Clio Goes to the Movies: “Selma” in History

Clio Goes to the Movies: “Selma” in History

Ava DuVernay’s Selma has sparked a robust discussion about the civil rights movement, memory, and the filmmaker’s role in creating “accurate” and teachable history. The film has garnered much pointed criticism for “artful falsehood,” “distorting” history, and “villainizing” Lyndon Johnson. The problems with these assertions are threefold. First, deploying terms like distortion and villainizing does not reflect a willingness to engage issues of history, memory, and mythmaking in good faith; those are words that seek to discredit the film and the director’s interpretation of the event. Second, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson illustrates, these critiques of the film belie the historical record. Finally, the ballyhoo around Lyndon Johnson misses the point, and it pushes us away from analyzing the film in a manner that accounts for the broader historical context and historiography.

Selma is consistent with the first generation of civil rights scholarship. Historian Steven Lawson explains in his famous essay, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement,” that this scholarship focus on the “great men” of the movement. This work is also concerned with explaining legislative and judicial victories.1 Selma is the first major motion picture film about Dr. King. Even though Selma chronicles the Selma campaign, the film tries to capture Dr. King’s internal thoughts and conflicts, his personal life, and his interactions with the federal government. Selma is also a story about what scholars often refer to as the “classical” or “heroic” phase of the civil rights movement (1954-1965).2 This period is defined by the struggle to end segregation in public accommodations and the legal and legislative achievements of the prior decade. It also focuses on the “moral” struggle against Jim Crow and “evil” segregationists and the “great men” of the civil rights movement.

Consequently, Selma papers over much of the campaign’s historical context and complexities. Many characters and organizations like Coretta Scott King, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist James Bevel, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are underdeveloped at best. Black women activists such as Diane NashAmelia Boynton, and Annie Lee Cooper are featured in the film, but they inhabit its margins. Lyndon Johnson’s fear of “militants” casts a negative hue upon black militancy that circulated in the South and North. Selma even downplays Dr. King’s radical politics. Much to the consternation of critics like Johnson advisor Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Selma also renders President Johnson as rather one dimensional.

One reason to explain Selma‘s King-centricity and inclination towards the “heroic” narrative is that it seems to draw from the prevailing secondary sources on Dr. King — David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), Adam Fairclough’s To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1987), and Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (2006).  Garrow’s chapter on Selma in Bearing the Cross emphasizes many of the themes captured in the film: Dr. King’s infidelities, the tension between Martin and Coretta, divisions between Dr. King and the SCLC and SNCC, Johnson’s wavering over supporting a voting bill in early 1965, and Coretta’s concern with her family’s material well-being.

While it is true that DuVernay took some creative license with her depiction of President Lyndon Johnson, the movie’s portrayal of him as a president consumed by other political priorities is evident in the literature. DuVernay seems to pluck the scene of Lyndon Johnson bragging about how the War on Poverty would help African Americans from Garrow: “The president spoke of how beneficial his ‘war on poverty’ effort would be for American blacks … King reminded Johnson that there was still serious civil rights problems in the south, and the need for federal legislation to ensure blacks’ voting rights was great.” Garrow then quotes Johnson, “‘Martin, you’re right about that. I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get a voting rights bill through this session of Congress’ … The time would come, Johnson said, but not in 1965.”3 Amy Davidson uses Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge to show how the film portrayed Johnson as a president who was not opposed to voting rights and the movement, but was concerned with the timing of potential legislation.

Jimmie Lee Jackson (AP)
Jimmie Lee Jackson (AP)

There are moments in Selma that resonate with viewers. The killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson strikes home for anyone concerned with the shootings of black men like Eric Garner. Jackson, a farmer, church deacon, and former soldier, is shown as an activist stirred to action after listening to Dr. King speak at a mass meeting. However, Jackson tried to register to vote and worked in the local struggle for voting rights before Dr. King’s arrival. The connections between the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson, “bloody Sunday,” and the lack of black voting power illustrates the long history of the black struggle against state violence.

While we often remember Dr. King as the great orator, Selma shows Dr. King and and members of SCLC as thoughtful strategists. SCLC’s mantra and philosophy in the film was “negotiate, demonstrate, and resist.” Their goal was to raise white Americans’ consciousness since that would stir federal authorities to action. SCLC and Dr. King did not rush to engage in direct action protest. They simultaneously worked within and pushed against the legal parameters governing the right to protest. While they sought to resist local brutality and exclusion, Dr. King and his advisors never violated federal laws or the courts. The SCLC relied upon their opponents’ arrogance and eagerness for violent repression. Nonviolent resistance elicited state violence, which stirred Americans’ conscience.

DuVernay’s portrayal of the SCLC-SNCC relationship as tense again reflects King-centric historiography. Selma portrays SNCC as SCLC’s volatile, yet conflicted, baby brother. Reverend Hosea Williams and other SCLC activists refer to SNCC activists in derisive terms. James Forman is often angry and uncompromising as he challenges SCLC’s nonviolent tactics and their role in the local movement. SNCC chairman John Lewis emerges as the “reasonable” SNCC activist. Lewis reminds Forman of one of their organization’s democratic principles when defending his decision to march to Selma (“The people in Selma want King.”).

