the relatively toothless Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil-rights legislation to make it through Congress since Reconstruction, gave the Justice Department authority to pursue litigation against local registrars who discriminated on the basis of race.
Something else about voting made it distinctive in the strange regime of Jim Crow: it does not necessitate interracial contact. Unlike going to school, riding a bus, sitting at a lunch counter, or playing checkers (a pastime once segregated by law in the city of Birmingham), casting a ballot is not a social activity. The argument often given in defense of segregation, which was that the races prefer it that way, does not work very well with voting. After all, one means of proving that the races prefer to be separate would have been to test the proposition in the voting booth.
Convicting Southern registrars of racial discrimination was not easy, though. One reason, as Taylor Branch explains in “Parting the Waters” (1988), the first volume of his stupendous history of the King years, was Screws. Claude Screws was a Georgia sheriff who, in 1943, arrested an African-American named Robert Hall and, with two other white men, drove him to a courthouse and beat him to death in public view. The State of Georgia declined to prosecute, but the Justice Department secured a conviction under a Reconstruction-era statute that made it a federal crime willfully to deprive someone of his civil rights under color of law.
Screws argued that his actions were not covered by the statute, because he had not killed Hall under color of law. He had killed Hall in violation of the law. It was Georgia’s business, not the federal government’s, to prosecute him for it. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, but it reversed Screws’s conviction on a theory of its own. In an opinion by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court ruled that it was not enough to show that a white sheriff had brutally murdered a handcuffed black man. The government had to prove that he did so with the willful intention of depriving the prisoner of his rights. The case was remanded, and Screws was duly retried and acquitted.
Screws v. United States was a jurisprudential tease. It said that discriminatory acts were covered by federal statute but that the government had to show intent, a state of mind notoriously difficult to prove. The shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson was perfectly analogous. If Fowler killed Jackson with the intention of depriving him of a constitutional right (the right to a fair trial) but claimed to have done so in the line of duty, then the act fell under the federal statute. But, to obtain a conviction, the government would have to establish what was in Fowler’s mind when he pulled the trigger.
In cases of voting, Southern states made things even more difficult by having registrars in suspect counties resign, so that, when the Justice Department came calling, there were no officials around to charge. Also, in some Southern counties, almost no African-Americans in the twentieth century had ever even attempted to register, so there were few cases to litigate. One goal of voter-registration drives was to build up the inventory of litigable cases.
The primary goal, though, was to provoke official reaction sufficiently violent to compel the White House to produce a voting-rights bill with enforcement bite. The provocation part proved amazingly easy. All that the protesters had to do was to walk to the courthouse and ask to register. There was nothing covert about the strategy—“We are going to bring a voting bill into being in the streets of Selma,” King proclaimed from the pulpit of Selma’s Brown Chapel—yet Southern police, troopers, sheriffs, and deputies clubbed, sicced police dogs on, blasted fire hoses at, teargassed, and shocked with cattle prods nonviolent demonstrators, many of them clergymen and children, with an indifference to national and international opinion that was almost blithe. Their tactics were encouraged, defended, and sometimes ordered by Southern city halls and statehouses.
But in Birmingham, when the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene (Bull) Connor, brought out the police dogs and fire hoses, and in Selma, when Sheriff Jim Clark socked a black minister, C. T. Vivian, in the face, reporters and cameramen were right there. Many white Americans who saw or read about the violence blamed the demonstrators, but the world blamed the American government. That got the attention of the White House.
Southern mayors and governors were playing to their electoral bases. But American Presidents were trying to run a Cold War. They could live with Jim Crow when it was an invisible regional peculiarity, but once conditions were broadcast around the world they experienced an urgent need to make the problem go away.
The pressure of world opinion was crucial to the speed with which civil-rights gains were made after 1954. It forced American Presidents to do something Presidents rarely do, which was to get out ahead of domestic opinion on the subject of race. When a bus carrying Freedom Riders was firebombed outside Anniston, Alabama, on Mother’s Day, 1961, and a photograph appeared the next day on the front page of the New York Times, John F. Kennedy was horrified. He had never heard of the Freedom Riders and had no idea what they were doing in Alabama. (They were testing the integration of interstate bus terminals pursuant to a recent Supreme Court decision. They were obliged to conclude that the decision had had little impact.)
Kennedy called the one person in the White House with a civil-rights brief, Harris Wofford. “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses?” he said. “Stop them.” Sixty-three per cent of the American public disapproved of the Freedom Riders, but American public opinion was not Kennedy’s concern. His first summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev was scheduled to take place in Vienna in three weeks, and he could see Khrushchev waving the Times in his face.
