SELMA

SUBJECTS — U.S.: 1945-1991; Civil Rights Movement;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Leadership, Courage, Human Rights;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Fairness, Citizenship.

AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language;

Drama; 2014, 128 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Warning to teachers, click here to read.

Historically speaking, Selma is a deeply flawed movie. It misrepresents the extraordinary role played by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (“LBJ”) in developing and passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act and falsely claims that LBJ was complicit in the FBI’s attempts to sow marital discord between Dr. King and his wife. The purpose of the director/ screenwriter was apparently to provide a clear villain for the plot and because as she said, “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” These errors undercut some of the great strengths of the film in its largely accurate description of the Selma protests and its nuanced portrayal of Dr. King.

For teachers who want to use the film, this Learning Guide will assist in correcting for its flaws and in maximizing its benefits. In addition, the Guide contains materials to enhance classes in the Civil Rights Movement and U.S. history of the 1950s and 1960s. These materials will be helpful to students whether or not they watch the movie. They include the following:

 

  • LBJ grew from a typical Southern politician who consistently opposed civil rights laws to the man who did more for racial equality than any other 20th century white leader. LBJ’s odyssey is an example of the power of nonviolent direct action to use the conscience and self-interest of the members of an oppressor group’s power elite to induce them to change their position and to enthusiastically work for reform.
  • The relationship between MLK and LBJ was extraordinary because it involved cooperation between the most powerful official of a country and a social activist who worked together to secure major social and political reform.
  • A more important story than the tale of Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities is the abuse of power by the FBI, which went far beyond the agency’s proper role when it wiretapped Dr. King and his associates, presented selective and misleading information to government officials, leaked derogatory information about Dr. King to the press and others, and engaged in unauthorized covert activities to “neutralize” Dr. King as an African American leader.
  • While LBJ may have condoned some of the leaks of derogatory information about Dr. King, he was not responsible for any of the FBI’s covert activities targeting MLK. However, LBJ committed a grave error when he allowed the FBI to collect information on the political activities of Dr. King and other civil rights activists and used that information for his own political advantage.
  • None of the many journalists, politicians, and clergy who were offered the details of Dr. King’s extramarital sex life took the FBI’s bait and used the information against Dr. King or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The result would probably be very different today.
  • Dr. King’s extramarital sexual relations were unwise, hypocritical, and regrettable. They put at risk the entire Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy/Johnson legislative program which was designed to correct civil rights abuses. Fortunately, scandal did not overtake Dr. King. His contribution to American society was so great that these lapses pale in comparison.

 

The Learning Guide contains information, discussion questions, and assignments on the points set out above and introduces two Alabama public figures, also shown in the movie, who played important roles in the Selma protests: Alabama Governor George C. Wallace and U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson.

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DESCRIPTION

This movie is a description of the Selma voting rights protest, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards: 2015 Academy Awards: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song; 2015 Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Best Original Song – Motion Picture; 2015 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (David Oyelowo) – Drama; 2015 AFI Awards, USA Moivie of the Year; and many other awards.

Featured Actors: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.; Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King; Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper; Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson; André Holland as Andrew Young; Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Bayard Rustin; Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy; Omar J. Dorsey as James Orange; Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash; Common as James Bevel; Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton; E. Roger Mitchell as Frederick Reese; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Ledisi Anibade Young as Mahalia Jackson; Corey Reynolds as Rev. C.T. Vivian; Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams; Stephan James as John Lewis John Lavelle as Roy Reed; Trai Byers as James Forman Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson; Stan Houston as Sheriff Jim Clark; Tim Roth as Gov. George Wallace; Stephen Root as Colonel Al Lingo; Brian Kurlander Brian Kurlander as Voice on Recorder (voice) Jeremy Strong as James Reeb; Tara Ochs as Viola Liuzzo; Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray; Alessandro Nivola as John Doar; Michael Shikany as Archbishop Iakovos; Martin Sheen as Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

Director: Ava DuVernay.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

Selma shows a pivotal event in modern U.S. history and with corrections for its misinformation relating to President Johnson, can enhance a unit on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as U.S. history of the 1950s and 1960s. It contains an excellent characterization of Dr. King.

The movie will provide strong visual images of the effort of black Americans to secure the right to vote. The additional materials provided by this Learning Guide will enhance student understanding of the era, nonviolent direct action, and the cooperation between Dr. King and LBJ in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

Once LBJ’s role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Movement are fully explained to students, there are no problems with this movie.

PARENTING POINTS

Watch the movie with your child and assure your child that situations have occurred when one juror has turned a jury around.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

LBJ, Civil Rights Hero: a Classic Example of Nonviolent Direct Action

Converting the Leader of an Oppressor Group into an Advocate for Change

Click here for this section in word processing format suitable to be printed and handed out to a class.

A campaign of nonviolent direct action is an effort to create social or political change by: (1) mobilizing public opinion, (2) appealing to the conscience of the campaign’s adversaries, and (3) exerting economic, legal, or other pressure. The methods of nonviolent direct action include demonstrations, sit-ins, petitions, strikes, boycotts, advocacy in speeches, and peaceful public violation of selected laws — all designed to dramatize the injustice of the status quo and to apply pressure for reform. All legal levers of power can be used as part of a nonviolent direct action campaign, including court cases and electoral politics. Often, by design or happenstance, law enforcement will violently overreact to peaceful demonstrations, vigils, or sit-ins, providing publicity for the campaign and illustrating the need for change

Nonviolent direct action, also known as “civil resistance,” “non-violent resistance,” or “civil disobedience,” was developed by Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and India. It is the major political and advocacy innovation of the 20th century. See Learning Guide to A Force More Powerful. Since 1947 nonviolent direct action has been responsible for the vast majority of revolutions that resulted in changes of government or, as in the case of the U.S., major social and political reform. Examples include the Indian Independence movement culminating in 1947; the end of Apartheid in South Africa in 1984; the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The two most important proponents of nonviolent direct action have been Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The role that changes of conscience and public pressure play in campaigns of nonviolent direct action can be seen in the conversion of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) from a typical Southern politician who opposed civil rights laws to a man who both listened to his conscience and looked to his own political self-interest — and took the cause of black civil rights to heart.

Before Johnson, only four 20th century political leaders of national stature had taken strong stands for black civil rights. Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned discrimination in federal employment through an Executive Order. Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for better treatment of African Americans — for one example see Tuskegee Airmen. President Harry S. Truman ordered integration of the armed forces in 1948. President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the need for black civil rights on June 11, 1963, and proposed the law that eventually became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, the efforts of the Roosevelts and President Truman were limited, and President Kennedy was murdered before he could get the civil rights law passed.

LBJ served in the Congress for 28 years, rising to the powerful position of Senate Majority leader. It was not until 1957, after 25 years of opposing civil rights bills in Congress, that LBJ began to support civil rights for black Americans. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had put the issue of black civil rights squarely before the nation. As Johnson began to seek the Presidency, he realized that he would have to change his position on civil rights. When Johnson became Vice-President, he took civil rights for African Americans as his own cause.

