‘Selma’ Sends Powerful Message, but Is It All True?

Selma

The film Selma, set to open this Friday in theatres, sends a powerful message to filmgoers about Civil Rights in 1965, but recent statements have asserted that not everything presented in the movie may be true. This article explores a recently uncovered announcement about historic information.

The latest report from historian Julian Zelizer claims that the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) is not only inaccurate, but also unfair. As discussed in a commentary on National Public Radio (NPR), Zelizer shows Johnson as a strong proponent of civil rights, whereas the film presents him in the opposite light.

The film, which was directed by Ava DuVernay, coincides with the year of the 50th anniversary of the heroic Selma marches as well as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The movie covers the three-month period of time in 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) led three non-violent civil rights marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. The purpose of the marches was to secure equal voting rights for African Americans.

Selma
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Even though African Americans had the right to vote with the enactment of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, there were significant legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented them from exercising that right. Protests alone had not made a significant difference because, according to Zelizer, Congress was dysfunctional. The issue had to be forced.

Selma
Selma march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, significant because it is named for a former Confederate brigadier general

The first 54-mile march took five days to complete. Those participating in the marches were at great peril due to nefarious police brutality, resulting in the death of unarmed Black men. The marches gained national attention, which was possible through the advent of nationwide television coverage.

All of this sends a very powerful message to anyone viewing the film, Selma, and yet there remains uncertainty as to whether everything portrayed in the movie is true. What is at question is the role that LBJ played during the Civil Rights era. Historians paint him as much more “on board” than the movie does.

The question is raised because President Johnson was a Democrat from Texas. The southern United States was opposed to civil rights because of its history prior to and during the Civil War, and the treatment of African Americans up until the 1960s and beyond. Historians argue that LBJ asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to “do something big” and that he encouraged MLK to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery.

The movie culminates in the signing into law The Voting Rights Act of 1965. When signing the Act into law, Johnson called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised” and that it had the capacity to “break down injustice” and “destroy … walls that imprison [people because of differences].” History seems to show the two men as being on the same side. In referring to the seismic societal shift in his address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King identified Selma as “producing” the voting rights law of 1965.

Whether or not the movie is completely true in its portrayal of President Johnson, Selma sends a powerful message to anyone who sees it. This is particularly significant in light of the efforts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the words of David Oyelowo, who played MLK in the film, the world needs to recognize that the era we live in is not “post-racial America.”

Opinion by Fern Remedi-Brown

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Sources:
NPR, Here & Now
The Hollywood Reporter
Guardian Liberty Voice
The King Center, Stanford
History.com

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