‘Selma’ vs. History

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Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Capitol after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965

By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public. The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether such a bill should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name.

But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction. The remarkable story of the relationship between Johnson and King was that two such different men, from such different backgrounds, with such different constituencies, and responsibilities, formed a partnership to get the voting rights bill through. This is not to say that the two became pals: they were understandably wary of each other but managed to overcome that as well as other possible sources of tensions to get the job done. Ultimately, they had fallings out over King’s efforts to carry his civil rights campaign into the north, in particular Chicago, and his open opposition to the Vietnam War. But so far as the scope of the movie goes, Martin Luther King’s glorious role in the civil rights movement could have been kept intact without having to make Lyndon Johnson the heavy—a pure fabrication.

The faux tension has obviously been inserted into the movie in order to make it more “dramatic” and add “buzz,” but in doing so, the makers of Selma have taken prohibitive liberties with the truth. So much of Selma is fine and true and important—especially when it comes to the famous marches in 1965—that there need not have been gratuitous exploitation of a major set of events in our history, or deliberately misleading the public. The actual history is a highly dramatic story, with rich characters at its center. Both King and Johnson were complex and wily, and the interactions between them that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would make for an important and engrossing movie.

In fact, there was never any question that there would be a voting rights bill. A section on voting rights had been part of the original civil rights legislation sent to Congress in 1963 by John F. Kennedy and taken up by Johnson as his top legislative priority after the Kennedy assassination. But the voting rights section fell by the wayside both because the highest civil rights priority at the time was access for blacks to public accommodations—the focus of the sit-ins and violence against blacks by southern officials—and because the sponsors of the bill were concerned about loading it up too much to make it viable in Congress. So voting rights legislation was postponed. The only question was when it would be brought up again. In the fall of 1964, Johnson felt that it should be reintroduced in stronger form when the bill and the public were ready.

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Paramount Pictures
Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma, 2014

The big problem with Selma arises from the portrayal of a meeting between Johnson and King in December 1964. In the film, we watch King press an ostensibly resistant Johnson to proceed immediately with a voting rights bill. There are several reasons to doubt this rendering of the encounter. For one thing, earlier that fall, Johnson had already instructed the Justice Department to start looking at what should go in an effective voting rights bill. And Andrew Young, King’s deputy, who was in the room at the time of the meeting, recently told The Washington Post that there was no contention between the two men. “It was not very tense at all,” Young recalled. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Even if Young was attempting to smooth things over, from listening to the film’s dialogue between the two men, the implication of the scene is that Johnson simply doesn’t want to move on voting rights. (LBJ: “You’ve got one thing and I’ve got 101 things”—and it stops there.) But their only real difference was over timing, and even on that they weren’t as far apart as the scene suggests.

The movie omits a far more important conversation not much later, a recorded telephone call between Johnson and King on January 15 in which Johnson urges King to supply backing for his Great Society legislation before a coalition formed against it and tells King how each bill would help blacks—adding urgently that he wanted King to get public attention to the voting rights issue. “That will answer 70 percent of your problems,” Johnson said, and King agreed, “That’s right.” Johnson knew that he needed more public support aroused for voting rights legislation in order to get it through Congress, and King was ready to supply it. (If King, as some of his allies say, was already thinking along those same lines, that doesn’t mean that Johnson wasn’t.)

In the January 15 conversation, Johnson also told King, in some detail, about the discussions he’d been having with the attorney general on what the voting rights bill might look like. This call is the one that’s most revealing about King’s and Johnson’s relationship on voting rights. In fact, King’s main aim in the phone conversation was to persuade Johnson to appoint a black to the cabinet. (Johnson being Johnson, he told King that he needed blacks to support his legislative proposal to establish a department of housing, and then he’d appoint a black secretary; he named a couple of people he had in mind, including Robert Weaver. King agreed and Johnson got his department and King his black secretary.)

But Johnson’s biggest priority that day was to urge King to help pave the way for legislation to abolish the practice of confronting blacks in the south who wanted to vote with poll taxes and daunting literacy tests and other impediments. He suggested to King that he find a place where denial of voting rights was particularly egregious, and to make this known to the world, so that, in Johnson’s words, “pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor says, Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair. And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.” King responded, “You’re exactly right about that.” King, working with other civil rights organizations, may have already been considering Selma, but that doesn’t belie what Johnson said. Each man, of course, told the other only what he thought necessary.

