Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is a riveting and powerful depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle. This compelling film reveals the scope of King’s radical vision, the fierce opposition he faced and the conflicting currents that only this savvy movement politician had to navigate. It should sweep the Academy Awards.
The greatest testament to the film’s power is the controversy it has spawned. Defenders of Lyndon Johnson, several prominent historians and even King’s longtime ally Andrew Young have objected to its depiction of the president as being at odds rather than a co-conspirator with King.
The debate over the film eerily replays a telling chapter of the primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. In the run-up to the South Carolina presidential primary, in which nearly half the voters would be African American, Clinton — trying to draw a contrast between her experience and Obama’s eloquence — argued that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964... It took a president to get it done.” Naturally, this raised hackles throughout the African American community, leading Clinton to charge that the Obama campaign was “deliberately distorting this.”
The conflicting perspectives reflect very different angles of vision. Dr. King and the courageous citizens who were putting their lives on the line in non-violent demonstrations were demanding action at the federal level. President Johnson and his predecessor John F. Kennedy, however sympathetic, were worried about sustaining a Democratic coalition still anchored by powerful Southern senators. Both felt pressured by the demonstrators. This wasn’t a love fest. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI’s wiretaps of King, which continued during Johnson’s administration.
After the 1964 election, Johnson did talk regularly with King. King both valued the relationship and understood its limits. He kept the pressure on that helped produce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In his magisterial study tracing this period, “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America,” Nick Kotz notes the act provoked “a period of terrorism,” with 2,000 black churches burned in two years, public schools shut down in Virginia and massive resistance vowed across the South.
In this context, Johnson and King continued to talk and to push. King was trying to ride and guide a movement that had its own momentum. He knew that only continued moral pressure would produce change. Johnson, probably thinking that King had more control than he actually did, wanted dramatic demonstrations timed to the legislative calendar. King was also dealing with Hoover’s secret letter, threatening to reveal King’s affairs if he didn’t withdraw from leadership of the movement. King had every reason to be suspicious of Johnson even as they cooperated.
The culmination was the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the police riot that generated moral outrage across the country — and helped Johnson drive the Voting Rights Act through Congress. In his historic speech to Congress afterward, Johnson embraced the civil rights movement: “Their cause must be our cause. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” We have not witnessed such leadership or courage from any president since that moment.
Reform presidents — Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, Barack Obama — are often depicted as saying to movement allies: “I agree with you, now go out and make me do it.” But no president likes to be pressured from citizen movements, particularly from his base. The White House values control; movements are uncontrollable. Washington is cynical and values those who understand compromise. Movements require moral vision that inspires citizens to abandon normal life and take risks for change. And movement leaders often face popular pressures that are invisible from the beltway.
Johnson and King’s relationship could not last. King’s moral clarity and courage left him no choice but to speak out against the Vietnam War. That cost him the support not only of Johnson but also of much of the liberal establishment, at the time still blindly committed to that disastrous folly. Ignoring King’s warning, Johnson ended up discredited and despised even in his own party. King’s authority also declined, as riots shook America and more radical voices challenged non-violence as a strategy.
The film “Selma” — and the dispute over King and Johnson’s role — offers deep insight for this period of Gilded Age inequality and deepening corruption. Against entrenched injustice, it takes a movement — independent leaders with moral vision, courageous citizens sick and tired of being sick and tired. And yes, it takes a president with the will and the skill to push change through a system designed to impede it. In retrospect, Johnson is gaining the respect he deserves for the historic reforms he drove into law. And as “Selma” shows, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement must be seen not as “dreamers,” but as the motor force for change that transformed America. To make America better, look to movements, not presidents, people in motion, not legislators in session.