It’s like they had a camera in our apartment

by Eric on January 16, 2015

We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:

the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.


(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)

So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.

Beyond that we daren’t go.

But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.

Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.

So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)

And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.

I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.

(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)

But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.

The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.

Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.

But it is a shame.

Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.

{ 63 comments }

1

Eric 01.16.15 at 10:53 pm

Also, I am reasonably sure Oprah Winfrey produced this movie on the expressed condition that she get to whale on a redneck cop with her handbag.

2

Main Street Muse 01.16.15 at 11:32 pm

As historical fiction, Selma – however fictional – is a massive improvement over Oliver Stone’s JFK.

I thought the Brits did a great job in these American roles.

The writing at times was ponderous. But otherwise, a visceral look at the hatreds that have owned America and the courage needed to move past the haters.

3

Bruce Wilder 01.17.15 at 12:01 am

Hating LBJ for the wrong reasons doesn’t seem like good will.

4

Bernard Yomtov 01.17.15 at 2:35 am

Sorry to be unimaginative, but what in the world does “XVII-15-IX” mean? I make it -VII, but that can’t be right, can it?

5

mattski 01.17.15 at 3:05 am

A review of Selma by a scholar I’ve come to trust and admire.

@ 2

In my view Stone’s film suffers the same defect as this one, i.e., pinning too much on Johnson. But besides that his story stands up to scrutiny. The difficulty lies in navigating the literature because there is a lot of crackpot work that needs to be avoided. In that regard, here’s a tip.

6

J. Parnell Thomas 01.17.15 at 3:44 am

While we’re waiting for someone who knows what she or he’s talking about….

Googling give some stuff about Roman numerals being for spines and Arabic numerals for soft fin rays.

Here’s a picture that seems to clarify that, sort of.
http://svrsh2.kahaku.go.jp/fishis/image/fin.jpg

7

J. Parnell Thomas 01.17.15 at 3:57 am

The web page that picture comes from clarifies things more, sort of.
http://svrsh2.kahaku.go.jp/fishis/

8

Kiwanda 01.17.15 at 7:09 am

To the extent that Steinbeck is following Keats’s belief that Newton had “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours”, yada yada yada: oh, fuck you, John Steinbeck.

9

bad Jim 01.17.15 at 7:36 am

Kiwanda: not at all. Steinbeck was sailing with his friend Ed Ricketts, “Doc” of Cannery Row, and writes as an enthusiast of marine biology.

10

ZM 01.17.15 at 10:17 am

“So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.
Beyond that we daren’t go.”

This topic makes me think of Greg Dening’s A Poetic For Histories. I remember reading it as a history undergraduate and it was very good but of the kind of good that left me feeling – oh, dear I shall never reach this kind of history writing.

I do think he went a little further in his concept of History/histories than you think histories should go – probably because he was a Pacific historian and your idea disallows non-Western/non-Modern histories from counting as history.

“Being a humanity is one of history’s many graces.

So histories in our poetic are not just the stream of consciousness about the past but that knowledge made dramaturgical in its forms of expression. Histories are fictions – something made of the past – but fictions whose forms are metonymy end of the present. Histories are metaphors of the past: they translate sets of events into sets of symbols. But histories are also metonymies of the present: the present has existence in and through their expression. The present – social reality, the structures of our living – has being through representations of the past in coded public forms. We read or hear histories in this double way. We know in them both a present and a past.

This should not be a disturbing statement. But it sometimes is. It is sometimes seen to plunge us into subjectivity and relativism. It is sometimes seen to leave us with the appearances of things and no underlying reality. …

The founding fathers of sociology and anthropology did their sciences a disservice when they confused historical explanation with History and histories. In seeking their independence and separation from other sciences, they looked for ways other than historical to explain human events and actions. Their exclusivity distracted them from the discovery of how histories as everyday experience construct social reality. They equated a method of argument with a mode of consciousness and by that were unable to make a fundamental postulate about human social reality: it is experiential; it is constituted in and by presentations of the past. Put another way : praxis is histories. Histories are sensuous human activity that make and unmake the structures of living.

Such declarations are solipsistic and not a little gnomic. I write a solemn little convention to myself that histories are public knowledge of the past that make a present. But we have everyday usages of words like ‘history’, and these are not changed by any definition of mine…..

