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Setting the record straight on Selma and 'Selma'

- February 22, 2015

Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., André Holland as Andrew Young and Stephan James as John Lewis in a scene from “Selma.” (Atsushi Nishijima/AP)
The Oscars will be handed out tonight, honoring the year’s greatest achievements in film. “Selma,” which focuses on the 1965 campaign to secure voting rights for black Americans, will not be among the biggest winners — even though it is up for Best Picture — as the movie garnered fewer nominations than expected.
At fault, according to some observers, was its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the ensuing controversy the film provoked. The controversy has included many voices, but the contributions of those who lived the history — in the White House, in Alabama — have been particularly powerful, as have the views of those connected with the film.
While these reflections deserve our collective consideration, both Johnson’s critics and supporters would benefit from greater attention to the historical record. The record shows that Johnson was more determined to enact voting-rights legislation than his detractors (and the movie) would have it, but less enthusiastic about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tactics in Selma than his supporters have claimed.
This record is particularly accessible through the secret recordings Johnson made during his time as president. Those recordings have already enriched the debate about Johnson, King and “Selma,” but there is still more to learn.
A Jan. 15, 1965, phone call between Johnson and King, for instance, has been at the core of several commentaries on the film. And even though that White House clip is silent on the specifics of a Selma march, it does offer a window — as do several other Johnson conversations available here — into the Johnson-King relationship and LBJ’s stance toward civil rights.
These conversations show that Johnson encouraged King to focus media attention on voting-rights injustices, leaned hard on aides to seek legal and legislative remedies for those wrongs, and acknowledged the importance of the Selma events — and King’s role in them — to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
But they also reveal Johnson’s discomfort with being seen as too close to King, his fear that the Selma demonstrations were complicating his judicial strategy for voting rights, and his initial reluctance in using federal power to protect the marchers.
In short, the tapes highlight the complicated nature of policymaking, the push-and-pull between federal officials and grass-roots activists, and the messy realities — including the sometimes ugly political realities — of effecting social change.
“Selma” engages those realities but contorts them, as the film suggests that media exposure and moral suasion fundamentally altered LBJ’s political calculus, leading Johnson to send voting-rights legislation to Congress far sooner than he would have wanted.
But Johnson had been pushing assiduously for such a bill — telling Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach in December 1964 to draft one “pretty quick,” informing Congress in his January 1965 State of the Union address that he would send it a message about voting rights within six weeks, and consulting with King on draft legislation that February and March.
Did LBJ want to proceed with voting rights according to his own political and legislative calendars, which included a host of Great Society measures designed, in large part, with African Americans in mind? Yes. Were civil rights leaders accordingly frustrated with Johnson’s proposed pace of change? Yes. The events in Selma thus conditioned the timing of Johnson’s voting-rights message to Congress, but they effectively pushed LBJ in a direction he was already leaning.
None of this is to deny the initiative, righteousness and extraordinary courage of the protesters on the ground in Selma, who bore the brunt of the fists, billy clubs, tear gas and shotguns — as well as the daily indignities that confronted African Americans in the segregated South. The persistent engagement of civil rights activists forced the issue of voting rights onto the national agenda. As in May 1963, when the pictures of fire hoses and attack dogs in Birmingham, Ala., circulated throughout the national (and international) media, images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 made it increasingly difficult for white America to resist federal solutions to local terror and to the persistence of political, economic and social disfranchisement.
But those solutions came about no less because powerful allies in the federal government, particularly in the White House, were mobilizing legislative support behind these measures. Johnson himself captured the symbiotic nature of these interactions, telling King in January 1965 that a voting rights bill would be “the greatest achievement of my administration,” and then in July 1965, just prior to its signing, thanking King for his work in helping to “create the sentiment that supported it. ”
In the end, “Selma” has opened a window onto events that, until now, have lacked such a dramatic treatment. For that, all of us — the film’s critics as well as its supporters — should be grateful. But there are other windows, including those accessible via Johnson’s White House tapes, which augment the images “Selma” depicts and are equally valuable in understanding how voting rights became the law of the land. Together they tell an extraordinary story, and our willingness to consider its starts and stops, and the sometimes inconvenient truths contained therein, can lead us to a more honest appreciation of the past. We’re likely to be better for it.
Marc J. Selverstone is associate professor and chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
For more on “Selma” and the resulting controversy, see:
Who disagrees with ‘Selma’s’ portrayal of LBJ? Blacks in the civil rights era.
The power of Lyndon Johnson is a myth.