What ‘Selma’ Gets WrongRoundup
tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma
For historians, watching a movie “based on” historical events often is an exercise in restraint. While the historian and filmmaker are both, by nature, storytellers, the former builds a narrative based on fact while the latter often bends truth for the sake of a story’s arc or tempo. Historians are wise to resist their pedantic urges and yield to a film’s creative license—as long as it doesn’t compromise the essence of the subject at hand.
To that end, Paramount Pictures’ ambitious “Selma,” depicting the bloody civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, gets much right. The film humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the colossal burden he faced in 1965 leading a fractious movement that was so perilous for his flock. But “Selma” misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship—contentious, the film would have you believe—between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In the film, President Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a voting rights bill, which—according to the movie’s take—is getting in the way of dozens of other Great Society legislative priorities. Indeed, “Selma’s” obstructionist LBJ is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be “open season” on the protesters.
This characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history. In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.
Yes, Johnson advocated stripping a potent voting rights component out of the historic Civil Rights Act he signed into law in the summer of 1964. A master of the legislative process—and a pragmatist—he knew that adding voting rights to the Civil Rights Act would make it top heavy, jeopardizing its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow, Johnson believed, and then we’ll tackle voting rights...
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