On Friday evening I saw Selma, the Academy Award nominated film about the 1965 civil rights march that Dr. Martin Luther King led from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery, fifty miles away. The film depicts the enormous courage of the marchers and the inspirational leadership of Dr. King. But it misses the historical mark on two immense and telling details.
For Selma portrays President Lyndon Johnson as the prime target of the historic demonstration. The Johnson of the film is reluctant to back a federal voting rights act that Dr. King is determined to see enacted. So Dr. King designs the march to generate national publicity and pressure Washington, especially the president. He selects Selma as his starting place, because the sheriff is mean and stupid, opening the prospect of good street theater when, as the movie’s King anticipates, the sheriff orders deputies to attack the marchers.
It turns out that all of this is historically wrong, as former Johnson assistant and later (in the Carter Administration) secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano recently detailed in a Washington Post op-ed (http://bit.ly/CalifanoLBJ) .
In fact, Califano reports, the idea for a march came from Johnson himself, who was resolved that a voting rights act would pass that year. The president felt that media coverage of the march would help inform, focus and galvanize opinion outside of the South.
Selma was selected as the starting place not because it had (as it surely did) a crude cracker of a county sheriff – the perfect heavy for television cameras and a New York Times reporter. Rather, it was the worst example that could be found of the issue of the day, the denial of African-Americans voting rights. Only 335 of about 10,000 registered voters were Black. Sixty percent of the county was.
As the president told Dr. King (quote by Califano from LBJ Library transcripts):
“And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.”
In producing an historical film, the demands of drama make it all but inevitable that filmmakers will take liberties with the factual record. Still, poetic license is one thing and portraying a noble act as tawdry is another.
But why did the producers defame LBJ?
Here is my guess: The story of Selma, the movie, fits perfectly with what has become a myth of the civil rights movement. In this telling, during the 1960s African-Americans led by Dr. King and assisted by only a few liberal white activists and preachers achieved racial justice despite an at-best-indifferent and at-worst-hostile white America.
In fact, for decades there had been a large number of Americans who disdained the segregation and oppression of African-Americans in the South and wanted the outrages ended. Virtually every descendant of union soldiers or of Lincoln supporters felt that way – meaning the entire Republican Party. Their representatives in Congress were the backbone of support for all civil rights legislation from the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, to the civil rights bills of the 1960s.
But it was not until the Democrats split over African-American equality at the party’s 1948 national convention that the potential emerged for an alliance of Republicans with northern and western Democrat. Still, many of these non-Republicans and their representatives in Congress needed prodding.
Johnson’s remark to Dr. King reflects an acute political insight. An African-American led, nationally televised and reported demonstration for voting rights staged in the South could stir the basic national sense of fairness needed to sweep away segregationist resistance — which was exactly what happened.
The rap song at the end of Selma includes a reference to Ferguson, Missouri, now an emblem of the fear that American Blacks remain embattled, in danger of having rights yanked at any moment. Charlatans like Al Sharpton play on that fear, much as George Wallace once played on a similar fear in poor white Alabamans.
But in 1965 Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King bet on a noble view of the American people and won. Aren’t we in need of such wisdom today – and wouldn’t a true telling of American history help us achieve it? Too bad the producers of Selmamissed that chance, whatever the other merits of their movie.