a bit more selma. as you may know, i have been reading about and writing about malcolm x for many years, for example, long chapters of act like you know and extreme virtue. reading the autobiography in 7th grade was a real revelation to me, as i went to a mostly-black school in chocolate city; it transformed my understanding of the racial situation in the world and in my life, and it set me on a road to political radicalism. in my own view, it taught me something important about trying to speak the truth as i experienced it, as he did: the truth about the world, about oppression and liberation, about my own life. now, in selma, it's pointed out that malcolm called martin an 'uncle tom' (his favorite, though, was 'house negro'). i would say even in selma, king is doing stuff that might make someone construe him sort of like that (i am not asserting that these were ultimately fair characterizations at all). but the relationship with johnson is what works in this sort of direction. many people, including maureen dowd today are for giving johnson much more credit for the whole thing, and joe califano has asserted that selma was johnson's idea. (i can only say that that appears ridiculous to me.)
but at any rate, johnson is pictured as using king to try to prevent people like malcolm x or later militants from leading the civil rights movement. king is in and out of johnson's office, maybe also conjuring the spectre of malcolm x (the, um, 'field negro' on his own account, who wants to see massa's big white house burn). now this, even in the movie a bit (king does more or less stand there and take johnson's patronizing attitude), but surely, surely in the accounts of califano, dowd, etc, really would tend to substantiate malcolm's basic reading, and it would tend - in my opinion, at any rate - to discredit king. if califano's account is right, then i'm actually pretty comfortable with malcolm's characterizations of king, though for a white person like me to call any black person, much less king, an uncle tom, would be excruciating or insane. but if you are intent on hagiography - and everyone is, where king is concerned - i would suggest not playing this up too much. at least the movie portrays king as using johnson in a way, bringing ever-greater and finally irresistible pressure. i think this makes king much more admirable than the alternative (that johnson was using king, or telling him what to do), and i also think it is a more plausible account overall, though i have not listened to all the relevant johnson tapes or something, and though of course if we are doing history we ought to say whatever's true.
j. edgar hoover was surveilling king in order to destroy him. bobby kennedy authorized that, but it would surprise me if johnson opposed this approach, and it would surprise me if he didn't try to make use of it to run king. but i don't think that he was running king, and i think that's obvious from what king was doing, including in selma. i think he decided to go on despite the blackmail, which is how the film portrays it. but surely this whole thing makes the portrait of johnson as king's champion or whatever implausible. i guess the claim is that hoover was running johnson; i don't necessarily buy that, and any sort of decent pres would have shut that shit down with extreme prejudice, especially if, as these folks are claiming, he was on king's side. in my view johnson was attacking king's life and family, and trying to put him under his thumb. and in my opinion that did not succeed. johnson was capable of almost any strategem to get what he wanted, and i think blackmail was central to his amazing effectiveness as a senate leader.
and though johnson, whatever his reasons, did do a lot for civil rights, it is worth recalling his monstrousness in other dimensions: he was killing hundreds of thousands of vietnamese people for reasons that were simply incomprehensible, in a war that was unwinnable, and he invented the incident that led to the congressional authorization for extreme 'escalation'. he lied about vietnam all day every day, and he got everyone else in the american state lying about it too. i remember lyndon baines johnson, baby, and i felt the emanation of murderous evil and soul- and democracy-destroying lies, lies, lies.
i did think that the most human, and maybe the most (and even only) surprising moment in selma was the moment martin accused coretta of being 'enamored' with malcolm. but perhaps my response reflects my fascination - a little difficult for me fully to explain, maybe - with the profound contrast and connection between malcolm and martin. in my head, they embody two ways to resist vicious power, and even two ways of being in the world. for whatever reason, it seemed and seems like an existential choice to me, and i still just feel malcolm in the way a lot of people feel king: i was a little white boy who wanted to be malcolm x, and now i'm a 55-year-old white man who, left to me own immediate emotional responses, still feels that way. i think if one took the approach of attacking my right to make any judgments on this, or even to feel these connections in any authentic way, one would have a point. on the other hand it runs deep, and i can't really stop, and i guess i think that even if i am horribly wrong to be this way, i am not doing a great deal of harm to anyone.