History of the World According to the Movies: Part 78 – The Civil Rights Movement

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Denzel Washington portrayed Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic. Sure this may not be the most accurate rendition about his interesting life, but it helps explain why he had the ideas he did. You may love him or hate him but he was much more than an angry black man whose attitude toward whites wasn’t without probable cause because he lived with racism and was greatly harmed by it at a young age. Still, at least this movie averts the idea of a white savior as well as the impression that blacks are incapable of saving themselves which is why I have a picture from the film on this post.

Another event going on in the United States during the Post-War era is the Civil Rights Movement which is seen as one of the most important events in modern American history in which African Americans across the nation stood up and pressured the government to bring progress towards racial equality under the law after nearly a century of being treated as second-class citizens with little or no rights in much of the country, especially in the South. These were laws that pertained to segregation, disenfranchisement, a ban on interracial marriage, or a black guy having a good chance of going to jail for checking out a white woman. We’re not sure when the Civil Rights Movement actually began since there have been blacks who’ve challenged the system as well as made gains in society. Yet, the first big event of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in which a group of black parents sued the a Topeka school district so their kids didn’t have to travel miles to attend a crappier school. Thanks to their efforts as well as the NAACP with Thurgood Marshall representing, the Supreme Court struck down the earlier Plessy vs. Ferguson and declared that school segregation was inherently unconstitutional. The NAACP would go on challenge other discrimination laws as well. In 1955, a Montgomery woman named Rosa Parks was arrested refusing to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus. This led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and local NAACP head E. D. Dixon. It was a long struggle but they prevailed. Soon there were demonstrations across the nation such as the Freedom Riders, Little Rock, the March on Washington, and others. Sure there was a lot of racist resistance, but by the 1970s segregation was mostly over, the Voting Rights Act was passed, and while racism still exists in a lot of forms, it is no longer acceptable as far as the law and society goes. However, Hollywood isn’t always the right reference when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement though they could make a kind of inspirational story, yet they do have the tendency to introduce a white savior, which leads to the notion that blacks were incapable of saving themselves. Still, there are plenty of other inaccuracies seen in films set in this era which I shall list.

Malcom X:

Malcom X had dark hair. (He was a natural redhead and had lighter skin. Seriously, he was nicknamed “Red” by his friends because of his hair color. Sure people may not believe that a black person can have red hair but it does happen.)

The break between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad was emotionally jarring for the both of them. (Actually, Muhammad was already envious of Malcolm X for all the attention he was getting and Nation of Islam leaders saw him as a threat to Muhammad’s leadership, even before Malcolm left. When Louis Lomax wrote a book about the Nation of Islam When the Word Is Given, he used a photo of Malcolm X on the cover and reproduced five of his speeches and only one of Muhammad’s, greatly upsetting the guy. Not much love was lost between the two when Malcolm left. In some ways, the relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad resembled less of parent-child surrogacy. Rather, it was more along the lines of Malcolm X playing Katniss Everdeen to Elijah Muhammad’s President Coin {though with the opposite outcome if you remember what happened in Mockingjay}.)

It was only after his pilgrimage to Mecca Malcolm X realized that the Nation of Islam’s bastardization of Islam was horseshit. (Actually contrary to Malcolm X, Malcolm actually made his Mecca pilgrimage after he left the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim. He already knew that the Nation of Islam’s flavor of Islam was horsehit by that time and didn’t need to go to Mecca to realize this. Yet, Spike Lee was right that it was in Saudi Arabia where he saw racial equality in action and the effect on him was very profound. Rather it made him realize that American racism wasn’t a function of whiteness per se as well as consider possible reconciliation between the races in the US. But this didn’t mean he was ready to forgive white America though.)

The attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and the New Jersey Riots took place in Malcolm X’s lifetime. (Both of these incidences happened after Malcolm X was assassinated in February of 1965. One happened a month after he died and the other occurred two years later.)

Malcolm X’s family was of no particular importance on him. (Despite that his dad died under suspicious circumstances when he was six and his mother was institutionalized when he was thirteen and that he spent his teenage years in a series of foster homes, his siblings were of major importance to him. Quite a few of his siblings were members of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm’s break with it did cause some degree of drama since his brother Wilfred remained active in that organization. They also secured their mother’s release from that institution 24 years after she was confined {though Malcolm almost never talk about her for fear he’d snap if someone made the wrong remark but he did visit her}. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from Malcolm X, which leaves them out.)

Malcolm X spent weeks in solitary confinement. (He never spent any more than 24 hours in solitary contrary to the Spike Lee film. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been moved to a lower security facility, which he was in real life.)

