The new film “Selma” opens in theaters in Columbia Friday. So I haven’t seen it, any more than you have. But I’d like to comment on the controversy regarding the movie’s portrayal of LBJ.
In its need for some dramatic tension, “Selma” asserts that King had to persuade and pressure a recalcitrant Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The movie also depicts Johnson authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to smear King and — as King himself suspected — try to drive him to suicide. It is a profoundly ugly moment.
But a bevy of historians say it never happened. It was Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general, whoauthorized the FBI’s bugging of King’s hotel rooms. Yet, for understandable reasons, Kennedy appears nowhere in the film. By 1965, he was no longer the AG and, anyway, he remains a liberal icon. But LBJ — Southern, obscene and, especially when compared to the lithe Kennedy, gross of speech and physique — was made the heavy. He should get a posthumous SAG card….
[Those defending LBJ] include the historian Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library; Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home”; David J. Garrow, author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”; and, when it comes to the atmospherics of the Johnson-King relationship, Andrew Young, once King’s deputy. He told The Post that the contentious meeting between King and LBJ depicted in the film was, in fact, cordial. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Young was there.
As for Garrow, he told the New York Times that “if the movie suggests LBJ had anything to do with” Hoover’s attempt to destroy King, “that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ.” The movie depicts exactly that….
As I say, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve seen the above trailer, which hamhandedly drives home the same falsehood that LBJ, and every other authority figure in the country, stood as a barrier that only MLK’s witness, courage, and eloquence could knock down. (If the filmmakers were not trying to make that point in the trailer, they should go back and try again).
We’ve been here before. Back during the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton enraged some when she said that the eloquence of an MLK or a JFK — or, by implication, a Barack Obama — only gets you so far. You need an LBJ to effect real change. She, of course, was casting herself as the savvy insider, the latter-day LBJ. Here’s my column at the time on that subject, to refresh you.
But there’s more here than whether you prefer fine words or practical action. There’s also the constant tension between people who believe sincere passion, emotional purity expressed through public demonstrations by ordinary folk is better, more legitimate, and ultimately more effective than working through a system of laws, through elected representatives, to bring about needed reform.
I don’t have to tell you that I believe in the rule of law, in effecting change through the mechanisms of a republic, as opposed to marching in the streets. I had little patience with Occupy Wall Street, as you’ll recall. And as for the protests following the Ferguson fiasco, I think Dave Barry hit the nail on the head with this passage from his satirical look at the year just past:
Domestically, the big story is in Ferguson, Mo., which is rocked by a wave of sometimes-violent protests following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The shooting ignites a passionate national debate whose participants have basically as much solid information about what actually happened as they do about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370….
So am I discounting the importance of all those civil rights marches, at Selma and elsewhere? Absolutely not. In fact, I believe they represent the one time in my life that such demonstrations were needed, were essential, and made a positive difference in the country. The moral, peaceful witness that Dr. King and the other marchers placed before the eyes of the country led to the development of a political consensus that made LBJ’s efforts possible. They prepared the ground.
But those protests did NOT force concessions from a hostile country, or hostile leadership in Washington. What they did was force the country to face the reality of Jim Crow. They made it impossible to look away. And the country, the great mass of public opinion, white as well as black, decided that we needed the change that the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act represented. And master legislator-turned-president Johnson was the one who led us through that essential process.
It’s not either/or. It’s not black vs. white, or The People vs. The Man. It’s not passion vs. reason.
It’s both/and. We needed MLK and LBJ.
Cohen calls attention to an earlier piece by Joe Califano, vehemently defending his old boss LBJ from the film’s slander. I like this passage from a recording of the conversation:
On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: “There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.”
Johnson then articulated a strategy for drawing attention to the injustice of using literacy tests and other barriers to stop black Southerners from voting. “We take the position,” he said, “that every person born in this country, when he reaches a certain age, that he have a right to vote . . .whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is. . . . I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination; where a [black] man’s got . . . to quote the first 10 Amendments, . . . and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it, and if we can, just repeat and repeat and repeat.
“And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.”…
You have a couple of key points there:
- First, the president is stating clearly that he not only appreciates what Dr. King is doing, but sees it as essential to educating the public so that it will embrace change. Change will come when that average guy says “that’s not right; that’s not fair.” After that, and not before, you can “shove” reform through Congress.
- Then, you have his assertion that in the end, however, true change will be effected through the system — by black Americans voting, as well as by raised consciousness among whites. Marching in the streets only gets you so far.
Which is why he pushed so hard for his signature achievement, the Voting Rights Act.