“On Johnson’s Watch, And He Did Nothing To Stop It”: ‘Selma’ Got It Right About Johnson, The FBI And King
The debate is sharp over whether the movie Selma got it right about Lyndon Johnson and his relationship with and to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A counter argument challenges the film’s depiction of Johnson as at best wary of King and his mass street action campaigns in Selma in 1965 and the South for the passage of a voting rights bill, and at worst outright hostile to King’s actions. This debate will likely rage for years to come. But even more worrisome, Selma strongly hints that Johnson aided and abetted if not an active plotter in the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s dirty, illegal and covert war against King.
Whether Johnson knew every gruesome detail of Hoover’s assault on King is not known. However, there are tell-tell clues that Johnson’s involvement with Hoover’s covert campaign went deep. The first tip was his executive order on New Year’s Day, 1964 which in effect assured Hoover his tenure as FBI Director for life.
He reaffirmed that in November 1964 in a meeting with his then Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Katzenbach had pressed Johnson to rein Hoover’s wiretapping excesses in. Johnson made it clear that he would he not take action against Hoover. He considered him a much valued source for information. That information was the steady stream of illegal wiretaps on the sexual antics and personal activities of any and every one from entertainers to Johnson’s political foes. The biggest haul of tapes though was those that Hoover had stockpiled on King. At the same meeting, Katzenbach explicitly told Johnson that Hoover was trying to peddle the tapes on King’s private doings to cooperative journalists.
At a follow-up news conference, Johnson feigned indignation at both Hoover and King and pledged to damp down the friction between the two. Hoover took that as a tacit endorsement and green light to step up his by then virtually open assault on King. That campaign went beyond simply collecting salacious tapes on King. As Selma graphically showed, Hoover sent one of the tapes purporting to show King in an adulterous sexual liaison to his wife Coretta Scott King. The tape was recorded and sent to Southern Christian leadership Conference headquarters in late 1964 just about the time that Johnson again declared his support of Hoover.
Hoover’s brutal and systematic covert campaign against King had a two-fold aim. One was to discredit King as the nation’s paramount civil rights leader and to discredit the entire civil rights movement in the process.
Hoover, and other top FBI officials routinely spit out these choice expletives about King “Dangerous,” “evil,” and a “colossal fraud.” They didn’t stop at name calling. They talked ominously of “neutralizing” him as an effective leader. And even more ominously they sent him a poison pen letter flatly saying “King you are done” and suggesting he kill himself.
Hoover assigned Assistant FBI director William Sullivan the dirty job of getting the goods on King. Sullivan branded King as the “most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.” In his book My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI, Sullivan described the inner circle of men assigned to get King. The group was made up of special agents mainly drawn from the Washington and Atlanta FBI offices. Their job was to monitor all of King’s activities. Much of their dirty tactics are well-known. They deluged him with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison-pen letters, threats, harassment, intimidation, and smear sexual leaks to the media, and even at the time of his murder, Hoover had more plans to intensify the spy campaign against King. Decades later, Sullivan still publicly defended the FBI’s war against him, and made no apology for it. The FBI patterned its spy and harassment campaign against King on the methods used by its counterintelligence division and internal security sections during the 1940s and ’50s. The arsenal of dirty tactics they used included unauthorized wiretaps, agent provocateurs, poison-pen letters, “black-bag jobs” (breaking and entering to obtain intelligence) and the compiling of secret dossiers.
In the 1960s, the FBI recruited thousands of “ghetto informants,” for their relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation against African American groups. The bureau even organized its targets into Orwellian categories agents gave such labels as “Rabble Rouser Index,” “Agitator Index” and “Security Index.”
By the time Johnson assumed the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Hoover’s obsession with and campaign against King was in high gear. And the few times, Hoover’s campaign of slander and vilification of King was hinted at publicly, Johnson would shrug it off and reaffirm either publicly and privately Hoover’s absolute invaluable importance to him. What Johnson knew or worse authorized Hoover to do to thwart King will never be fully known. But as Selma pointed out, Hoover’s gutter campaign against King happened on Johnson’s watch, and he did nothing to stop it.
By: Earl Ofari Hutchinson, The Blog, The Huffington Post, January 5, 2015
“Judging The Supreme Court”: A Disturbing Picture, The Court Is Guilty Of Failing To Adequately Enforce The Constitution
After 227 years of history, how should we judge the United States Supreme Court? All of my years of studying, teaching, and practicing Constitutional law have convinced me that the Supreme Court has rarely lived up to lofty expectations and far more often has upheld discrimination and even egregious violations of basic liberties.
