BackStory is a history podcast/radio show that I have been listening to regularly for about a year now. It’s done by three historians (two from the University of Virginia and one from the University of Richmond), deals with timely topics, is well-made, and treats historical subjects in a fair amount of depth, given the medium. It is certainly no substitute for a good history book, but it is interesting and entertaining and easy to listen to while you do whatever it is that you do. If you listen to it, if nothing else you will probably learn a few things that you didn’t know in each episode.
In the episode “Pop History: The Past in Last Year’s Media,” they discuss the movie Selma, which centers around Martin Luther King and the march on Selma 50 years ago. One of the historians, Brian Balogh, provides this excellent critique of how the movie portrays the black freedom movement, and, really, the way most history is written:
“Well, Peter, um, I don’t care if there is an injunction, I’m in the street marching against this movie. And the funny thing is, I agree with Jamelle [Bouie, who wrote an article on the movie for Salon and spoke about it earlier in the episode] that we really need to ask what the filmmaker’s trying to do. And [director Ava] Duvernay has been very eloquent in interviews after the movie, saying she wanted to make a film about the people who make up the movement. The problem is she doesn’t do that. The problem is, she is so intent on displacing the trope of the great white savior, in the form of Johnson, that she replaces him with the great black savior – Martin Luther King.
“And you know at the very time – and you can see hints of this in the movie – but at the very time that Selma was happening, that was one of the fundamental African American criticisms of King. He was the great man who would sweep in for those photo opportunities to get on the front pages of the Times. And as you can see in the film, that is part of his strategy. All I’m saying is that for somebody who wants to make a film about the people, there were precious few scenes with the actual people in the film.”
This is absolutely the most important and correct criticism of the movie that I have come across. Nevermind the criticisms about how LBJ is portrayed – Balogh looks past this gibberish and nails what the movie got wrong. MLK Jr. wasn’t out there doing everything by himself, and his method of big mobilizations isn’t what made the movement as strong as it was. It was the grassroots organizing behind the scenes – the tough, daily work of talking to people and challenging white supremacy in the neighborhood and the courthouse – that enabled great strides for black people in the middle of the 20th century. King certainly helped enable the atmosphere that made this possible, but to give him as much as credit as the movie – and popular history – does is to not understand the basic way that social change happens.
Ello Jo Baker was one of those critics of King that Balogh mentions. In her excellent biography of Baker, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Barbara Ransby discusses this in detail. Baker was born in 1903, and had a lot of experience in the movement by the time King arrived on the scene. She worked for the NAACP and various other civil rights organizations before becoming the first full-time staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization which grew out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was founded in 1957 in large part by King and other southern religious leaders. While working for the SCLC, she was instrumental in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which grew out of the lunch counter and other sit-ins and formed in early 1960. By the fall of 1960, Baker left SCLC and devoted ever more time to developing SNCC.
Throughout the biography, Ransby describes Baker as someone devoted to radical democracy, grassroots organizing, and the development of youth leadership. As important as King was, I think Ransby appropriately gives more credit to Baker in shaping and aiding the movement against white supremacy. A speech is great at firing people up, but it will never replace the hard work of organizing people to mobilize. Big mobilizations are great, but if nothing happens in between them then lasting change is unlikely to occur. (For a current example, see SEIU’s Fight for 15 campaign, which periodically brings out a fair number of people for one-day strikes and then squanders real opportunities for actual organization, focused as it is on press coverage and its eventual throwing away of tons of union members’ dues money on Hillary “former Walmart board member” Clinton, not worker empowerment.)
Just after I listened to the BackStory episode on pop history, I hate-listened to one called “The Middling Sort: Visions of the Middle Class.” Somehow, the entire episode – except for one brief mention by someone they were interviewing – failed to actually talk about class, and instead talked about income. These are two separate things, and historians should really know better than to conflate them. Class is about your structural relationship within capitalism – at its most simplest, are you a capitalist or are you a worker? Income is about the amount of money you earn.
Listening to the two episodes back-to-back like that was a reminder of my never-ending frustration with liberals. While they often have decent views on a variety of issues (such as race), they aren’t exactly trail-blazing. For instance, 50 years ago, if you were a white liberal you could very well have been a racist as well. One hundred years ago, if you were a white liberal you probably were a racist. You can’t say the same thing about white radicals, who were almost always antiracist. Moreover, liberals usually refuse to even consider the issue of class, unless it is a distorted version of class, as we have just seen. If you can’t even recognize class for what it is, you will never be able to recognize capitalism for what it is, the system of oppression that is arguably the basis for all other systems of oppression.