It has been the myth of historians become the myth of our culture that the past is discovered objectively and factually by our being accurate about it. One symptom of that belief is the statement that “primitive” societies have no history. That statement should be: “primitive” societies do not have the systematic conventionalities – rules of inquiry and evidence – that allow them to historicise in ways recognizable and persuasive to us; nor do they have the infinitude of institutional support systems (from archives to The Guinness Book of Records) to persuade them that accuracy is the truth, that History is the past. I trail my coat. Let me show that being accurate is a fetish of a very special sort of history. A poetic for history will show histories’ more varied concerns. Let me show also that an ethnography of History as a mode of consciousness is History’s anthropology even as it is anthropology’s History. Historians cannot escape a theory of how the past is in the present any more than can anthropologists.

Histories are ways of knowing what happened in the past. The qualities of histories are different from the qualities of the past.”

11

stevenjohnson 01.17.15 at 3:28 pm

I thought the greatest failing of Selma was precisely in using historical fiction’s power to pronounce on inner experience. Historians must be cautious in “explaining” why King didn’t march on but turned around, but this movie didn’t. I don’t know whether Webb/DuVernay thought it was because King was physically afraid, because he feared leading his followers into a trap or whether he was simply taking the deal they showed Johnson’s minion offering. Isn’t the whole point of historical dramatization to allow the opportunity to decide without making impossible claims to factual truth?

I don’t think it was a matter of subverting historical fiction with an historians’ caution, either. The importance of Johnson’s political commitments to the Great Society and the Vietnam War would have gotten rather more time. In particular, the importance of civil rights in Cold War propaganda, both pro- and anti-US, would have been highlighted by more than King’s distaste for Nobel formal wear.

Selma, despite its superior aesthetic, copies Lee Daniels’ The Butler in disappearing Communist involvement in civil rights. James Forman gets a more sophisticated slap down than the belching Black Panther bimbo in The Butler, apparently as the designated representative of the Left. Otherwise the movie is careful to treat everyone else who had an independent career or respectably bourgeois achievement with great respect. It’s not a bad thing that young people learn Harry Belafonte sang “Day-O,” but seeing Bayard Rustin on screen might have been a good thing too.

The choice to present Malcolm X as a kind of bad cop impersonator deliberately trying to back up King with his shtick is one thing. But the idea that the number of John Lewis’ congressional terms is more insightful historical context than the great riots of the Sixties? I’m not at all sure about that.

I completely missed the claim that LBJ ordered the suicide letter since I already knew better. But I think it was the follow up that demonstrates Selma’s odd timidity. The only
function in the drama is to raise the issue of King’s infidelities, in a way that turns it into something talked about, rather than shown. I’m not quite sure why a movie about Selma rather than King needs this. But if this really was a biopic, then this scene is wrong because if we have a big confrontation scene with Coretta, the dramatic payoff is in understanding why she makes the choice she does.

But…I don’t think anyone knows from this movie whether Coretta is a civil rights firebrand who’s in a political alliance, not a marriage. Or whether she’s a dutiful wife who copes with hubby’s ways as best she can, as long as he really loves her, not them. Or whether she’s a tough minded woman who forgives a man under huge pressure, including fear for his life, for seeking momentary forgetfulness, like a wife forgiving a soldier on campaign for patronizing whores.

I’m not sure whether DuVernay’s rewrite was another illustration of the powerful adage that the director is Hollywood’s last, best chance to fuck up the script, or not. But I’m pretty sure that Selma is not a great movie. It is a great topic, it’s about something besides wish fulfillment fantasy, and it’s pretty slick, but it is still a very careful movie.

12

cassander 01.17.15 at 6:21 pm

you have articulated exactly why I don’t like historical fiction. whenever I consume any, I feel like I have gained negative knowledge until I’ve gone and researched the event in question to learn what changes were made in the name of narrative. And even after that, I worry that the fiction, because it’s almost by definition more vivid and compelling than the actual history, is what will stick in the mind.

13

Eric 01.17.15 at 6:36 pm

seeing Bayard Rustin on screen might have been a good thing too\

stevenjohnson, Bayard Rustin appeared on screen and in fact had an important, if small, speaking role.

14

marcel 01.17.15 at 7:05 pm

Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker.

My recollection from the Caro volumes is that had it not been weakened, the 1957 CRA would likely not have passed – the Senate had bottled up CRAs ever since the end of Reconstruction.* What made this one so important was not so much what it did, but that it actually passed. It provided a precedent for the more important ones that followed. If this is correct, one might as well bitch that the main reason Johnson supported it was not any deep feeling for justice or civil rights but because without it, there was no way that he, a southerner, would have had a snowball’s chance in Hell of becoming President, that he only supported it because he was looking ahead to the 1960 campaign.