Ella Baker (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights | CC BY)
Ella Baker (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights | CC BY)

Historically, SNCC was not merely SCLC’s political little brother. As many scholars like Charles Payne illustrate, SNCC devoted itself to building black-led movements from below — community organizing, developing indigenous leadership and organizational infrastructure, and overturning local white supremacist political regimes. The organization, under the guidance of Ella Baker, also saw itself engaging in a revolution of political process. As Baker explained in her “Bigger than a Hamburger” speech in 1960, SNCC committed itself to a more democratic “group-centered leadership” rather than a hierarchical, “leader-centered group pattern of organization.” SNCC activists were “intolerant of anything that smacked of manipulation or domination,” Baker argued. SNCC’s unwillingness to replicate hierarchical organizations such as SCLC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provoked scholar-activist Howard Zinn to call SNCC brand SNCC’s politics a new “independent radicalism.”4

Since the film tacks close to a standard interpretation of civil rights, it is not a surprise that black radical politics is downplayed. Dr. King talks with his close confidant, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, in prison about how the authorities seek to slander him and diminish the movement. Yet, historian David Garrow illustrates Dr. King’s expressions of radicalism in another conversation between Dr. King and white SCLC field staffer Charles Fager. In that discussion, Dr. King ruminated about what it would take to win racial equality. Fager remembered Dr. King saying, “If we are going to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”5

The issue of gender is also striking. Black women activists remain largely undeveloped. One almost forgets that Coretta Scott King was an activist herself until the scene where she is soliciting advice from Amelia Boynton about her concerns being on the sidelines on the Selma campaign and in her encounter with Malcolm X. The focus on Dr. King’s inner-circle — Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, C.T. Vivian, James Bevel, and Bayard Rustin — illustrate the movement’s male-centered leadership. All of the male activists, including the SNCC activists and Bayard Rustin, make the most important decisions. Dr. King, Young, Rustin, and Bevel deliberate about the details of potential voting rights legislation.

While the film centers on the Selma campaign, it does provide brief glimpses into the future. Common’s reference of the Ferguson protests in “Glory” is an obvious gesture to the present. Selma contains a subtle allusion to Dr. King’s changing politics in the scene where John Lewis implores Dr. King to see Selma through. Dr. King argued about the need for African Americans to exercise political power and move beyond protest. This scene illustrates the possibilities of black politics after securing voting rights. Bayard Rustin published “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” in the midst of the Selma campaign in February 1965. In the influential article, Rustin argued that African Americans needed to transition from protest to electoral politics.6 It is true that Dr. King began arguing for greater political power during this moment, but he never abandoned protest politics. In 1967 and 1968, he called for escalating nonviolent protest in response to President Johnson’s wavering commitment to the War on Poverty and the escalation of the Vietnam War.7

Selma’s conclusion leaves open many questions despite detailing the fate of some of the movie’s significant characters. One thinks of the Republican Party’s long campaign to stunt the Voting Rights Act, which culminated with the Supreme Court striking down Section 4 of the law. Selma‘s intense depictions of racial terrorism and police violence recalls Ferguson and the scores of black men and women killed by the police in the last decade. I would claim, however, that part of Selma‘s significance lay in the attempt to illustrate the conditions needed for a race-based social movement to win: we need the political interests of African Americans and whites to align. Social movements must use whatever media and political tactics possible to try to capitalize on the state’s mistakes. For Dr. King, the lesson of Selma was that it represented a crucial turning point in the movement. In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote: “The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge.”8 One can argue that DuVernay may have taken too much dramatic liberty with particular aspects of the film, but Selma adequately captured the spirit of that point in the middle of the giant “X” that Dr. King recognized.

Further Reading

Carson, Clayborne. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

Cooper, Brittney. “Maureen Dowd’s Clueless White Gaze: What’s Really Behind the ‘Selma’ Backlash,”, January 21, 2015, accessed January 25, 2015.

Jackson, Thomas. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

Payne, Charles. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Zelizer, Julian E. The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. New York: Penguin Press, 2015.


  1. Steven Lawson, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement,” The American Historical Review, 96:2 (April 1991), 456. Return to text.
  2. Angela D. Dillard, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 48-49. Return to text.
  3. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985), 368. Return to text.
  4. Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965). Return to text.
  5. Garrow, 382. Return to text.
  6. Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary 39:2 (February 1965). Rustin presumed that African Americans would displace white southerners and they may possibly switch. He stated, “One of Barry Goldwater’s few attractive ideas was that the Dixiecrats belong with him in the same party….” Return to text.
  7. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1968). Return to text.
  8. King, Where Do We Go From Here Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 4. Return to text.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.