‘Selma’ Controversy Grows Over LBJ Clash With Martin Luther King on Civil Rights

Historians take issue with director Ava DuVernay’s focus on former president Lyndon B. Johnson

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in "Selma"

Days away from the wide release of “Selma,” a controversy around the film is gaining steam as historians take issue with its depiction of president Lyndon B. Johnson clashing with Martin Luther King, Jr. over voting rights.

In a lengthy New York Times story about historians taking issue with the movie, Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,”argued Thursday that the movie is not truthful in depicting LBJ (played by Tom Wilkinson) fighting King on staging protests in Selma.

“Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” she told The Times. “But with the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”

Director Ava DuVernay‘s “Selma” and its depiction of 1965 voting rights marches led by King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) has won praise from critics and quickly become a serious contender for an Academy Award nomination.  The movie opens wide on January 9.

Controversy over historically-based films are common, but this subject may be particularly sensitive since it is the first major feature film about King, and addresses the heart of the civil rights movement at a time when racial tension continues to preoccupy the country.

The notion of who should get credit for taking on voting rights is what historians are examining in the film.

Writing in The Washington Post,  former Johnson domestic policy aide Joseph Califano criticized filmmaker DuVernay for ignoring history, and particularly for suggesting that Johnson set the FBI to investigate King.

“Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano wrote. “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.”

LBJ and MLK copy

Califano cited a transcript of a phone call two months before the marches in which Johnson urged King to generate white political support for a voting rights bill by seeking out “the worst condition that you run into” in the South. He said that Johnson wanted images of racist brutality widely circulated in the news media, which the film depicts as King’s strategy. He noted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, not Johnson, investigated King though the latter tried to discredit King in a scathing letter recently posted by the New York Times.

Julian Bond, a civil rights leader who worked with King, praised “Selma” but took issue with Johnson’s depiction as an obstacle to progress.

“He did support King’s fight for voting rights. He probably is the best civil rights president America has ever had. The best. Absolute best,” Bond said, CBS News reported. “I think the movie people wanted Dr. King to have an antagonist. Why not have it be LBJ?”

The controversy started in late December, 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.”

Paramount told TheWrap it had no comment on the controversy, but DuVernay fired back on Twitter. She wrote the “notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive” to black citizens and organizations pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement.

Despite the criticism, “Selma” earned four Golden Globe nominations including for best director, making DuVernay the first African-American woman to earn the honor.