So, yes, he weakened the CRA of 1957. And we remember the CRA of 1957 today because it passed and was the forerunner of more important ones to come.

*If you care to trust Wikipedia, see this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act

15

marcel 01.17.15 at 7:09 pm

(Sorry, I forgot I have a bit more to say):

After Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law much of Kennedy’s civil rights bill with an emphasis on equal access to public places. But Johnson had stripped the act of an important voting rights aspect, since he thought it would be filibustered otherwise.

https://consortiumnews.com/2015/01/02/a-disappointing-selma-film/

(Thank you, mattski)

And we know how that, stripping out an important voting rights aspect played out: voting rights were never heard about again… Oh wait a minute; I guess that’s not quite right.

16

Manju 01.17.15 at 8:06 pm

After Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law much of Kennedy’s civil rights bill with an emphasis on equal access to public places. But Johnson had stripped the act of an important voting rights aspect, since he thought it would be filibustered otherwise.

This only makes sense if one lives in an alternate world where the 1964 civil rights bill was not filibustered. WTF?

17

Manju 01.17.15 at 8:37 pm

Re: 1957cra

The bill that the House passed is about as strong as the 1964 cra. Then it enters the Senate. LBJ guts the legislation but gets it passed. Does this indicate he is pro civil rights, or that he is pro Jim Crow?

Liberal historians, including Caro, have long argued the former…citing the “fact” that without gutting, overcoming a filibuster would’ve been impossible.

They are wrong. And the argument is rather rich, considering that LBJ fought to keep the filibuster in place…thus making the filibuster-excuse circular. Phillip Klinkner explains:

…Johnson’s first maneuver was to help defeat an effort by Republicans and liberal Democrats to rewrite Senate Rule 22 in order to short-circuit the expected Southern filibuster. At the opening of the 1957 session, pro-civil rights senators sought a ruling from Vice President Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as the Senate’s presiding officer, that the Senate was not a continuing body and therefore was not bound by previous rules. That would mean that a majority of senators could establish a new rule allowing debate to be shut off with only a simple majority, not the usual and nearly unobtainable sixty-four votes. Indeed, Nixon, hoping to swing black votes to the GOP, would have issued such a decision. But before he could do so, Johnson used his prerogative as majority leader to move to table the proposed rules change. Using all the skill and power he had amassed as majority leader, Johnson managed to get a majority for his motion. But it was a 55-38 tally. If only seven votes had gone the other way (the three absentees having announced against Johnson’s motion), the motion would have lost, Nixon would have issued his decision, the filibuster would have been broken and an effective civil rights bill would have been passed in 1957, not 1964. As a result of the defeat on Rule 22, the bill that ultimately did pass was only a very weak voting rights measure.

http://www.thenation.com/article/great-societizer?page=full#

18

Bruce Wilder 01.17.15 at 9:31 pm

marcel @ 14

had it not been weakened, the 1957 CRA would likely not have passed” sounds like Scott Lemieux winding up for some hippie punching on behalf of making the Practical (but allegedly lesser) Evil the enemy of the Good. This sort of retrospective anachronism erasing any genuine understanding of the past as different from the present is the great risk of popular history.

As I recall, Caro, with his painstaking attention to details, is pretty clear that what Lyndon Johnson achieved in the 1957 CRA was making the Democratic Party a credible vehicle for civil rights reform efforts. Both Parties were promising to enact civil rights legislation, and the Senate of the 1950s was closely divided between the two Parties, but the weight of senior Democratic committee chairman from the South had handicapped the capacity of the Democratic Party to deliver legislatively on civil rights and other issues dear to its liberal and labor constituencies. Johnson’s genius allowed him to use a combination of personal relationships with Southern Senators, insight into the deep desiderata of individual Senators and creative scheduling of legislative priorities to marshal a coalition of Western Senators, lukewarm on civil rights, in a compromise in which Southerners (except Strom Thurmond) agreed not to filibuster.

Johnson’s motivations included enhancing his own national reputation for leadership, as a possible 1960 Presidential candidate. In the 1958 elections, the Democrats won much larger majorities in the Senate with civil rights identified with an ascendant and liberal Democratic Party.

19

LFC 01.18.15 at 12:40 am

@manju
thanks for the link to the Klinkner review. (I’m probably not ever going to plow through 1000 pp of Caro, given other things to read, so this is useful.)

20

mattski 01.18.15 at 12:48 am

Manju,

That’s an interesting article, but I dare say Klinkner can’t seem to make up his mind whether Johnson’s machinations were progressive or not.

