How should we judge former President Lyndon Johnson based on the newly released and widely acclaimed movie Selma? Was he a reluctant, foot-dragging politician, or one of its heroes?
Some close to the Johnson legacy feel the movie that depicts the bloody civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act has irresponsibly taken artistic license to portray Johnson as more of an obstructionist to Martin Luther King than an ally.
LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove writes, "Selma misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson."
Former Johnson aide Joseph Califano recently opined:
"In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted -- and he didn't use the FBI to disparage him."
Let's begin with the premise that Hollywood portraying the honest broker on historical facts is a role it has yet to play successfully.
On November 25, 1963, three days after the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson placed a call to Martin Luther King pledging his support to pass civil rights legislation. In fact, it was Vice President Johnson who was among the early advocates within the Kennedy administration urging the president to champion civil rights legislation.
But suggesting that "Selma was LBJ's idea" has the feel of revisionist history. Not that I'm accusing Califano of mendacity, but he must truncate the Selma timeline in order to legitimize his statement.
Organizing efforts to register voters in Selma began in 1963, led by the Dallas County Voting League (DCVL) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
I've written this point previously, but it bears repeating. King was not the genesis of any of the epic civil rights demonstrations of the 1960's.
Organizers in Selma had reached a precipice and needed King's assistance. This was part of King's greatness; he did not seek to co-opt movements for his own personal glorification. But was ready and willing to lend his moral authority and leadership when requested.
Califano's comments that Johnson did not use the FBI to disparage King also warrant further examination. The statement, as it stands, oversimplifies history.
On August 28, 1963, while King was electrifying most of the nation with his "dream," the FBI was classifying him as the "most dangerous Negro in America." By October, Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved the FBI's use of wiretapping King's activities, in what the Washington Post described as "one of the biggest surveillance operations in history," that lasted until King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest Johnson ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to cease and desist all surveillance activities on King.
But Selma, as it's portrayed on the silver screen, runs counter to the ongoing efforts to revise, justifiably so, the Johnson legacy. It is understandable Johnson's supporters would take umbrage of any portrayal that places him in an unfavorable light, especially on an issue which he was so critical to its success.
Johnson was far more than the failures of Vietnam. No 20th-century president stands taller than Johnson on civil rights. Moreover, the civil rights legislation he signed became the foundation for his Great Society programs.
Is Johnson not the last president to make poverty central to his administration's achievements in such an overt manner?
As Updegrove writes, the relationship between Johnson and King was indeed pivotal in changing the course of history, but neither were "the" hero.
On March 15, 1965, Johnson, addressing a joint session of Congress, told the nation who the true hero of not only Selma but the movement at-large, and I believe King would agree.
"The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy."