“I Can Argue.” Ava DuVernay Defends “Selma” Against Criticisms Of LBJ’s Stalling

December 30, 2014  |  

Ever since Azealia Banks so profoundly discussed the American phenomena of cultural smudging on Hot 97, it seems like I keep stumbling upon more and more flagrant examples of it.

Most recently, in the criticism of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma. As some of you know it was released in select theaters on Christmas. So quite a few people have seen it already, including people who worked closely with former president Lyndon B. Johnson. As the acting president during that time, Dr. Martin Luther King, the film’s main character, interacts with him frequently about signing Civil Rights legislation to ensure that Blacks weren’t being denied their constitutional right to vote. Throughout the film, we watch King visit to the White House arguing for legislation while Johnson tells him to wait, that he has more pressing matters to deal with.

Well, apparently people are taking issue with DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson’s stalling.  An op-ed piece written for the Washington Post by Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, Joseph A. Califano Jr. criticized DuVernay of “taking dramatic, trumped up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.”

Califiano goes on to say that not only did Lyndon B. Johnson support Dr. King in his march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, he said that the whole march was Johnson’s idea.

“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.”

In recorded conversations, Johnson is quoted as saying,

“And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.”

Johnson even told King that if he were able to accomplish this, there would be a breakthrough and it would be the “greatest achievement of my administration.” 

After the article, in which Califiano argued that Selma be “ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season,” was published, it wasn’t long before the subsequent Twitter response followed.


Yes and yes and yes. And thank you Ava, for not shying away from this discussion. Let’s think about this. If it was really President Johnson’s idea for King and others to march from Selma to Montgomery, he must have known that he was sending them into imminent danger. And during the first march, he (Johnson) did not provide any military personnel to ensure the protesters’ safety. This to me, would actually be more damning to his reputation than dragging his feet on the Voting Rights legislation. If he were truly in support of the Voting Rights Act, a march wouldn’t have had to happen. Johnson simply would have been aware of the problem and signed the legislation to change it. And people wouldn’t have had to suffer bodily injury and fatalities for what Johnson could have done with some paperwork.

Azealia Banks is problematic but her words about cultural smudging ring true over and over again. The law wouldn’t have changed without Johnson’s support. And for that he will be remembered as a remarkable president. But Johnson’s eventual decision to sign the Voting Rights Act need not take anything away from Dr. King and all those pioneers who marched and fought behind the scenes and on the front lines to make those changes a reality. These people, though we’ll never know all of their names, are revered figures in American history, especially within the Black community. And now, decades and decades after King’s death people are trying to diminish their role and the work that literally changed this nation. As Iyanla would say, “not on my watch.” 

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