By Mary Grabar January 16, 2015
This appeared here and my thanks to Mary for allowing me to publish her work. RK
The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, has said she did not want to follow other movies such as The Help that present whites as “saviors.” But Joseph Califano, Johnson’s “top assistant for domestic affairs,” charged in the Washington Post 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.” Califano even claimed that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea.
Other commentators also made corrections. Three days before the film’s Christmas Day release, Politico ran LBJ library director Mark Updegrove’s long feature that asserted that LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr. were “close partners” in reform. Post columnist Richard Cohen rushed to Johnson’s defense and reported that director DuVernay had the temerity to call Califano’s assertion “jaw dropping and offensive.” Then in what Cohen called a “brush off of a tweet,” Duvernay advised getting the true historical account by “interrogating history”–by seeing her movie.
But it seems that all bases need to be covered, and on January 5, 2015, the Post published another article, this time about a “quiet battle” Johnson as vice president waged in 1961 as he and his wife challenged restrictive real estate covenants of their “elite” Northwest Washington neighborhood, “The Elms.” The reporter, Karen Tumulty, must have searched for this nugget. But she saw no irony in the fact that the anti-poverty future president with a penchant for social engineering was motivated by the fact that “diplomats from African nations . . . found it difficult to find suitable housing.”
The Post has published well over a dozen articles on the movie.
The historians quoted in articles praise Johnson. David Garrow was quoted in the New York Times and then re-quoted in the Post as insisting that Johnson fully supported the Selma march and as objecting to the depiction of Johnson ordering FBI surveillance tapes of King’s extramarital trysts. Naturally, responsibility for the surveillance is placed on LBJ’s predecessor President Kennedy, and even more so on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Garrow said, “If the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.”
Yet, in The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., Garrow reported on the delight Johnson took in listening to the surveillance tapes of King (whom Garrow approvingly presented as a radical and socialist). Garrow wrote, “When one aide attempted to defend King’s sincerity on the issue of [opposition to the Vietnam War], Johnson reportedly replied, ‘Goddamn it, if only you could hear what that hypocritical preacher does sexually.’” This is a milder term of abuse for King. Johnson was known for using the racial slur that is unprintable in our respectable publications or printable only with a trigger warning as was done in an MSNBC article.
That MSNBC article acknowledges that Johnson was “a reliable member of the Southern bloc, helping to stonewall civil rights legislation” for two decades, but gives Johnson a pass as a product of his times and does not charge him with political opportunism. The New York Times also portrays Johnson via Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer as someone who wanted voting rights but couldn’t get them through until the civil rights movement made it possible.
Chosen are only those historians whose opinions fit the flattering narrative of those who like to think of themselves arm-in-arm with the “marchers” either in actuality or imaginatively–and choking up at the movie, as Richard Cohen, in his column, said he did.
But Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation for political purposes was seen for what it was back in the 1960s by black conservatives like Reverend Joseph Jackson and Pittsburgh Courier columnist George Schuyler.
Schuyler, who supported Barry Goldwater for president against Johnson because of his better record on civil rights, saw civil rights marches as a form of “beggary,” of prostration of blacks before white political leaders. Working in the tradition of Booker T. Washington, Schuyler promoted the idea of black economic independence in the form of cooperatives and black-owned financial institutions and businesses.
Joseph H. Jackson, the longest serving president of the National Baptist Convention, in a speech before the meeting of that body in 1964, also opposed the “direct action” tactics of “boycotts, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations,” implying that most of the black community did not approve of such lawless tactics for achieving civil rights. “We must not allow the white community to pick our leaders or tell us what Negro to follow,” he stated.
Such expressions of Truth to Power, however, do not fit into the self-flattering image of liberals. Dramatizations of such speeches will not be coming to a screen near you.