The critically acclaimed film Selma‘s conspicuous absence from Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for David Oyelowo’s portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. follows its concerted targeting by flunkies of Lyndon B. Johnson outraged by its portrayal of friction between King and the arch-war criminal president. One leading critic, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., casually states “I was then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s special assistant,” an admission he should be embarrassed to make in public, let alone in a national newspaper.
LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove, chiding Selma for avoiding the legislative-centric approach of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, protests that LBJ has been vouched for by George W. Bush. Bill Moyers calls it “the worst kind of creative license” to hold LBJ responsible for the FBI’s surveillance of King — surveillance initially authorized by another liberal icon, Robert F. Kennedy. A more appropriate reaction to the FBI’s activities portrayed in the film (and to the extensive reportage of its misdeeds in the recent documentary 1971) would be indignation that the bureau still exists.
Meanwhile, Selma‘s defenders downplay its (and their) criticism of LBJ. We’ve come a long way since Disney animator Ward Kimball’s anti-Vietnam War protest film Escalation skewered LBJ with phallic symbolism.
But the real issue goes beyond personal loyalty to LBJ, or even a general view of politicians as well-meaning by those fond of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s apocryphal “now make me do it.” Time’s David Kaiser lets the cat out of the bag, fretting that Selma “contributes to a popular but mistaken view of how progress in the United States can occur. The civil rights movement won its greatest triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s by working through the system as well as in the streets.” Forbes‘ Mark Hughes notes that “ultimately the real cause of the backlash against Selma [is that] it suggests the black community saved itself.”
Debating the extent to which the civil rights movement prodded politics ignores its direct-action achievements, with on-the-ground victories for desegregation preceding legislation, sometimes by years. Indeed, social critic Paul Goodman went so far as to assess the civil rights movement as “almost classically decentralist and anarchist.”
Moreover, LBJ’s domestic program was elitist and of a piece with Vietnam. King attested that the War on Poverty’s top-down programs “have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.” Examination bears out Murray Rothbard’s conclusion: “The cruelest myth fostered by the liberals is that the Great Society functions as a great boon and benefit to the poor; in reality, when we cut through the frothy appearances to the cold reality underneath, the poor are the major victims.”
LBJ’s quip that “the only power I’ve got is nuclear” wasn’t entirely hyperbolic. Heeding Voltairine de Cleyre’s summation of the history of the anti-slavery movement — “as to what the politicians did, it is one long record of ‘how-not-to-do-it'” — such force is also the only power we won’t need.