‘Selma’ shows what it takes to make real change

SELMA MARCH: Oprah Winfrey and actor David Oyelowo, who portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie “Selma,” were among the marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday.
SELMA MARCH: Oprah Winfrey and actor David Oyelowo, who portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie “Selma,” were among the marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday. AP

John Gardner, a cabinet secretary in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration — who later founded Common Cause — once said that a requisite for effective citizen action, and governing, was to build an “inside-outside alliance.”

In U.S. politics, that means an effective outside-citizen movement coupled with resourceful inside political operatives. It’s a shame that the makers of Selma, a fabulous movie about Martin Luther King and the brutal road to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, didn’t appreciate this.

The film is the best depiction of the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s, and was long overdue. But it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act, which gave blacks the franchise they were shamefully denied in Southern states.

In the film, Johnson relents only after pressure from King, who picked the small town of Selma, Alabama, as the focal point of a voting-rights drive; the white community responded by viciously beating, even killing, advocates.

In fact, Johnson, after succeeding the slain President John F. Kennedy, became a passionate advocate of civil rights. After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ensuring access to public facilities to blacks, he embraced the 1965 voting-rights bill, endorsing it in his State of the Union address two months before Selma.

Johnson and King differed sometimes on tactics, never on objectives.

“We could not have had this bill without LBJ, but LBJ could not have passed it without Martin Luther King,” said Andrew Young, a King lieutenant in Selma, later United Nations ambassador and mayor of Atlanta.

Gardner’s inside-outside alliance is central to governing. Jim Baker’s appreciation of this reality is why he remains the gold standard for the post of White House chief of staff; he always balanced the public mood with the necessary legislative deal-making to push through President Ronald Reagan’s agenda.

The George W. Bush administration, with strategist Karl Rove, flunked that test when, after winning re-election, it made Social Security the top priority and tried to rally public support. The failure to get on board any important congressional Democrats — the necessary inside alliance — set the domestic tone for the rest of the administration.

In 2009, President Obama’s team made the reverse mistake. They became so immersed in deal-making on the huge economic stimulus, and later the Affordable Care Act, that they forgot about the outside alliance.

Today, most economists say the stimulus measure helped pull the United States out of an economic crisis. The healthcare act, judging by enrollment and costs, is faring far better than critics predicted. Yet both measures remain unpopular.

The King-LBJ alliance was strong. The president knew he needed the civil-rights leader to drum up public outrage. He had a larger agenda, the Great Society, and most of its programs also benefited poor minority groups.

The film depicts John Doar, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the Selma era, as a bit of a wimp. This is the same John Doar who, when told there may be snipers in Selma, walked down Dexter Avenue scanning for shooters. He showed extraordinary courage in the civil-rights struggle.

Nevertheless, the film is powerful, bringing to life King’s genius, bravery and perseverance. It’s hard to believe he was only 36 at the time of the march. The brutality and hatred of the white racists in Selma are equally vividly rendered.

Joe Califano, a top Johnson aide, has documented the movie’s distortions, a view shared by many historians.

He also urged people not to see the movie.

That’s wrong. During this time when we commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, you should see the movie, and know the story of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

That was brought home to me by my 25-year-old apolitical daughter, Lauren: “Seeing it is a lot different than reading about it.”

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.

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