The Slippery Slope We’re on with Selma

tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma

Sheldon Stern is the author of numerous articles and “Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings” (2003), “The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis” (2005), and “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Realit”y (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000. 

The election of Barack Obama, despite some inflated expectations among voters, pundits, and historians (myself included!), has not brought about a new age in American race relations. In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and the brutal assassination of two New York policemen (both minorities) race relations are probably more contentious today than at any time in recent decades.

Sadly, director Ava DuVarney has chosen this time to use the powerful medium of film to misrepresent, if not lie, about one of President Lyndon Johnson’s most remarkable attributes—his genuine commitment to end racial discrimination in the United States. The film depicts LBJ as an opponent of civil rights and personally involved in the FBI bugging of Martin Luther King, Jr. (initiated by Robert Kennedy during JFK’s presidency) and the threats to release tape recordings exposing King’s womanizing.

Johnson was, as a former White House aide told me, “a people eater,” capable of stunning cruelty and abuse of even his most loyal associates. His ambition and ego were matched only by his self-doubt and sense of inadequacy around the “Harvards” in the Kennedy circle. The famous “Johnson treatment,” which sometimes included physical intimidation, was grounded, however, in his instinctive grasp of human temperament and motivation. LBJ understood that textbook diagrams explaining “How a bill becomes a law” failed to grasp that the legislative process was actually a fluid, living network of human relationships—which, as no one before or since, he mastered.

As a Texas congressman and senator, Johnson was undeniably an ally of the forces of racial segregation. But there is, notwithstanding, compelling evidence that his submission to the realities of southern politics did not blind him to the terrible evils of racial discrimination. Days after becoming president, he warned his close friend and mentor Richard Russell, one of the Senate’s toughest segregationists, that he would not back down on civil rights: “Dick, you’ve got to get out of my way. I’m going to run over you. I don’t intend to cavil or compromise.” When Russell warned that Johnson and the Democrats would lose the South in 1964 and beyond, the president replied: “If that’s the price I’ve got to pay, I’ll pay it gladly.” He also told civil rights leaders that "justice and morality" required the passage of civil rights legislation. A year later he was equally committed to the Voting Rights Act. As Johnson’s multi-volume biographer Robert Caro has written: “With the single exception of Lincoln, he was the greatest champion with a white skin that they [African Americans] had in the history of the Republic.”

Johnson’s motives, of course, were neither one-dimensional nor selfless. He was determined to leave an unsurpassed legislative legacy, dwarfing even that of his hero, FDR. He was ambivalent about the political implications of civil rights demonstrations because, unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., he also had to juggle many other problems and priorities: including the Great Society, the war on poverty, the economy, and the increasingly divisive war in Vietnam. The single-minded devotion to one moral issue is, in fact, all but incompatible with the political realities of being president. Nonetheless, despite their vastly different temperaments, LBJ and MLK, Jr. evolved an extraordinarily effective, if sometimes uneasy, alliance—at least until King broke with Johnson over the Vietnam War in 1967.

DuVarney has defended her alteration of the historical record: “This is art; this is a movie; this is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.” “Bottom line,” she tweeted, “is folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it or LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.” Her goal, one critic affirmed, was “emotional truth” rather than just historical accuracy. The question is, how do people “interrogate” history when, as in the case of the vast majority of Americans (especially teenagers), they don’t know the facts, or, as in the case of “Selma,” someone has consciously revised the past to serve a self-defined artistic truth? Historical manipulation, even for the best of motives, can easily become a slippery slope on which no one can safely keep their footing.

Lyndon Johnson was a deeply flawed and conflicted man. His failures and misjudgments as president are, of course, an indelible part of his legacy—as they should be. But, his role in the most important issue of his time, the one in which he demonstrated leadership, inspiration (MLK, Jr. wept when Johnson told Congress that “We shall overcome”), and courage, is equally indelible simply because it is true. Instead, thousands of American students are now receiving free access to a film in which the best of Johnson’s legacy has been all but erased. “Selma” could, unintentionally, even provide fodder for the cottage industry of claims that LBJ was behind the assassinations of both Kennedys and even King himself. Ava DuVarney is correct in insisting that the film is not about Johnson. But how would being accurate about LBJ in any way diminish the strength, determination, and dignity of MLK, Jr. and those who marched with him at Selma?

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