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 B. 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.
And 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: “Right after [Dr. King won] the Nobel Prize, President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn’t have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965, and gave very good reasons. [H]e 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 the President wanted—and that’s what the Nobel Laureate did. And it’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of archival record.
In a taped phone conversation between Johnson and King on January 15, 1965, the two spurred each other on. King pointed out that giving African-Americans unimpeded access to the ballot box in the Deep South would expand Johnson’s electoral base. And Johnson encouraged King to wage a campaign that would expose the worst of voting oppression and create a moral imperative to pass the legislation. See for yourself:
MLK: It’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states you didn’t carry in the South [in the 1964 presidential election], those five southern states, have less than forty percent of the Negroes registered to vote. I think it’s just so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. It will be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate vote that will really make the New South.
LBJ: That’s exactly right. I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination... If you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina—well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of was the president of a school at Tuskegee, or head of the Government department there or something, being denied the right to cast a vote. If you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can; pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, “that’s not right, that’s not fair.” And then, that’ll help us in what we’re going to shove [legislation] through in the end.
MLK: You’re exactly right about that.
LBJ: And if we do that, we’ll break through—it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting the ’64 Act… because it’ll do things even that '64 Act couldn’t do.
LBJ used the crisis of Selma to compel reluctant lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act, which he signed into law on August 6, 1965.
Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.
The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery.
Four American presidents—President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Clinton and Carter—bore testimony to LBJ’s efforts at the Civil Rights Summit, where President Obama, in his keynote address, asserted, “Like Dr. King, like Abraham Lincoln, like countless citizens who have driven this country inexorably forward, President Johnson knew that ours in the end is a story of optimism, a story of achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this earth…He believed that together we can build an America that is more fair, more equal, and more free than the one we inherited.”
LBJ’s bold position on voting rights stands as an example of what is possible when America’s leadership is at its best.
And it has the added benefit of being true.
Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian, the author of Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, and the director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum.