Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, see ‘Selma’ and read ‘Why We Can’t Wait’

REUTERS/Larry Downing
King was an idealist, with a very practical sense about him. He knew his key ally, President Johnson, couldn’t do things exactly as demanded, on a set schedule, and that he had to mold the people into some kind of a working coalition needed to do the critical work, like enduring the danger of walking across the Edmund Pettus bridge in March, 1965.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. The Day was first implemented in 1986; first recognized by all States in 2000. This years MLK Day is one of the most significant in the days history, in my opinion.

Yesterday I went to the film “Selma” about the events surrounding March 25, 1965, and the ultimate passing of the Voting Rights Act later that same summer*.

The film is powerful and moving. I would urge attendance.

Today the very Right to Vote is under serious attack in many places in our country.

I’m an old geography major, so I always seek some geographic context. Here is a map of Alabama from my 1960 Life World Atlas: Alabama as of 1960. Here’s the more specific location:

Selma Alabama is about 30 miles west of Montgomery, the capital of Alabama

At the time of the 1965 march, Selma was on the very bottom of my list of priorities. My wife, 22 years old, was desperately ill, and two months after March 25, she and I were making the long trip from Elgin ND to Minneapolis where she was admitted to the University of Minnesota Hospital for a needed kidney transplant.

She died two months later.

The film, which opens with King receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, has been roundly criticized about its interpretation of then-President Lyndon Johnsons actions at the time of the voting rights act. At the same time, it has been suggested that the criticism has been motivated more by things like jockeying for position for Oscar nominations, than actual criticism of historical facts.

Actually watching the film, I think the general picture of that period in history is quite accurately portrayed, including its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson.

About a year before the events of Selma, and right after the assassination of President Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963), Martin Luther King Jr., then 34 years old, published a fascinating book, still available, called Why We Can’t Wait, recounting the incredible year of 1963. In this book, which includes the famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail, the final chapter assesses in brief but fascinating fashion Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower and Johnson.

I consider the book a must read for anyone hoping to understand the times of MLK. It is written in King’s own words, about the who’s and the what’s, just after the actions of 1963 had taken place.

There is one comment by Johnson in the film which wraps it up for me:

MLK is making his demand for Voting Rights for Negroes, and Johnson angrily asks King to understand the difference between advocating for a single issue, in this case, voting rights, versus the problem any President has, in juggling multiple issues, dealing with endless enemies and friends with differing and often conflicting priorities.

Of course, King also had enemies in high places: As most know, one of King’s major arch-enemies back in the day was J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful head of the FBI. The film uses, powerfully, entries from FBI logs about wiretapping King, then using these in efforts to destroy him.

It has long been clear to me that Johnson supported Kings ultimate goal of voting rights for all citizens, but, as Kennedy had before him, Johnson counseled King that a President, any President, cannot simply wave a magic wand and get his way with the often rebellious rabble called the Congress, and Governors, and all sorts of officials and individual citizens everywhere.

Direct, organized, cooperative citizen action is essential to success in any initiative.

That word “cooperative” is a tough one. King experienced those tensions too.

King, at least in my reading, got it, about how to succeed. The movement was not about him. He was an idealist, with a very practical sense about him. He knew his key ally, President Johnson, couldn’t do things exactly as demanded, on a set schedule, and that he had to mold the people into some kind of a working coalition needed to do the critical work, like enduring the danger of walking across the Edmund Pettus bridge in March, 1965.

Making change is very difficult. King, even with his allies sometimes in conflict with him, and with each other; and Lyndon Johnson, with an even more enormous quandary with everyone he had to deal with, accomplished something miraculous in 1965. About the time LBJ signed the bill, he was reported to have said that he knew this singular action would lose the south for the Democrats for a very long period of time, and he was right.

In my opinion, the Old South will not rise again, 50 years of some freedom and some justice have made a huge difference, though much work and diligence is required.

Some years ago I almost literally stumbled across another writing about the difficulty of political decision making, as recounted by two Peace and Justice leaders. They had met with former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice-President, and here is how they recounted Humphrey talking about practical politics.

Do watch the film, and read the book.

But most importantly, not only increase your own actions, but be more aware of the need to compromise and to be satisfied with incremental change rather than a too common “all or nothing” approach to negotiations.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is in peril; the difference between now and 50 years ago is that the people who can solve the problem are no longer disenfranchised, and simply need to be certain to register and to vote.

* – An outstanding photo chronicle of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement is the 1995 book He Had a Dream, by Minnesotan Flip Schulke. Copies of the book remain available. I have the autographed book, from the 1998 Martin Luther King Day Breakfast in Minneapolis where Mr. Schulke spoke. Pages 90-115 photo document the Selma action in 1965. Mr. Schulke was a graduate of Macalester College, met and first photographed Dr. King in 1958, and worked with him until Dr. King was murdered in Memphis April 4, 1968.


POSTCRIPT: I wrote previously about Why We Can’t Wait on Martin Luther King Day in 2013.

At the beginning of the 2013 post, ironically, I quote Fr. Pat Griffin, a retired Priest of the Diocese, who often says one or more Masses on Sunday at Basilica of St. Mary. Yesterday Fr. Griffin was again celebrant at Basilica, and this day quoted MLK as follows: “if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” This quote, from the end of a long sermon of King’s called the “Drum Major Instinct” given Feb. 4, 1968, not long before his death, became controversial because it was misquoted on the new monument to his work on the National Mall in Washington DC.

The key words left out: “If you want to say”….

This post was written by Dick Bernard and originally published on Thoughts Towards a Better World.

If you blog and would like your work considered for Minnesota Blog Cabin, please submit our registration form.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/19/2015 - 11:07 am.

    “Selma”, the movie, has been roundly criticized, by folks a lot more versed on the truth than I, for distorting history. Seems to me that no time is a good time for that.

    Fiction has it’s place, but people wanting to honor King should do so by examining the factual historical record, in my opinion.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/20/2015 - 08:01 am.

    As a non-black person

    who grew up in a black neighborhood 60 years ago, who went to black churches and predominantly black schools, it saddens me to say that race relations in this town are worse now then they were 60 years ago.

    So why is that?

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/20/2015 - 11:54 am.

    Those interested in

    honoring Dr. King by examining the factual historical record might want to look at:

    Dispelling the Myths About Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    e. g.

    “While activists on the right attempt to recreate King into their own image, they often reject those parts of King that were both the most radical and the most inspirational, both to his generation and beyond. They hold up his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech few know was in many cases extemporized on the spot, as his most authentic voice, and see him advocating for a color-blind, desegregated world in which they argue there is no need for policies like Affirmative Action. At the same time they completely ignore works like “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” a missive scrawled on whatever paper King could access as he was kept in solitary confinement after an arrest during a protest on Good Friday.”

    Those who wish to learn the facts can indeed do so. Any inaccuracies that may be found in the excellent film Selma will not deter them.

Leave a Reply