Sunday, March 15, 2015

Pres. Johnson’s Scintillating Selma Speech

Fifty years ago this month, the small city of Selma, Alabama, was much in the news. And now Selma is in the news again, partly because it is the 50th anniversary of what happened in 1965 but also because of the movie “Selma,” nominated for an Academy Award as the best picture of 2014.
The Oscar was not given to “Selma,” but it is a fine movie. June and I usually wait to see movies (with subtitles) when they come out on DVD. But we went to see “Selma” at the local theater—and then I went to the Plaza in Kansas City for a special showing sponsored by a group I plan to write about next month.
At the latter showing, Dr. Tex Sample, a retired professor from St. Paul School of Theology and a relatively new friend of mine, spoke, and responded to questions, about his participation in the last day of the successful march from Selma to Montgomery. It was quite interesting to hear the first-hand report of someone who was there.
As you know, there were three attempts by African-Americans and their supporters to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, approximately 55 miles away.
John Lewis leading 3/7/65 march
The first march was on March 7 with 600 people setting out for the capital. They didn’t get far: at the bridge spanning the Alabama River on the south side of the city state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas attacked the group and drove them back into town.
That brutal event is known as “Bloody Sunday” (which I wrote about in 2013). John Lewis, a current U.S. Representative from Georgia, was among those severely beaten that day.
(Built in 1940, that bridge was named for Edmund Pettus, 1821-1907, a former Confederate brigadier general, a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and then a U.S. Senator from Alabama.)
A second march two days later was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., but suddenly he stopped on the same bridge, knelt down in prayer, and then turned around and went back to downtown Selma. Many were critical of King for not pressing on, and it is unclear why he didn’t.
That evening, James Reeb, a white minister from Boston who had come to join the Selma march, was called a “white ni**er” and severely beaten. He died two days later.

My friend Tex, who lived in Boston at the time, knew Reeb personally and was shocked by his brutal killing. So he, along with many others from across the country, went to join the third Selma march, which started on March 21. There were about 3,200 who set out that day. By the time they reached the capitol four days later, that number had swelled to about 25,000.
In between the second and third marches, President Johnson made a nationally televised speech on March 15. Consequently, the federal government provided military troops to protect those who went on that third march.
The movie “Selma” has been criticized by some for its portrayal of President Johnson. Since it was a Hollywood movie and not a documentary, it is quite likely that some of what Johnson supposedly said and did was not historically accurate. In the end, though, he is shown very favorably in that March 15 address—and listening to his scintillating speech brought tears to my eyes.
President Johnson, March 15, 1965
Two days later President Johnson sent a bill to congress and in August he signed it, the Voting Rights Act, into law—and the dream of the Selma marchers thereby became reality.


  1. Thanks, Leroy, for this well done and thoughtful piece. The Civil Rights Movement and the labor movement before it--both taught us that progressive causes require mass movements on the ground and sympathetic politicians in positions of power. Unfortunately, for 35 years now, we've had a reactionary right wing organizing to turn back most of the progressive legislation and accomplishments of the 20th century. Obama was certainly right in his Selma speech to celebrate the progress but also correct when he said the race is not finished. I wonder whether America will ever be able to finish the race or whether it will just eat itself into destruction. Racism is a deep cancer.

    1. Thanks, Anton, for reading the commenting on my blog article this morning--and doing that in spite of having to preach later in the morning.

      As you say, racism is a deep cancer. Two or three days ago a local Thinking Friend called to comment on my previous blog article, and in that conversation he talked about the racist chant of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. He asked to consider writing an article about what can be done to keep that sort of thing from happening. But at this point I really don't know.

  2. Once again, a informative, thought-provoking piece, Leroy.

    Two thoughts:

    (1) The Gregory Brothers, who do a series called "Songify the News," have recently "songified" Obama's Selma speech:

    (2) I wrote a poem in 2011 entitled, "Sunday, Bloody (1965.3.7)." You probably saw it on Facebook, Leroy, but I wanted to share it here with those who have not seen it.

    Sunday, Bloody (1965.3.7)

    All they wanted was a vote
    a say
    O say, can you see

    the blood
    on our TV set

    not ketchup
    not Hershey's chocolate syrup

    but blood

    from the heads of people
    to breathe

    There's power,

    1. Thanks, Michael for your double contribution.

      I had not heard of the Gregory Brothers or "Songify the News," but I really enjoyed the clip that you linked to. And I really like your poem, too.

      Thanks for sharing!

    2. You're welcome, Leroy. Always glad to be in dialogue with you, whether it's at your dining room table or on your blog.

  3. I must say that it was difficult for me to take seriously LBJ and George Wallace in the movie "Selma" because the actors portraying them didn't look anything like their real life counterparts--unlike MLK, who looked like MLK.

    LBJ is the only character in "Selma" who is transformed. He was made to look bad through most of the movie so that we could see a contrast in the end. The character of MLK was not transformed. I never felt like I got inside the head (and heart) of his character, especially when he stopped the march on the bridge. The priest later said that he was praying, but when he kneeled, I never saw him close his eyes, look up to heaven, or say anything. He looked pretty confused to me. He does speak about "doing God's will" to the official from DC, but he doesn't unpack that phrase. MLK is resolute at the end of the movie, but so is he at various church appearances, such as a rally and a funeral. Nevertheless, LBJ is unquestionably transformed--by MLK, or by God working through MLK, and he is painted so negatively in order to appear so positively in the end.

    1. Thanks for commenting further, Michael.

      I agree that the LBJ and Wallace actors did not look like the men they portrayed, but I thought what they said was believable. And I agree with the transformation seen in LBJ.

      As I alluded to in the article, there are some strong criticisms about the way LBJ was shown--and perhaps he was a shown somewhat unfairly early on. But that was done for dramatic effect to show the contrast at the end, as you indicated. I thought he looked and sounded so good at the end that the overall impressing is positive rather than negative, so I don't accept the charge that LBJ was portrayed incorrectly.