Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a riveting and powerful depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle. This compelling film reveals the scope of King’s radical vision, the fierce opposition he faced and the conflicting currents that only this savvy movement politician had to navigate. It should sweep the Academy Awards.
The greatest testament to the film’s power is the controversy it has spawned. Defenders of Lyndon Johnson, several prominent historians and even King’s longtime ally Andrew Young have objected to its depiction of the president as being at odds rather than a co-conspirator with King.
The debate over the film eerily replays a telling chapter of the primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. In the run-up to the South Carolina presidential primary, in which nearly half the voters would be African American, Clinton—trying to draw a contrast between her experience and Obama’s eloquence—argued that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964… It took a president to get it done.” Naturally, this raised hackles throughout the African American community, leading Clinton to charge that the Obama campaign was “deliberately distorting this.”
The conflicting perspectives reflect very different angles of vision. Dr. King and the courageous citizens who were putting their lives on the line in non-violent demonstrations were demanding action at the federal level. President Johnson and his predecessor John F. Kennedy, however sympathetic, were worried about sustaining a Democratic coalition still anchored by powerful Southern senators. Both felt pressured by the demonstrators. This wasn’t a love fest. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI’s wiretaps of King, which continued during Johnson’s administration.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.