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LBJ Library Director Objects to MLK Film's Portrayal

Despite its critical acclaim, the new movie Selma, which depicts the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, is getting pushback from some in Johnson's home state.

A portrait of power in Texas in 1970: House Speaker Gus Mutscher, Governor Preston Smith, former president Lyndon Johnson, and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, at "Gus Mutscher Day" in Brenham, August 17, 1970.

Despite its critical acclaim — including Golden Globe nominations for best drama, best director and more — the new movie Selma, which depicts the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, is getting pushback from some in the latter's home state.

"To have a film that offers the story of one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights movement and not do justice to the president — to suggest that somehow the president prevented the movement from playing out — just doesn’t do any good," Mark Updegrove, a historian and the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The film, which is centered on the protest marches that preceded the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, is slated for a limited release in December before a wide release in January. Updegrove saw an advanced screening, and he gave the film high marks for its portrayal of King and the pressures he faced.

But the presentation of King's relationship with Johnson irked Updegrove so much that he registered his objections in a column in Politico Magazine on Monday.

"I understand that often Hollywood needs to use creative license to help with the arc of a story," he said, "but in this case it so misrepresents the relationship between Dr. King and President Johnson that I felt compelled to write something that offers archival evidence to show that the relationship was anything but contentious, and was ultimately enormously consequential."

According to Updegrove, the film presents the two historical figures as being at odds, with Johnson standing in the way of King's efforts to encourage passage of a voting rights bill. But the historian wrote that this characterization "flies in the face of history," and argues that the relationship was more of a partnership.

In Politico, he wrote: 

Yes, Johnson advocated stripping a potent voting rights component out of the historic Civil Rights Act he signed into law in the summer of 1964. A master of the legislative process—and a pragmatist—he knew that adding voting rights to the Civil Rights Act would make it top heavy, jeopardizing its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow, Johnson believed, and then we’ll tackle voting rights.

And yes, King kept the pressure on Johnson to propose voting rights legislation. But Johnson, the political mastermind, knew instinctively that Congress would reject it. As King’s former lieutenant, Andrew Young, recalled earlier this year at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit: “Right after [Dr. King won] the Nobel Prize, President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn’t have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965, and gave very good reasons. [H]e kept saying, ‘I just don’t have the power. I wish I did.’ When we left, I asked Dr. King, ‘Well, what did you think?’ He said, ‘I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’”

To make his case, Updegrove pointed to a recorded phone call between Johnson and King in which the two appear to be on the same page as they discuss strategies for building the necessary support to pass a voting rights bill. 

Updegrove predicted that there will be a "chorus of voices" registering similar objections to the portrayal of Johnson following the movie's release.

"Anyone who knows this chapter in history knows that Johnson did not get in the way of the civil rights movement," he said. "In fact he did everything he could to promote it."

This year, which marked the anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed, featured a concerted effort to revisit and reframe the president's legacy, with a particular focus on his civil rights push.

In April, the LBJ Library held a summit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bill's passage that featured, among a number of major figures, appearances by the current president and three former ones. On Broadway, All the Way, a play by Robert Schenkkan about the efforts of Johnson — played by Bryan Cranston — to get the Civil Rights Act passed, had a successful run, winning Tony awards for best play and best actor.

Schenkkan has not seen Selma, but wrote in an email that "any movie that brings attention to the terrible conditions of Jim Crow, the extraordinary sacrifice of the Civil Rights Movement and the political leadership of Dr. King is a good thing. Especially right now."

As for the relationship between the civil rights leader and the president, Schenkkan said it was a complicated one, starting from a place of mutual mistrust and growing into what could be considered close collaboration before it foundered over the Vietnam War.

"Oftentimes they disagreed strongly over tactics and timing (especially the latter) with LBJ always sensitive to where he thought Congress was at any given time and Dr. King mindful that American presidents had been telling African-Americans to 'be patient' for 200 years," Schenkkan wrote. "But I think it is fair to say that in the overall reckoning of his tenure, LBJ truly was the 'Civil Rights' President and that the '64 and the '65 bills would not have passed Congress had he not put all his considerable political muscle and skill behind them — and then followed up their passage with a very robust and aggressive plan of implementation."

Updegrove said he feels it is important that people learn about the Civil Rights movement, which he called the most important domestic movement of the 20th century, adding, "but if we depict it, it’s important that we get it right."

Disclosure: The LBJ Library is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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