One of Johnson’s top advisers on domestic affairs, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., objected so strongly to the film’s portrayal of the president that he wrote an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post on Dec. 26. Califano went as far as to suggest that the Selma Campaign was LBJ’s idea.
He asserted that “the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself. In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, 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.”
What is striking about the Califano editorial is that it is full of historical inaccuracies itself. The piece gives wrong dates that contradict the facts of the period and the chronological order of events that have been well documented by participants and historians over the subsequent decades.
Andrew Young, a former aide to King and leading member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said during several interviews that the actual situation was quite different but he was not offended by this aspect of the film. Young rejected outright the notion that the Selma Campaign that brought SCLC to Dallas County in Jan. 1965 was Johnson’s idea.
Young said that Johnson did not believe Voting Rights legislation could make it through the U.S. Congress only months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was signed into law by him in July of that year.
Young noted that he had traveled with King to Norway when the Civil Rights leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Dec. 1964. After the delegation returned to the U.S., they stopped over in New York City for a reception and celebration. (Interview with Roland Martin, Jan. 5)
Later the group went to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Justice Department and it was only then that Johnson invited them to the White House one evening. However, the crisis created through the arrests, beatings in Selma during Jan. and Feb., followed by the police shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson in neighboring Marion, Alabama on the night of Feb. 18 prompted activists to organize a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.
Of course the first attempt resulted in the Alabama state police and local law-enforcement vicious attacks using clubs, cattle prods and teargas on 600 demonstrators at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday March 7, known as “Bloody Sunday.” The beating of the demonstrators prompted a national mobilization in cities throughout the country, many of whom traveled to Selma two days later for yet another confrontation with authorities.
Amid legal challenges over an injunction not to march to Montgomery on March 9, King and SCLC decided to turn 2,000 demonstrators around heading back to Brown Chapel A.M.E.