For example, Klinkner allows both that LBJ ‘saved’ the Senate by curtailing it’s unlimited debate and that this reform came as a blow to the status quo. And yet somehow Klinkner feels compelled to imply that there was some preferred course of action available:

Caro may be right that Johnson saved the Senate, but he doesn’t consider whether it was worth saving in the first place. Yes, Johnson did reform the chamber so that it could legislate more effectively, but the institution remained and remains a throwback to a predemocratic era.

Looks like a bit of a reductio-ad-absurdum to me.

21

dr ngo 01.18.15 at 3:36 am

” being accurate is a fetish of a very special sort of history”

damn. my fetish has been revealed. (i was going to say “uncovered,” but that’s a different fetish.)

22

ZM 01.18.15 at 4:46 am

dr ngo,

You have quite missed the point I am afraid – accuracy in the symbolic recreation and representation of an “evanescent” past event or series of events is a fool’s or Proust’s quest – “all that has happened is almost indescribable” and that the modernist Western idea of History as a “text-able past” is a “culturally mythic view” as much as traditional folk, non-Modernist, or non-Western histories that are not accepted as History.

“What happened in the past inevitably leaves sign-bearing relics: in personal memories first of all, but, more importantly, in memory translated into its social forms – gossip, legend, story, myth, anecdote, parable, sermon, speech. It leaves relics, as well, in transcriptions of all kinds- in memory written down, in the registers of institutions, in illustrations and depictions, in all the material things of the cultural environment. These oral, literary, material relics are extraordinarily complex in their sign-bearing characteristics, although there is an everyday common-sense prejudice that they are simple. … Inevitably the inscribed language is stripped of the context of speech, the eye to eye exchanges that catch the mood, the nuances, the tropes that condition the signs. Already the relics of the past in their messages are transformed simply by being read…

Most relics hold a message : they all hold a code. They all encapsulate their cultural forms”

The whole essay is available in Performances by Greg Dening in Google books

It is quite interesting going through archives. I went through the archives of the old Welsh church in my town – and other archives – and there is a whole lot of materials that you then have to shape into a narrative. The little Welsh church voted to become part of the Uniting Church and so its archives stopped in the 1970s so my essay on the church had to end there – even though many things happened afterwards.

23

William Berry 01.18.15 at 6:35 am

ZM @10:

I do think he went a little further in his concept of History/histories than you think histories should go – probably because he was a Pacific historian and your idea disallows non-Western/non-Modern histories from counting as history.

I usually like your comments but sometimes it seems you have a major chip on your shoulder.

Are you sure you don’t have a beam in your own eye?*

*Apologize for possibly obscure biblical allusion, and for not having yet read the rest of the thread.

24

ZM 01.18.15 at 6:48 am

William Berry,

Um, well I didn’t mean to criticise Eric in particular with that, if that is the effect you are pointing to it was inadvertent since I do often forgoe the niceties its true – but my comments are so lengthy think how long they’d be if I included niceties in all of them too.

But I think it is a commonplace idea in Po-mo / Po-co historiography that Western modernist History disallowed for other histories and that its seeming objectivism is a linguistic or literary device rather than The Truth, and this device was used against colonised subjects , others etc etc. Would you disagree with that?

25

dr ngo 01.18.15 at 8:16 am

ZM: You have quite missed the point I am afraid.

It was a joke.

26

bad Jim 01.18.15 at 8:43 am

I can’t find a cite, but I’m fairly confident that Johnson was proud of his record regarding civil rights, not to mention Medicare and Medicaid. After his landslide victory in 1964, he got some important things done.

27

Manju 01.18.15 at 10:35 am

what Lyndon Johnson achieved in the 1957 CRA was making the Democratic Party a credible vehicle for civil rights reform efforts.

This is not in incompatible with what Klinkner is saying…or for that matter what the NAACP said at the time, or what Malcolm X later said. LBJ made the Democratic Party a credible vehicle for civil rights reform…at the expense of Black Americans.

As you point out, “Both Parties were promising to enact civil rights legislation”. But If LBJ had fought to pass Ike’s original bill, he would’ve risked this:

If ever one needs evidence of the contingency of history, imagine, if you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson. From there, one can spin off any number of plausible scenarios that result in a very different history of the past forty years.

