On November 18, 1964, not long before Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took over responsibility for the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, J. Edgar Hoover, closet case and cross-dresser, told a group of women journalists visiting FBI headquarters that he considered King “the most notorious liar in the country.”
The following day King issued a statement saying that perhaps Hoover had become overwhelmed by the burdens of his office. He sent Hoover a lengthy telegram of reproach, in which he reiterated his criticisms of the bureau, including its inability to secure convictions for crimes against civil rights workers and its failure to make arrests for the tragic deaths of four girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 or the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. King observed that the FBI worked too closely with local law enforcement in the South on other criminal matters to have the necessary detachment in cases in which the rights and safety of Negro citizens were threatened by those same law enforcement officers.
The day after King sent his telegram, Hoover’s assistant director composed a letter pretending to be from a black person with knowledge of King’s extramarital affairs:
King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes…. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God and act as you do.
The letter hinted that King ought to kill himself.
Stanley Levison, a Jewish businessman and former Communist Party USA member, had been in King’s inner circle and would soon be again, which to Hoover made King a possible tool of the Soviets. It was on such grounds that Hoover had pressured Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretaps on King’s home and the SCLC offices in Atlanta during the Kennedy administration. Expanded FBI surveillance included bugging King’s hotel rooms. Hoover was irate when King received the Nobel Peace Prize. His assistant director had an FBI agent mail from Miami the above letter to King, along with a tape of King’s sexual escapades in a Washington, D.C., hotel.
No mention of dirty tricks was made in Washington at the December 1 meeting King had with Hoover to try to settle the “liar” controversy. Before he left for Europe a few days later, King commended the FBI for making arrests in the murders of the three freedom riders in Mississippi. The package containing the FBI tape and letter sat around the SCLC offices until January 5, 1965, when it was passed on to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, as routine mail. Dr. King and the four black advisers who listened to the tape with him knew where it had really come from: the FBI. It told them just how extensive the surveillance was and what the FBI might have on King. They were out to break him, to break his spirit, a depressed King said. He also blamed himself.
In Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (1986), David J. Garrow writes that Mrs. King dismissed the tape, calling it mumbo jumbo from which she could not get much. Garrow quotes Mrs. King as saying:
During our whole marriage we never had one single serious discussion about either of us being involved with another person…. If I ever had any suspicions…I never would have even mentioned them to Martin. I just wouldn’t have burdened him with anything so trivial…. All that other business just didn’t have a place in the very high-level relationship we enjoyed.
In the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, Mrs. King (Carmen Ejogo), hurt yet composed, endures the tape alone with her husband (David Oyelowo). The Harlem audience at the Magic Johnson Theater where I saw the film laughed when King says, “It’s not me,” and his wife responds, “I know. I know what you sound like.” Mrs. King—“Corrie” in the film—goes on to tell her husband that she’s got used to the anonymous phone calls, some even describing to her how her children will be killed, but she has not got used to the closeness of death. It creates for her a heavy fog. She is on her feet and wants to ask him one thing and she wants the truth, because she is not a fool. Does he love her? Yes. Did he love any of the others? The pause before he answers is long and the camera is close on his face. No.
He has acknowledged his offense, but his remorse is part of a twenty-first-century pietistic portrait of a great man of the twentieth century. Moved by a letter from her contrite husband, Corrie joins him in Selma at the end of the film for the last march to Montgomery. Not yet will any biopic of King show him cavorting in a hotel room, any more than it would deal with Garrow’s contention that one of King’s affairs was serious. And King won’t say, as he is supposed to have said, “Fucking’s a form of anxiety reduction.”
Just before the scene of the Kings at home listening to the scurrilous letter on tape and to a few seconds of sex sounds, Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson), exasperated by King’s refusal to call off a Selma march, summons Hoover (Dylan Baker) to the Oval Office. Hoover reminds the president that they could easily eliminate King. But Johnson doesn’t want King dead because he wants a moderate to lead the civil rights movement. Hoover then suggests that they concentrate on the wife, on weakening the bond between them. Does the historical evidence support this version of events, that Johnson had Hoover use the tape in order to bring King into line?
Since the release of Selma, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and a black member of Johnson’s cabinet, Clifford Alexander, have said that an otherwise admirable film gets wrong the part Johnson played in those historic events. King was glad about LBJ’s landslide victory in 1964, although LBJ did not phone to congratulate him on being the youngest person to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Johnson avoided him until after the election. In Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years (1998), Taylor Branch tells us that Johnson pretty much sat out the “notorious liar” acrimony between Hoover and King, impassive at a meeting with other civil rights leaders who backed King. But Johnson did call King on January 15, 1965—on King’s birthday—by which time King was back in Selma.
