Over the past week there has been a major debate over the film “Selma.” The film’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as a tepid supporter of African-American voting rights and an opponent of the organizers of the Selma march has raised the ire of the surviving members of Johnson’s coterie and rankled political historians. In particular, Joseph Califano argued on the basis of a phone call between President Lyndon Johnson and King that “Selma was [LBJ’s] idea.” Needless to say, Califano’s overreach has been relentlessly mocked on social media.
But the reaction to Califano has also allowed the film’s director Ava DuVernay to deflect his legitimate criticism of the artistic license she took with the Johnson record in the film. This criticism becomes all the more pertinent in light of what African Americans at the time actually thought about Johnson’s role. Their views were far more favorable to Johnson than “Selma.”
In 2009, the late Hanes Walton, Jr., of the University of Michigan and I initiated a study on how presidents were portrayed in African-American media. We gathered and examined thousands of editorials about presidents that appeared in five black newspapers between 1900 and 2012: the Atlanta Daily World, Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Sentinel, New York Amsterdam News, and the Pittsburgh Courier. We selected these papers because of their national circulations, regional market positions, and the partisan diversity of their editorial boards.
Our goal is use these editorials to rank modern presidents on the issues important to the African-American community. While the project’s work continues, we have completed our examination of the editorials that span the Civil Rights era.
Our results show that of the five presidents between 1948 and 1972, Johnson had the highest approval ratings among the editorial boards of these newspapers. Astoundingly, all 34 of the editorials on Johnson’s civil rights record that ran in these five papers during his administration evaluated him positively.
To be clear, the editorial boards of these papers were not easy sells on the civil rights issue. Approval of Johnson exceeded that of Truman, who was popular with African Americans for desegregating the military through executive action. And Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon were not evaluated positively for their civil rights record in even half of editorials.
Moreover, Johnson’s high approval rating was not due to some special or long-standing relationship with the African-American community, as he was roundly criticized by these same editorial boards for his inaction on civil rights during his stints in the Senate and as vice president.
The editorials also speak very clearly about Johnson’s role in promoting voting rights for African Americans during the Selma marches. Between August 1965 and August 1967, these black newspapers ran two dozen editorials attributing credit for the 1965 Voting Rights Act to various political and social movement actors. Even after removing the handful of editorials that directly thanked Johnson for signing the bill into law, he remains, along with King, one of the two individuals most credited for winning voting rights for African Americans.
In fact, by the end of Johnson’s time in the White House he was so popular with African Americans that several editorial boards urged King not to break ranks with Johnson over the Vietnam War. “When the Johnson record of accomplishments is spread before the Negro masses, Dr. King will find few ‘soul brothers’ who would shout Amen to his plea to join him in a campaign against LBJ,” opined the editorial board of the Chicago Defenderin a piece entitled “Dr. King’s Politics” that ran on Aug. 24, 1967.
Fifty years after the passage of the VRA, King has been elevated to the status of chief icon of the Civil Rights Movement. And, DuVernay’s film beautifully dramatizes the heroism that earned him this status.
However, the archival record clearly indicates that, at the time of the movement, the African-American community would not have recognized nor stood for her inaccurate portrayal of LBJ. On the contrary, the editorial boards of the leading African-American newspapers would have likely demanded that her film place President Lyndon Johnson alongside King.
Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is currently serving as co-chair of the American Political Science Association’s Presidential Task Force on Racial and Class Inequalities in the Americas. Follow him on Twitter @AlvinBTilleryJr.