While LBJ’s espousal of civil rights was necessary for him to aspire to national office, it is also clear that he came to passionately believe in black civil rights and he became an effective force for change. LBJ’s leadership was essential for passing the country’s major civil rights laws: the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodations, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 law that prohibited discrimination in housing. The anti-poverty programs of Johnson’s Great Society initiative assisted all poor Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black. Johnson issued an Executive Order requiring government contractors to take affirmative action to benefit minorities. Johnson also appointed the first African-American to head a federal government department and sit in the President’s cabinet (Robert Weaver, HUD, 1966).

Perhaps LBJ’s clearest statement of his belief in civil rights for African Americans came in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, eight days after Selma’s Bloody Sunday.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.

For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation [in this Joint Session of Congress] all the majesty of this great Government — the Government of the greatest Nation on earth.

Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. . . .

Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” . . .

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal.” “Government by consent of the governed.” “Give me liberty or give me death.” And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died . . . Those words are promises to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man, equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.

To apply any other test, to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race or his religion or the place of his birth is . . . to do injustice . . . .

The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety, and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change; designed to stir reform. He has been called upon to make good the promise of America.

The historical record shows acts of political courage by Johnson to support his pro-civil rights stand, including when as Vice-President, he integrated a segregated eating facility in St. Augustine, Florida during the height of racial tensions. Another example is Johnson’s speech before the Louisiana power elite at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans just before the 1964 Presidential elections in which he told his audience that he would enforce to the fullest the recently passed Civil Rights law prohibiting segregation in public accommodations.

Historians and commentators speculate about why LBJ changed his position on Civil Rights. Some point to his roots as the child of a poor family who had to work hard to become a success. They also point to his experience as a teacher in a poor Hispanic school district and to his belief that government should actively serve the people. As LBJ said in his March 1965 speech to Congress, the protests awakened his conscience. Others assert that by 1957, in light of the protests mounted by the Civil Rights Movement, the nation outside the South had already changed to support an end to segregation and that LBJ altered his position on black civil rights to improve his prospects for winning national office.

The actual reasons for LBJ’s change of position on civil rights were probably a combination of background, philosophy of government, conscience, and political necessity. The point is that while Johnson’s background and his belief that government should act to help the people may have made him susceptible to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement’s to arouse his conscience, only nonviolent direct action is designed to operate at such a personal level. In addition, to the extent that LBJ came to oppose segregation in order to expand his political base beyond the South, a fundamental strategy of any campaign of nonviolent direct action is to alter public opinion and therefore change political reality so that the leaders of a country find it in their self-interest to support the goals of the campaign. Thus, LBJ’s change of position on civil rights is a classic example of how nonviolent direct action works on a powerful political leader.

LBJ and the 1965 Voting Rights Act

After years of community organizing, the voting rights campaign in Selma began in 1963. A major escalation was planned to begin in January of 1965. The Selma campaign was seen as a way to build public support throughout the North and West for a voting rights law and also as a way to “force Lyndon Johnson’s hand on the federal voting statute.” Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 380. On December 18, 1964, on Dr. King’s return home from Norway after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, President Johnson invited King and his family to the White House. On that occasion, Dr. King and the President had a brief private conversation.

The President spoke about how beneficial his “war on poverty” effort would be for American blacks, and how they would have to play a leadership role in the program. King reminded Johnson that there were still serious civil rights problems in the South, and that the need for federal legislation to ensure blacks’ voting rights was great. “Martin, you’re right about that. I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get a voting rights bill through in this session of Congress,” King later recalled Johnson telling him. It was less than six months since the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] had become law, the president pointed out, and he would need southern congressmen’s votes for other “Great Society” initiatives. He would lose these votes if he pressed for the voting rights measure. The time would come, Johnson said, but not in 1965.” Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 368.

There was at least one other meeting at about the same time, this time with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in which the President reiterated his hesitation to go forward with a voting rights law at that time.

The conversations are combined and dramatized in the movie. So far as TWM’s research shows, the only other scenes in which Johnson appears that bear any relationship to the historical record are Johnson’s interview with Governor Wallace and his address to Congress. The other scenes in which the President appears, either didn’t happen at all or didn’t happen as shown in the film.

President Johnson was a complex man and often didn’t tell others his true intentions. For example, before these conversations, on December 14, 1964, the President had instructed his attorney general to draft new voting rights legislation. It is clear, however, that within days after the conversations in which counseled delay, the President came to fully support the passage of a voting rights law in 1965. This is shown by LBJ’s promise in his January 4, 1965 State of the Union address that he would have detailed voting rights proposals for Congress within six weeks. .

In fact, by January 1965 just a few weeks after he had counseled delay, LBJ and Dr. King were working together to get a voting rights law passed in 1965. This is shown by a telephone call between the President and Dr. King on January 15, 1965. In that conversation, which was recorded, LBJ requested that Dr. King mobilize public support for the voting rights bill to help LBJ convince a reluctant Congress to pass the legislation. The President told Dr. King that the voting rights act would be “the greatest achievement of my administration.” This telephone call pre-dated the large protests in Selma, the first of which was held on January 18. It occurred before Dr. King’s arrest while leading the Selma protests and almost two months before Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Between March 1965 and the next August, when he signed the bill into law, LBJ successfully shepherded the voting rights act through Congress.

King and Johnson were later to part ways as Johnson committed the U.S. to the War in Vietnam, which Dr. King opposed, and as Dr. King sought a radical restructuring of economic power in the United States. However, on the voting rights act, they worked together.

The FBI’s Abuse of Power: Surveillance & Covert Action Against MLK & the SCLC

In the U.S., it has never been a crime to belong to the CPUSA, to support it, or to cooperate with it. In addition, a U.S. citizen doesn’t lose his civil rights by virtue of having been associated with a subversive organization in the past or by taking the 5th amendment when questioned about his political associations. What is criminal are actions that laws prohibit, such as spying for a foreign power, or providing aid and support for a foreign power, destruction of property, or conspiracies to perform those actions. In the modern context, it is not illegal to advocate an interpretation of the Koran supported by the so-called Islamic State. It is, however, illegal to assist men and women to travel to Iraq or Syria to fight for ISIS.

J. Edgar Hoover made a career out of investigating subversives and radicals, and later, organized crime figures. In 1924 he was appointed head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation by President Calvin Coolidge. Hoover was periodically reappointed to his position as director of the Bureau, and its successor, the FBI, by the next eight U.S. Presidents. Hoover made the FBI into a professional and scientific crime-fighting organization. LBJ waived the mandatory retirement age for U.S. civil service employees and allowed Hoover to stay in power at the FBI until his death at age 72. By that time, Hoover had been in charge of the FBI for 37 years. During this time, most Americans considered J. Edgar Hoover to be a hero.