Johnson had used his considerable legislative experience to push through Congress, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kennedy’s bill to desegregate public accommodations. In his 2002 meditation on King’s life, Marshall Frady says that at a White House meeting shortly after he succeeded Kennedy, Johnson had assured King and other civil rights leaders that he would make sure the public accommodations bill got passed. But
out of his compulsion to personally straw-boss the entire course of the country, Johnson somewhat dismayed King by discouraging any further demonstrations, insisting that his administration could now be counted on to secure the rights of African Americans in full.
Johnson wanted a Voting Rights Act, but was doubtful that Congress would pass another race bill so soon. He was sometimes as nervous as Kennedy had been that social legislation unpopular with whites would deliver the traditionally Democratic South to the Republicans. Yet he was determined to make his legacy as a Roosevelt Democrat.
A volatile figure, Johnson bristled when he thought King was giving the public the impression that he had easy access to the president, or that he was dictating the administration’s program: “Where the hell does he get off inviting himself to the White House?” he shouted when King came out of the Selma jail in February 1965 and announced his intention to fly to Washington to meet with LBJ.
King observed that Kennedy listened where Johnson held forth. But the LBJ Presidential Library has made available the recording of Johnson’s conversation with King during that January 1965 phone call. It has the president saying that if King showed the very worst of voting rights oppression in the South and got it on TV, got it on the radio, got it in newspapers, “Pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he’ll say, ‘Well that’s not right, that’s not fair.’” Johnson was describing the kind of moral pressure he needed from King to push the legislation. This represents a significant change in Johnson’s view of nonviolent resistance as a legitimate challenge to power, a matter the film does not address directly.
Studies of the FBI and its relationship with the civil rights movement note that people in the movement sometimes cooperated in their own surveillance.1 Andrew Young has said about those early days that the presence of FBI agents on the sidelines, taking notes and photos as civil rights workers got beaten up, nevertheless had a restraining influence on southern law enforcement. The movement looked to the bureau as the federal agency in the field that might protect civil rights workers. Then, too, transparency was important to the movement. Young said that they would call up the FBI and the Justice Department to let everybody know where the demonstrations were going to be and why they were being held. King even spoke of the need to maintain a working relationship with the FBI.
These histories also show that because of J. Edgar Hoover the FBI’s efforts to know what was happening inside the movement turned into a battle to manipulate and undermine the movement. With the permission of Bill Moyers, special assistant to the president, Hoover sent a monograph on “Communism and the Negro Movement” to officials within the Johnson administration. Hoover had joined the bureau in the Red Summer of 1919, when brutal race riots—whites attacking blacks whom they saw as competition for jobs—broke out across the country. The year 1919 saw also the Red Scare, during which thousands of Eastern European and Jewish radicals were deported. The campaign for social justice for blacks and the threat of communism were forever joined in Hoover’s mind; but by the time the FBI was compiling memoranda defending the bureau’s record against the accusations King made in his telegram of November 1964, fear of Communist infiltration in the civil rights movement had become a pretext for actions that betrayed Hoover’s fear of a black movement itself.
Civil rights leaders and administration officials knew about the existence of the sex tapes. Newspaper editors declined to publish the stories about King’s private life that Hoover’s FBI offered them. Hoover believed he had the power to replace King with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP as the most important black leader in America. Acting Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach complained to Johnson about Hoover’s dossier and tactics, but Johnson did nothing. He could not afford to alienate the FBI director, saying that he’d rather have him “inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”2
Hoover as much as Alabama’s Governor George Wallace was an enemy of black liberation. Yet Hoover appears only once in Selma. Julian Bond has speculated that maybe DuVernay’s film needed a villain, a foil for King, but the question remains why Lyndon Johnson should be made the bad guy when—in this matter—he wasn’t, especially given the number of real villains on the side of white supremacy.
“Give us the ballot,” King had said at a prayer pilgrimage in Washington, D.C., in 1957, but voter registration drives in the South failed and the federal courts offered no relief. In Dallas County, Alabama, for instance, fewer than four hundred black people could vote, out of the 15,000 blacks eligible. Selma, a segregated backwater of 30,000, was the county seat. Not a single black in the neighboring counties of Wilcox and Lowndes could vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been thwarted in its two-year campaign in Selma to register black voters. Marches had been banned.
Together with Ralph Abernathy, vice-president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King arrived in Selma on January 2, 1965, hoping for increased confrontation with southern authority. Evidently, Johnson understood King’s strategy: to arouse the conscience of Congress or the nation, he needed the attention, the cameras, which meant demonstrators risking arrest, sitting in jails filled to capacity, and worse. King expected bloodshed in Selma—his own. When the SCLC went into Selma, Marshall Frady observed, nonviolent direct action as the movement’s primary weapon was being questioned by disdainful SNCC youth. Malcolm X had been making fun of nonviolence for years, unable to comprehend the redemptive possibilities of struggle through sacrifice that King was so certain of.