28

Manju 01.18.15 at 10:51 am

but the weight of senior Democratic committee chairman from the South had handicapped the capacity of the Democratic Party to deliver legislatively on civil rights

Ok, check this out. Here is a procedural vote concerning whether or not to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee…run by vicious racist James Eastland of Mississippi. So Aye = Evil

AL Aye [D] John Sparkman
AL Aye [D] Joseph Hill
AR Aye [D] James Fulbright
AR Aye [D] John McClellan
AZ Aye [R] Barry Goldwater
AZ Aye [D] Carl Hayden
DE Aye [R] John Williams
DE Aye [D] Joseph Frear
FL Aye [D] George Smathers
FL Aye [D] Spessard Holland
GA Aye [D] Herman Talmadge
GA Aye [D] Richard Russell
LA Aye [D] Allen Ellender
LA Aye [D] Russell Long
MA Aye [D] John Kennedy
MS Aye [D] James Eastland
MS Aye [D] John Stennis
MT Aye [D] James Murray
MT Aye [D] Michael Mansfield
NC Aye [D] Samuel Ervin
NC Aye [D] William Scott
ND Aye [R] Milton Young
NM Aye [D] Clinton Anderson
NV Aye [D] Alan Bible
NV Aye [R] George Malone
OH Aye [D] Frank Lausche
OK Aye [D] Robert Kerr
OR Aye [D] Wayne Morse
SC Aye [D] Olin Johnston
SC Aye [D] Strom Thurmond
SD Aye [R] Karl Mundt
TN Aye [D] Albert Gore
TN Aye [D] Carey Kefauver
TX Aye [D] Lyndon Johnson
TX Aye [D] Ralph Yarborough
VA Aye [D] Absalom Robertson
VA Aye [D] Harry Byrd
WA Aye [D] Warren Magnuson
WY Aye [D] Joseph O’Mahoney

The usual suspects are all there, but look at LBJ (and for that matter JKF).

This is not an outlier. We can look at rule-22, jury trial amendment, Title III, and we will get similar results. It is here that the real history of civil rights legislation is told. This is what you do when you want to maintain Jim Crow, but want folks to think otherwise.

Don’t think otherwise, Bruce.

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/85-1957/s57

29

ZM 01.18.15 at 10:52 am

dr ngo,

Sorry – I quite missed the joke …

30

Manju 01.18.15 at 11:09 am

That’s an interesting article, but I dare say Klinkner can’t seem to make up his mind whether Johnson’s machinations were progressive or not.

He saying this…what I gather is the consensus view of those within the Movement itself.

In 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) is preparing his run for the Presidency in 1960. In his 20 years in office, Johnson has never voted for a civil rights bill or amendment. But with the fledgling Freedom Movement beginning to stir, he knows that he cannot win the Democratic nomination if he is seen in the North as opposing civil rights for Blacks. Yet to win the nomination he also needs the support of the “solid South” — the segregationists.

With the bill now so watered down to the point of being meaningless, he convinces the Southern senators that it is better to allow a sham bill to pass without a filibuster rather than risk the outside chance that growing public support for civil rights might be strong enough to break the filibuster and pass a real bill that might actually provide some protection for Blacks. This strategy allows him to pose as a civil rights supporter in the North when he seeks the 1960 nomination, while still retaining the “solid-South” support of the segregationists.

I gather that “Selma” is making a similar accusation, only we have to move the date to 1964-65 and point out that the Movement ultimately forced LBJ’s hand onto the right side of history.

For the record, I don’t agree with this interpretation (’64-’65 that is…I agree with ’57 one) but I think its reasonable and mainstream (within the Movement).

http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis57.htm#1957cra57

31

mattski 01.18.15 at 1:01 pm

I don’t think many folks here are inclined to make a hero out of Johnson. And Klinkner’s piece adds valuable nuance. Clearly, Johnson was a self-interested and ambitious politician. Just as clearly he did a lot of god-awful bullshit, not the least of which was reversing JFK’s progressive foreign policy initiatives. But Johnson did a lot of stuff, and some of it was good. And some of what Klinkner writes seems overly speculative. For example,

imagine, if you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson.

“Avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960’s”? Richard ‘southern strategy-civil rights’ Nixon? That’s a little hard to swallow.

he knows that he cannot win the Democratic nomination if he is seen in the North as opposing civil rights for Blacks. Yet to win the nomination he also needs the support of the “solid South” — the segregationists.

Exactly. But what this seems to show is that Johnson wanted the Presidency, understood the process and was willing to compromise. I’m not sure what else it demonstrates.

32

J Thomas 01.18.15 at 2:32 pm

#31 mattski

‘imagine, if you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson.”

“Avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960’s”? Richard ‘southern strategy-civil rights’ Nixon? That’s a little hard to swallow.

If we imagine that they were both primarily cynical politicians, trying to get votes, then it could have been a tossup early on which of them would try to get the pro-black votes and which the white-southern votes. But once it developed that one of them had one, the other would hold tight to the other.

If we assume that Johnson was an amoral gambler who did whatever he thought would get him the Presidency, it isn’t a big stretch to assume the same of Nixon.

33

mattski 01.18.15 at 3:10 pm

32

“If we assume” and “if we imagine” then certainly we could go on all day. Which is why Archie said it best.

34

Anderson 01.18.15 at 3:15 pm

It is predictable, but still amusing, to see a bunch of people whose contributions to civil rights perhaps amount to blog comments, condescending to that Texas redneck Lyndon Johnson.

I’m so sorry none of you were in his shoes in 1957, or 1964, or 1965. Then something worthwhile might have been accomplished.

35

MPAVictoria 01.18.15 at 3:29 pm

Anderson has a point….

/for those of you who don’t read LGM this is Manju’s favourite topic. He loves pointing out how racist the democrats were in the past (completely true!) but always ignores the gradual realignment that took place from the 60s to today.

36

J Thomas 01.18.15 at 3:41 pm

#33 matski

“If we assume” and “if we imagine” then certainly we could go on all day.

Or until we get bored with it.

And this is what people are doing, right? They are imagining what LBJ wanted to accomplish by looking at what he did, assuming that his constraints were not important and that his results matched up to his desires. Or else arguing that he was a good guy in his heart and it’s mean to be so cynical.

Isn’t that what the discussion amounts to? Trying to decide about the thoughts and feelings of a dead man based on the footsteps he left on the sand?

If we’re going to do it for Johnson, we might as well do Nixon too.

37

William Berry 01.18.15 at 4:00 pm

ZM @24:

No, I wouldn’t really disagree with that. I just wouldn’t paint with so broad a brush (and certainly wouldn’t include Eric R in that stroke, but you say you didn’t, in particular, so, fair enough).

Anyway, here in my middle-class, mid-America, retired sequestration, I do sometimes need reminding that it is the wretched of the earth who ought to really matter. Thnx for reminding me of that, even if the style of the reminding does rub me the wrong way on occasion.

38

MPAVictoria 01.18.15 at 7:32 pm

Mattski it isn’t worth it….

/loved the video by the way.

39

Bruce Wilder 01.18.15 at 8:23 pm

J Thomas @ 36: Isn’t that what the discussion amounts to? Trying to decide about the thoughts and feelings of a dead man based on the footsteps he left on the sand?

No.

A politician in office occupies a nexus in a complex web of contested power. Trying to reduce assessment of his choices to speculation on his personal thoughts and feelings ignores the context and function of what he’s about.

I agree with mattski that Klickner seems overly speculative, when he launches into counterfactuals about the course the country took, without doing the hard work of understanding that course as it actually happened.

The Civil Rights Movement stretches back many, many decades and it aimed to change the country. It is hard to wrap our minds around collective achievements of such long duration and persistence, and easier to focus on the roles played by a few prominent individuals, but we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that they are not solitary figures acting in isolation or on an inanimate object.

40

mattski 01.18.15 at 8:40 pm

Good post, Bruce. The idea that a small group of pols reaching a legislative agreement could have defused cross-currents of Cold War and racist tension is a bit much. Especially given the incentives driving the process.

See, military industrial complex…

41

Ze Kraggash 01.18.15 at 8:49 pm

Stevenjohnson already mentioned the most important element of the context: the cold war, the ideological competition, and the US losing it, because of the “Negro Problem”. That’s the story. Speculations about characters, their feelings, their motives, and their petty politicking are completely meaningless, IMO. Politicians do what needs to be done.

42

Tabasco 01.18.15 at 11:27 pm

“Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?”

For the same reason that there are so many Brits playing Americans on television. They are prepared to work for less money.

43

Bruce Wilder 01.19.15 at 12:01 am

Also, the Brits are better at the accents.

Americans are terrible at American accents. Every American can do a broad, location-less white Southern drawl, but anything more subtle just leaves Americans flummoxed.

Think about Hugh Laurie as House or Christian Bale playing Mark Wahlberg’s brother in The Fighter.

Then think of Brad Pitt. In anything where he has to talk.