There was, however, a dark side to the FBI and its long-time Director. Hoover kept secret files on political figures and used the threat of disclosure of information about their personal lives to intimidate Congress and the Executive Branch. Every President after Franklin Roosevelt (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) kept Hoover in office because of the potential political costs to themselves or their allies of the information in Hoover’s files. Hoover died in office in 1972, while Nixon was President.

Another problem with Hoover’s administration of the FBI was that he ordered the Bureau to illegally wiretap and to take covert punitive actions against persons that he considered to be subversive or undesirable. The covert actions included burglaries, planting forged documents, leaking secret information from government files, and spreading false rumors. The FBI targeted the professional and personal lives of the people Hoover thought were threats to national security.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids government searches such as wiretaps or bugs without a warrant and the Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from taking punitive action against individuals without due process of law, i.e., without a conviction by a court or a finding by an administrative agency with procedural safeguards to protect the individual’s rights. The efforts of the FBI to destroy the career and family life of Martin Luther King is the most egregious example of covert activity by the FBI directed at the leader of an important social reform movement.

The FBI’s actions that related to Dr. King can be divided into three parts.

Part One — Reckless Claims that Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement Were Associated With Communists

For several years before 1957, Stanley Levison, a New York attorney and businessman, was a key player in the finances of the Communist Party – USA (“CPUSA”). Levison first met Dr. King in 1956 and from 1957 until Dr. King’s death in 1968, Mr. Levison was a close advisor to Dr. King, ghostwriting chapters of Dr. King’s books, raising money for the SCLC and other civil rights organizations, and counseling Dr. King on strategy. In fact, Mr. Levison was Dr. King’s closest white advisor.

The Levison/King relationship occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was an enemy of the U.S. and the CPUSA was closely tied to the Soviet Union. For example, from 1957 on the CPUSA had so few adherents that it could not support itself and until 1969 the Russian Communist party gave it millions of dollars. The financial support was intended to be secret; however, the FBI had thoroughly penetrated the CPUSA and the U.S. government knew exactly what was going on.

In addition, Dr. King unwittingly stoked the government’s fears about his relationship with Levison. In 1963 and thereafter, Dr. King was repeatedly warned by high ranking U.S. officials who believed the FBI reports that Levison was a communist, including President John F. Kennedy, that if his association with Mr. Levison were made public, it would pose a danger to both the Civil Rights Movement and to President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. Dr. King at first refused to sever his relationship with Levison stating that he had asked Levison about his CPUSA connections and that Levison had satisfied him that he was not a CPUSA member. Dr. King stated that he didn’t care about his supporters’ past political affiliations, so long as they were committed to the Civil Rights Movement. Later, under mounting pressure, Dr. King claimed to have disassociated himself from Levison. However, Dr. King kept a “secret” channel open to Levison through an associate. Dr. King sought Levison’s advice by asking the associate to find out what “our friend” had to say about issues facing Dr. King and the Movement. While Dr. King thought these communications with Levison were secret, he was wrong. The FBI was wiretapping both Levison and the associate.

Moreover, when Mr. Levison was called to testify before a Congressional committee in April 1962 and asked about his CPUSA connections, he made an introductory statement denying that he had ever been a member of the CPUSA. He then took the 5th Amendment and would not answer any questions.

It turns out that Mr. Levison had ended his relationship with the CPUSA long before 1962. The years of government surveillance of Mr. Levison, revealed only that he acted as a loyal advisor to Dr. King. Neither the wiretaps nor other evidence from the FBI’s thorough penetration of the CPUSA revealed any evidence that Mr. Levison participated in CPUSA activities after 1957. To the contrary, the FBI knew that Mr. Levison had split with the CPUSA and that its leaders didn’t trust him. Thus, in its repeated claims in leaks and memos to government officials that Dr. King had connections with members of the CPUSA, Hoover and the FBI knew that they were playing fast and loose with the truth.

This is the story of two failures. One is the fact that a 50-year campaign by the CPUSA to attract African-Americans to its cause, produced few results. The second was the inability of Hoover and the FBI to stop LBJ from working with Dr. King despite a barrage of memos alleging that Dr. King had ties to the CPUSA. LBJ and Hoover had been friends for years. One can only assume that LBJ, who was a committed anti-Communist and Cold Warrior, knew that the FBI director hated Dr. King and that the FBI’s claims about King’s communist connections could not be trusted.

Part Two — The FBI’s Covert Action Against Dr. King

The wiretaps of Dr. King and the bugging of his hotel rooms began in November 1963. While the wiretaps failed to disclose any substantial evidence of CPUSA influence on Dr. King, they did provide evidence that Dr. King was engaging in extramarital sex with women. The FBI’s attention then shifted to Dr. King’s “moral weakness.”

J. Edgar Hoover’s personal dislike for Dr. King has been summarized by Ben Christensen of CNN:

Hoover’s contempt for King’s private behavior is clear in the memos he kept in his personal files. His scrawl across the bottom of positive news stories about King’s success dripped with loathing.

On a story about King receiving the St. Francis peace medal from the Catholic Church, he wrote “this is disgusting.” On the story “King, Pope to Talk on Race,” he scribbled “astounding.” On a story about King’s meeting with the pope, “I am amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate.” On a story about King being the heavy favorite to win the Nobel Prize, he wrote “King could well qualify for the ‘top alley cat’ prize!”

One of the reasons why Dr. King was hated by Hoover was that Dr. King had dared to criticize FBI inaction in investigating murders of black and white civil rights activists. While the criticism was legitimate, Hoover disliked anyone who criticized him or his beloved Bureau. Eventually President Johnson made a personal appeal to Hoover after the killing of the three civil rights workers, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, two of whom were white, and the FBI moved into action against the KKK and others who tried to use violence to resist the Civil Rights Movement.

With respect to Dr. King, the goal of the FBI was no less than, in the words of an FBI memo of December, 1963, to “neutralize King as an effective negro leader” and to hobble the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“SCLC”) that he led. A U.S. Senate investigating committee later stated:

The FBI’s effort to discredit Dr. King and to undermine the SCLC involved plans touching on virtually every aspect of Dr. King’s life. The FBI scrutinized Dr. King’s tax returns, monitored his financial affairs, and even tried to establish that he had a secret foreign bank account. Religious leaders and institutions were contacted in an effort to undermine their support of him, and unfavorable material was “leaked” to the press. Bureau officials contacted members of Congress, and special “off the record” testimony was prepared for the Director’s use before the House Appropriations Committee. Efforts were made to turn White House and Justice Department Officials against Dr. King by barraging them with unfavorable reports and, according to one witness, even offering to play for a White House official tape recordings that the Bureau considered embarrassing to King. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Case Study, CONTELPRO, Docs, Church Committee, Final Report — Book III, 23 April 1976.

The Senate Report also cited anonymous letters, planted newspaper articles, and disruption of SCLC fundraising activities.

Both Hoover and LBJ were fascinated by the details of Dr. King’s sexual encounters captured by bugs planted in Dr. King’s hotel rooms, and there was an element of sexual voyeurism about their interest. Johnson would privately tell people, “Goddammit, if you could only hear what that hypocritical preacher does sexually.”

