I watched Selma last night and really enjoyed it. As usual, I agree with what Eileen Jones says: it’s a great and rare-for-movies portrayal of political strategy and tactics. I was especially impressed by how many different activists were given important and distinct parts: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young: we get a sense of their particular work without any cheap backstories.
But there was one, very small touch that really struck me: the way the family treated the story of Viola Liuzzo. I knew just a little about her story, mostly the outlines of her story Corey mentions in his wonderful post: that of a white mother of 5 and local activist from Detroit who heeded King’s call to come lend aid to the march, only to be murdered right after the third and triumphant march by KKK members as she drove marchers back to Selma. When I saw her introduced in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would handle this: portraying this senseless loss just after the moment of great triumph. That’s not the way the scripts go, and who would have blamed Ava Duvernay or the film for leaving it out? But they don’t. It’s right there in those usually triumphant final titles: we read: Viola Liuzzo was murdered 5 hours after this speech just as the music swells. It’s not a story of sacrifice and then triumph: the sacrifices just keep coming.
Most days I take my son to school on the bus and there are a couple of high schoolers who ride it regularly. Recently I heard them complain about their English teacher and why she kept talking about racism and King: “We get it. He made a good speech. Get over it.” I understand the resistance of many to using a Hollywood film, even a very good one, as the basis for education, but there’s no doubt Selma offers lots of people a lot more than what they’ve been getting.
Twenty years ago this week, Johnnie Tillmon, activist and chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), died at the age of 69. It’s a particularly bleak commentary on the nature of backlash that Tillmon died a year before the passage of Clinton’s welfare reform bill. I was in college at the time and learning about feminism pretty intensively. I knew the bill was bad news, the consolidation of Reagan’s disgusting scapegoating of poor women, a cynical attempt to “beat” the Republicans by selling out key members of the Democratic coalition who had no where else to go. But I didn’t realize just how cynical and disgusting until I came across Tillmon’s classic essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” I think through its reprint in Ms. which I was reading religiously.* Tilmmon cast all that pap about the “dignity of work” and indignity of welfare aside and memorably laid down the real indignity: a system that made people submit to invasive controls to prove themselves worth of sums woefully inadequate to care for children: Read more
The first paragraph of The New York Times‘s obituary for Vincent Harding, scholar and co-author of Martin Luther King’s brilliant and always-relevant anti-war speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” refers to that speech as “polarizing” and notes that it “touched off a firestorm,” condemned by Life Magazine and the NAACP.
Not mentioned is the Times’s own exquisitely condescending editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” which is just awful in just the ways you’d expect. the war is a very complicated issue, you see, and calling for peace is just too simplistic. Yes, there have been some horrors, but calling them war crimes is just a bridge too far. And besides, civil rights is hard enough, anyways. (I’m sure King was grateful for that needed reminder.) The connection between Vietnam and the war on poverty is “too facile” – the real obstacles are “conservatives” and “the intractability of slum mores and habits.”
The obituary also describes the anti-war position in 1967 as “relatively unpopular.” As Penny Lewis outlines in her important study of the anti-war movement, support for immediate withdrawal was indeed low in the Spring of 1967, reaching a low point of six percent. But by the end of 1968, the majority supported and end to the war and by 1970 the majority had come to support immediate withdrawal. Yet the the Times’ obituary, referring to the “furor” and “firestorm” the speech caused, finds it notable that “neither Dr. Harding nor Dr. King disavowed the address.” Given their success in convincing the American public in the face of ridicule from the elite, a better question might be if the Times has ever disavowed theirs.