As Mary Dudziak explains in her important book “Cold War Civil Rights” (2000), the trick was to turn a failure of government into something that looked like a triumph of government. Civil rights had to become a story about how American democracy confronted an injustice and eradicated it. The nation that had liberated Europe from racist domination had gone to the rescue of another captive people. It was important to do this heroically, not apologetically. No elected official relishes having to deal with a charismatic popular leader; the usual forms of leverage are not effective. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did not especially like dealing with King. But they needed him, because they needed a hero whose vision the democratic system could realize. The triumphalist narrative demanded it.
King understood this perfectly. He was not political in the small-“p” sense, but he had remarkable political instincts. He could read a room. He was a preacher, after all. He spent his entire life sensing exactly which words would move a congregation. He spoke a language that Kennedy and Johnson could associate themselves with. One of the key differences between King and the older generation of civil-rights leaders—A. Philip Randolph, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality; Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, of the N.A.A.C.P.—is that King rarely talked about equality. The word occurs only once in the “I Have a Dream” speech. King believed in equality as much as anyone, but in his speeches and sermons he talked about freedom. His rhetoric was an amalgam of the Book of Exodus and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—the leading of the Israelites out of bondage and the emancipation of the slaves. Liberation analogies worked in a Cold War context. The Mason-Dixon Line could be figured as a North American Iron Curtain.
After the violence in Birmingham, in the spring of 1963, followed, in June, by Governor George Wallace’s symbolic “stand in the schoolhouse door,” in Tuscaloosa, protesting the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood to the University of Alabama, Kennedy finally took the moral high ground and gave a nationally televised speech on civil rights. A week later, he delivered a civil-rights bill to Congress, and in August he welcomed to the White House the leaders of the March on Washington, organized by Randolph, King, Wilkins, and Bayard Rustin (among others) to demonstrate for the Administration’s bill. The march was covered live by all three networks and broadcast abroad via the new communications satellite, Telstar.
Less than three months later, Kennedy was dead. Lyndon Johnson was known to civil-rights leaders as the man who, when he was Senate Majority Leader, had carefully emasculated Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Bill in order to secure enough Southern votes for passage. But, as President, Johnson unexpectedly assumed the mantle of a crusader for racial justice, and he pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill through the longest filibuster in Senate history.
The act was signed on July 2nd. It addressed segregation in public accommodations, public places, and schools. Fulfilling a long-standing hope of Randolph and Rustin—the subject of William Jones’s “The March on Washington” (Norton)—it banned discrimination in employment and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (whose chairman would one day be Clarence Thomas, a Reagan appointee). But its voting-rights provisions did not address the use of voter-qualification tests to disenfranchise registrants on the basis of race.
Johnson recognized the need for additional voting-rights legislation, and he directed Nicholas Katzenbach, soon to be his attorney general, to draft it. “I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise,” is the way he put it. But then progress slowed. Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait.
King thought that if you waited for the right time for direct action (as nonviolent protests were called) you would never act. So on January 2, 1965, he went to Selma, where efforts by local activists and members of the Student Non-Violent Coördinating Committee to register African-Americans had been under way, with little success, for several years. Eight weeks later, Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed.
Integrating voting rolls was a very different kind of problem from integrating buses and lunch counters. In many Southern cities, a large percentage of the population was African-American; in some, African-Americans were in the majority. They had economic power, which direct-action protests like boycotts and sit-ins tapped. When buses were boycotted in Montgomery, in 1955 and 1956, the company complained that it was losing twenty-two cents for every mile each of its buses travelled. To help it avoid bankruptcy, the city commission granted an emergency fare increase, raising the fare by fifty per cent for the whites still riding the buses. In Nashville, African-American shoppers spent fifty million dollars a year, ten million of it in the downtown stores targeted by picketers and boycotters in 1960. Those stores soon desegregated.
Segregation made little sense from a business point of view. Integration of hotels, restaurants, movie theatres, lunch counters, and department stores was therefore relatively (though by no means entirely) frictionless after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But voting was not an economic issue or even a social issue. It was a political issue. The reason Southern officials resisted voter-registration drives with such viciousness was that the region’s whole political system was predicated on the restriction of the franchise.