What is most remarkable is the stonewall-like refusal of almost everyone who was offered information about Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities to take the bait and use the information to destroy Dr. King’s leadership. There were two likely reasons for this. First, in American politics for many decades, including the 1960’s, there was an unstated understanding in the press and among many people in the political establishment that the personal and sexual lives of public officials were their own business and were not to be publicized. This changed in the 1980s when the Presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart was torpedoed by allegations that he was a womanizer. Since that time, the private lives of public officials have been fair game for public comment. In addition, it is likely that the people to whom the FBI tried to leak the story, almost all of whom were white, realized that Dr. King’s value to American society was so great that that his personal failings should be overlooked.

However, the persistent efforts of the FBI over four years to injure the reputation of Dr. King and the movement with allegations of ties to communism and the details of Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities did take a toll. It distracted and worried Dr. King and his advisers and it kept some influential people from supporting the movement and made fundraising more difficult.

Perhaps the worst of the FBI covert activities against Dr. King was a letter written by the head of the FBI’s intelligence operations, William C. Sullivan, in the Fall of 1964. The letter claimed to be from an anonymous disappointed admirer of Dr. King. The letter contained deliberate misspellings and awkward constructions to make it appear authentic. It was accompanied by an FBI tape that included recordings of Dr. King having sexual intercourse with an unknown woman and sent to the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. The letter stated that Dr. King would be exposed and implied that the only way out for him was suicide. People often sent the SCLC tapes of Dr. King’s speeches and Dr. King’s wife, Correta Scott King, liked to listen to them. The package was duely forwarded, unopened, to Mrs. King. When Coretta King opened the package in January of 1965, she found the tape and the letter. Some excerpts from the letter are set out below:

Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure. . . . You will find on the record for all time your filthy, dirty, evil companions, male and females giving expression with you to your hidious [sic] abnormalities. . . . It is all there on the record, your sexual orgies. Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal. . . . You are on the record. You have been on the record – all your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies extending far into the past. This one is but a tiny sample. . . . You will understand this.. . . King you are done. . . . There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

The tapes contained excerpts of conversations that occurred in several different hotel rooms that Dr. King had occupied in different cities. When Dr. King and his advisors listened to the tapes, it was obvious that it could only have been created by the FBI. In fact, the letter that accompanied the tape was written with the apparent knowledge and approval of J. Edgar Hoover.

Contrary to what is described in the movie, there is no evidence that President Johnson knew of or condoned any FBI covert actions and efforts to disrupt Dr. King’s family life. There is some evidence that Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s closest aide, approved leaks to the press of information derogatory to Dr. King, but beyond that, these appear to have been illegal actions known only to the FBI, taken under orders from J. Edgar Hoover.

Part 3 — Providing President Johnson with Information about the Political Plans of Dr. King and his Political Allies

The wiretaps of Dr. King, the SCLC, and their associates also revealed information about their political intentions and strategies. This information was forwarded to the White House, along with information about Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities and the absence of any information of CPUSA penetration of the Civil Rights Movement. In time, wiretaps were installed specifically to determine the political intention of Dr. King and his allies. This information was used by President Johnson against his political opponents such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Governor George C. Wallace — Demagogue

George Corley Wallace was a four-term governor of Alabama (1963-1967, 1971 – 1979 & 1983 – 1987). Wallace dominated Alabama politics so thoroughly that when the state constitution prohibited him from running for a second consecutive term in 1967, he had his wife elected. Unfortunately, she died in office. Wallace claimed to be a populist but actually did little for the people of Alabama.

Wallace used racial hatred as an easy way to distinguish himself as a politician. After losing his first race for governor in 1958, Wallace told an aide, “[Y]ou know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outniggered by John Patterson [his opponent]. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again!” Wallace explained to another supporter, “I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

Upon being inaugurated as Governor, Wallace stood at the Alabama Capitol at a bronze star marking the place where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath as President of the Confederacy. Wallace said,

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!

Wallace resisted integration until 1972 when he announced that he was a “moderate” in matters of race. In subsequent elections, he won with the help of black voters. Note also that by 1972, the 1965 Voting Rights Act which Wallace had opposed, had dramatically increased the number of black voters.

Wallace ran for President in 1986, 1972, and 1976 on a states-rights platform, which for him was a thinly veiled racist message. In 1986, as a third party candidate, Wallace received almost ten million popular votes and won in five Southern States, garnering 46 electoral votes. In 1972 he ran in the Democratic primaries and his campaign was doing well but an assassin shot him five times, paralyzing Wallace from the waist down. Wallace spent the rest of his life in a wheel-chair, completing his term as governor and winning and serving two more terms. In the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries, Wallace won only three Southern states, losing the rest to Jimmy Carter, who went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

Wallace was a demagogue, good at winning elections and willing to use hatred, fear, and division to do so. He was a poor administrator. Alabama state government before Wallace had not been good at delivering services to its citizens. During the period in which Wallace dominated Alabama politics, the state’s schools, prisons, mental hospitals, and other essential institutions were so poorly operated that conditions violated the constitutional rights of Alabama citizens. The federal courts were required to repeatedly intervene to correct these violations. Fortunately for Alabama, the U.S. District Judge sitting in Montgomery was a remarkable man, named Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. — U.S. District Court Judge

The judge shown in the film approving the march from Selma to Montgomery and ordering the government to protect the marchers was U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., generally held to be one of the best judges in U.S. history. Judge Johnson was a U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama from 1955 to 1979. He was then appointed to the Court of Appeal and served there from 1979 – 1999. The history of Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s is, to a great extent, the story of a struggle between Judge Johnson and the State of Alabama in which the Judge sought to require the state to comply with constitutional requirements in its schools, prisons, voter registration offices, and mental hospitals. For much of that time, the struggle was between Judge Johnson and his former friend, George C. Wallace.

Frank Johnson was born and raised in Winston County, Alabama, an area of rugged hills in the Northern part of the state. Winston County was known for its independence. Unlike the rest of Alabama, Winston County supported the Union during the Civil War. It was a center of guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy and a refuge for tens of thousands of deserters from the Confederate Army. After the Civil War, Winston County was reliably Republican when the rest of the state voted solidly Democratic.

George Wallace and Frank Johnson went to law school together and were friends. One story has it that Johnson made meticulous notes on the cases that students were required to read. Wallace never cracked a book outside of class. Johnson would pass his notes to Wallace and another friend to read during the class, so that if called upon, they could answer questions intelligently. The friendship between Johnson and Wallace didn’t last long after law school.

When he returned from service in the armed forces during the Second World War, Frank Johnson was politically active in the very small Republican party in Alabama. In 1955 when Johnson was 35 years old, he was appointed to the bench by President Dwight Eisenhower. At that time, he was the youngest federal judge ever appointed.