Selma opens with King rehearsing his Nobel acceptance speech, unable to tie his cravat, uncomfortable in formal attire. His humility and purpose are on display as he accepts the prize. The next scene is technically a flashback. Five children—four girls and a boy—in their church clothes are coming down a staircase, talking about hairstyles. The boy at one point goes in another direction. There is an explosion. This is the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963. We can make out the four girls’ bodies from above in the wreckage.
DuVernay is right to stress the violence visited on black people. A white man from a states’ rights party slugs King when he registers at the antebellum Hotel Albert in Selma. Early on, King explains that whereas they’d made mistakes in Albany, Georgia, in 1962 and Albany’s sheriff had made none, arresting them with every courtesy, County Sheriff Bill Clark, who has jurisdiction of the Selma courthouse, is the primitive soul they must provoke in order to get the images they need, to dramatize the injustice that blacks are subject to.
The head of Alabama’s state troopers comes to Governor Wallace with the information that King will not be at a night vigil organized by a group other than the SCLC and the press won’t be there either. It is a chance to teach black people a lesson, under the cover of darkness. In the next scene, two dozen or so black people are set upon. Young, likable Jimmy Lee Jackson flees with his mother and grandfather down an alley into a diner. Three state troopers burst in after them. In trying to protect his mother and grandfather, Jackson is shot and killed. “We will bring a voting bill into being on the streets of Selma,” King said at his funeral on March 3.
The film’s most crucial scene recreating the violence of the voting rights campaign is a long one showing the tear-gassing and clubbing of five hundred demonstrators by Sheriff Clark and his posse on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 7. The inspiration to march from Selma to Montgomery to confront Wallace came from James Bevel, a young organizer with a reputation for religious mysticism, who was moved to action by Jackson’s murder. Some sources say Bevel advised King not to lead the march. Selma has it that King missed “Bloody Sunday” because he needed to be in Atlanta with his family after the shock of the FBI tape. Branch says that King had missed so many Sundays at his church in Atlanta that he planned to tend to his pastoral duties before heading back to Selma that night. For whatever reason, King was absent.
In the film, the demonstrators, many carrying sacks and baskets, meet a line of troopers at the foot of the bridge. At a signal, the officers charge the demonstrators. Some of the troopers are on horseback, wielding bullwhips. Journalists witness the attack as one demonstrator after another is run down in slow motion in the haze.
In response, King issued a call for good people everywhere to come to Selma to bear witness with them. The second attempt to march to Montgomery was undertaken in defiance of a court order and included many white clergy from around the country. Again, in the film, demonstrators meet with a line of state troopers, but this time the troopers are given a command by Sheriff Clark to stand aside. King is shown at a loss; he kneels on the bridge in silent prayer, and the throng behind him follows suit. He then leads the marchers back to town.
Some members of the SNCC were furious with King after “Turnaround Tuesday,” arguing that he had sold out his followers. In fact, his withdrawal had been prearranged with the Justice Department. But that evening, a white clergyman from Boston, James Reeb, was beaten and later died of his wounds.
In the film, Reeb dies on the street in another scene of concentrated violence. A shaken King learns the news while shaving. (Jimmy Lee Jackson also did not in reality die immediately, as the film has it. King visited him in the hospital.) King is next seen praising Lyndon Johnson for having made a condolence call to Reeb’s family while wishing Jimmy Lee Jackson’s had received the same. Johnson had watched Bloody Sunday on television news with the rest of the country. The tragedy prompted him to announce his intention to introduce to Congress a voting rights bill, saying that it was not right that some Americans were denied the vote.
In Selma, Johnson’s change of heart follows a conversation with Governor Wallace in which he asks him why he didn’t just let “the niggers” vote. Wallace (played by Tim Roth) is coy, angering Johnson, who says he’ll be damned if he lets history put him in the same category as Wallace. That meeting took place on March 13, but Johnson said immediately afterward that he had made it clear to the governor that the right of the people to peaceful assembly would be preserved. On March 15, Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress and declared, “We shall overcome.” In the film we see King and his coworkers watching the TV screen in silence, their goal within reach. In historical fact, some of King’s associates remember the occasion as the first time they’d seen him cry. Three thousand people left Selma on March 21 and their numbers grew to 25,000 by the time the march reached Montgomery four days later. It was, Frady said, more like a celebratory pageant than a demonstration.
We learn the fates of some of the film’s characters in this scene of triumph—that John Lewis, the SNCC organizer who defied his peers to follow King, became a congressman, for instance; or that Cager Lee at age eighty-two became the first person in his family to vote; or that Viola Luizzo, a white volunteer from Detroit who had been moved by Bloody Sunday to journey to Alabama, was assassinated hours after King’s Montgomery speech while driving black demonstrators back to Selma. Hoover had instigated a smear campaign after her death, suggesting that heroin tracks had been found on her arm and that she was sexually involved with the black protester with her in the car when she was ambushed.
