Beyond MLK By Lorenzo Raymond @ The New Inquiry

It isn’t that DuVernay is wrong to portray Johnson as a collaborator in J. Edgar Hoover’s police state—even presidential historians acknowledge that Johnson worked “diligently, and perhaps illegally, to suppress the efforts of grassroots civil rights activists…” The problem is in Selma’s depiction of King as a hardheaded negotiator. Contemporaneous recordings of King’s phone calls with the White House show that his instincts towards LBJ were deferential.


Califano may have jumped the shark when he wrote that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” but he hinted at a deeper truth—that the whole idea of Martin Luther King as “the Moses of his people” was largely established and maintained by members of the white elite. In January 1957, when King had only been an activist for a year and a half, he was contacted by Clare Booth Luce, conservative mogul of the Time-Life empire, and offered a cover story. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, Luce rescued King from a state of “helplessness”. In the aftermath of the famous bus boycott and its apparent victory, the City of Montgomery had shut down all bus lines after the Ku Klux Klan began shooting at black passengers, and commenced to enact a whole new wave of segregation laws—an early manifestation of the Dixiecrats’ “Massive Resistance” campaign which blocked King’s nonviolent movement throughout the late fifties. Luce, who was also US Ambassador to Italy, was explicit that she wanted to show off King to a skeptical global public who doubted that there was hope for racial equality in America.

But that doesn’t necessarily break the timeliness of the film. Historical accuracy in art is no small challenge and her work here is so good that it has brought about great discussion and opportunities for teaching. Respect and praises due to Ava DuVernay. Oliver Stone, eat your heart out. That being said, if you’re organizing, make sure to read through to the end of Raymond’s essay.