Before 1965, Judge Johnson had several voting rights cases in his court. He often found patterns and practices of discrimination and rigorously enforced the law. He was described as “the foremost champion of voting rights on the Southern bench.” Unfortunately, most federal judges in the South were not made of the same stuff as Judge Johnson, and despite attempts by the Justice Department to enforce voting rights under laws that existed before 1965, there was little overall improvement in extending the franchise to African Americans.

As shown in the film, Judge Johnson presided over the case brought by the protesters to sanction the march from Selma to Montgomery. He did order Dr. King and the protesters not to march until he could have a hearing. After the hearing he permitted the march. Unfortunately, First Amendment protections have been eroded by judicial decisions since 1965. Today, the march probably would not have been allowed to proceed.

Judge Johnson made important decisions correcting unconstitutional conditions in the State of Alabama that included the following: apportionment of the Alabama legislature; school desegregation; mental hospitals (being the first to find that persons confined to a mental hospital against their will and without being convicted of a crime had a right to treatment and that the state should not simply warehouse them; right to treatment cases soon spread across the country and resulted in reforms in the way that the mentally ill and developmentally disabled were treated.)

Additional Helpful Background: LBJ, Dr. King, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act

Below are excerpts from the January 15, 2015 telephone conversation between LBJ and Dr. King.

Note that the 1964 Civil Rights Act referred to by the President in this conversation forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the workplace, schools, and facilities open to the general public. It is the landmark Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s.

President Johnson: . . . I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man’s got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, or whether he’s got to quote the first ten amendments, or he’s got to tell you what Amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens, and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in, he’s got to do it. And if we can just repeat and repeat and repeat—I don’t want to follow [Adolf] Hitler, but he had an idea—

King: Yeah.

President Johnson: —that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people’d accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina where—well, I think one the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee [Institute], or the head of the Government Department there, or something, being denied the right to cast a vote, and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, and get it on television, and get it on . . . in the pulpits, and get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he’ll say, “Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair.”

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

King: Yes. You’re exactly right about that.

President Johnson: And if we do that, we’ll break through as—it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration. I think the greatest achievement in foreign policy—I said to a group yesterday—was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But I think this’ll be bigger, because it’ll do things that even that ’64 Act couldn’t do. . . . [End of Conversation]

 

Analysis of the Movie Selma as a Work of Historical Fiction

The genre of historical fiction presents events from the past in a fictional format. Most Americans get their post-schooling history from movies that are works of historical fiction. Responsible directors trying to present a reasonably accurate view of historical events will sometimes change specific facts or the sequence of events to make their stories more interesting or to simplify complex situations. So long as the important historical facts are retained, these changes are legitimate poetic license. Unfortunately, some directors distort the historical record out of ignorance or to support their own agenda.

The director of Selma who also wrote some of the script claims to be a student of the history of the period covered by the movie. In addition, the producers of Selma are distributing it free to high schools through the “Selma for Students’ Initiative,” claiming that the movie is responsible for historical fiction suitable to being shown to students.

TWM’s research, including both primary and secondary sources, shows that the presentation of the events of the protests, the portrayal of Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and the description of the resistance they met in Alabama, are all reasonably accurate and beneficial. Actor David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King is excellent. [This reviewer had the privilege of attending a speech given by Dr. King in Tallahassee, Florida, a few weeks after the bombing in Birmingham that killed the four little girls. In those days, whites attending civil rights protests or meetings were always placed in the front rows to increase their visibility, so Dr. King was only about 15 feet away. This reviewer could observe him closely,y and even now, some 50 years later, the event is clear in his mind.]

However, as discussed in the section or the Learning Guide entitled President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Hero of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, only a few of the scenes in the film in which LBJ appears are reasonably accurate, and some show the opposite of what actually occurred. In fact, contrary to the impression left by the film, LBJ was committed to passing a voting rights law in 1965; he and Dr. King worked together to get the law passed; LBJ’s role was one of the indispensable parts of that effort.

Thus, in its description of the role of President Lyndon Johnson, the general historical accuracy of the film falls prey to director/screen writer Ava Duvernay’s desire for a clear villain and her insistence that, “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.”

What’s Right with Showing How Much LBJ Did for Black Americans?

It’s a sad irony that LBJ is depicted as resisting civil rights for African Americans in a movie that sells itself as a reasonably accurate portrayal of a pivotal event in the struggle for equal rights. The suppression of LBJ’s advocacy of civil rights also misses an opportunity to show power of nonviolent direct action to motivate leaders to do the right thing. However, the most regrettable fact about director/screenwriter Duvernay’s false depiction of LBJ as the Southern White antagonist of Dr. King and an opponent of reform, is that the film misses an opportunity to promote social cohesion in the U.S.

Cohesion in multi-ethnic, multi-racial societies is always difficult to achieve. It is easy to divide people from others and to motivate them with anger. One of the great glories of the U.S. is our ability to resist the challenges of those who seek to divide one group from another and our capacity to achieve social cohesion in a society of many races, ethnicities, and religions. Thus, the occasions when people come together to do the right thing are important to emphasize. Many white Americans have much to answer for in their treatment of African Americans. However, there have been occasions when whites did the right thing. Good conduct should be encouraged and actions which foster cohesion in society should be celebrated; this is a major component of nonviolent direct action. LBJ’s actions on civil rights after 1957, and especially during his Presidency, are a series of wonderful right actions, one after another, and American history students should know about what he did. Certainly, he should not be misrepresented as resisting the Civil Rights Movement while he was President.

Why Director/Screenwriter Ava Duvernay Wanted to Suppress LBJ’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Ava Duvernay, the first black female director to make a successful feature motion picture, explained her position on the controversy over the way LBJ is treated in the movie in an interview for the January 5, 2015, edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Rolling Stone: Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.

DuVernay: Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The [draft of the script received from screen writer Paul Webb] was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. . . .

This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.

Rolling Stone: Many presidents couldn’t have done it.

DuVernay: Absolutely. Or wouldn’t have even if they could.

This sounds like the director came to the film with an agenda and that she imposed that agenda on the actual facts by declining to acknowledge President Johnson’s role as “a hero of that time.”

There are some arguments supporting the director. It was not until 1957, seven years before the Selma march, that LBJ first supported legislation protecting civil rights for African Americans. Thus, the movie’s timeline for LBJ’s conversion from an opponent of civil rights legislation to the politician who did more for black civil rights than any other 20th-century white leader is only about eight years off. Writers of historical fiction often telescope timelines to show important facts of history; this is a legitimate technique of writing historical fiction.

In addition, one of the traditional failings of Hollywood films in showing the history of black America is that the movies focus on white heroes helping blacks, ignoring the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was led by African Americans and its victories were won by mostly black demonstrators, with whites playing a relatively minor, but still helpful role. Movies about the Civil Rights Movement that focus on whites include The Help and The Long Walk Home. Even films about the important contributions of free blacks and former slaves in winning the Civil War have focused on whites, see e.g., Glory. The reasons for this are not necessarily racism. The vast majority of the movie-going audience is white. Those audiences will more readily identify with white heroes. Moviemakers want to sell tickets and thus want to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Director Duvernay’s statement that she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie” is a reference to those films.