My disappointment in the Court is historical and contemporary. Its preeminent task is to enforce the Constitution in the face of majorities that would violate it. The Court is thus especially important in protecting minorities and in safeguarding rights in times of crisis when passions cause society to lose sight of its long-term values.
For the first 78 years of American history until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the Court enforced the institution of slavery. For 58 years, from 1896 until 1954, the Court embraced the noxious doctrine of separate but equal and approved Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of Southern life. Nor are egregious mistakes by the Supreme Court on race a thing of the past. The Roberts Court has furthered racial inequality by striking down efforts of school boards to desegregate schools and by declaring unconstitutional crucial provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Court also has continually failed to stand up to majoritarian pressures in times of crisis. During World War I, individuals were imprisoned for speech that criticized the draft and the war without the slightest evidence that the expression had any adverse effect on military recruitment or the war effort. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their lifelong homes and placed in what President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as “concentration camps.”
During the McCarthy era, people were imprisoned simply for teaching works by Marx and Engels, and Lenin. In all of these instances, the Court failed to enforce the Constitution. Most recently, the Roberts Court held that individuals could be criminally punished for advising foreign organizations, designated by the United States government as terrorist organizations, as to how to use the United Nations for peaceful resolution of their disputes or how to receive humanitarian assistance.
For almost 40 years, from the 1890s until 1937, the Court declared unconstitutional more than 200 federal, state, and local laws that were designed to protect workers and consumers. The Court even declared unconstitutional the first federal law designed to prevent child labor by prohibiting the shipment in interstate commerce of goods made by child labor. Minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws were frequently invalidated.
Even the areas of the Supreme Court’s triumphs, like Brown v. Board of Education and Gideon v. Wainwright, accomplished less than it might seem. American public schools remain racially separate and terribly unequal. Criminal defendants in so many parts of the country, including in death-penalty cases, have grossly inadequate lawyers.
The Court’s decisions from the last few years — preventing employment discrimination suits and class actions against large corporations, keeping those injured by misconduct of generic drug makers from having any recovery, denying remedies to those unjustly convicted and detained — illustrate what has historically been true: The Court is far more likely to rule in favor of corporations than workers or consumers; it is far more likely to uphold abuses of government power than to stop them.
What should we do about it?
Some scholars urge the abandonment of judicial review, but I reject that conclusion. The limits of the Constitution are meaningful only if there are courts to enforce them. For those I have represented over my career — prisoners, criminal defendants, homeless individuals, a Guantánamo detainee — it is the courts or nothing.
But I believe that there are many reforms that can make the Court better and, taken together, make it less likely that it will so badly fail in the future. I propose a host of changes, including instituting merit selection of court justices, creating a more meaningful confirmation process, establishing term limits for court justices, changing the Court’s communications (that is, televising its proceedings), and applying ethics rules to the court justices.
The Supreme Court’s decisions affect each of us, often in the most important and intimate aspects of our lives. I think that we need to focus on the Court’s long-term and historical performance. If we do, it is a disturbing picture and there is only one possible verdict: The Court is guilty of failing to adequately enforce the Constitution.
But it can and must get better in the years and decades ahead.
By: Ewin Chemerinsky; The National Memo, January 5, 2014; Originally Posted at The Washington Spectator
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”: Beyond Selma – Writing The Next Chapter In American Civil Rights History
In November 2012, I worked with the Obama campaign’s anti-voter suppression efforts in Florida. I was shocked when I saw that voters in largely Hispanic and African-American areas were forced to wait hours and hours to vote by design. The state had cut early voting from 14 to 6 days and added 11 constitutional amendments to the ballot (some written out in full) to make it more time consuming to vote such that one legislator compared the ballot to the Book of Leviticus. I also was told authorities did not deploy all available ballot boxes.
Tasked with encouraging voters to wait for over 3 hours until 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I was struck with how little needed to be done. They knew why they were waiting and that only made them more determined to vote. I was reminded of the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” and the voting rights marches in Selma during the Civil Rights era and thought how sad it is that here we stand nearly 50 years after Selma and African-Americans still had to fight for their right to vote.
The next year, the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that enabled the Justice Department to block discriminatory voting restrictions in Shelby County v Holder. The Act had been reauthorized in 2006 without a single vote of opposition in the Senate, but in the Obama-era a bill to revive the provisions got nowhere last year despite bipartisan support.
The struggle in Selma is now on movie screens across America for viewers to relive the brutality of Bloody Sunday and the ultimate triumphant march that drew Americans from all races and faiths from across the nation to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate.
