OF A FRACTURED FUTURE.
H Jonathan Klijn
Dr. Gloria Y.A. Ayee
Harvard Extension School, Govt E-1313
15 April 2022
It’s a montage resisting closure: a panning shot, a rousing soundtrack, a cast of hundreds unified behind a Messianic lead, floating text revealing each character’s fate, lest we forget (Knapp 92). Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014) directs our attention to both the events and repercussions of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights—including “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge—suggesting that Selma is not a lesson learned, but a living history. Underlining this point, Stoddard and Marcus write that films—they reference Glory (1989) and Amistad (1997)—“have the potential to raise issues of race and freedom in U.S. history well beyond the context of the events portrayed in the films” (Stoddard 30). DuVernay urges viewers to consider outcomes and consequences and regard Selma as “reminder that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Its story provides a blueprint not only of the past, but of the way forward” (Henderson). A “way forward” that pauses at one man, his vision, and his failure to heed a report he commissioned when the United States found itself on a precipice: that report, by the Kerner Commission, could have charted American history on a different trajectory. But President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s inertia all but sealed the fate of a nation that would never repent, nor attempt to reconcile, nor ever fully exist in equitable truth.
Selma—both film and place—behooves us to look critically at Johnson and the protests that would erupt almost as soon as the ink dried on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Voting). Some argue that Johnson and his plan to transform the United States into “The Great Society,” an “ambitious series of policy initiatives, legislation and programs” with “the main goals of ending poverty, reducing crime, abolishing inequality and improving the environment,” is misrepresented by DuVernay’s portrayal of him (Johnson). Others question Johnson’s legacy, viewing DuVernay’s reading of him as handled even a touch gingerly (Knapp 94).
Perhaps more than any other decade, the 1960s embody the yin of momentum and yang of recalcitrance. DuVernay picks up on tensions created when these forces collide. But is Selma about voting rights at all? Or is it about doing just enough to squeak by, hoping nothing worse manifests? Until it does. There is convenient neatness to a contrite Johnson declaring, “it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And, we shall overcome” (Shogan).
And, to Johnson’s credit, he signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Less than a week later, however, one of the worst race protests in American history erupted in Watts, a southern Los Angeles neighborhood. Violence, looting, and arson spread for days. The National Guard had to restore calm. And that was just the beginning. The summer of 1967 saw expressions of violence in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, where 43 died, and property damage exceeded $50 million. These flashes of discontent frightened white America, unnerving suburbia. Up to that point, whites deployed violence to keep Black Americans “in their place,” but now tables were turned (George).
When, in July 1967, Johnson announced the creation of a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (NACCD), the county was raw from what appeared the derniers cris of racial turbulence. Johnson appointed Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to lead the eleven-member bipartisan commission primarily to illustrate his doing something. Anything. With the increased stature of a post-Second World War American presidency, the pressure to hit a sweet spot between expectation and delivery was immense. Commissions were a perfect aegis, satisfying the public’s rabid obsession with wonks offering unbiased findings to multifaceted civil challenges. Johnson wanted answers to three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? (Kerner 1).
The answer came in the shape of the 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Report. It identified racial unrest, and Black resentment caused by inadequate conditions in Black neighborhoods. It noted labor outlooks for Black workers to be limited due to prejudice, racism, and discrimination, and it determined that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal.” It stated that “last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division,” and lamented that while “discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American” (Kerner 1).
The Kerner represented a point from which to launch truth and reconciliation. The report is confrontational—even incendiary—but unremitting: whiteness had to wake from privileged slumber in its bed built and sustained by invisible Black hands. It was an establishment finger, wagging back at itself. Johnson was incensed. A callower version of the man who pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, may have engaged with the Kerner, but by ’68, he was spent. Johnson could not bring himself to sign letters of gratitude to members of the commission. “I’d be a hypocrite,” he said. “Just file them . . . or get rid of them” (Lepore).
Worse still, a genealogy of discrimination runs directly from conditions described by the report—only the Fair Housing Act of 1968 bears a feint resemblance to the report as a result of any action taken—straight through the Nixon administration, landing nearly fifty years later at the feet of the Trump administration, where, in 2020, the same issues were exposed, this time by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement—still—protesting over police brutality and social inequality. Indeed, barring unfortunate word choices, reading the Kerner Report today, déjà vu is inescapable. The report lists “at least twelve deeply held grievances that can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity.” These include police practices; inadequate housing, education, and employment opportunities; and various iterations of discrimination and disrespect, from white attitudes to federal programs (Kerner 4).
One month after Kerner’s release, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, riots ensued in over one hundred cities. Plagued by protests over the United States’ participation in Vietnam, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election (Elving).
Selma is a sacred site in Civil Rights, forever linked with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And Selma proved that the fight for Civil Rights had become a kitchen-table issue, and although opinions remained mixed, a 1965 Gallup poll showed a “public clearly siding with the demonstrators, not with the state of Alabama” (Kohut). Selma is a reminder that a sitting President of the United States squandered an opportunity to collaborate with an increasingly angry Black America—now part of the electorate—disconnecting from the opportunity to make the sweeping changes that Black mobilization demanded, as the Kerner Report spelled out.
There is no quibble that Johnson was, in his way, responsive to Civil Rights. DuVernay refrains from mudslinging. Nevertheless, Selma was/is no outlier. And no isolated instance, nor a bona fide victory or, by any means, the culmination of the struggle for equality. Instead, it is a beacon casting a shadow over decades to the protests of 2020, inspired by the death of George Floyd and the grievances listed by the Kerner Report, the same ones ignored by Johnson, underline our fractured, rather than Great, society.
Ava DuVernay [@ava]. “I Can Argue, @HitFixGregory. Notion That Selma Was LBJ’s Idea Is Jaw Dropping and Offensive to SNCC, SCLC and Black Citizens Who Made It So.” Twitter, 28 Dec. 2014, https://twitter.com/ava/status/549235495222272000.
DuVernay, Ava. Selma. Pathé, Harpo Films, Plan B Entertainment, 2015.
Elving, Ron. “Remembering 1968: LBJ Surprises Nation with Announcement He Won’t Seek Re-Election.” Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR, 25 Mar. 2018. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2018/03/25/596805375/president-johnson-made-a-bombshell-announcement-50-years-ago.
Johnson, Lyndon B. “Lyndon B. Johnson, Commencement Address at the University of Michigan (‘Great Society’ Speech), May 22, 1964.” Bill of Rights Institute, https://live-bri-dos.pantheonsite.io/activities/lyndon-b-johnson-commencement-address-at-the-university-of-michigan-great-society-speech-may-22-1964/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2022.
---. “Special Remarks to the Congress: The American Promise,” 15 March 1965, in Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, bk. 1, 1966.
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Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437.