However, there were plenty of villains in the story told by this movie, including George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Sheriff Jim Clark, and the reluctant Congress. In addition, LBJ could have been made out to be less of a villain simply by excluding made-up scenes and by showing how he came to be an advocate for civil rights. Especially egregious is the false scene with J. Edgar Hoover in which the LBJ-character gives tacit approval to an effort to undermine Dr. King’s family. There is simply no evidence that President Johnson was aware of the poison pen letter and the tape.

In addition, it would not have been difficult, for example, to insert a scene or two that told the story of Johnson’s pre-1957 opposition to civil rights laws, about his change of position as a result of nonviolent direct action, and his leadership on civil rights when he was President.

As the movie stands, Selma will leave the millions of Americans who watch the movie with a serious misimpression that divides rather than unites. In that sense, it is not good historical fiction and should only be shown in classes if teachers correct for the misimpression that LBJ as President resisted moving forward on civil rights in general and on the 1965 Voting Rights Act in particular.

Dr. King’s mug shot Birmingham, Alabama

USING IN THE CLASSROOM

Additional Discussion Questions.

Questions Relating to the FBI and MLK

5. Beginning in 1963, the FBI wiretapped the telephones of Dr. King, the SCLC, and various advisors to Dr. King in order to determine whether the Communist Party—USA, had infiltrated the Civil Rights Movement. Were those wiretaps justified?

Suggested Response:

A good discussion will take into account the following: (1) these event occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was an enemy of the U.S.; (2) the CPUSA was closely associated with the Soviet Union and was secretly financed by the Russian Communist Party; (3) Stanely Levison, a close advisor to Dr. King and a fund raiser for the Civil Rights Movement, had previously been a CPUSA insider, (4) The FBI had information that Mr. Levison had split with the CPUSA and that he was not trusted by CPUSA leaders; (5) Dr. King resisted severing his relationship with Levison, even when he was asked to do so by President John F. Kennedy and other high governmental officials; (6) later, Dr. King claimed to have severed his relationship with Levison but he secretly kept in touch with Levison and sought Levison’s advice through an intermediary; (7) when called before a Congressional Committee in 1962, Levison made a misleading statement that he was not a member of the CPUSA and then he refused to answer any more questions on the grounds that the answers might incriminate him (5th Amendment); and (8) none of the years of FBI wiretaps and bugs of Mr. Levison, Dr. King, or the SCLC revealed any CPUSA influence on Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement or that Mr. Levison acted in any manner other than as a loyal adviser to Dr. King. [Items 5, 6, & 7 can be ignored because as it turned out that they were not particularly important, and Dr. King and Mr. Levison had a right to do these things.] Reasonable minds can differ on the conclusion to be reached from these facts. One valid position is that Dr. King’s close association with a former CPUSA insider was suspicious enough to justify an investigation. (What if Levison’s departure from the CPUSA was a lie and he was still involved with the CPUSA?) Another valid position is that the FBI knew that Levison had split from the CPUSA and there was no basis to invade the privacy of Dr. King and his advisers. A third valid position is that while the wiretaps were initially justified, once it became apparent that Mr. Levison was operating only as a loyal adviser to Dr. King, they should have been discontinued. The legal background for this response is that the First Amendment prohibits government interference with the rights of citizens to express their opinions and to freely associate. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. The only reason justifying the wiretaps was national security. If there were no threat to national security, the wiretaps should have been discontinued.

6. Present the same question as #5 but add: (9) the wiretaps were continued for the purpose of obtaining information on Dr. King’s political activities and those of his associates. Assuming the initial wiretapping was justified, were the wiretaps intended to gather political information justified? Explain your reasons.

Suggested Response:

Once it became apparent that Mr. Levison was operating only as a loyal adviser to Dr. King and there was no national security need to continue the wiretaps, they should have been discontinued. The First Amendment prohibits interfering with the rights of citizens to express their opinions and to freely associate. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. Since there was no national security issue to justify the wiretaps, there was no reason for them.

7. When the wiretaps revealed information concerning Dr. King’s extramarital sex life and information concerning the political plans of Dr. King and his associates, what should the FBI have done with the information? Justify your response.

Suggested Response:

It should have kept the information secret and done nothing with it. The information should not have been provided to government officials such as the President. The only possible legitimate purpose for the wiretaps was to protect national security. Dr. King’s private life and the political plans of the Civil Rights Movement did not affect national security.

8. Why is the story of the FBI wiretaps and covert actions to “neutralize Dr. King as a negro leader” a more important story than Dr. King’s affairs with women outside of his marriage?

Suggested Response:

The actions of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were actions by a government agency that betrayed its core responsibilities and violated the Constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches. Dr. King’s betrayal of his wife was not related to his public mission of being a civil rights leader and did not violate a law.

9. We live in a society in which to protect against terrorism, the government is using increasing surveillance of our personal activities. What should the security agencies of the government do with the following types of information that may be collected by the government: (a) information on our sex lives; (b) information on our personal business transactions; (c) information on our beliefs; (d) information on our political activities.

Suggested Response:

First, many will contend that this information should not be collected at all unless there is probable cause to believe that the person whose information is being collected is a terrorist or a threat to national security. But there will always be information collected that doesn’t apply to national security or which relates to persons who are not the target of the investigation. Unless the information bears on national security interests, it should be kept secret and not acted upon by the government in any way nor leaked to the press or others.

Questions Relating to the Movie Selma as a Work of Historical Fiction

10. Was the writer/director Ava Duvernay justified in omitting the collaboration between President Johnson and Dr. King in securing passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act because, as an African American, she didn’t want to make a white-savior movie? Explain your reasons.

Suggested Response:

Reasonable minds can differ on this response. TWM believes that it was inappropriate to omit a description of the collaboration between LBJ and MLK. The main reason is that showing the two men working together for the voting rights law would promote cohesion in our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. It would not have been difficult, for example, to insert a scene or two that told the story of Johnson’s pre-1957 opposition to civil rights laws, about his change of position, and his leadership in that area when he was President.

See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Before Showing the Movie:

First, set the scene. When a group embarks on a program of nonviolent direct action against a committed and powerful adversary, there is always the danger of failure. Before the voting rights protests in Selma, Dr. King and the SCLC had been involved in a number of major efforts that, while some success had been achieved, were largely disappointing. These included St. Augustine, Florida (summer of 1964) in which the city ignored its agreements to make mild reforms and Albany, Georgia (ended August 1962) in which effective countermeasures to demonstrations and picketing were developed by Laurie Pritchet, chief of the city police. (While some Southern law enforcement officials seemed to delight in dramatic suppression of civil rights protests using nightsticks, truncheons, water hoses, and attack dogs, these tactics only garnered headlines throughout the nation and sympathy for the civil rights cause. Chief Pritchet made mass arrests of demonstrators without injuring the protesters. This made the protests very expensive for the Movement since the money had to be used to bail protesters out of jail. More importantly, Pritchet’s tactics in Albany denied the protesters national headlines and enabled the city to outlast demonstrations without making meaningful concessions.