Malcolm X was a first-class criminal in his younger days prior to his imprisonment. (Contrary to Malcolm X, Malcolm and his gang weren’t the experts they were made out to be. They rarely made plans and none of them could pick a lock. They usually committed larceny in the early evenings at places where owners couldn’t be roused by the doorbell and had trouble selling their stolen goods which were stashed in Malcolm’s apartment. Also, Malcolm was arrested by police when he had a stolen watch repaired at a local jeweler’s who promptly reported him to the police. Oh, and he turned in all of his accomplices while in custody.)

Malcolm X grew disillusioned with the Nation of Islam when he found that it was corrupt with its leaders enjoying lavish houses, new cars, and the sexual favors of young secretaries. (While Malcolm X treats Malcolm’s break from Elijah Muhammad as a son’s disillusionment with a morally flawed surrogate father, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam for political as well as personal reasons. Even before he learned of Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities, Malcolm was already fed up with his leader’s policy of nonengagement that not only prevented members of a group from participating in civil rights protests but even forbade voting. By 1963, he knew that the policy of nonengagement was hurting his recruitment efforts in black communities, as the Civil Rights movement grew in the South. Despite attacking Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to non-violent resistance, he eventually saw that the Nation of Islam offered no real opportunity to black activists facing vicious white racists in the South. He also knew very well that the Nation of Islam wasn’t above making deals with white people when it suited the leaders’ interests. Malcolm would even admit that while criticizing the civil rights activists working with white liberals, he negotiated a mutual noninterference agreement with the Atlanta chapter of the Klu Klux Klan on Elijah Muhammad’s orders that made him realize that his leader’s insistence that all whites were devils made it possible to justify dealing with the worst of them {such as the hate group most likely responsible for killing Malcolm’s dad}. Thus, Malcolm X’s disillusionment with the Nation of Islam had less to do with the sins of its leaders and more to do with their policies on politics and race relations, particularly the group’s refusal to campaign for civil rights.)

Malcolm X was introduced to the ideas of the Nation of Islam through his cellmate in prison. (Contrary to Malcolm X, his cellmate introduced him to literature, not religion though the two would remain friends. Malcolm actually joined the Nation of Islam at the insistence of family members notably brothers Reginald and Philbert and his half-sister Ella who wrote to him in prison. Yet, once he was a member of the Nation of Islam, he didn’t have to enlighten his friend Shorty who wasn’t transferred upstate and actually became a member himself but not for long when he disagreed with some of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. Also, the preacher he challenged wasn’t an older man as played by Christopher Plummer but a young Harvard Seminary student who was much more wise and willing to accept that Jesus was brown.)

Malcom X was working as a train porter for the New Haven Line at the time of a boxing match between Billy Cohn and Joe Louis. (Louis and Cohn would have two boxing matches together in the 1940s. Malcolm wasn’t working for the New Haven Line at either time.)

Malcolm X was followed by CIA agents while he was in Mecca. (Contrary to Malcolm X, he was followed by Mecca’s secret service during his trip.)

Malcolm X spent his last year in foreboding the inevitable as well as receiving death threats from the Nation of Islam through telephone calls. (Actually he was quite busy during his final months. Moments include his brief meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. at the U. S. Capitol {that included a photo-op} and his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech at the symposium sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality. He attended a meeting of the Organization of African Unity and had talks with the leaders of Egypt, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, and Uganda. In October 1964, he had a day-long meeting with leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Nairobi which resulted in cooperation between the SNCC and Malcolm’s newly formed Organization of Afro-American Unity. In December of 1964, he made an appearance with Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi civil rights activists as Malcolm’s honored guests at an OAAU meeting in Harlem. In February of 1965, he met with Coretta Scott King in Selma where he affirmed his desire to assist King’s voting rights and explained that if whites knew he was an alternative “it might be easier for them to accept Martin’s proposals.” He even sent a telegram to the American Nazi Party saying: “I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separationist Black Muslim Movement and if your present racist agitation of our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other Black Americans. . . you and your KKK friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation.” Yet, almost none of that is depicted in Malcolm X.)

White operatives might’ve been involved in Malcolm X’s assassination. (Contrary to Malcolm X, Malcolm’s independent political discourse attracted deadly enemies. Yet, Malcolm was probably more or less killed by those in The Nation of Islam than anyone else. In fact, the Nation of Islam directed nearly all its violence toward other blacks, particularly defectors. Malcolm certainly would’ve been on the top of their list.)

