What ‘Selma’ Gets Wrong About LBJ

The movie botched its portrayal of the former president.

From the U.S. News Archives 19

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

By Jan. 5, 2015 | 1:00 p.m. EST+ More


“Selma” was an excellent movie. Captivating. Dramatic. Well acted. It is an important window on one of the most telling episodes in American history and the still ongoing struggle for civil rights.

The film paid a lot of attention to detail, not only to the unfolding of the Selma to Montgomery march and the events leading up to it, but to the struggles and personalities within the movement. It also paid attention to the little details. For instance, Sunday’s New York Times had a photo from the movie of the actors playing Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in their kitchen. The phone she was talking on was vintage 1960s, as were the metal kitchen table and chairs, the clock on the wall, the small portable TV, the linoleum floor tiles, and the sweater and dress the actors wore. Throughout the movie we saw life as it was during that era, and great efforts were clearly made to get the key elements of the story right.

That is why it is so unfortunate, as so many have pointed out (including King-aide and later Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young), that the protrayal of President Lyndon Johnson was so far off base. Johnson was portrayed by the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, and the writers in a highly negative light, opposing King and what he was trying to achieve.

In fact, LBJ was supportive of focusing attention on voting rights and urged King in a recorded telephone conversation to “find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina … and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. And if we do that we will break through. It will be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 (Civil Rights) Act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration.”

This is not about artistic license. It is not about historical interpretation. It is not just an unimportant “detail” in such a movie. It is definitely not just about, as a Washington Post reporter called it, “fact-checking.” It is integral to the story, a key element of the narrative, and involves the actions and attitude of a key player: the president of the United States.

This movie does not claim to be “based on a true story.” It claims to be history. This movie does not simply combine events or create dialogue, which viewers understand, but misrepresents one aspect of the history. As we still struggle with racial politics in America, as we still try to make sense of senseless killings, as we find such a wide divergence in how whites and blacks perceive civil rights, this movie has created a bit of a firestorm, and at the very least a sense of mistrust.

We will never know all that LBJ was thinking nor have a true sense of the complexity of the relationship between King and Johnson, but we do know that LBJ did not order then FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to undermine King. We do know that LBJ led the politically risky fight in 1957 as majority leader of the Senate for a civil rights bill and again as president for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We know that Johnson was integral to the strategy to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

There were plenty of villains in the 1960s who committed horrible acts or vehemently fought equal rights or stood by and did nothing in the face of hatred and discrimination. Johnson was not one of those people. Was he perfect? No. Did he exhibit his southern heritage? By all accounts, yes. Was he balancing “101 problems” as the movie suggests? Yes. But LBJ was there in the trenches.

And, fundamentally, could the United States have passed civil rights legislation in the 1960s without the leadership, activism and non-violent movement led by King? Nope. Did King push the people, the Congress and the president into action? Absolutely. Was his role front and center? No question.

At the end of the day, progress happens when people come together. And this was what happened in 1964 and 1965.

Maybe the lesson we need to learn from “Selma” and from the debate and discussion about the movie is that our country should confront the wide gulf that still exists between black and white. Just as South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at the urging of Nelson Mandela, maybe America could use a comprehensive look at race and attitudes about equal opportunity, as well as issues of poverty, policing, education and incarceration.

President Barack Obama could act to create such a commission with a mandate to look at where we have come since 1965 and where we need to go to fulfill the dream that Martin Luther King and LBJ fought so hard for so many years ago.