Selma appeared ideal for a voting rights protest because resistance to black voter registration by white officials (including the Governor, George C. Wallace), was intense and the county sheriff, Jim Clark, had a reputation for violence and losing his temper. In addition, the groundwork for voting rights protests had been well prepared due to years of organizing by the Student Non violating Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”) and Selma’s own Dallas County Voters League. The local black citizens were ready to protest. For more pre-viewing suggestions, see Ten Things You Should Know About Selma Before You See the Film.

Making the Movie’s Mischaracterization of LBJ Work for Education

To deepen student understanding of nonviolent direct action and to correct for the misimpression left by the film concerning LBJ’s role in the voting rights act and the Civil Rights Movement, TWM suggests providing the information in the first part of the Helpful Background Section to support the points that:

1. LBJ did more for racial equality than any other 20th-century white politician. LBJ’s journey from a typical Southern politician to a hero of the Civil Rights Movement is an example of the power of nonviolent direct action to work on the conscience of the oppressor group and make the case for reform. In fact, the process started before 1957, long before the Selma protests, and for most of the period shown by this movie, LBJ and Dr. King were working together to get a voting rights bill passed by the Congress in 1965. The movie doesn’t show this, because the filmmakers needed a clear villain and couldn’t figure out a way to show President Johnson’s actual role while maintaining the tension in the film. So, most of the scenes showing LBJ are made up except the first conversation with Dr. King about the timing of the push for a voting rights law, the meeting between George Wallace and LBJ, and the scene of LBJ addressing Congress. The other scenes involving President Johnson were made up by the filmmakers to create tension in the story.

2. The relationship between MLK and LBJ was extraordinary because it involved the most powerful official of a country and a social activist cooperating to promote major social and political change.

3. The remainder of the film is a reasonably accurate fictional rendition of what occurred.
The information in the first section of the Helpful Background section can be provided by direct instruction or by having students read TWM’s Nonviolent Direct Action, LBJ and Passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The information in the first section of the Helpful Background section can be provided by direct instruction or by having students read TWM’s Nonviolent Direct Action, LBJ and Passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

After Showing the Movie – Turning Students Back to History

Show the class videos from the period. TWM Suggests:

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie. Suggested discussion questions are set out below.

1. How did Dr. King’s leadership benefit Americans who were not black?

Suggested Response:

Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement confronted the nation with the inconsistency between the way it acted (segregation and racism) and its ideals. This led the nation as a whole and many people to act in a manner that was more consistent with the country’s founding principles, i.e., “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Being true to your principles has a great benefit to everyone. As Dr. King said in one of his speeches, he wanted America to become, “a society at peace with itself; a society that can live with its conscience.” It is a great feeling to be proud of your country. While there are still racist elements in American society, the situation is much better than it was in 1953 before the Civil Rights Movement really got going. In addition, had Dr. King not been so insistent on nonviolence, the efforts of blacks for a better life could easily have been turned into a race war that would have been bad for all Americans.

2. One of the basic tenets of nonviolent direct action is to make the oppressor face the inconsistency between the oppressors’ ideals and the oppressors’ actions. How did the Selma march use this principle?

Suggested Response:

The right to vote is basic to democracy. The fact that people were attacked by police and beaten when they sought such a basic right was a dramatic representation of the need to pass a law protecting the right to vote. The fact that the power structure in Alabama, acting through the police, were willing to brutally beat peaceful protestors, demonstrated the need for change.

3. Why was the brutal Sheriff Jim Clark valuable to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement while the more restrained Police Chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchet, who ordered his officers to arrest demonstrators gently and without hurting them, a danger to the Civil Rights Movement.

Suggested Response:

Nonviolent direct action requires publicity to accomplish its goals. Police brutality creates headlines and draws attention to the grievances of the demonstrators. Arrests, even mass arrests, of demonstrators by police who are not brutal but simply do their job, draws fewer headlines and less controversy.

4. Does the fact that Dr. King cheated on his wife diminish his legacy as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement? If so, how much?

Suggested Response:

Good discussions will include the following concepts. (1) This was private behavior that was unrelated to Dr. King’s stand on public issues such as demanding an end to segregation through nonviolent protest, voting rights for African-Americans, an end to the war in Vietnam, etc. It is a private matter that has relevance to Dr. King’s family, but basically, it is no one else’s business (but see point 4 below). (2) There is a distinction between Dr. King’s role as a civil rights leader and his role as a minister because ministers are expected to lead their parishioners to live ethical lives. For MLK the minister, his actions were hypocritical and therefore unethical. Note, as Dr. King did many times, that in his form of the Christian religion all people are considered sinners and the grace of Jesus is necessary to take those sins away. (3) Take account of the argument that the achievements of Dr. King in gaining civil rights for black Americans, steering their discontent into nonviolent expression, and avoiding a race war were so important that sexual impropriety pales in comparison. (4) Take account of the argument that our leaders, even those who are not ministers, are role models and that they therefore have an obligation to act correctly. TWM’s position on this question is that Dr. King’s sexual conduct was a failing, but we would rather have a sexually active Dr. King who led the Civil Rights Movement on a nonviolent path than a straight-laced Dr. King who did not cheat on his wife but who was also not an effective leader promoting nonviolence.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

LEADERSHIP

See Discussion Questions 1 and 4 in the Learning Guide.

COURAGE

1. Ever since he moved into a leadership position in the Civil Rights Movement in 1954, Dr. King received frequent death threats and expected to be assassinated. The night before he was killed, he talked about his possible death in a speech. This was a time in America, after the assassination of President Kennedy, when death was a real threat to national leaders. Why did Dr. King persevere in light of the threats on his life?

Suggested Response:

Dr. King believed that God had placed the burden of leadership on him and that he could not evade that service.

HUMAN RIGHTS

2. If a person from another country looked at the United States before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and compared how the country acted to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, name an Article of the Declaration that was regularly violated in the U.S. Explain why and compare the situation to the present day.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response. Violations occurred in Articles 1 – 3, 5 – 12, 16, 20, 21, 23, 25 – 27 & 29.

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

CITIZENSHIP

See the Discussion question under Courage.

See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Film.

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include research projects and essays on the follow topics. The depth of the research and length of the study should be adapted to the needs and abilities of the class.

1. Research and write an essay evaluating the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Research and write an essay evaluating the role of the FBI in its investigations of Dr. King and the SCLC.

3. Research and write an essay on nonviolent direct action as it applied to the process by which LBJ became an advocate for black civil rights. 4. Research and write an essay on the career and accomplishments of one of the following people shown in the film:

a. Andrew Young;
b. Ralph Abernathy;
c. Hosea Williams;
d. John Lewis;
d. Diane Nash;
e. George C. Wallace;
f. Frank M. Johnson, Jr.; and
f. J. Edgar Hoover.