44

MPAVictoria 01.19.15 at 12:53 am

“Then think of Brad Pitt. In anything where he has to talk”

Oh I don’t know… He was great in Inglorious Basterds

45

LFC 01.19.15 at 1:30 am

Ze Kraggash 41

“politicians do what has to be done”

Because, to Ze Kraggash (and his previous incarnations in other names here), the idea that a politician might have more than one goal (e.g., to keep power and to accomplish something substantive) or that different goals might be operative at different times, is incomprehensible. But simply because it’s incomprehensible to Ze doesn’t mean it shd be incomprehensible to the rest of us.

Klinkner’s description of LBJ’s role in ’57 suggests that LBJ’s main goal at that pt (not his only goal, but main priority) was not to do anything that wd badly damage his presidential hopes. But once LBJ had become pres. and then after his landslide ’64 victory, he felt freer to follow his convictions re civil rts (and I have no doubt he did have sincere convictions on the matter) than he had before. It’s not a question, then, of deciding that someone is all villain or all hero but rather of recognizing the complexities of personality and motivation, which do matter even if one sees (correctly) the movement ‘from below’ as an absolutely crucial part of the story. IOW, both structure and agency, the context as well as individuals and groups, all matter, in different ways. This isn’t rocket science; it’s pretty close to a truism.

46

LFC 01.19.15 at 1:33 am

But to Ze Kraggash, no politicians have any convictions about anything. Their only aim, all the time, is to acquire and keep power. It’s like the Cliff Notes version of The Prince seasoned with a dash of dime-store Marxism and a soupcon of “realism” and then taken for a spin in a trollish race car.

47

Tabasco 01.19.15 at 1:39 am

Bruce Wilder

Or think of Damon Herriman on Justified. He does the south east Kentucky accent perfectly.

48

js. 01.19.15 at 1:43 am

Reading multi-thousand page biographies of US presidents is definitely not part of my MO but e.g. Perlstein in _Before the Storm_ is very clear that LBJ post-’63 was deeply committed to civil rights and more than willing to pay a heavy political price for it.

49

MPAVictoria 01.19.15 at 1:51 am

“But to Ze Kraggash, no politicians have any convictions about anything. Their only aim, all the time, is to acquire and keep power. It’s like the Cliff Notes version of The Prince seasoned with a dash of dime-store Marxism and a soupcon of “realism” and then taken for a spin in a trollish race car.”

Ha! Fantastic.

50

mattski 01.19.15 at 3:54 am

LFC’s smack down of the shameless Irritationist Ze warms my heart.

51

mattski 01.19.15 at 4:06 am

Whoops. Didn’t see Anderson’s 34 until now. I plead guilty.

I would say, snivelingly, that the more I learn about Kennedy and Johnson the more LBJ looks like a pale shadow of the man JFK was. The movie I linked above, JFK: A President Betrayed, is quite good and brings out aspects of Kennedy’s administration not widely known or appreciated today. I highly recommend it.

52

Tabasco 01.19.15 at 4:50 am

“deeply committed to civil rights and more than willing to pay a heavy political price for it.”

It delivered the South to the Republicans. Over 50 years, that’s a lot of electoral votes, senators, congressmen and governors.

53

LFC 01.19.15 at 5:03 am

@mattski
I think LBJ and JFK were quite different, but I don’t think of the former as a “pale shadow” of the latter. But you obviously have v. strong views about JFK (which of course you’re entitled to have), and I don’t think it would be wise of me to try to disturb them.

I think it’s quite possible JFK would have made different decisions on Vietnam than LBJ did, but the evidence on that (though I’m not at all an expert on it) is, I believe, somewhat inconclusive (i.e., it’s not more than suggestive), and anyway this thread is probably not the place for that discussion.

54

mattski 01.19.15 at 5:21 am

No worries, LFC. But do watch that film if at all possible.

55

Ze Kraggash 01.19.15 at 7:06 am

“But to Ze Kraggash, no politicians have any convictions about anything.”

I didn’t say that. I said that they do what needs to be done, and that speculating about their personal motives is meaningless.

Wikipedia: “Napalm B became an intrinsic element of U.S. military action during the Vietnam War; as forces increasingly employed its widespread tactical as well as psychological effects. Reportedly about 388,000 tons of U.S. napalm bombs were dropped in the region between 1963 and 1973”.

“Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine,” said Kim Phúc, a napalm bombing survivor known from a famous Vietnam War photograph. “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212°F). Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius (1,500-2,200°F).

Enough said.

56

Manju 01.19.15 at 11:47 am

“deeply committed to civil rights and more than willing to pay a heavy political price for it.”