Before African-Americans were disenfranchised, they were enfranchised by the Fifteenth Amendment. The era of Jim Crow began, around 1890, with states erecting obstacles to voting, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, with loopholes exempting many whites. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was constitutional; in 1898, in Mississippi v. Williams, and, in 1903, in Giles v. Harris, it upheld voting laws that operated to disenfranchise African-Americans. Those were the judicial pillars of legal segregation. Their effect was immediate. In 1896, there were 130,334 African-Americans registered to vote in Louisiana. In 1904, there were 1,342. Estimated black turnout in Virginia and South Carolina in the 1904 Presidential election was zero.
The greatest voter suppression was often in areas where blacks were in the majority. Selma was more than fifty per cent black; in 1965, only 383 of the fifteen thousand African-Americans living there were registered to vote. Marion (where Coretta Scott King went to school) had no black voters. In nearby Lowndes County, where almost half of the lynchings in Alabama between 1880 and 1930 took place, and where stores refused to sell Marlboro cigarettes because of rumors that the company had donated to the N.A.A.C.P., four out of five residents were black. None could vote. Mississippi was almost fifty per cent black; 6.4 per cent of eligible African-Americans there could vote.
One consequence was the near-ubiquity of all-white juries—since jurors were typically drawn from the pool of registered voters. The Southern judicial system, as Claude Screws appreciated, was turned into a rubber stamp of approval for police and vigilante actions against African-Americans. The system also produced some astonishing verdicts. In 1958, a black handyman named James Wilson was convicted of stealing a dollar ninety-five in change from the white woman he worked for in Marion, and was sentenced to death. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the sentence, but the international outcry was so intense that the governor, James (Big Jim) Folsom, commuted it.
The South became a one-party bloc, standing for one principle above all, expressed by the logo of the Alabama Democratic Party: a white rooster with a banner above it reading “White Supremacy.” It was as though the purpose of holding elected office was to perpetuate the system that made one’s election possible. Voting rights went to the very heart of the Southern “way of life.”
Officials were therefore ingenious in coming up with ways to thwart registration efforts. In response to an S.C.L.C. registration drive in Louisiana, the state reviewed voter rolls and found cause to remove ten thousand African-Americans. Mississippi cut off the distribution of federal food surpluses to two counties in the Delta: Sunflower, where 161 of 13,524 African-Americans were registered to vote, and LeFlore, where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till had been lynched, in 1955. In LeFlore alone, twenty-two thousand people lost their relief. In Alabama, Circuit Court Judge James Hare enjoined virtually every civil-rights leader from gathering in groups of more than three.
And there were methods of discouragement that did not bother with the color of law—that is to say, terror. In 1963, Hartman Turnbow became the first African-American of the century to try to register to vote in Holmes County, Mississippi. A month later, his farmhouse was firebombed. Turnbow engaged in a gunfight with men surrounding the house and drove them off. When the sheriff arrived, he arrested Turnbow and charged him with bombing his own house.
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The nadir was the reaction to the Mississippi Summer Project, in 1964. Thirty-five churches were burned and thirty buildings were bombed that summer in Mississippi. Eighty people were beaten, and there were at least six murders, most notoriously the lynching, by a group that included members of the Neshoba County sheriff’s office, of the civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Civil-rights leaders in Selma, eight months later, had little reason to expect a complaisant response to their demands. But, if Jackson’s shooting was intended to send a message to the protesters, they rewrote the message.
The man who made Jackson into a martyr was James Bevel, a twenty-eight-year-old member of the S.C.L.C. He had come out of the Nashville sit-in movement, and had committed himself to voter registration after four little girls died in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, in Birmingham, in 1963. The afternoon Jackson died, Bevel went to see Cager Lee and Jackson’s mother and sister. They were still bandaged up. Bevel asked them what should be done. They told him the marches should continue. Bevel knew poverty—he was from the tiny town of Itta Bena, Mississippi—and he knew racial violence, recently in Birmingham, where he had organized marches that led to children being shocked with cattle prods. But after he left their house he wept.
That night, addressing a mass meeting in Brown Chapel, Bevel told the story of Esther. As Mordecai had instructed Esther to go see the king on behalf of her people, he said, they should march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to see “the king”—George Wallace. Montgomery was fifty-four miles from Selma, and walking there meant crossing Lowndes County. But Bevel’s audience embraced the idea. A week later, King spoke at Jackson’s funeral, where more than a thousand people walked three miles in the rain to the black cemetery. “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket, and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution,” King said. He endorsed the call for a march.