Selma stays focused on King. It only leaves him to visit the enemy camp, the anxious conversations among white politicians. He is in jail with Abernathy, chuckling that their cell is probably bugged, or he is in the kitchen of Sully and Jean Jackson (no relation to Jimmy Lee Jackson), courageous Selma citizens who played hosts to the movement unfailingly.
King’s inner circle is there, and the actors resemble Andy Young at that age, or Bayard Rustin, C.T. Vivian, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, and the brilliant James Bevel and his beautiful, fiercely committed young wife, Diane Nash. But the film does not have the time to tell us who these complicated and brave people are, never mind the insanity and rivalries around King. It has to be enough that they are portrayed, remembered. Oprah Winfrey fills the screen in her few scenes as Annie Lee Cooper, the nurse who gave in to the temptation to strike back in front of the Selma courthouse and knocked Sheriff Clark to the ground. Photographs of her being subdued made many front pages across the country.
DuVernay was not allowed to use King’s actual words. As intellectual property, his speeches belong to Steven Spielberg, said to be in the process of preparing a cradle-to-grave biopic himself. DuVernay told Gwen Ifill in a PBS interview that she had to figure out how to infuse her work with the spirit of the times and the man. She “untethered” herself from the words, found a way to restate ideas, and “sharing these ideas is something that we should all be doing.” In that she has succeeded. “Give us the ballot” becomes “Give us the vote.”
I thought I would really mind someone else speaking King’s words; his voice is so haunting, still resonating through our history. But then I thought that David Oyelowo had found his own conversational drawl and pulpit delivery style until the scene of triumph in front of the birthplace of the Confederacy in Montgomery. “How long? Not long,” King famously said in refrain, repeating his words from his unsuccessful campaign in Albany, Georgia. But DuVernay has Oyelowo orate, “Soon and very soon.” King’s Montgomery speech has been reprinted in anthologies of his writings. Because the speech is famous, we are suddenly aware that the language in the film is approximate and that makes us wonder about what has come before. DuVernay and scriptwriter Paul Webb had to find a rhythmic refrain of their own, but they are saved by having Dr. King end on the stirring words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Glory Hallelujah.”
DuVernay also told Ifill that she didn’t want her film to be too dense. She didn’t want it to be “like spinach or medicine.” A biopic is bound to conflate events for the sake of coherent narrative. Selma reminds us that the involvement of religion in politics is not only right-wing in American tradition. Elizabeth Hardwick found Selma an embarrassment of hymn singing when she went to the third march. In the film, we don’t get much sense of King in his Gethsemane, the tormented man once found by an adviser on his knees praying in a closet. According to Frady, King needed the sin, the guilt, in order to feel cleansed later. In DuVernay’s film, King is alone only when he is pondering over pen and legal pad, writing.
She wanted to say, she told Ifill, that he was more than a man who believed in peace and was assassinated. He was a radical. She shows him as a tactician who conceived of the Selma protest as the means by which he could force the president to act. Selma has the intimacy of a chamber piece, but not much sense of the mass character of the Selma protests, of the thousands of arrests that had been made even before King got to town.
King’s schedule during the Selma crisis was grueling. He had speaking engagements everywhere. And the drama that unfolded in Selma was not straightforward. In his account of Selma, Taylor Branch also tracks Malcolm X on his way to his doom, stopping off in Selma long enough to make an apology to Mrs. King for his public expressions of contempt for what her husband stood for (as he does in the film). And Branch keeps track of the progress of the Vietnam War. More than once Johnson had to deal with King after getting a debriefing on the latest disaster in Southeast Asia. The Voting Rights Act coincided with an escalation of the war in Vietnam, with the introduction of air strikes and combat troops.
A film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one, can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the US is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument.3 Imagine Henry Hampton’s documentary Eyes on the Prize as just image, no script. We still need the voice-over of Julian Bond, among others, for perspective and context. At the end of Selma, DuVernay integrates footage of the actual march with her computer-generated thousands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But for the black experience, the word is still chief witness. Selma was the worst place in the world, James Baldwin said.
See Kenneth O’Reilly, Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America (Free Press, 1989), as well as O’Reilly’s Black Americans: The FBI Files, edited by David Gallen (Carroll and Graf, 1994); David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis (Norton, 1981); and Fred Powledge, Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It (Little, Brown, 1991). ↩
Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harper and Row, 1982), p. 315. ↩
See My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered, edited by Howell Raines (Penguin, 1983); Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (Easton Press, 1996); John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Simon and Schuster, 1998). ↩