Betty Shabazz:

Betty Shabazz was a simpleton who was always complaining about Malcolm X’s eating habits. (Contrary to Malcolm X, she was a highly intelligent woman and one of the few Muslims with a college degree. Also, despite that Malcolm definitely wore the pants in the relationship; she wasn’t easily intimidated, not even by her husband.)

Betty Shabazz took all four of her kids to the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. (She only took three of them contrary to Malcolm X. The youngest was left with a friend.)

Freedom Summer:

The trial involving the murder of the three civil rights activists was a swift movement of justice. (Contrary to Mississippi Burning, it wasn’t for it actually took four years and numerous trials to get them sentenced to anything at all. Not to mention, though the seven convicted were sentenced more to 10 years, none of them served more than six.)

During the case of three missing civil rights activists in Mississippi, FBI agents resorted to vigilante tactics. (Sorry, Mississippi Burning, but it’s said that they paid informants with cash. Seriously, there’s no way in hell FBI agents would get away with what Gene Hackman and William Defoe did in that movie.)

The informant pertaining to the case of the civil rights activists was the sheriff’s wife. (Though depicted this way in Mississippi Burning, it was a person named Mr. X, who decided to remain anonymous but he decided to give information not out of the goodness of his heart but for the $30,000 reward.)

The disappearance and murder of the three missing Civil Rights activists in Mississippi was a police conspiracy. (Contrary to Mississippi Burning, we’re not sure what it was but the local police were certainly no help.)

The FBI was happy to oblige the investigation into the disappearance and murder of three civil rights activists. (Contrary to Mississippi Burning, J. Edgar Hoover wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement because he thought it as a load of Communist bullshit and was a racist. He only caved to send FBI agents due to the case’s national attention as well as the fact he was under heavy pressure from Lyndon B. Johnson.)

J. Edgar Hoover sent hundreds of agents to Mississippi to investigate the case of the missing civil rights activists. (Initially, he only sent 11 contrary to what Mississippi Burning depicts. It was a pretty lame effort.)

The FBI agents in Mississippi were hell bent on finding the killers of three civil rights activists and preventing further violence. (Contrary to Mississippi Burning, most of the FBI agents there couldn’t care less. It’s said that the FBI and the Justice Department would only intervene when absolutely necessary in their own point of view. In some cases, it’s said they stood by while beatings took place right in front of them.)

Miscellaneous:

The Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have been made possible without benevolent white people who helped African Americans out with their own sense of moral responsibility. (Yes, there were whites who supported the Civil Rights Movement such as the white Freedom Riders but the Civil Rights Movement was decades in the making and mostly led by African American organizations like the NAACP as well as other organizations of color. And it was the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall who argued for the black families involved in Brown v. Board of Education as well as thirty-one others. And out of the 32 case he argued in front of the Supreme Court, Marshall only lost 3 and would soon be seated on the Supreme Court himself as the first African American justice.)

The FBI was the honorable vanguard of civil rights protectors. (They were reluctant presence throughout the proceedings and would only investigate only under heavy pressure by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Also, J. Edgar Hoover had been spying on Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.)

Black Civil Rights activists trembled in the fear of whites, disbanded their conversations whenever whites approached, and retreated in mute submission. (Contrary to Mississippi Burning {which was harshly criticized by Coretta Scott King for ignoring the role of black and white activists}, most blacks in Mississippi during Freedom Summer weren’t like this. In 1963, 85,000 black Mississippians cast “freedom ballots” to show their determination and prove, contrary to white declarations that they were quite serious about voting. Despite church bombings, arrests, and murders a year later, Mississippi blacks met at local Freedom Schools all summer long. They voted for Freedom Democratic Party delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that year and created an autonomous social movement. These people were badasses who showed that they wouldn’t be terrorized into silence even if it costs them their lives. Eventually they prevailed. Mississippi Burning fails to show this which is a complete shame. They knew that the white establishment would retaliate with violence but they weren’t quaking illiterates unable and unwilling to stand up for themselves for they certainly did.)

The Civil Rights abuses in Birmingham took place in 1961. (They took place in 1964.)

The Nation of Islam was willing to challenge white authority but didn’t engage in militant action unless its members were threatened. (Actually, their reluctance to challenge white authority was one of the reasons why Malcolm X became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam in the first place. However, Malcolm X would never drop his militant streak and became increasingly close to militant civil rights activist late in life. Still, that Nation of Islam confrontation against white authorities in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X really did happen.)

The Black Panthers were a bunch of leather clad radical leftists. (Actually, they were more or less a community action organization during the late 1960s and 1970s who only wore guns for self-defense. Though they did acquire a shady reputation and were monitored by the FBI.)

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