WASHINGTON — The other day while suffering through the previews of coming attractions before the main feature I had come to see at the local multiplex, I was treated to another example of historic revisionism, Hollywood style.
One of the previews was for the widely acclaimed “Selma,” portrayed as the true account of how the Rev. Martin Luther King and his associates pulled off one of the main events in the Civil Rights era despite the opposition of some of the nation’s top elected officials. It took only a few seconds to determine that history once again had been twisted by the movie makers at the expense of actuality and apparently to show that the man who did more to bring about social equality than any president since Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, had feet of clay.
Poor old Lyndon. Once again his achievements of bringing justice to America’s suffering black minority was being given short shrift. First it was the backseat he has been consigned in favor of John F. Kennedy in the history of the civil rights movement and now it is the image of King winning voting rights and other concessions from a racist society all by himself. Shades of Oliver Stone, the movie producer who regularly rewrites what really happened but does it well.
The disparagement of LBJ, as anyone who is paying attention knows, has caused quite a furor and may cost the “Selma” production the movie industry’s most coveted best picture citation when the Academy Awards take place at the end of Hollywood’s self aggrandizement season.
Those who lived and worked in journalism through the turbulent ’60s knows full well that King couldn’t have done it alone, that his most important partner is seeking fairness for his beleaguered race was Johnson who truly believed in social equality despite being from a Confederate state. Had the Kennedys, Jack and Robert (it’s hard to know whose name to put first) listened to the man they derisively referred to as “Rufus Cornpone” they might have won passage of the decade’s paramount civil rights legislation before the fateful day in Dallas in 1963.
But they weren’t in the mood to except much advice if any from LBJ. He had won them election and wasn’t needed or wanted after that despite his vastly superior understanding of how Congress worked. But that’s another story. The fact was that in 1964, Johnson, running for election on his own, engineered with the help of Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen the most enlightened civil rights legislation since the Emancipation and reconstruction.
To do so he had to take on his own Democrat Party and its formidable array of ancient Neanderthal white Southern senators of which he had been one. He carried the day and for that alone deserves to have his picture prominently enshrined on the wall of every African American still fighting, as they should, to erase lingering incipient racism. The way to do that, however, is not to downgrade the contribution of their friend in the White House during those years but to acknowledge that without that partnership, the Selma March, and strides that followed might not have succeeded, including the election of Barack Obama.
Johnson was nothing if not a consummate insider, brilliant in his ability to maneuver and game the system. But then so was Abraham Lincoln and, for that matter, so was King. One can blame LBJ for assuming the Kennedy mantel in Vietnam and other mistakes, but not in his dedication to solving the nation’s racial divisions. King was a perfect partner for him in the end and this first motion picture to give him the recognition in that form should be as pristinely correct as he would have wanted it.
The myth that it was Johnson’s predecessor who deserves the adulation for first ushering us into the age of understanding in civil right is and always has been balderdash. Johnson, as Senate majority leader, first stuck out his political neck by taking on his own people to breach that wall of hate and injustice in 1957. And it was in that period that Dwight Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock.
The director of this film, an African American woman, should have taken all this into consideration. In not doing so, she may have done King a major disservice.