5. Trace the paths by which the techniques of Gandhian non-violent direct action came to be practiced by the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Be sure to research and discuss the role of the Reverend James Lawson in that process.

6. Write an essay answering the following question: Was the writer/director Ava Duvernay justified in omitting the collaboration between President Johnson and Dr. King in securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because as an African American, she didn’t want to make “another white-savior movie”?

7. Assume that a person from another country looked at the United States before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and compared how the country acted to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Name an Article of the Declaration that was regularly violated in the U.S., explain why this was a violation of the Universal Declaration, and compare the situation to the present day.

Additional Assignments.

Questions Relating to the FBI and MLK

5. Beginning in 1963, the FBI wiretapped the telephones of Dr. King, the SCLC, and various advisors to Dr. King in order to determine whether the Communist Party—USA, had infiltrated the Civil Rights Movement. Were those wiretaps justified?

Suggested Response:

A good discussion will take into account the following: (1) these event occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was an enemy of the U.S.; (2) the CPUSA was closely associated with the Soviet Union and was secretly financed by the Russian Communist Party; (3) Stanely Levison, a close advisor to Dr. King and a fund raiser for the Civil Rights Movement, had previously been a CPUSA insider, (4) The FBI had information that Mr. Levison had split with the CPUSA and that he was not trusted by CPUSA leaders; (5) Dr. King resisted severing his relationship with Levison, even when he was asked to do so by President John F. Kennedy and other high governmental officials; (6) later, Dr. King claimed to have severed his relationship with Levison but he secretly kept in touch with Levison and sought Levison’s advice through an intermediary; (7) when called before a Congressional Committee in 1962, Levison made a misleading statement that he was not a member of the CPUSA and then he refused to answer any more questions on the grounds that the answers might incriminate him (5th Amendment); and (8) none of the years of FBI wiretaps and bugs of Mr. Levison, Dr. King, or the SCLC revealed any CPUSA influence on Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement or that Mr. Levison acted in any manner other than as a loyal adviser to Dr. King. [Items 5, 6, & 7 can be ignored because as it turned out that they were not particularly important, and Dr. King and Mr. Levison had a right to do these things.] Reasonable minds can differ on the conclusion to be reached from these facts. One valid position is that Dr. King’s close association with a former CPUSA insider was suspicious enough to justify an investigation. (What if Levison’s departure from the CPUSA was a lie and he was still involved with the CPUSA?) Another valid position is that the FBI knew that Levison had split from the CPUSA and there was no basis to invade the privacy of Dr. King and his advisers. A third valid position is that while the wiretaps were initially justified, once it became apparent that Mr. Levison was operating only as a loyal adviser to Dr. King, they should have been discontinued. The legal background for this response is that the First Amendment prohibits government interference with the rights of citizens to express their opinions and to freely associate. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. The only reason justifying the wiretaps was national security. If there were no threat to national security, the wiretaps should have been discontinued.

6. Present the same question as #5 but add: (9) the wiretaps were continued for the purpose of obtaining information on Dr. King’s political activities and those of his associates. Assuming the initial wiretapping was justified, were the wiretaps intended to gather political information justified? Explain your reasons.

Suggested Response:

Once it became apparent that Mr. Levison was operating only as a loyal adviser to Dr. King and there was no national security need to continue the wiretaps, they should have been discontinued. The First Amendment prohibits interfering with the rights of citizens to express their opinions and to freely associate. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. Since there was no national security issue to justify the wiretaps, there was no reason for them.

7. When the wiretaps revealed information concerning Dr. King’s extramarital sex life and information concerning the political plans of Dr. King and his associates, what should the FBI have done with the information? Justify your response.

Suggested Response:

It should have kept the information secret and done nothing with it. The information should not have been provided to government officials such as the President. The only possible legitimate purpose for the wiretaps was to protect national security. Dr. King’s private life and the political plans of the Civil Rights Movement did not affect national security.

8. Why is the story of the FBI wiretaps and covert actions to “neutralize Dr. King as a negro leader” a more important story than Dr. King’s affairs with women outside of his marriage?

Suggested Response:

The actions of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were actions by a government agency that betrayed its core responsibilities and violated the Constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches. Dr. King’s betrayal of his wife was not related to his public mission of being a civil rights leader and did not violate a law.

9. We live in a society in which to protect against terrorism, the government is using increasing surveillance of our personal activities. What should the security agencies of the government do with the following types of information that may be collected by the government: (a) information on our sex lives; (b) information on our personal business transactions; (c) information on our beliefs; (d) information on our political activities.

Suggested Response:

First, many will contend that this information should not be collected at all unless there is probable cause to believe that the person whose information is being collected is a terrorist or a threat to national security. But there will always be information collected that doesn’t apply to national security or which relates to persons who are not the target of the investigation. Unless the information bears on national security interests, it should be kept secret and not acted upon by the government in any way nor leaked to the press or others.

Questions Relating to the Movie Selma as a Work of Historical Fiction

10. Was the writer/director Ava Duvernay justified in omitting the collaboration between President Johnson and Dr. King in securing passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act because, as an African American, she didn’t want to make a white-savior movie? Explain your reasons.

Suggested Response:

Reasonable minds can differ on this response. TWM believes that it was inappropriate to omit a description of the collaboration between LBJ and MLK. The main reason is that showing the two men working together for the voting rights law would promote cohesion in our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. It would not have been difficult, for example, to insert a scene or two that told the story of Johnson’s pre-1957 opposition to civil rights laws, about his change of position, and his leadership in that area when he was President.

See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

BRIDGES TO READING

See Martin Luther King Jr.: 12 essential reads by Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2013;

SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

Historical Accuracy and the Erroneous Portrayal of the Role of President Lyndon Johnson

Civil Rights Movement Generally

Videos with Original Footage

J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and Surveillance of Dr. King

George C. Wallace

Other Lesson Plans

CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS

Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

 

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Bearing the Cross & Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow, William Morrow & Co., Inc., New York, 1986;
  • The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. — From “Solo” to Memphis by David J. Garrow, 1981, W.W. Norton Company, New York; note that as additional government documents have been made public, Mr. Garrow has modified his conclusions, see e.g., The FBI and Martin Luther King by David J. Garrow, The Atlantic Monthly, July-August, 2002;
  • Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., a Biography by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., 1978, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, especially pp.50 – 54 (friendship with George Wallace) 102, 103, 181 – 192 (Selma March Ruling), and 220 – 223 (Wallace’s legacy);
  • Protest at Selma — Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by David J. Garrow, 1978, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.;
  • Judgment Days, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America by Nick Kotz, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005;
  • Wallace by Marshall Frady, 1976, Meridian Books, New York;
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. by Marshall Frady, 2002, Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York.
  • Interview of Joseph A. Califano, Jr. by Robert Scheifer at the LBJ Presidential Library, on C-SPAN 2 Book TV – The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. March 26, 2015.