‘Selma’ vs. History

tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma

Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review. Her most recent book, "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall," was published in May.

By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public. The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether such a bill should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name.

But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction. The remarkable story of the relationship between Johnson and King was that two such different men, from such different backgrounds, with such different constituencies, and responsibilities, formed a partnership to get the voting rights bill through. This is not to say that the two became pals: they were understandably wary of each other but managed to overcome that as well as other possible sources of tensions to get the job done. Ultimately, they had fallings out over King’s efforts to carry his civil rights campaign into the north, in particular Chicago, and his open opposition to the Vietnam War. But so far as the scope of the movie goes, Martin Luther King’s glorious role in the civil rights movement could have been kept intact without having to make Lyndon Johnson the heavy—a pure fabrication. 

The faux tension has obviously been inserted into the movie in order to make it more “dramatic” and add “buzz,” but in doing so, the makers of Selma have taken prohibitive liberties with the truth. So much of Selma is fine and true and important—especially when it comes to the famous marches in 1965—that there need not have been gratuitous exploitation of a major set of events in our history, or deliberately misleading the public. The actual history is a highly dramatic story, with rich characters at its center. Both King and Johnson were complex and wily, and the interactions between them that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would make for an important and engrossing movie. 

In fact, there was never any question that there would be a voting rights bill. A section on voting rights had been part of the original civil rights legislation sent to Congress in 1963 by John F. Kennedy and taken up by Johnson as his top legislative priority after the Kennedy assassination. But the voting rights section fell by the wayside both because the highest civil rights priority at the time was access for blacks to public accommodations—the focus of the sit-ins and violence against blacks by southern officials—and because the sponsors of the bill were concerned about loading it up too much to make it viable in Congress. So voting rights legislation was postponed. The only question was when it would be brought up again. In the fall of 1964, Johnson felt that it should be reintroduced in stronger form when the bill and the public were ready.

The big problem with Selma arises from the portrayal of a meeting between Johnson and King in December 1964. In the film, we watch King press an ostensibly resistant Johnson to proceed immediately with a voting rights bill. There are several reasons to doubt this rendering of the encounter. For one thing, earlier that fall, Johnson had already instructed the Justice Department to start looking at what should go in an effective voting rights bill. And Andrew Young, King’s deputy, who was in the room at the time of the meeting, recently told The Washington Post that there was no contention between the two men. “It was not very tense at all,” Young recalled. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Even if Young was attempting to smooth things over, from listening to the film’s dialogue between the two men, the implication of the scene is that Johnson simply doesn’t want to move on voting rights. (LBJ: “You’ve got one thing and I’ve got 101 things”—and it stops there.) But their only real difference was over timing, and even on that they weren’t as far apart as the scene suggests....

Read entire article at NY Review of Books

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