Ana DuVernay’s movie Selma tells the inspirational story of a coalition of activists, young and old, students and ministers, local and national, radicals and respectables who, despite their differences came together three times in the spring of 1965 to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and confront state police intent on enforcing racial segregation. Viewers and reviewers want to know more about all the people surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr.: Dr. King’s right hand in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Ralph Abernathy and SNCC’s John Lewis. They want to know about the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper as he was defending his mother from a police beating. People want to know about women in the movement, about Selma community organizer Amelia Boynton and the young girls who also took part.
So the recent flap over the role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson during this pivotal point of the civil rights movement distracts us not only from the historical truth, but does the further disservice by (once again) trying to make white people the center of the black freedom struggle. Joseph A. Califano, Jr. goes so far as to suggest that LBJ should be remembered as the “white savior” who suggested the march, rather than as a president who tried to stop it as the film portrays. (That dubious honor goes to John F. Kennedy who tried to shut down the 1963 March on Washington.)
President Johnson was neither the hero nor the villain; to characterize him as one or the other perpetuates the racial divisions that King and other anti-racists sought to overcome. The (white) historians interviewed about Johnson’s legacy failed to understand this as well. Johnson had more than three decades of political experience and knew how pressure politics worked. He also supported the movement’s goals of first class citizenship and wanted Congress to pass a voting rights act. And this is where DuVernay misses an opportunity to teach audiences about the political value of protest and the power of the Oval Office.
Selma is of course a film, not a documentary. If viewers want the documentary, Henry Hampton’s magisterial 14-hour series Eyes on the Prize (1987) remains the definitive video; episode six, Bridge to Freedom examines the Selma march. But Hollywood likes to pair its heroes with villains, and depicting LBJ as the baddie was DuVernay’s narrative choice.
Yet in a time of dysfunctional politics and a pervasive belief that government can do nothing good, there were lessons about political strategy and the usefulness of allies that would have been phenomenal. Audiences could have seen a President who is pushed by protesters to use the national mood after Kennedy’s assassination to deploy his legislative moxie and the power of the office to do the morally right thing. We would not have a distracting debate over LBJ as a white savior, but a message about the critical value of political protest in pushing a progressive agenda through Congress.
Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required three separate but strategically-related actions. First, the US Supreme Court ruled that some of the practices used to deny suffrage were unconstitutional. In addition, the 24th Amendment, abolishing poll taxes, was finally ratified in 1964. Together, these created a legal framework for expanding and protecting citizens’ right to vote.
Rights on paper are not rights in practice. At the center of the struggle for voting rights were the African Americans and white supporters who fought, marched, went to jail and died. To be sure, segregationists’ brutal repression of the movement—and national television coverage of Bloody Sunday—resulted in broad public support for the protestors and their cause.
Pressure mounted on Congress to pass a federal voting rights bill. It was here that LBJ’s work as a movement ally was vital to winning bipartisan support. Johnson knew how to persuade reluctant and defiant Congressmen—many of them fellow Southern Democrats—and more critically, which members were vulnerable to White House pressure. As the long-time Senate majority leader, Johnson understood the legislative minefields he had traversed earlier when Congress passed the tepid Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first since Reconstruction. Johnson was up against die-hard segregationists, most of whom had signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956. Even so, at the signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, President Johnson knew he was consigning the Democratic Party to years of defeat from white Southern voters.
History is complicated when told in full. With its many leaders and varied activists, Selma tells a magnificent story and the stories of African Americans’ struggle aren’t told often enough. The tale of LBJ and Congress is an inside-the-beltway anecdote and probably would have confused the movie’s narrative. But it would have given us an example of a President who was made to do the right thing.
Dr. Mary Frances Berry is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, the former Chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights, the author of ten books including And Justice For All: The United States Commission On Civil Rights And the Struggle For Freedom in America (2009) My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (2005); Black Resistance, White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America (1994, orig. 1971), and the editor of Power in Words: The Stories behind Barack Obama's Speeches, from the State House to the White House (Beacon Press, 2010). Her forthcoming book from Beacon is about electoral fraud and political corruption. She tweets @DrMFBerry. Her website is www.maryfrancesberry.com