An Historical Row Over “Selma”

In the wake of the recent release of the powerful movie “Selma,” an intra-Democratic debate of sorts has emerged over the history of a key triumph of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago –Voting Rights Act, which granted previously disenfranchised Black Americans the right to vote in the southern US states that had formerly enlisted on the side of the Confederacy in defense of black chattel slavery prior to and during the US Civil War. On one side you have the film’s portrayal of US President Lyndon Johnson as opposed to the great protests and marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and his Civil Rights colleagues in Selma, Alabama to force passage of the act. “Selma” depicts Johnson as only reluctantly behind the legislation and as using the FBI to influence and discredit King by sending King’s wife Coretta an audio tape containing purported evidence of the civil rights leader’s marital infidelities after King defied Johnson’s request to slow the movement down.

On the other side,  former Johnson administration aide Joseph Califano, Jr., published a Washington Post editorial in which he recalled and argued that “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him….Contrary to the portrait painted by ‘Selma,’ Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for ‘Selma.’”

To support his claim, Califano posted a recording and transcript of a telephone discussion that took place between Johnson and King on January 15, 1965, months before the historic events in Selma that sparked Johnson to publicly endorse and call for a federal voting rights act. King had called Johnson to politely press his request for Johnson to consider appointing a “Negro” to his cabinet. After discussing a number of suitable possible candidates for such a symbolic appointment (including the conservative chief of the National Urban League, Whiney Young) with King, Johnson said this to King: “There’s not going to be anything though, Dr., as effective as all of them [southern Blacks] voting…That,” Johnson continued, “[wi]ll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring, because the fellow [the president and other politicians – that is] will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.” Later in the conversation, Johnson recommended that King and his fellow activists help move federal voting rights legislation forward by picking one of the “worst spots” in the South to stage protests demonstrating the need for such legislation: “if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where–well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow–drive a tractor, he’ll say, ‘… that’s not right.’”

“Selma’s” director, Ava DuVernay, responded to Califano’s criticism by going on Twitter to call the notion of the Selma campaign as Johnson’s idea “jaw dropping and offensive” to the “black citizens who made it so.”

The DuVernay-Califano row revisits a dispute about 1960s Civil Rights legislation that emerged between the Barack Obama (presaging the DuVernay position) camp and the Hillary Clinton  (presaging the Califano position) team during the Democratic presidential primary campaign of 2008.

Who’s right in this historical clash? On the narrow matter of who came up with the Selma protest notion, it’s DuVernay. Califano is technically incorrect to say that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Civil Rights activists had targeted Selma for protest around voting and other civil rights as early as December of 1962. King spoke in Selma in support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s effort to register Black voters over the opposition of an especially reactionary and racist country sheriff (James G. Clark) at the courthouse in Dallas County, Alabama in October of 1963. In April of the same year, King’s SCLC had “considered supporting protests in Selma” but backed off because too many of its resources were already committed to its historic anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama.

Johnson certainly should not be credited with giving King and the SCLC the idea of picking an especially reactionary and racist locale in which to spark confrontations that would elicit public support for Black rights via media coverage. That idea was of course already the Civil Rights Movement’s modus operandi, well exhibited in Birmingham and elsewhere.

More broadly, however, Califano seems correct. There were disagreements between King and Johnson on timing regarding the Selma actions and Johnson was less than enthusiastic about introducing a voting rights bill soon after the recently passed Civil Rights Act, but Johnson was an ally in the battle for voting rights legislation. He had directed his Attorney General Nicholas Katznebach to begin drafting such a bill in mid-December of 1964. Katzenbach was already secretly negotiating with Congressmen over the legislation when the Selma marches started up.

The leading Civil Rights historian David Garrow shares Califano’s general view that Johnson and King were partners, not adversaries, on the voting rights bill. “Selma was not Johnson’s idea, but he was happy that King was out there mounting a voting rights campaign,” Garrow told the New York Times. At the same time, “Selma” sins badly when it suggests that Johnson had anything to do with sending the defamatory FBI tape to Coretta Scott King. The tape existed and was heard by Mrs. King in January 1965. But, Garrow notes, it had been recorded and sent to the SCLC’s headquarters in in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, with no direct ties to either Selma or Johnson.

Overall, I’d have to give the historical accuracy nod to Califano, though it was fairly absurd for him to claim that “Selma was Johnson’s idea.”

That said, there some other glaring inaccuracies that have not made it way into the narrow mainstream media-politics debate over “Selma'” faithfulness to historical facts.  As the veteran Black Left commentator Glen Ford notes:

“the film is a crude insult to SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee workers who, along with a small minority of Black preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King, comprised the infrastructure of  of the civil rights movement in the Deep South. These hundreds of heroic young people, who had been organizing communities in Mississippi and Georgia and, yes, Lowndes County, Alabama for years, and who invited Dr. King to come to Selma, are personified in the film by one confused sounding, infantile behaving youth who we are supposed to believe is James Forman, the SNCC executive secretary who was, in real life, a Korean War veteran and former teacher and ground-breaking organizer about the same age as Dr. King. In the film, the James Forman character comes across as petty-minded, while Dr. King is made to seem like the only adult in town.”

Ford also takes “Selma” to task for deleting Black Power advocate Stokely Charmichael’s critical role in the Selma story and the fact that it was the Kennedy administration that authorized the FBI surveillance of King’s professional and private life. Last but not least, Ford note the film’s false depiction of King as “yearning  for an end to mass protests, so that Black people could achieve real political power – quite clearly meaning the election of more Black people to office. As if that’s what the mass movement was all about, in King’s mind. We know that’s not true, because Dr. King said the opposite in countless sermons, speeches, books and essays; that he was seeking social transformation, a new system of living. Three years after Selma, King died, still seeking to revive the mass movement.”

I will argue in a forthcoming online essay that King would be less than impressed by the relevance of the movie “Selma” and especially of the debate that has emerged in its wake.   The really untold and hidden story about King is his democratic socialism,  a commitment to “the radical reconstruction of society itself” that led him see the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as remarkably limited, partial, bourgeois, and easily, even “cheaply” won victories that paled before the bigger task of radical transformation while they dangerously encouraged “white America” (King’s phrase) to falsely believe that all the necessary racial corrections had been made.

The forthcoming essay will be posted here when it appears.

Some Sources:

“Johnson Conversation With Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 15, 1965,” recording and transcript at

Joseph Califano, “The Movie ‘Selma’ Has a Glaring Flaw,” Washington Post, December 26, 2014.

Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2000)

Glen Ford, “Black History According to Oprah,” Black Agenda Report (January 21, 2015),

Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996)

David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986),

Martin Luther King Jr.  A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), edited by James N. Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967)

Jennifer Schuessler, “Depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in ‘Selma” Raises Hackles,” New York Times, December 31, 2014

Paul Street, “‘Until We Get a New Social Order’: Reflections on the Early Radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr.,” ZNet Magazine (January 16, 2007), available online at

Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007



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By | 2015-01-22T10:10:15+00:00 January 21st, 2015|Articles|