According to historian David Kaiser, writing in TIME, “the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson and his role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act [in the movie “Selma”] could hardly be more wrong. And this is important not merely for the sake of fidelity to the past, but because of continuing implications for how we see our racial problems and how they could be solved.”
But, according to author Philip Nelson, Selma gets LBJ dead right. Writing in Op-Ed News, Nelson and right-wing political consultant Roger Stone assert:
“Selma shows the LBJ persona and his complete history, as he and it was, at first as the leading impediment to civil rights reform, then, on becoming president, his 180 degree flip-flop to become its leading proponent. In 1964-65, the arcs of the two of them coincided, ”
Unfortunately, that vague reference to “coinciding arcs” is all that Nelson and Stone have to say about LBJ’s role in securing passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They don’t even mention the names of the laws. So eager they are to demonize Johnson for his early opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1950s and his later escalation of the Vietnam War, that they can’t actually talk about his role in securing passage of two of the most important laws in the 20th century in 1964 and 1965.
Why so negative?
Nelson and Stone are convinced that LBJ was a motive force behind the assassination of JFK. Its a factually flimsy scenario that has a lot of die-hard proponents on the internet. Nelson and Stone’s conspiratorial agenda makes it all but impossible for them to give credit where credit is due. The fact that Johnson had the racial attitudes and politics of southern Democrat until he became president is true and, in any discussion, of Selma–which depicts the events of 1965– slightly besides the point.
The question is what did he do when he faced the challenge of the civil rights movement?
Kaiser says Selma distorts Johnson’s response.
“Until its last few minutes, the film presents LBJ as the main obstacle to what King is trying to do,” Kaiser writes. “There was no shortage of real white villains in the Selma controversy, but LBJ was not one of them. This portrayal depends upon a complete misrepresentation not only of the facts, but also of specific conversations that King and Johnson had during this period.”
Martin Luther King didn’t trust Johnson. And he doubted his wisdom. King told Johnson from the start that the war in Vietnam was folly. But he did come to appreciate LBJ’s maturation as a national leader.
“King himself wrote, in the midst of these events, that while he and Johnson’s approaches to civil rights were far from identical, he had no doubt at all that Johnson was trying to solve the problem of civil rights “with sincerity, realism and, thus far, with wisdom.”
Nelson and Stone say Selma gets it right: that LBJ embodied a corrupt and racist American power structure. Kaiser says Selma gets it wrong that LBJ embodied an American power structure that was open to reform. Who do you think got it right?