Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson were unlikely partners, but partners all the same.
Johnson undoubtedly would have moved more slowly on civil rights for black Americans had he not been pushed along by the grassroots movement Dr. King led. But the historic record is convincing that he was committed to the cause and his political savvy was crucial to its successes.
A half century later, some of Johnson’s old White House aides are complaining that the new movie “Selma” fails to appreciate this truth. The film, they say, portrays LBJ as furious over Dr. King’s insistence on marching in Selma, and it shows him dragging his heels on pushing through a voting rights bill.
But we’d have to say they’re being a little overly sensitive. “Selma” gets some basic facts wrong and may not give Johnson his full due, but it ultimately portrays LBJ as a president who wanted to be on the right of history — and as a man who wanted to be on the right side of his conscience.
And let’s remember that “Selma” is a good movie, but still a movie. Hollywood has never been much good at sticking to the facts. Anybody who goes to the movies to learn our nation’s history should consider cracking open a book instead.
Over the years, as it happens, Hollywood has frequently exaggerated the contributions of white figures in the civil rights movement while minimizing the more important — and more courageous — efforts of African Americans to win their own rights and freedoms.
Case in point would be the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning,” a badly fictionalized account of the investigation into the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. The hero of the movie is a white FBI agent, while Southern African-Americans are portrayed only as passive victims.
On Monday, we again celebrate the birthday of Dr. King, one of our greatest Americans then and now. In every march for justice today in places like Staten Island, his spirit is felt. He led a largely African-American movement that, in its way and to this day, continues to free us all.
But Dr. King was as wise in the ways of institutionalized power as he was in the ways of grassroots power. He marched in Selma, Birmingham and Chicago, but he also worked the phones to city halls, state houses, Congress and the White House. He understood how politics worked.
In “Selma,” Johnson is shown to be utterly opposed to the march Dr. King led in that small town in March 1965, which is debatable. Either way, the more important point is that Johnson understood that it was crucial for King to dramatize the oppressive, often violent, racism black Americans faced every living day.
As Joseph A. Califano, who was LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs, wrote last week in an essay in the Washington Post, Johnson and King plotted strategy by phone three months before the Selma march.
“There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting,” Johnson says in one recorded call from the White House. “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.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 quickly followed.
Successful social movements, like most people, are complicated things. They slay injustice, such as Jim Crow segregation. They lead to better laws, such as the gay marriage laws now in effect in 36 states and the District of Columbia. And they change hearts and minds, probably before all else.
Dr. King and the American civil rights movement helped reshape the very way LBJ thought and felt. If Johnson, a white country boy who rose to power in the segregated South, eventually became a real partner to King, it was because he had been brought along by a long line of great Americans, from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks to King.
When President Johnson spoke about that “fellow” who drove a tractor and saw injustice and finally said “Well, that’s not fair,” he was talking about himself.