By Tommy De Seno | Reposted from Ricochet
God cannot alter the past, though historians can.”
– Samuel Butler
The movie Selma is about Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery to help the Voting Rights Act get passed. It’s a good movie, but there is one major historical inaccuracy and one major historical omission.
The antagonist to Dr. King in the movie is President Johnson, who is shown trying everything to stop the march, even underhanded and unseemly things involving the FBI. Transcripts of talks between LBJ and King, however, show that LBJ not only supported King’s agitations, he encouraged them.
The following is a portion of a telephone conversation between President Johnson and Dr. King on January 15, 1965, two months before the Selma marches and weeks before Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot. Johnson was encouraging King to find the worst examples of voter suppression and make as much of a media fuss about it as he could:
And number two, I think that we don’t want special privilege for anybody. We want equality for all, and we can stand on that principle. But I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man’s got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow or whether he’s got to quote the first 10 Amendments or he’s got to tell you what amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens. And some people don’t have to do that. But when a Negro comes in, he’s got to do it. And we can just repeat and repeat and repeat. I don’t want to follow [Adolph] Hitler, but he had a–he had a[n] idea–
–that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where–well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow–drive a tractor, he’s say, “Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.” [Emphasis supplied]
And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end. [Emphasis supplied]
Yes. You’re exactly right about that.
The reason LBJ needed to get media attention is because he needed pressure on congressional Democrats to stop filibusters. The Democrats had filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act (most notably Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who was a recruiter for the KKK, yet later called the “conscience of the Senate” by Democrats).
The Republicans were already on board, thanks in part to the efforts of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Look at this part of the same phone conversation between President Johnson and Dr. King:
I’ll tell you what our problem is. We’ve got to try with every force at our command–and I mean every force–to get these education bills that go to those people [with] under $2,000 a year [of] income, 1.5 billion [dollars]. And this poverty [bill] that’s a billion, and a half and this health [bill] that’s going to be 900 million [dollars] next year right at the bottom. We’ve got to get them passed before the vicious forces concentrate and get them a coalition that can block them. Then we have got to–so we won’t divide them all and get them hung up in a filibuster. We’ve got to–when we get these big things through that we need–Medicare, education–I’ve already got that hearing started the 22nd in the House and 26th in the Senate. Your people ought to be very, very diligent in looking at those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you to see that those bills get reported right out, because you have no idea–it’s shocking to you–how much benefits they will get. There’s 8.5 billion [dollars] this year for education, compared to 700 million [dollars] when I started. So you can imagine what effort that’s going to be. And this one bill is a 1.5 billion [dollars]. Now, if we can get that and we can get a Medicare [bill]–we ought to get that by February–then we get our poverty [bill], that will be more than double what it was last year. [Emphasis supplied]
Then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters. That will answer 70 percent of your problems.
If you just clear it out everywhere, make it age and [the ability to] read and write. No tests on what [Geoffrey] Chaucer said or [Robert] Browning’s poetry or constitutions or memorizing or anything else.
It is therefore an inaccurate recital of history to claim that President Johnson was somehow Dr. King’s antagonist.
Joseph Califano, Jr. was President Johnson’s top advisor on domestic affairs, and he strongly objects to the movie’s portrayal of LBJ as someone standing in the way of King, going so far as to say Selma was LBJ’s idea. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, as King was likely laying the groundwork for the marches before January, but LBJ clearly was encouraging Dr. King.
A retort has come from the director of the movie, Ava Duvernay. She told Rolling Stone that she changed the script to downplay Johnson so she could represent her own point of view, because she didn’t want to make a “white savior movie.” That of course begs the question: What if there was a white savior? History be damned?
There is also a negligent (intentional?) omission in the movie: The failure to identify Southern Democrats as Dr. King’s actual antagonists. Party identification was left out of the movie, but at one point President Johnson states that “white liberals” were on King’s side.
“Liberal” is a vague word and has seen so many definitional shifts that it is unfair to position it in an historical movie without further context. Today’s version of “liberal” is attached to the Democratic Party. However, at various times in history, “liberal democrat” could be synonymous with Western, American, or even Republican.
The vagary of political labeling is fraught with complications. An American right-winger is left compared to an anarchist and an American leftist is on the right compared to a communist (even that sentence is confusing without pointing out first that I’m using “left to right” as a measuring stick for government’s control of economic production in society). See how complicated it can be without explanation?
The word liberal, like conservative, is a completely relative term. To use the word in the movie with no context was sloppy and can lead to the incorrect assumption that Democrats were on King’s side and Republicans were not. The opposite was true.
Lots of bad guys were identified in the movie without their party, but let’s list them here with their partisan affiliation:
George Wallace — Democrat
Bull Connor — Democrat
Selma Sheriff Jim Clark — Democrat
Jim Crow Laws — drafted by Democrats throughout the South
Ku Klux Klan — terror arm of the Democratic Party, the original oath required members to swear they were never in the Republican Party.
Every fire hose-spraying, attack dog-unleashing, vicious government official who was keeping blacks down in the South was a Democrat. Failure to put that in an historical movie is just wrong. This is a movie about politics, the efforts to pass a law. Which party violently opposed Dr. King and the Voting Rights Act is therefore an integral part of the story that should always be included when it is told.
Selma is a good movie worth watching for the parts about Dr. King’s efforts and what blacks in the South had to go through, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is a complete or accurate recitation of history.