‘Selma’ and America’s Convenient MLK Myth

David Oyelowo, center, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo, right, as Coretta Scott King in the film, "Selma." –AP

‘Selma,’ the Martin Luther King Jr. Biopic that covers his time in Selma, Alabama in 1965, is a great film. David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo play Martin and Coretta Scott King convincingly, and the rest of actors cast fill their roles effectively. The humanity, the love and hate, the violence and resolve, and the importance of those weeks––and the era to which they belong––are depicted with care. The dialogue is tight and weighty when necessary without getting preachy. The score, barring the song played during the closing credits, is genius in its simplicity. It should walk away from award season with a whole slew of nominations and wins.


But the film itself, at a time like this, calls into question the nature of America’s relationship with a great man from one of its greatest eras this country has produced. Especially when we have polls and materials that have survived to suggest King was deeply unpopular with white Americans up until the time of his death.

In the 1960s, Gallup asked Americans to rate King. If they held a favorable view, they were to assign him a rating between +1 and +5, and, if their view was unfavorable, -1 to -5. In 1963, 37 percent of Americans polled had an unfavorable rating of King. By 1965, it had jumped to 46 percent, and, in 1966, 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view, with 44 percent holding a highly unfavorable view of a man who led nonviolent protests in favor of access to basic American and human rights.

As the Daily Mail pointed out in 2012, Americans left a paper trail of their hatred. The King Center in Atlanta made public more than 200,000 documents by or about King. Many of those documents were hate mail, including letters demanding he return his Nobel Peace Prize, and alleging his direct responsibility in the death of a 16-year-old who died at a riot.


And these pale in comparison to the work of the FBI.

But this isn’t the most telling statistic Gallup brings to the fore. In August of 2011, Gallup asked Americans to complete the same rating. Only 65 percent of white Americans, in 2011, held a highly favorable view of King, compared to 95 percent of blacks.

King’s endearment to the American psyche is a recent development that owes a great deal to the passing of time and King’s murder. Before he died, King had come out vehemently against the war in Vietnam. King was against wars of aggression. He was for birth control, and worked for the poor. One of his confidants, as well as one of his close personal friends, were both gay men. Though Republicans like to remind anyone who still cares to listen that King was a Republican, the views he espoused in his time place him in strong opposition to the GOP of today.

And it would be remiss of us not to mention that King, fulfilling his role as media’s de facto quotable dead black man, is trotted out to shout down opposition to America’s insistence upon violent policing. His own words contradict the ways in which his words are used by pundits and columnists. It also ignores that while King was being nonviolent, citizens took time out of their day to spit on, beat, harass, and jail him.

If the nation that hated him and his efforts hadn’t succeeded in cutting him down before his time, America would probably remember him in a manner similar to Malcolm X, the man commonly held as his binary opposite.


‘Selma,’ too, chooses to wash over the anti-King sentiment from whites as best it can without shooting itself in the foot. Violent Selma residents beat and killed Boston priest James Reeb. “Bloody Sunday,’’ a march led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams which ended in protesters being gassed and beaten, is depicted, as is the death of Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by a police officer in a local diner. But whites are shown overwhelmingly as sympathetic to the cause championed by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Gallup polls, hate mail, voting records, and the desire to keep blacks out of voting booths paint a different story of common sentiment towards King.

Today, the hatred exhibited toward those among us who have crafted movements very much in the likeness of King’s, affirms our nation’s hatred of the original King. It also affirms our commitment to his myth.

Protests that have sprouted up in response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and Ezell Ford have been overwhelmingly peaceful, as were King’s. They were not, however, free of instances of violence or looting. Neither were King’s, though he called riots “the language of the unheard.’’ King, who called an encounter with racism as a teenager the angriest he had “ever been in [his] life,’’ struggled with the anger that stemmed from racial injustice. And King, who George Wallace dubbed a “pro-communist,’’ years before his marches in Selma, dealt with vitriol from public officials akin to the words aimed at protesters today.

None of these facets feature in America’s King mythos. But, 50 years from now, when 2014 is distant enough for inclusion in history books, future generations may find them unavoidable.

In the 100-plus days since the deaths of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and New York City resident Eric Garner, protests have broken out across the country. They have recently reached the level of college and professional sports. But beyond the differences in the way in which these efforts are coordinated and disseminated, beyond the changes in media, these efforts hold the potential to be more transformative than those of King, as they are centered on imperfect victims.

Eric Garner had been arrested for marijuana possession and false personation. Michael Brown may have stolen cheap cigars from a corner store. Ezell Ford has been described as a man with mental issues. And yet, protesters and organizers have forgone the wait-and-see method, choosing to rally around present victims instead of waiting for saintly victims to emerge.

Garner, Brown, Ford, Vonderrit Myers and others have been Claudette Colvins in the absence of a readily available Rosa Parks. With their centering, we have been able to better speak to the state of race and our system of justice.

While no one denies that stealing is wrong, if Brown did indeed steal, he should have stood trial like a white teenager would’ve. If Garner was breaking the law when approached by a plainclothes officer that day, he should have been handcuffed and allowed to face charges. That they were imperfect––as we all are––and that they may have been guilty of some wrong fails to excuse the extrajudicial killing by those of us whose sole duty is to facilitate justice.

After all, propriety––of the justice system, of voting rights, of police, of schools, of a nation’s actions in the face of its self-styled reputation––was at the heart of all of King’s efforts. One can only hope that future generations get a film as good as ‘Selma’ when Hollywood calls for a film on the events of 2014.

Selma will have a limited release on December 25, before opening nationwide January 9. It is rated PG-13, directed by Ava DuVernay, and is 127 minutes long.

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