In March, however, the world’s attention will once again return to the Edmond Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It will be a tempered celebration because it has been a difficult two years for race relations in America. Obama’s reelection victory unleashed a torrent of racist hate across social media, then came the killings of Treyvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York and the divisions their cases brought.
More importantly, throughout the period we have steadily moved backwards on voting rights as states across the south and elsewhere took advantage of the Shelby County decision to enact a number of restrictive voting measures that are designed to suppress the African-American vote.
I have one resolution for 2015 — I’m going to Selma.
As a child of Generation Jones, we always looked up to our Baby Boomer brethren who marched for civil rights when we had no need to for the victory had been won. That victory is in jeopardy. I’m going to Selma.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner among others were killed for this most fundamental right — the right to vote. They cannot cry for justice, instead it is the duty of the living to do so for them. I’m going to Selma.
I do not expect a House of Representatives that has no shame over having a white supremacist in its leadership to listen to our pleas for action on voting rights legislation. I’m going to Selma.
Martin Luther King once said, “[h]istory will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Similarly, Benjamin Franklin said that “[j]ustice will not be served until those who are as unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” I’m outraged and I’m going to Selma.
We are a generous nation that has come together to help those in need as we did after Katrina or to take a stand that we are one as we did after 9/11. The story of civil rights in America is not relegated to our history books or a movie but is still being written today. It is time to write the next chapter for civil rights in America. Once again we are called to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate. I’m going to Selma.
By: Bennet Kelley, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 31, 2014
I’ve never forgotten what it was like to be in Selma at the start of the March 21, 1965, Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March, but I’ll still be in the ticket line for the opening of the new feature film, “Selma.”
I’m anxious to see how Selma is portrayed by a director and actors for whom it is history rather than personal experience. The college students I teach have only a hazy knowledge of Selma and its impact on the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, though, Selma has taken on new relevance as it approaches its 50th anniversary. The failures of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, to indict the police officers whose actions led to the deaths of two unarmed black men has made the gross injustices the civil rights movement fought against in the ’60s seem part of our times.
I am not nostalgic about Selma, but I am struck by how, despite the explicit racism of the South in 1965, there was more optimism then about America’s racial future than we have today. In New York, where I live, nightly #blacklivesmatter marches protesting events in Ferguson and Staten Island have been able to disrupt the city to a degree unthinkable 50 years ago, but among the marchers with whom I have spoken, their hopes are modest and specific. They want to change how policing is done in communities of color, and they are calling for special prosecutors in cases of alleged police misconduct. Few, though, speak of a new racial day in America arriving any time soon.
In 1965 I was far less sophisticated politically than today’s marchers. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been conducting a voter registration campaign in Selma since January 1965, but my awareness of SCLC’s efforts did not come until the night of March 7. That was the date on which everything to do with Selma changed. Shortly after 9 o’clock, ABC interrupted its Sunday evening movie,”Judgment at Nuremberg, with pictures from Selma that showed Alabama State Troopers attacking a column of black demonstrators while jeering crowds rooted the troopers on.
What shocked me about the attack, which quickly became known as “Bloody Sunday,” was that the troopers made no effort to conceal their actions from the television cameras. They were confident they would not be called to account.
The story of Selma has been told movingly by a number of historians — particularly, David Garrow in “Protest at Selma” and Taylor Branch in “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68.” But in March 1965 when I cut my graduate classes at Brown and headed south, I had little sense that a historic undertaking was about to happen. A second protest march, this one on March 9, had been peaceably turned around, and I worried that the March 21 march might remain small, even with Martin Luther King and a series of celebrities heading it.
I was encouraged by the fact that on March 15, in a nationwide television address, President Johnson announced that he was sending a voting rights bill to Congress, and I took heart from the fact that Johnson followed up his address by calling out the Alabama National Guard to protect the March 21 march. Nonetheless, when I got to Selma on the night before the march, my worries continued.
The arrival of outsiders like me put an enormous strain on the black families in Selma who were supporting the march. The racial tensions in Selma and the surrounding counties — already high — were heightened still more by our presence. I was lucky. A black family opened up its house to me and several others, but many who arrived at the last moment ended up spending the night on the pews of Brown Chapel, the church at the center of civil rights activity in Selma.
In contrast to the end of the march, when 25,000 gathered in Montgomery to hear Martin Luther King speak, the crowd on that first day of the march was just 3,200 — an estimate that still strikes me as high. It did not take King’s assistant, Andrew Young (then Andy Young), long to organize us. Wearing bib overalls and a blue jacket, he stood in the middle of the street in front of Brown Chapel and got everyone into rows that would later fill Highway 80, from side to side.