There were, in the end, three marches from Selma. Each was momentous. King was not present at the first, which took place on March 7, 1965—“Bloody Sunday.” Some six hundred marchers, led by John Lewis, of SNCC, and Hosea Williams, of the S.C.L.C., set off from Brown Chapel and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (Pettus was a Confederate general, later a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan), over the Alabama River. At the far end, they found arrayed before them more than a hundred and fifty armed men: state troopers, under Lingo’s command, and Sheriff Clark’s posse, some on horseback. Wallace had ordered Lingo to take “whatever steps necessary” to stop the march. The troopers wore gas masks and carried nightsticks; Clark’s men were armed with clubs, whips, and cattle prods. One carried a rubber hose wrapped in barbed wire. A number of white Alabamans had come out to watch the sport.
So had the press. It’s all on film. The marchers halt fifty feet from the line of troopers. They are told that they have two minutes to turn around and go back to their homes and churches, but, well before two minutes have passed, the troopers charge into the line, beating everyone in sight. They are followed by Clark’s men on horseback, then by the tear gas.
Forty tear-gas cannisters were fired that day. The marchers were chased for a mile back to Selma. Troopers fired tear gas into the Carver housing project; posse men rode their horses up the steps of Brown Chapel. That evening, forty-eight million television viewers watching “Judgment at Nuremberg” on ABC had the movie interrupted for a fifteen-minute film of the attack. There was no voice-over. The only sounds were the thuds of clubs, reports of tear-gas cannisters being fired, the rebel yells of Clark’s posse, and the constant, hysterical screams of the victims.
At least ninety marchers were wounded, and Lewis had a fractured skull, but the effect was achieved. The film left no room for hairsplitting about provocation. Unarmed men and women on a highway were set upon by uniformed men wearing gas masks and riding horses. The Pettus Bridge was a turning point in American race relations and American history. Branch calls it “the last great thrust of a movement built on patriotic idealism.” Many years later, Lewis said that Barack Obama “was what comes at the end of that bridge.”
King returned to Selma and vowed that the march would continue. Calls were put out to churches nationwide, and clergy of virtually every denomination arrived. Nearly a thousand people were prepared to cross the Pettus Bridge and march to Montgomery. Then, unexpectedly, a federal district judge, Frank Johnson, issued an injunction postponing the march until further notice.
The injunction put King in a bind. He had never violated the order of a federal judge. The federal judiciary was the movement’s friend. That had always been the position of the N.A.A.C.P., which deplored direct action, and which had been pursuing desegregation by litigation for fifty years. Judge Johnson himself was a friend of the movement. George Wallace had called him “a low-down, carpetbaggin’, scalawaggin’, race-mixin’ liar”—a pretty solid recommendation. In 1956, he was a member of a three-judge panel that ruled bus-segregation laws unconstitutional—the ruling that vindicated the Montgomery bus boycott. This time, King felt obliged to wait.
But the students in SNCC saw no difference between an unjust state court and an unjust federal order. The whole philosophy of direct action was, as King himself put it, “the right to protest for right.” SNCC had opposed even the first march (Lewis marched in defiance of his own organization), which it regarded as purely symbolic. Its members also resented King, whom they referred to privately as De Lawd. They felt that they had done the hard work, and then King had shown up and got all the attention. And they didn’t believe in leaders.
Negotiations, complicated by the requirement of state officials that they not have to deal personally with African-Americans, led to a compromise. The result was the second march, on March 9th. King led the protesters across the bridge. Again the troopers were assembled, and again the marchers were ordered to disperse. But suddenly the troopers stepped aside, inviting King to defy the judge’s order. King and Ralph Abernathy knelt and prayed. Then they turned the line around and marched back into Selma. The retreat made permanent the rift between SNCC and the S.C.L.C.
That night, three white clergymen went out to dinner in Selma. After they left the restaurant, they were attacked, and one of them, James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was clubbed on the head. Police managed to delay his transportation to a hospital, and two days later he died. He was thirty-eight years old, and the father of four.
On March 15th, Judge Johnson was shown footage of the first march. Plainly disgusted, he later ruled in King’s favor and allowed a march to Montgomery. That evening, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and, on national television, called for a voting-rights act. The speech was interrupted thirty-six times by applause. It was the greatest of Johnson’s Presidency. “Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson said. “Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” It was the movement’s own slogan. A tear is said to have rolled down King’s cheek when he heard it. For Southerners, it told them the game was over. It was, as the mayor of Selma, Joseph Smitherman, put it, “a dagger in your heart.”
