Civil Rights Movement in the “Selma” Movie


Hollywood films portraying historical events often use creative freedom for dramatic purposes. As a result, certain depictions may be inaccurate to the reality of the events that occurred. While it may be an appropriate artistic license to use in some cases, specific sensitive and political themes may result in a public controversy if depicted inaccurately. This leads to negative press and an overall adverse impact on a movie’s performance and legacy. While the motion picture Selma accurately presents a powerful image of the Civil Rights Movement at its core, its depiction of federal politics and Dr. King’s interaction with the Lyndon Johnson administration as antagonizing is flawed.


A controversy arose around the movie Selma when Joseph A. Califano Jr. who served as President Johnson’s top assistant published an opinion piece in the Washington Post. He claimed that the film used creative freedom to create drama around the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson. The Presidential administration is portrayed as an antagonist to the issue of voting rights, openly opposing or seeking to discredit Dr. King. Historically, LBJ was fully supportive of the Civil Rights Movement and considered the Voting Rights Act as a tremendous legislative achievement (Califano Jr.).

Role of Presidential Administrations

The Kennedy family and administration were supportive of the Civil Rights Movement and received more than 70% of the African American vote. Kennedy wanted to maintain support of Southern states on key issues, so instead of pushing for civil rights legislation, Kennedy appointed an unprecedented number of African-Americans to positions of power, strengthened the Civil Rights Commission and publicly spoke in favor of desegregation. Over the short-term of Kennedy’s presidency, he helped to make first steps towards equality legislation, protected the famous Freedom Riders and Dr. King’s protests, and sought to integrate universities (“Civil Rights Movement”).

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated allowing Johnson to enter into office. A comprehensive civil rights bill that was long in the making had previously failed to pass. Johnson in his address to the nation regarding Kennedy’s death sought to champion the legislation. He used his considerable legislative experience and connections to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as part of Kennedy’s legacy. He also used his position to form a delicate relationship with Dr. King, investigate murders by white supremacists, and limit violence of street protests and desegregation (Germany). Violence during the first attempt at the Selma march depicted in the film did lead to the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress. While it seems to have been a reactionary move by the administration, Johnson had ordered the drafting of a robust legislative measure to ensure Black voting rights about five months beforehand. He strongly believed that the Constitution guaranteed the right to vote for every citizen. Johnson helped guide the bill into law and ensured federal intervention in any state which sought to deter African-Americans from exercising their right to vote (Rhodan).

Presentation of the Civil Rights Movement

The movie offers a uniquely powerful and personal perspective on the Civil Rights Movement. It focuses on Dr. King as a human being with his own struggles and weaknesses. The movie shows the desperation that the African-American community felt being ostracized from the voting process and a right to peaceful protest. Two scenes were most memorable in the movie. The first is when a woman is attempting to register to vote and is denied due to pure systemic racism despite showing every intention and privilege to do so. Another is an angry young man calling for armed retaliation against policemen after the attack on the bridge (DuVernay). Both scenes highlight the utmost pain of injustice that has afflicted the Black community.

Califano’s representation of the movement is highly political which is appropriate due to his role during the events. He describes the in-depth political intricacies and strategic planning that served as the foundation for the Selma march and further passing of the Voting Rights Act. His description is factual, detailed, and chronological. It is similar to the description of the Civil Rights Movement in most educational institutions. The movement is taught as a historical occurence based on dates and revolving around a chronological chain of events with essential court cases and legislation to highlight its achievements. Although violence and racism against African-Americans are mentioned in history textbooks, it is often overlooked as a minor detail. Most students are unable to grasp the extent of the systematic racism and injustice in the South which made life for the black community a constant threat and purgatory of abuse.

Unresolved Issues

While outright racism and violence against minorities is illegal and rare today, the concept of covert racism has emerged. The famed Black Lives Matter movement has been created to address the issue of police targeting and unproportionate use of force against African Americans, often with no punishment. Government abuse has shifted to using these tactics which have led to protests for equitable treatment (Packnett). While the African-American community has gained a lot since the events at Selma, there is still a struggle. Black communities experience higher levels of poverty, crime, and poor education rates in comparison to their white counterparts. The civil rights legislation never had a full “de jure” effect on segregation with minorities still lacking opportunities or representation, which translates to funds for development being taken away through legal loopholes (Wolf).


