Selma: The Activist’s Playbook
The thing that struck me about Selma was the way it delivered the activist playbook to the masses. While people took issue with the portrayal of President Johnson in the movie, they overlooked the fact that in this movie LBJ wasn’t simply a flesh and blood man, he was an allegory of the office of the presidency. In fact, he was the medium that the Ava Duvernay used to channel the social and political stance of America at the time of Selma. As such, LBJ represented the establishment that Martin Luther King was rather forcefully trying to persuade to move on voting rights for Black people before anything else.
Let me digress for a moment to discuss briefly why attainment of voting rights for Black people was so imperative. Without voting rights, Black people could not elect representatives who could understand the conditions of segregated communities. Without proper representation, a community cannot hope to receive the policies that would productively engage their problems. Without proper policies, the life chances of Black people remain severely restricted even though the law states they are equal. Used properly, the Voting Rights Act would give Black people the opportunity to wield the political might to transform their social and economic status from that of second class citizens to full and equal beneficiaries of the American Dream. Selma is so momentous because we’re still trying to figure this out.
Within the context of the Civil Rights Movement, mainstream America was either overtly hostile to Black people or passively supportive of Jim Crow. From this lens we can view Sheriff Jim Clark and Governor George Wallace as different shades of the hostility that characterized American racism. On the other hand, LBJ was the progressive who established his legacy by working to get the Civil Rights Act passed. However, his priorities began to lead him away from quickly implementing the voting rights which were instrumental in Black people activating their birthright. He mistakenly thought that his poor people’s initiative would do enough to help Black people while helping everyone else. Martin Luther King could see that voting rights for Black people could not be sidelined or become a casualty of political exigency. For the purposes of the movie and strategic thinking about activism, LBJ’s intransigence on the issue was synonymous with the systemic inability to identify the issues that were vital Black survival and place them in a position of utmost political priority. At that point it doesn’t matter whether LBJ had a voting rights bill drafted or a voting rights speech prepared. What matters is that he was not prepared or he did not have the ability to introduce such legislation to Congress and procure the votes to pass it. As such the system, of which President Johnson was the figurehead was stagnant on the equality of Black people. It also bears repeating that while LBJ may have had nothing to do with COINTELPRO explicitly, he certainly was aware of it, and he did nothing to shut it down even though he could have.
Martin Luther King had to grapple with a system in which Black people were literally outgunned, lacking the ability to vote, and facing unimaginable hostility. As a result, he and his partners engineered a strategy geared raise White consciousness to the living conditions of Black people. In order to do this, he knew he had to occupy the moral high ground while avoiding a violent conflict Black people could not hope to win. In the movie, this comes through as a central reason for the strategy of nonviolent protest. Dr. King was betting that America had a moral consciousness that could be awakened with the right prodding. He also knew the system would not move if it was not prodded by an external force. This knowledge is the basis of all activism.
The American democratic system is risk averse and conservative by nature, and those who would seek dramatic change must do so by applying pressure from the outside. This requires an event or series of events which elevate consciousness of unfair conditions into the public conscience and forces the issue onto the public agenda. However, Martin Luther King did not stop there. He used the attention to address the political leader of the time with something that he could do legislatively to address the issue. Martin Luther King understood the streets and he understood politics, and even though he was criticized for being too close to politicians, he used his influence in the streets as leverage to tilt the political calculus in favor of his preferred policies.
An activist cannot be a person or group of people who are adopting activities as a demonstration or simply to blow off steam. They must be able to organize such as Martin Luther King did with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and educate themselves on the nature of the political system they are seeking to change so that when the opportunity presents itself they have fully formulated policy proposals to recommend. Martin Luther King’s genius as a strategist was that he recognized his position, formulated a set of tactics from that position, and used his tactics to change the climate of his environment. He understood that Civil Rights is not only a moral issue, but in America it is also a political issue. Political issues need lobbyists, and Selma showed that Martin Luther King was willing to be an activist, preacher, leader, teacher, and lobbyist for the equality of Black people in America.
I wish today’s self-styled activists would think critically about the lessons imparted in Selma. One cannot truly call him or herself an activist if they have little understanding of the political system they are seeking to change. It is not enough to simply have feet on the ground; an activist must have a feel for politics. Not so that they can be swallowed by the incrementalism that characterizes our system, but so they can find the correct levers to pull America to action. As we begin Black History Month I think it is essential to remember that Black people still do not have equal life chances when compared to other racial groups. It is time we stopped treating examples of police brutality, economic exploitation, and educational oppression as one-off situations or opportunities to blow off steam and start putting faith in our ability to change the system. We need to take advantage of the right to participate in the political system which so many people shed blood for.
I think what really frustrates some people about Selma is that the movie reflects that Martin Luther King did not necessarily have faith in LBJ, (and by extension the progressive agenda) what he had faith in was the ability of organized, intelligent, and committed people to change the system. In 2015 we have so much we can still learn from Martin Luther King, not as the mythic entity he has been built up to be, but as the flesh and blood human being we saw in the movie Selma. It showed us that a true activist is a person who can devise a plan to bring awareness of their issue and then combines that plan with the presentation of a legislative agenda to bring about their desired result.