Historians challenge depiction of LBJ in 'Selma'

Screenshot 2015-01-05 13.43.02


(Photo Credit:  Atsushi Nishijima – © 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

As the accolades continue to roll in for Ava DuVernay’s Selma, some historians are taking exception to the buzzworthy film’s depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson.


In a recent New York Times article, author Diane McWhorter (Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution) says DuVernay got Johnson’s stance on the Selma protests wrong.

“Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nitpickers like me to suspend nitpicking,” McWhorter wrote in the article. “But with the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”


A former aide to President Johnson told The Washington Post that unlike what was presented in the film, Johnson considered Dr. King an ally, and it was Johnson who conceived the idea of marching in Selma.

“Selma was LBJ’s idea,” said Joseph Califano, former Johnson domestic policy aide. “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.”

Califano says there’s a transcript of a phone call between King and Johnson in which the president suggests strategies to be used to drum up support among whites for the voting rights bill by looking for “the worst condition that you run into” in the South. Johnson is said to have wanted images of “racial brutality” to send to media outlets, but the film credits the idea to Dr. King. Califano also asserts that Johnson had nothing to do with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI witchhunt of King.

Civil rights leader and former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who has given overall praise for the movie, also noted some inaccuracies in President Johnson’s portrayal.

“He did support King’s fight for voting rights. He probably is the best civil rights president America has ever had. The best. Absolute best,” Bond told CBS news. “I think the movie people wanted Dr. King to have an antagonist. Why not have it be LBJ?”

DuVernay discussed the controversy on Twitter, writing in part that the “notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive” to Blacks and all involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

Selma opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Jan. 9.

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