Selma portrays Johnson’s reluctance to be the central driving force for the decision to march. Dr. King is shown to be evidently frustrated and desperate at the president’s refusal. However, the movie fails to show the complexity surrounding the issue. Johnson indeed suggested that the public announcement of the legislation would have to wait. Unlike what was shown in the movie, Johnson recognized the severity of the problem and promised to provide King with every possible legal tool available under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite a lack of public announcement before Bloody Sunday, Johnson had mentioned to confidants and hinted in interviews about a potential legislation to ban illegal voting practices. Johnson had experience with legislative timing, and he needed the political leverage to pass a critical tax-cut bill initiated by Kennedy. A proposal of the Voting Rights Act beforehand would have led to a filibuster (which it did), temporarily undermining any other political ambitions of the administration (Kaiser). In a way, the movie was correct about Johnson stating that as a president he has a number of issues to deal with. However, it inaccurately portrays the attitude and lack of a strategic approach to passing the critical Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson’s legislative experience and guidance helped to make the bill into law before, during, and after the events of Selma.

The film portrays Johnson distrusting of King and asking FBI director Hoover to discredit the leader. However, Hoover undertook surveillance in hopes of discrediting King independently. Johnson was appalled by this revelation and feared that any accusatory material released to the press would ultimately set back the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King and President Johnson maintained a cordial and respectful relationship. King believed that Johnson was directing all efforts to solving the issue of civil rights “with sincerity, realism and, thus far, with wisdom” (Kaiser). King had met Johnson while he was still a vice-President under Kennedy. According to Califano, Johnson had always been an avid supporter of civil rights and encouraged King to find a location that had an extremely detrimental voting rights issue that could be used as a ground for demonstration (a strategy attributed to King in the film). Both men had slightly different perspectives on the resolution to the civil rights crisis but believed in a similar outcome. King praised Johnson’s grasp of the complexity of the issue, his dedication to resolving it, and leadership that helped to find a solution (Berman). The two leaders had a historically productive relationship, maintaining open communication and positively pushing each other to play their critical roles in the Civil Rights Movement.


The movie Selma has done tremendous justice to portraying the core of the Civil Rights Movement and the challenges it had experienced. It shows the arduous, deeply personal, and terrifying experiences that the movement’s members had to undergo. However, there is an inherent flaw in its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson administration which sought to create a political antagonist to King’s efforts. Evidence shows that the administration, in fact, played a vital role in the Selma march, enhancing public awareness, and eventually passing the famous Voting Rights Act. This inaccuracy is significant because of the current socio-political environment of racial tension. A movie with comparable motifs, likely to be influential among advocates for social justice, provides a perspective on resolving the issue in a notably different manner than actual circumstances. Therefore, when motion pictures portray historical events with the intent to educate or draw comparisons, accuracy is critical to demonstrating the realities of achieving legislative progress in the United States.

Works Cited

Berman, Eliza. “What Martin Luther King Really Thought About Lyndon Baines Johnson.” Time, 2015. Web.

Califano Jr., Joseph. “The Movie ‘Selma; has a Glaring Flaw.” The Washington Post, 2014. Web.

“Civil Rights Movement.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, n.d. Web.

DuVernay, Ava, director. Selma. Paramount Pictures, 2014.

Germany, Kent. “Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights.” The University of Virginia Press, n.d. Web.

Kaiser, David. “Why You Should Care That Selma Gets LBJ Wrong.” Time, 2015. Web.

Rhodan, Maya. “The Voting Rights Act at 50: How the Law Came to Be.” Time, 2015. Web.

Packnett, Britanny. “Black Lives Matter Isn’t Just a Hashtag Anymore.” Politico Magazine,  2016. Web.

Wolf, Richard. “Equality Still Elusive 50 Years After Civil Rights Act.” USA Today, 2014. Web.

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