The Selma Wars

There are criticisms of the new film's references to Ferguson, and how it handles LBJ.

Demonstrators march on the streets of St. Louis, Mo., on Dec. 3, 2014. A grand jury recently declined to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Demonstrators march on the streets of St. Louis, Mo., on Dec. 3, 2014. A grand jury recently declined to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Anyone who sits or dawdles in the theater after a screening of Selma will hear a song called "Glory," credited to John Legend and Common. It's not subtle. As the cast is named onscreen, Common links the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches to the 2014 rallies in Ferguson.

One son died, his spirit is revisitin' us
Truant livin' livin' in us, resistance is us
That's why Rosa sat on the bus
That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, "Stay down" and we stand up

That message is rankling with viewers and commentators who are not fully on board with Common or Al Sharpton or the median Ferguson protester. "The civil rights struggle was about as clear a conflict between right and wrong as we get in national life," wrote David Brooks last month (in a column about the argument, not the song or movie specifically). "The debate about Ferguson elicited complex reactions among most sensible people."

In his own review of the movie and its controversies, National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry asked viewers to consider the movie as proof of how far America had come. They could understand the real horrors perpetrated against black voters in the South—the movie shows one woman, played by Oprah Winfrey, being denied the vote because she can't name all 67 of Alabama's county judges—and realize that things were better now.

"The difference between demonstrators in Selma and Ferguson is the difference between dignity under enormous pressure in a righteous cause and heedless self-indulgence in the service of a smear," wrote Lowry. "The temptation for the Left to live perpetually in 1965 is irresistible. It wants to borrow the haze of glory around the civil-rights movement of that era and apply it to contemporary causes."

This is a risky subject for National Review. William F. Buckley, the magazine's founding editor, did not respond to the Selma marches by calling for universal voter rights. He wondered if immediately giving the vote to all black Alabamans would lead to racist vengeance, and cited Egypt, Ghana, and Algeria as despotisms "life for the dissenter is far worse than life for the Negro in Selma, if only because he has hope." He also asked whether, if universal suffrage wasn't possible, it made more sense to limit the franchise by education instead of race—to people with high school diplomas, possibly.

"For the time being the imposition of such a test would undoubtedly mean the disqualification of more Negroes than whites, but that is merely a mechanical reflection of the existence of a disparity in training and accomplishment at the present moment at which is precisely what the fuss is all about," Buckley wrote. "What, after all, does the National Association mean when it calls for the Advancement of Colored People?"

A few weeks later, after the march finally took place, Buckley—a candidate for mayor of New York—gave a speech to police officers. He used it, in part, to tell them that the horrifying imagery of Alabama cops attacking peaceful protesters had been a little misleading.

"What the viewer did not see was a period of time, 20 long minutes, 1,200 seconds, freighted with tension, when the two camps stood facing each other, between the moment the sheriff told the demonstrators to return, which order the demonstrators refused by standing there in defiance of it, until the moment when the human cordite was touched," Buckley said. "Were ever the excesses criticized of those who provoked them beyond the endurance that we tend to think of as human?"

You get the point. From the vantage point of 2015, Selma looks like "as clear a conflict between right and wrong as we get" and a "righteous cause." In the spring of 1965, it wasn't so clear to everyone. Selma doesn't do much with the doubters, though; it portrays the violence against the marchers as so heinous that it serves the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's purpose in pushing the Voting Rights Act to the front of the national agenda. Critics of the march, such as Governor George Wallace, are shown to be obviously, humiliatingly defeated.

That's the history everyone has come to prefer, even the people arguing that no current "civil rights" cause should be compared to Selma. And that's a lot of people. By the year 2000, the tendency of Jesse Jackson to invoke Selma—by then popularly understood as a brave stand for a "righteous cause"—was so pronounced that even Salon made fun of it. In the Bush years, really starting with the Florida recount, conservatives were in permanent eye-roll mode about Jackson et al and the perennial Selma-ization of politics.

"It has been observed that most situations in life remind Jesse Jackson of Selma," wrote Jay Nordlinger in an October 2006 National Review column. "So too, any attempt at electoral reform reminds some people of the poll tax. The poll tax, as you know, was a vicious thing that kept southern blacks from voting until it was abolished in 1964 by the Twenty-fourth Amendment. After the Voter ID Bill passed the House, the whole Democratic universe said 'poll tax.' Rep. Nancy Pelosi ... threw in 'literacy tests'  and 'grandfather clauses.' Sen. Harry Reid spoke of a 'dark era,' Sen. John Kerry of 'the Jim Crow era.' You can sing along, you know these tunes."

As then-National Review (now New York Times) reporter Jonathan Martin put it in 2006, progressives who saw the South as a pit of racism were "stuck at Selma."

That's the context for the skeptical conservative takes on Ferguson, which is by now a metonym for all sorts of progressive and black challenges to the justice system. Retiring Attorney General Eric Holder is frequently called a "race hustler" because he insists that there's endemic racism in the the way laws are carried out. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has agreed with that, and a growing number of conservative legislators have been acting on that, rolling back some sentencing rules that have disproportionately affected blacks.

Still, very few conservatives are comfortable with the idea that the Ferguson protesters' cause is as righteous as the one that people marched for in Selma. The movie's director, Ava DuVernay, is spending more time than she probably expected to spend defending the movie from Lyndon Johnson historians, who worry that viewers are getting a false and venal version of the president. The movie's better designed to handle conservative skepticism, and to insist that civil rights history did not end in 1965.

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