It delivered the South to the Republicans. Over 50 years, that’s a lot of electoral votes, senators, congressmen and governors.

Well, he feared it (the 1964 Civil Rights Act) would. But that could be used to support the view of the SNCC at the time, as opposed to Rick Perlstein’s opinion.

Their view: LBJ was going to screw them over (again) in order to keep the South in Democratic control:

In order to win legislation at the national level, SCLC has to influence and maintain ties with the Johnson administration and the northern-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But LBJ and those same liberals betrayed the MFDP at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and SNCC wants nothing more to do with them. Instead, they have turned toward building independent Black-led political organizations outside the Democratic Party which puts them in direct conflict with some national party leaders who still hope to retain southern Electoral College votes that are essential to keeping a Democrat in the White House.

http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis65.htm

The Veterns of the Civil Rights Movement argue that LBJ’s treatment of Fannie Lou Hamer (he sided with the Dixiecrats) during the 1964 convention was a sign that (prior to the ’65vra) he was still double-dealing. “Liberals” is a clear reference to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

You’re entitled to disagree with them. I only ask that you:

1. Recognize that this idea (LBJ as ambiguous on civil rights, even after 1964) is mainstream within the Movement.
2. Hollywood didn’t invent these ideas

57

Manju 01.19.15 at 11:48 am

“It delivered the South to the Republicans. Over 50 years, that’s a lot of electoral votes, senators, congressmen and governors.” are Tabasco’s words, not mine.

58

mattski 01.19.15 at 12:39 pm

59

Meredith 01.20.15 at 5:52 am

I haven’t seen the movie yet and only followed the lines of controversy for a while. About just one of those lines, the depiction/misrepresentation of Johnson’s role and maneuverings: I appreciate the desire not to make a white president the real hero. I truly do. But I also regret (from what I’ve read) the movie’s misrepresentations of Johnson. I speak as someone who was there then (I am 64). The Johnsons, Molly Ivins, and (to go back a little) Will Rogers gave northern (or wherever they lived) liberals not just hope but lots of education. Seems like a more subtle touch was needed in this movie to make it great. But I reserve judgement till I’ve seen it.

60

Suzanne 01.22.15 at 11:31 pm

@51: I would say, snivelingly, that the more I learn about Kennedy and Johnson the more LBJ looks like a pale shadow of the man JFK was.

Jeebus Christmas. There are things to like about Kennedy and LBJ could be a monstrous person, but certainly as far as civil rights were concerned he provided far more effective leadership than Kennedy, combined with some actual passion for the cause (in which Kennedy was utterly lacking; he had intellectual sympathy and contempt for the racists, but it often seemed as if his primary concern about Jim Crow was how bad it made the U.S. look abroad). After the death of JFK, Richard Russell remarked of the new situation with regard to civil rights legislation, “We could beat Kennedy. We can’t beat Lyndon.”

61

Bruce Wilder 01.23.15 at 2:53 pm

The character of individuals may be harder to fathom than the character of the country. Kennedy’s assassination and MLK’s Selma to Montgomery march (and a number of other salient events and developments) empowered LBJ. LBJ wanted to be empowered. They empowered LBJ by galvanizing mass public opinion in the country, at a time when most adults still felt the solidarity of world war II in their hearts and minds. The country was shedding its many hypocrisies and embracing the liberal idealism fostered by FDR and read into law by the Warren Court, at a time when the egalitarianism of the economy was working toward as complete a leveling as could be imagined.

We live in the political bizarro world, which is that era’s distorted mirror-image. What could we possibly understand?

62

Bernard Yomtov 01.24.15 at 2:21 am

Anderson,

It is predictable, but still amusing, to see a bunch of people whose contributions to civil rights perhaps amount to blog comments, condescending to that Texas redneck Lyndon Johnson.

I’m so sorry none of you were in his shoes in 1957, or 1964, or 1965. Then something worthwhile might have been accomplished.

Well said.

63

J Thomas 01.24.15 at 5:02 pm

#62 Bernard Yomtov

I’m so sorry none of you were in his shoes in 1957, or 1964, or 1965. Then something worthwhile might have been accomplished.

Not me. I couldn’t fill LBJ’s shoes.

Johnson was willing to do what it took to win repeated elections in Texas.

I might be able to do that. But I’d have to believe that it was vitally important. That nobody else could do the job adequately. I doubt I could believe that without supernatural proof.

LBJ was a man who could lead LBJ’s life and not even feel sorry for himself much. That takes a special person, not me.

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