Movies “based on” historical events are, to say the least, a mixed bag. Try as they might, filmmakers often don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, bending history for the sake of their narrative’s arc or tempo.
Paramount Pictures’ “Selma,” depicting the bloody civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, does an admirable job of humanizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the colossal burden he faced in 1965, leading a fractious movement that was so perilous for his flock. But it 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, Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a voting rights bill, which is getting in the way of other 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.
In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.
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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 jeopardize its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow segregation, he believed, and then we'll tackle voting rights.
Yes, King kept the pressure on Johnson to propose voting rights legislation, but Johnson, the political mastermind, knew instinctively that Congress would reject it. As King’s former lieutenant, Andrew Young, recalled earlier this year at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit: In December 1964, “President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn’t have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965. He kept saying, ‘I just don’t have the power. I wish I did.’ When we left, I asked Dr. King, ‘Well, what did you think?’ He said, ‘I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’”
That’s exactly what LBJ wanted — and that’s what MLK did. It’s a matter of archival record.
A taped phone conversation between Johnson and King on Jan. 15, 1965 — seven weeks before the first Selma march — shows the two spurring each other on. King pointed out that unimpeded access to voting would expand Johnson’s electoral base in the Deep South. Johnson encouraged King to wage a campaign that would expose the worst of voting oppression, creating a moral imperative for the legislation.
As LBJ told King:
“I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, (exposing) very simple examples of (voting) discrimination … and pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘That’s not right, that’s not fair.’ Then, that’ll help us in what we’re going to shove through (Congress) in the end.”
LBJ ultimately used the crisis of Selma to compel reluctant lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act, which he signed on Aug. 6, 1965, and considered his greatest legislative triumph.
Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, it does no good to suggest that the president himself stood in the way of King’s efforts on voting rights — even for the sake of a good story.
Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian and director of the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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