Selma: Distorting history is not the way to tell Martin Luther King’s story

The movie makes a villain out of President Johnson, which is neither accurate or fair

Selma - Civil Rights March - Movie march
Selma - Civil Rights March - Movie march
WASHINGTON, January 19, 2015 —  As we approach the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march led in Selma by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. there is much discussion about the new film, “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, which has won rave reviews and awards buzz.
It shows Dr. King, played by David Oyelowo, contending with racist authorities in Alabama as well as factions inside the civil rights movement.

It is important that this story be told. For many young people, it will bring alive an era in American history with which they are unfamiliar, given the fact that teaching our history, in many schools, is hardly a priority.

This makes it important that the story be told accurately. In the case of “Selma,” unfortunately, many liberties have been taken with what really happened. It is hard to believe that Dr. King, if he were still with us, would be pleased.

Consider this important scene in the movie.  Mr, President, in the South, there have been thousands of racially motivated murders,” King says to President Lyndon Johnson, imploring him to put his weight behind ensuring voting rights for black Americans. “We need your help!”  In response, he gets a pat on the shoulder and Johnson says, “Dr. King, this thing’s just going to have to wait.”

That Dec. 1964 meeting happened, but not that way according to one who was there. “It was not very tense at all. We were very much welcomed by President Johnson,” recalled former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, who attended the session as a young aide to King. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.”


The movie’s depiction of Johnson as an early adversary of King’s push for voting legislation seems far from an accurate portrayal. Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, wrote in Politico that the film was trying to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.” Joseph Califano, Jr., a former top domestic aide to Johnson, accused the filmmakers of deliberately ignoring the historical record. He states that Johnson “considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted.”

A front page story in The Washington Post of Jan. 6,1965, more than two months before the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma—reported that Johnson planned to submit a constitutional amendment that would ban literacy tests. He also was considering stopgap legislation that would provide federal voter registrars in place of the local officials who were preventing blacks from registering in the Deep South.

The New York Times characterized the movie “Selma” this way in a headline, “Film’s Take On History Makes Johnson A Villain.” In particular, the movie’s depiction of Johnson’s attitude toward the FBI’s surveillance of King’s personal life, particularly his extra-marital affairs, is clearly far from the truth.

In an early scene, Johnson seems disgusted by J. Edgar Hoover’s suggestion that King is “a political and moral degenerate ” who should be taken down. Later, the film shows Johnson, angered about King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone.

Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape including sounds of King moaning with a lover.

According to historian David Garrow, the author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” the tape which Mrs. King listened to in Jan. 1965, had been recorded and sent to King’s headquarters in late 1964 by the FBI’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson.

In Garrow’s view any suggestion that Johnson had anything to do with the tape is “truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ.” The movie never tells us the truth, which is that then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the bugging of King’s hotel room.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen notes that, “…for understandable reasons, Kennedy appears nowhere in the film. By 1965, he was no longer the Attorney General and, anyway, he remains a liberal icon. But LBJ – Southern, obscene and, especially when compared to the lithe Kennedy, gross of speech and physique – was made the heavy…The lesson a new generation will learn is, in important ways,  a lie…a lie that tarnishes Johnson’s legacy to exalt King’s. The story needed no embellishment—and in my movie, King himself would’ve protested the treatment of Johnson.  The greatness of King never depended on the diminishment of others. I take the word of countless critics that ‘Selma’ will be nominated for an Academy Award.  If it wins, truth loses.”

In what is regarded as one of the most powerful presidential speeches in history, Johnson used a rallying cry from the anthem of black protest, “We shall overcome,” to make the case in a nationally televised address for what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In his memoir, Richard Goodwin, the presidential speechwriter who authored that address, recalled hearing Johnson on the phone with King in the upstairs sitting room of the White House residence. Goodwin recounted Johnson saying to King, “Thank you, Reverend, but you’re the leader who’s making it all possible.  I’m just following along trying to do what’s right.”

The criticism of the film’s depiction of Johnson has come from a variety of historians, who said they admired other aspects of the film. Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” says that, “Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking. But with the portrayal of LBJ, I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.'”

Julian E. Zelizer, author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society, said of the moviemakers:  “They obviously wanted to create a villain, and really miss who Lyndon Johnson was.”

Telling the story of Selma, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King is an important enterprise, recording an essential part of our history. The movie “Selma” is well done and the acting outstanding.  Nineteen sixties America comes to life. On a personal note, the film depicts the murder on the streets of Selma by white racists of the Rev. Jim  Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who came to march with Dr. King. The year before the march on Selma, Reeb gave a lecture at the William and Mary Law School. I was a law student at the time and hosted a reception for Reeb at my house. I still have fond memories of that evening.

It is unfortunate that the filmmakers felt it necessary to falsify key elements of what happened,  a real disservice not only to Lyndon Johnson but to Martin Luther King himself. The truth tells a genuinely heroic story.  Why didn’t director Ava DuVernay understand this? Why wasn’t the truth enough?

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.