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By Robert Mann
Who was really responsible for the 1965 voting rights act? And who inspired the bloody 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which is portrayed in the new film “Selma“?
I haven’t yet seen the film, but some reviewers and former aides to President Lyndon Johnson are criticizing the filmmaker for portraying LBJ as a reluctant supporter of voting rights and the Selma march.
As CBS reported,
“A December 1964 meeting in the Oval Office is reenacted on the big screen: Martin Luther King, Jr. entreats the help of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to ensure voting rights for black Americans. ‘Mr. President,’ King says in the film, ‘in the South, there have been thousands of racially motivated murders. . . we need your help.'”
Johnson, according to the movie’s account, responds with a condescending pat on the shoulder and a line that some historians and first-hand witnesses reject: “Dr. King, this thing’s just going to have to wait.”
Historians and some who worked for Johnson have attacked the film’s depiction of Johnson as fiction. As the New York Times reported,
The charge began on Dec. 22, three days before the movie’s release, when Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, wrote an article in Politico saying that the film was trying to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.” A few days later, Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former top domestic aide to Johnson, issued another salvo, in The Washington Post, accusing the filmmakers of deliberately ignoring the historical record.
The criticism of the film’s depiction of the president has come not just from Johnson loyalists, but from some historians who said they admired other aspects of the film.
“Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” said in an interview.
“But with the portrayal of L.B.J.,” she continued, “I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”
As the author of a 1996 political history of the civil rights movement (The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights), I devoted much ink to Johnson’s important role in the civil rights movement. It’s certainly not an either-or story. The civil rights laws weren’t all Johnson’s doing, although they would not have become law when they did without Johnson’s skillful leadership. They weren’t all King’s doing, or the marchers, although Johnson would have found it impossible to pass those laws without the pressure and public outrage that the movement and the marches generated.
Both had a role and each played those roles perfectly. At the time, both sides publicly acknowledged the important roles each played in the civil rights movement.
Here, for your edification, are the two chapters from my book which detail how King and the movement worked with Johnson to apply pressure on Congress to pass the 1965 voting rights law:
We Are Demanding the Ballot
FOR YEARS SOUTHERN MEMBERS OF CONGRESS fought to defeat civil rights measures by arguing that such pernicious legislation would inevitably lead to violence and dangerous social upheaval in the former Confederate states. The balance between whites and blacks, they argued, was simply too delicate to alter suddenly with sweeping federal legislation.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved what many liberals had suspected: Such arguments were not based on legitimate concerns about maintaining peace and harmony; they were merely in sincere excuses for preserving the South’s brutal status quo in race relations. Those who had accepted the threadbare southern arguments against the bill must have been greatly surprised by southern reaction to the legislation’s passage. While Democrats suffered significant electoral losses in the South, the five southern states that Goldwater carried hardly qualified as the electoral disaster predicted by Russell and others. Furthermore, response to the dreaded public accommodations provisions was surprisingly benign: An extensive fifty-three-city survey conducted by the Community Relations Service found “widespread compliance” with the bill’s provisions. “What is most important,” Johnson said in reaction to the report, was that “it shows the law is being obeyed in those areas where some had predicted there would be massive disobedience.” In New Orleans two hundred business leaders – including the manager of the well-known Roosevelt Hotel – put their names on a newspaper advertisement urging compliance with the law. Elsewhere in New Orleans, blacks quietly and peacefully desegregated downtown movie theaters and dined at French Quarter restaurants for the first time. The Jackson, Mississippi, Chamber of Commerce called on its members to obey the law “pending tests of its constitutionality in court.” In Birmingham, where Mayor Albert Boutwell refused to use the city’s resources to enforce the act, blacks and whites ate together in several downtown restaurants; the city’s hotel and motel associations said they would obey the law. Holiday Inns of America told its 488 motels to observe the law. The South’s largest cafeteria chain, Morrison’s, announced it would do the same. Read more