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THIS GUIDE IS BEING WRITTEN AND IS NOT COMPLETE -- It is expected to be completed on May 27, 2015.


Additional Helpful Background:
      LBJ, Dr. King, and
            the 1965 Voting Rights Act
      Analysis of the Movie Selma
            as a Work of Historical Fiction

Additional Discussion Questions:
      MLK and the FBI
      Selma as a Work of Historical Fiction
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

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 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 closel,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.

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.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


See Discussion Questions 1 and 4 in the Learning Guide.

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.


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 Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical


See the Discussion question under Courage.

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

Bridges to Reading:

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

Links to the Internet:

Common Core State Standards that can be Served by this Learning Guide
(Anchor Standards only)

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.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

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.


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 Converence 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 Trimph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. March 26, 2015.

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