For a moment, the march felt like the start of a small town’s Fourth of July parade, but things quickly turned ugly as we began moving through Selma. I remember the car that played “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” over its loud speakers and a homemade “Coonsville U.S.A” sign that was impossible to miss. Later, the cries of “White N****r,” especially from teenagers who enjoyed shouting in unison as if they were spectators at a football game, became routine along the march route after we left town.
The following day, with a group of volunteers, I helped clear the pasture where the small band of marchers making the complete trip from Selma to Montgomery were scheduled to spend the night. Clearing the pasture meant gathering up the cow manure that was everywhere. It was a thankless job, but in the warm Alabama sun, our work went without incident until early in the afternoon when a caravan of cars with gun racks on their roofs and Confederate flags on their doors pulled up.
There was no place to hide, and in this pre-cellphone era, no way to call for help. Scattered over several acres, we were easy targets for anyone with a gun. The men in the cars cursed us for a while over a bullhorn and tried to provoke a fight, but when nobody reacted, they finally got back in their cars and drove away. For those of us clearing the pasture, it was a lesson in the kind of vulnerability anyone who was black faced for trying to register to vote in Alabama. My fear stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon, but when it went away, I was not relieved. I felt once again how small my role at Selma was. I could count on being safe the minute I got back on a plane and returned North.
When the 50th anniversary of the Selma march is celebrated this year in Alabama, I’ll make sure to stay in the background if I go, but right now I’m leaning toward staying at home. I think the money it will cost for me to travel to Selma might better be spent on working for change in the present.
By: Nicolaus Mills, Professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College; Salon, December 26, 2014
“More Consequential And Far-Reaching”: Why The Supreme Court Should Be The Biggest Issue Of The 2016 Campaign
Supreme Court justice and pop culture icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg left the hospital yesterday after having a heart stent implanted and expects to be back at work Monday. Despite various health issues over the years, Ginsburg insists that she is still of sound body at age 81 (her mind isn’t in question) and has no plans to retire before the end of President Obama’s term to ensure a Democratic replacement. If she keeps to that pledge, and presuming there are no other retirements in the next two years, the makeup of the Supreme Court could be a bigger campaign issue in 2016 than ever before. It certainly ought to be.
Ordinarily, the Supreme Court is brought up almost as an afterthought in presidential campaigns. The potential for a swing in the court is used to motivate activists to volunteer and work hard, and the candidates usually have to answer a debate question or two about it, which they do in utterly predictable ways (“I’m just going to look for the best person for the job”). We don’t usually spend a great deal of time talking about what a change in the court is likely to mean. But the next president is highly likely to have the chance to engineer a swing in the court. The consequences for Americans’ lives will probably be more consequential and far-reaching than any other issue the candidates will be arguing about.
As much as we’ve debated Supreme Court cases in recent years, we haven’t given much attention to the idea of a shift in the court’s ideology because for so long the court has been essentially the same: divided 5-4, with conservatives having the advantage yet liberals winning the occasional significant victory when a swing justice moves to their side. And though a couple of recent confirmations have sparked controversy (Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor were both the target of failed attempts to derail their nominations), all of the retirements in the last three presidencies were of justices from the same general ideology as the sitting president. The last time a new justice was radically different from the outgoing one was when Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall — 23 years ago.
Whether a Democrat or a Republican wins in 2016, he or she may well have the chance to shift the court’s ideological balance. Ginsburg is the oldest justice at 81; Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy are both 78, and Stephen Breyer is 76. If the right person is elected and the right justice retires, it could be an earthquake.
Consider this scenario: Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2017, and sometime later one of the conservative justices retires. Now there would be a liberal majority on the court, a complete transformation in its balance. A court that now consistently favors those with power, whether corporations or the government, would become much more likely to rule in favor of workers, criminal defendants and those with civil rights claims. Or alternately: The Republican nominee wins, and one of the liberal justices retires. With conservatives in control not by 5-4 but 6-3, there would be a cascade of even more conservative decisions. The overturning of Roe v. Wade would be just the beginning.
Look at what the Supreme Court has done recently. It gutted the Voting Rights Act, said that corporations could have religious beliefs, simultaneously upheld and hobbled the Affordable Care Act, struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and moved toward legalizing same-sex marriage, all but outlawed affirmative action, gave corporations and wealthy individuals the ability to dominate elections and created an individual right to own guns — and that’s just in the last few years.
Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, there is probably no single issue you ought to be more concerned about in the 2016 campaign than what the court will look like after the next president gets the opportunity to make an appointment or two. The implications are enormous. It’s not too early to start considering them.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, November 28, 2014