In fact, neither King nor Johnson mentioned demonstrations in that conversation. Neither one wanted violence: King was loath to have his followers beat up and Johnson not only agreed but also didn’t want such a scene blighting his country. However the president was unwilling to send in federal troops before there was a provocation—so he couldn’t offer King’s forces the necessary protection. In this respect, King was more in agreement with Johnson than with the leaders of more radical civil rights groups who favored what was called the Alabama Plan: the intentional stirring up of violence by staging demonstrations in an area where the local sheriff was dumb and bigoted enough to overreact with firehoses and billy clubs and dogs. In the end, the more radical forces prevailed, and King gave way, and the Selma marches began on March 7, which has gone down in history as “Bloody Sunday.” (King absented himself; he was needed for other efforts.) In that phone conversation Johnson told King that if they got a voting rights bill, “Not even excepting this ‘64 Act, it will be the greatest achievement of my administration.” These are not the words of a reluctant warrior.

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Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library
Martin Luther King and President Johnson in the Oval Office, December 3, 1963

Johnson seized the opportunity of the bloody riots in Selma to make a dramatic speech to Congress to push voting rights—ending with the electrifying phrase “We shall overcome.” Here the movie fails miserably, deliberately playing down the drama of the occasion. This was perhaps Johnson’s greatest speech, certainly one of his most significant and passionate ones, yet it’s drained of its force. It actually was given in the joint session in the House Chamber, where State of the Union speeches are made, a setting with stateliness and an aura of excitement, with people crowding into the chamber and milling about; in the film, it takes place as if in the Senate, a far duller setting, with a bunch of politicians sitting dutifully at their desks. Finally and worst of all, the usually excellent Tom Wilkinson as Johnson delivers the speech in humdrum fashion, losing all the passion that Johnson showed and felt about enacting a voting rights law.

Oddly, though Johnson was an extraordinarily dramatic figure in real life, dramatists don’t seem to be able to settle for that. In fact, Selma is a reverse twist on the portrait of LBJ in last year’s Broadway hit All the Way, in which Johnson’s role in winning passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, while crucial, was way overblown. Had the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, wanted to show an actual presidential obstacle to King—one that King literally overcame—she could have selected Kennedy, whose reluctance to push civil rights legislation in Congress led to the monumental March on Washington in 1963. This was a march that Kennedy was in no way eager to see happen. But Kennedy wouldn’t make for a heavy. The March on Washington was probably King’s greatest achievement.

Look, it’s fine—even a contribution—to make a movie or a play about a famous event or figure in order to illuminate, educate, expand understanding—and also to entertain. These goals need not be in conflict. One can also take liberties required by the medium—particularly compression, or sanding down the edges of a figure to make him bearable for two and a half hours. No one is asking for a documentary.

Some embellishments are harmless, especially when there’s no history to contradict. It doesn’t much matter if a movie about Elizabeth I has her sharing her bedchamber with a courtier – no one knows for sure and it’s not terribly important. In The Queen, it doesn’t matter that it’s most unlikely, and certainly unknowable, that Elizabeth II, who had underestimated the degree of her subjects’ grief over the death of Princess Diana, upon seeing a beautiful stag about to be shot by hunters, shed a tear because it put her in mind (a stag?) of the tragic young woman. That’s acceptable “artistic license,” since it doesn’t change the story.

But then there are elaborations that do change the story and mislead in serious ways. Both the play and the movie Frost/Nixon base the plot on a historical falsehood: Nixon agonizingly utters a confession he didn’t make; in fact it turns what he actually said on its head by leaving out some crucial words More recently, as Christian Caryl has pointed out, in The Imitation Game so many liberties are taken with what the figure Alan Turing was like, and so many historical facts are distorted, as to present a real question of the movie’s legitimacy.

Some remarkably specious arguments have been proffered that it doesn’t matter if a movie distorts important history. One writer about films suggested on MSNBC that this whole argument is nothing but Oscar competition cooked up by rival film companies. A film critic for The Washington Post argued that we should simply get used to the idea that films pretending to represent history are going to contain falsities—and that we can then discuss why the director made these choices. But how are we to know? Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it? Our history belongs to all of us, and major events shouldn’t be the playthings of moviemakers to boost their box-office earnings. They are no more entitled to falsify such important history than anyone is to paint the Washington Monument orange.


Ava DuVernay’s Selma is now playing in select theaters, and will be in wide release Friday, January 9.