Bill Press: ‘Selma’s’ MLK — and LBJ

Bill Press: ‘Selma’s’ MLK — and LBJ
© Greg Nash

There’s been a lot of controversy about how the former President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement is depicted in the new movie “Selma” — so much controversy that you, like me, might have made up your mind not to bother seeing it.

But, having gone out to see the movie over the weekend out of sheer curiosity, here’s my advice: If you were planning to stay away, you’re making a big mistake. Don’t walk, RUN — run out to see “Selma” as soon as you can. It’s one of the best and most powerful movies I’ve seen in a long time, and it deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture.


For the first time, in “Selma,” Hollywood brings the inside story of the civil rights movement to the big screen. We see Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, John Lewis and other young civil rights leaders up close. We experience the struggles they faced, their own internal conflicts, the timid politicians they had to deal with, the disgusting treatment they received from the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and the horrific violence they suffered at the hands of local law enforcement.

Above all, “Selma” is a masterful portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite tremendous pressure from white police officers, members of his own team and the president of the United States, he refused to back down and postpone the march from Selma to Montgomery. He was the perfect leader for the movement, rallying an entire nation to the cause of civil rights and the principle of nonviolence. It’s a disgrace that David Oyelowo, who plays King so beautifully, was not nominated for Best Actor.

Clearly, the Voting Rights Act would not have happened without King. But it wouldn’t have happened without Johnson, either. This is what makes Director Ava DuVernay’s portrayal of LBJ so unfortunate. True, he was not a public ally of King’s, but White House tapes show that, behind the scenes, LBJ was constantly giving King advice, encouraging him to build up as much public support as he could for a voting rights bill. Presidential scholars agree that Johnson was not the opponent of voting rights we see in the film. Besides, there was no need to paint him as the villain. George Wallace fills that role very well.

Fortunately, by the end of the movie, with his historic challenge to Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, Johnson comes off as a hero of the civil rights movement, which he is. Passage of the Voting Rights Act is a testament both to King’s outside organizing tactics and Johnson’s inside legislative skills. 

One footnote: The centerpiece of “Selma,” the Edmund Pettus Bridge, is named after Edmund Winston Pettus, a brigadier general of the Confederate Army and former Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The fact that Alabama has not changed the name of that bridge in 50 years shows we still have a long way to go to change racial attitudes in the Old South.


Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.