SELMA as Interpreted by One Standing Behind the Elephant

I am not an expert on MLK or LBJ, but I do have some expertise in hermeneutics (i.e., the art of interpretation).  There are many who have called into question the accuracy of the depiction of LBJ in the recently released movie SELMA, claiming that the movie depicts him as far too negative and that people remember the conversations between MLK and LBJ being much more positive; and thus seeking to discredit the movie and its message.

Interpretation is a tricky thing.  Two or more of us might sit through the same meeting, conversation, etc. and each of us come away with a slightly different interpretation of the content, meaning, and significance.   It is entirely possible that both sides of the critiques about SELMA are authentic memories about conversations had, and that what we are experiencing in the blogs and reviews of the movie are the differing perspectives then and now.

My hermeneutics professor in seminary use to explain it this way:  suppose we have four blindfolded people standing around an elephant, then suppose we ask each of them to reach out their hand and explore the entity in front of them and describe what they are feeling.  While each of them is describing their experience of the same object, the elephant, we might imagine that the experience of the person in the front of the elephant will sound quite different from that of the persons on the side or in the back.  There will certainly be some similarities, e.g., the texture of the skin, but there will also be some significant differences.  The person in front will feel the trunk, the person in the back, the tail.  What a different experience each will describe.

It is no accident that I have picked an elephant for this imagery, because the elephant in the room related to our critique of SELMA is the atrocities that have been meted out to African American citizens throughout their tenure in the land we now call The USA.  In particular, the atrocities meted out during the march to the  Pettus bridge in SELMA Alabama; the violence meted out by state troopers in response to the initial very well organized, orderly, and non-violent march toward Montgomery .  To view the blatant brutality administered by the troopers against the unarmed ‘Negroes’ was very difficult for me to watch.

I was 7 years old in 1965 when the SELMA incidents took place.  I do not remember seeing any of this on television.  I suspect I did not see any of it because my parents were protecting me from the extreme violence as they were want to do.  As I watched the reenactment of the brutal beatings that took place over a march that was intended to raise the awareness that ‘Negroes’ were not allowed to vote in the South even though the law said they had every right to, I understood in a new way the anger and actions of my African American colleagues that I have served with for 20 years.

While the movie SELMA seems to present LBJ in a somewhat negative light, in the end he does the right thing and pushes through a bill, the 1965 Right to Vote Act, that would strike down voting restrictions in every location and at every level.  Were the early conversations between MLK and LBJ as negative as portrayed in the movie?  Some say no, and I believe that is their honest recollection of those conversations.  But, clearly others interpreted them as somewhat negative, or we would not have seen them portrayed as such.  From one group we are getting the description of the front of the elephant and from the other a description of the behind.  I don’t believe I need to explain that metaphor any further.

What is clear is that it took several months, several conversations, several marches, and several acts of brutality to move the nation to bring change.  At one point in the movie LBJ tells MLK “the Negroes need to wait.”  MLK responds by saying “we can’t wait.”  Seems that was the message heard over and over again.  James Cone, in his recent book entitled, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, noted a similar conversation with Niebuhr.

From the ‘Negro’ perspective they could not wait any longer, because although the law had been passed that all adults had the right to vote, maneuvers had been put in place to prevent the ‘Negro’ from being among them.  Meanwhile, all the police, judges, and the overall legal and governmental systems were being run completely by whites, who were not amiable toward the ‘Negro.’  How long would it have taken had MLK and the ‘Negro’ population agreed that they should wait?  Would they even have the right to vote today?

Throughout the movie LBJ kept shifting the focus from the ‘Negro’s’ right to vote to alternative agendas, and eventually to the ‘War on Poverty.’   The War on Poverty is an important initiative that LBJ created and one that we are trying to resurrect today; 50 years later.  However, MLK and the ‘Negro’ population were not to be detained.  Had they not stood up for themselves and demanded immediate action it might never have happened.

Let’s not minimize the fact that LBJ did the right thing in the end and went on to create many more positive initiatives, but let’s also not minimize the reality that the 1965 Right to Vote Act came upon the heels of the non-violent resistance movement led by King and many others.  Had King and everyone that participated in the marches not stood tall and firm the bill never would have been pushed through.  SELMA has provided us a glimpse into the events that took place in the South in 1965 from one perspective.  I believe it is an authentic and valid perspective from one who stood blindfolded in the back of the elephant.

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West

Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith responds here.

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