Wednesday, January 21, 2015

President Johnson, Selma and Voting Rights Act: The Problem with the Movie Selma

Selma is a great movie. It accurately portrays both the historical sequence of events leading up to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, with a little poetic license except for President Johnson, and The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal torments. Ava DuVernay should have received an Oscar nomination for best director and David Oyelovo for Outstanding Actor. The movie is living history, just like Lincoln a few years ago. It paints the narrative of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. However, it paints a dramatically false narrative of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a narrative that will stick with this generation of movie goers and African Americans, just as the narrative of the innocent gentle giant Michael Brown being murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Ava DuVernay portrayed LBJ as a foil to Martin Luther King, as a hostile politician who had to be led kicking and screaming into supporting the Voting Rights Act. Why not? LBJ is anathema to liberals. He gave us Vietnam. He also gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1957 during the Eisenhower Administration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 1957 act was weak, but it broke the Civil Rights dam in Congress. More significant legislation would follow. Robert Caro describes LBJ as “The Master of the Senate,” a consummate politician who could get laws passed as no other Senate Majority Leader or President at least in our lifetimes. Ava portrays LBJ as both hostile to the Voting Rights Act and authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send the King “sex tape” to his wife, Coretta Scott King. The opposite is true on both. President Johnson won a landslide election in 1964 sweeping overwhelming Democratic majorities into Congress. He instructed Nicholas Katzenbach, the Attorney General, to draft “the Goddamdest, toughest voting rights act that you can.” The issue for the shrewd politician was one of timing. He did not believe he could get the act through a Senate filibuster so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The brutality on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma gave him the opportunity. He presented Congress with a voting rights act in a joint presentation before Congress on March 15, 1995. His highly emotional speech closed with “And we shall overcome.” The President and the Reverend were essentially partners in the struggle to obtain passage of the Voting Rights Act. The movie includes a scene with a heated argument between the two. Those who would know, including MLK’s assistant, Andrew Young, said it never happened. He was there. A taped phone call between President Johnson and reverend King on January 15, 1965 shows the President advising the Civil Rights leaders to find a place where the denial of voting rights was egregious and make it known to the world. Selma won the “Civil Rights lottery” because only 156 Blacks were registered to vote out of 10,000 voters while over half of the population. In addition, Sheriff Jim Clark had a well earned reputation for brutality. No evidence exists that the President authorized Hoover to send the MLK tape. We know that the wiretaps were authorized by JFK’s Attorney General and brother, Robert F. Kennedy. LBJ was supposedly livid when he found out the tape was sent. Ava DuVernay has the right to tell the Selma story any way she wants. It’s unfortunate she fictionalized President Johnson, also a great leader in integrating the South.

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