On March 21st, thirty-six hundred marchers, protected by Alabama National Guardsmen, set out from Selma for Montgomery. Four days later, King addressed twenty-five thousand people from the steps of the Capitol, where, in 1861, Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America. King delivered one of his most exhilarating speeches, the speech that works off the refrain “How long? Not long.” At the end, he recited the first and fourth verses of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
That day, Johnson sent a voting-rights bill to Congress. And that night a thirty-nine-year-old woman from Detroit, a mother of five named Viola Liuzzo, driving marchers home, was shot and killed by Klansmen on Route 80, near Montgomery. Two Northern whites had now been murdered. Few Southerners in Congress saw good reason to throw themselves in front of the train. There was some stalling in committees chaired by segregationists, but the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by 79 to 18 and the House by 328 to 74. It was signed into law by Johnson on August 6, 1965. On August 20th, Cager Lee, whose father had been sold in a slave market, registered to vote.
Between 1965 and 1968, seven hundred and forty thousand new African-American voters were registered in the Deep South. The central pillar of Jim Crow was destroyed, and with it the regime of legal segregation that had prevailed for seventy years. The act gave the executive branch direct enforcement authority over voting rights. It suspended for five years, in covered states, the use of all devices, such as literacy tests, employed to restrict access to the voting booth. And federal examiners could go into Southern counties to register voters. Initially, six states were covered, along with counties in several more.
The act’s effectiveness was due in part to its elimination of the Screws problem. It replaced intent with effect. If the effect of a change in voting requirements was to diminish the voting power of minorities, it didn’t matter what anyone deliberately intended. The coverage formula said nothing about race, and therefore produced some anomalies: Alaska was covered, for example, although low turnout there is a function of the weather, not discrimination. But it restored the franchise to African-Americans in the South.
It was also the end of the classical phase of the civil-rights movement. (The first person to use that term to describe the decade after Brown was Bayard Rustin.) Historiography of the movement is characterized by a division of emphasis between the classical phase, also called the Second Reconstruction, and the “long” civil-rights movement, dating from the turn of the nineteenth century (and before), and including events in the North.
Of the books published in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, two are especially useful on the politics of the movement. May’s “Bending Toward Justice” is a book of the classical phase, a lively and unabashedly partisan account of Selma and the Voting Rights Act. (The title is from a saying of the abolitionist Theodore Parker that King quoted on the steps of the Alabama statehouse: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”) Some of this material is covered in earlier books like Branch’s trilogy and David Garrow’s “Bearing the Cross” (1986), both staggering achievements of research and reporting. But May tells the story his own way, and he is able to add many details, particularly to the Jackson shooting, for which he acknowledges the help of John Fleming, a reporter for the Anniston Star who is part of the Civil Rights Cold Cases Project team. Among the parallels between Nazism and Southern racism was the difficulty of bringing to justice the perpetrators of racial violence, most of whom did little to hide their identities. In 2004, Fleming got James Fowler to admit to shooting Jackson. In 2010, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to six months.
Jones’s “The March on Washington” is distinctly a work of the second-emphasis school. It provides an alternative to the standard account by stressing the part played in the movement by unions and women’s groups. (Though many heroes of civil-rights activism, from Pauli Murray and Diane Nash to Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer, were women, not a single woman was included in the three-hour official program at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.) Jones insists that the march was about more than King’s famous speech—so much so that he gives the speech less than two pages. This may be a case of overcorrecting. King understood that, without economic opportunity, racial equality didn’t mean much. After 1965, he devoted his life to the cause of economic justice.
The idea of marching on Washington dates from 1941, when Randolph planned a march to force Franklin Roosevelt to ban discrimination in employment by defense contractors and in the armed forces. Randolph cancelled the march when Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Commission. But after the war Congress eliminated the commission. As Jones explains, Randolph saw the 1963 march as a resurrection of his old crusade. He agreed to incorporate King’s agenda in order to maximize participation—which is why, in photographs of the march, you see placards reading “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The jobs part was Randolph’s.
It was a source of deep annoyance in the N.A.A.C.P. that King got the media attention while the organization filed the lawsuits and paid the bills. During a meeting in 1963, Wilkins turned to King and said, “Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me.” King took the point. “I guess about the only thing I’ve desegregated so far is a few human hearts,” he said.
But the direct-action movement was not about interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment. It was about the sights and sounds, the singing and preaching of a people who were, as King liked to say, “on the move.” The fourteen-part documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” narrated by Julian Bond and shown on PBS in 1987 and 1990, is a terrific resource for those sights and sounds, as well as for its interviews with participants. The first six parts, covering the classical phase, are now finally available on DVD.
The best record, though, is the three-hour “King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis,” a brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking created by Ely Landau and shown for only one night, in 1970. It was released this January on DVD, by Kino. There is no narration. Besides the canonical events, there is footage of King in less formal mode—grinning as Mahalia Jackson sings “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” in a Chicago church, and reminiscing about the times he was most afraid.
Why did the classical phase come to an end? That is easy to answer: the fissuring of the movement over the issue of nonviolence; the challenge of addressing discrimination in places, like Chicago, that did not have Jim Crow laws, and, generally, of changing the focus from race to class; above all, Vietnam. “The war came to define America’s image abroad,” as Dudziak writes. “All other issues paled in significance.” King’s opposition to the war cost him access to the White House. And the replacement of intent with effect as the standard for determining discrimination—effect is the standard that affirmative-action programs use—contributed to a white backlash. In 1964, sixty per cent of blacks and thirty-nine per cent of whites agreed that there had been a “real change” in the position of African-Americans. In 1976, sixty-three per cent of whites agreed with that statement, but only thirty-two per cent of blacks.
A harder question is why the classical phase lasted as long as it did. The answer surely has something to do with the personality of King and the nature of his leadership. As a student at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, King had taken an interest in the Social Gospel movement and in Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence. But he does not seem to have imagined himself leading a crusade for social justice. Branch suggests that he originally expected to preach, then take an academic position.
When he was approached, in 1955, to speak at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery bus boycotters, King was twenty-six years old. He declined. He changed his mind when he was assured that he would not have to take a leadership position. King had less than half an hour to prepare that speech, which he delivered in the Holt Street Baptist Church to an overflow crowd of more than five thousand. It’s a powerful oration—“If we are wrong,” he said, “God Almighty is wrong!”—and he must have sensed, from the frenzied response, that this was work he was intended to do. And it’s all he did. He never thought of running for office. Despite being tempted, cajoled, and baited, he never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence.
The activists in SNCC were not the only ones who thought King was an opportunist. So did Marshall, the man who argued Brown before the Supreme Court. So did J. Edgar Hoover, who tried to convince Kennedy that King was a dupe of the Communists, and who suspended the F.B.I.’s practice of warning political figures of death threats in King’s case.
So, for a time, did Roger Wilkins, an assistant attorney general in Johnson’s Justice Department. Then, in 1966, Wilkins went to see King in Chicago, where, in the face of neo-Nazi violence, King was trying to get the city to address the problems of inner-city poverty. King had rented a walkup in a slum neighborhood. When Wilkins and another Justice Department lawyer got up the stairs, they found King in a small, airless room in a railroad apartment, talking to forty or fifty gang kids. He was holding a seminar on nonviolence. “For hours this went on,” Wilkins later told one of L.B.J.’s biographers. “There were no photographers there, no newsmen. There was no glory in it. He also kept two assistant attorney generals of the United States waiting for hours while he did this.” It was four o’clock in the morning when King finished. He woke Coretta and she made coffee. “We sat and we talked,” Wilkins said. “He was a great man, a great man.”
King believed that defending the voting rights of minorities was the responsibility of the executive branch. For years, while civil-rights workers were being beaten, jailed, and murdered across the South, King begged the White House to send federal authorities to protect voter-registration drives. Presidents and attorneys general always found reasons to refuse. Finally, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress gave the executive branch the tools and the authority to enforce the law.
With the decision in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court has taken much of that authority away. Claims of Fifteenth Amendment violations must again be pursued through the courts, a lengthy and expensive process that shifts the burden of proof to the plaintiffs. As Richard Pildes, a voting-rights expert at the N.Y.U. School of Law, and others have argued, some of the blame for the decision should go to Congress. In 2009, the Court sent Congress a signal, in a case called Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, that it needed to revisit the act’s definition of which areas were covered by the requirement that they clear changes in voting regulations with the Justice Department. That provision had not been revised since the mid-nineteen-seventies. But it has been politically expedient for Congress to renew the act, rather than add places where discrimination is a problem today.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., said, a sentiment echoed by Justice Thomas. They could not mean that race is no longer an issue. The Times reported that one place eagerly awaiting the Court’s ruling was Beaumont, Texas, where the Justice Department has blocked several attempts by a group of white citizens to change voting regulations for the explicit purpose of unseating a black-majority school board. What’s so changed about that? ♦