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What Is The Controversy About “Selma”‘s Depiction Of Former President Lyndon B. Johnson?

In the film, Johnson is seen taking very reluctant action on civil rights, opposing King’s march for political reasons and going as far as authorizing the FBI to go after King in an attempt to curtail to his efforts in an election year.

The harshest and most vocal critics have been former Johnson aide Joseph Califano, who wrote a scathing rebuke in The Washington Post, and to a lesser degree the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, who wrote another critical piece in Politico, criticizing the film for “bastardiz[ing] one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.” Both critics have been singled out for their association with Johnson, particularly Califano who contends that Johnson was much more involved than most historians believe to be.

Still, historians much more removed from Johnson have been critical on this particular issue, even as many of them have gone on to praise the rest of the film.

Gary May, a professor at the University of Delaware and the author of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, told The New York Times that “on balance, the film is a positive force,” but said that the scenes depicting Johnson had “a problem with the tone.”

Diane McWhorter (Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution) said that “everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking. But with the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’”

In terms of specifics, the strongest dispute has been the movie’s depiction of Johnson’s involvement in the F.B.I.’s surveillance of Dr. King’s personal life. David J. Garrow, the author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said that “if the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.” Johnson’s involvement is mostly implied by the way the film cuts together certain scenes in the film while making no mention that the surveillance on King had originated under the previous administration. As a result, some argued that this implication, while unfair, was possibly unintentional.

Another dispute centers around Johnson’s hesitance to push for the voting rights bill soon after the Civil Rights Act was passed. While Johnson was indeed reluctant, his attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach was already drafting the bill under his orders. By the time the Selma marches came around, Katzenbach was quietly negotiating behind closed doors to get the votes needed in Congress to pass the bill.

Julian E. Zelizer, the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society, believed that omitting this altogether from the film’s story created a misleading portrayal of Johnson, arguing in the New York Times that “the real story wasn’t about a president who didn’t want voting rights, it was about a president who couldn’t get them through. And it was the civil rights movement that made that possible.” In the film’s defense, Amy Davidson of The New Yorker points to a White House recording that shows Johnson telling King “that he wants his ‘people’ to lobby ‘those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you’ in support of Medicare and Johnson’s education and poverty bills. Those were the priorities; they needed to get through without any filibuster. After those bills are passed, Johnson says, ‘then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters.’ It was the protesters’ attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge that changed Johnson’s timetable….There is no question that Johnson was deeply, viscerally committed to civil rights…It is also the case that the White House waited several days after Bloody Sunday before making an official statement about the violence, and that it did not, in that interim, respond to urgent requests for federal protection, including sit-ins at Administration offices. Sending in federal marshals or troops, at that point, might have been politically risky; it might have played into the hands of segregationists. One way or another, by the time either of those things happened, another man, a minister from Boston, was dead, and Johnson had set his staff scrambling to write a draft of a speech, and to assemble a voting-rights bill that he’d send to Congress sooner than he had planned.”

Davidson also argues that other contextual omissions would have portrayed Johnson in a negative light. For example, referring to Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, Davidson points out that when the first violent march in Alabama was in the news, Johnson was far more focused on the Vietnam War, planning a secret bombing campaign with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In the entire film, no mention of Vietnam is ever made in relation to Johnson.

When this debate gained traction in the mainstream press, there was an argument over whether or not the discrepancies would be used to sabotage the film’s chances at the Academy Awards. A heavy favorite during the awards season, the film was nominated for the top prize of Best Picture, but except for Best Song it was not nominated for any others despite strong expectations in other major categories.