One of the Civil Rights Movement‘s most notable figures has come forward blasting recent claims that then-President Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded the idea behind the marches in Selma. In fact, SNCC co-founder Diane Nash suggests that LBJ’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was nothing more than a delayed reaction to the deaths of activists and the happenings of the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. that same year.
“The impression too often perpetuated in history books and in popular culture is that that you have to be a president, someone special or White to have an important idea or to achieve major accomplishments. This is an idea that disempowers citizens and should not be propagated further,” Nash said in a column for the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
What spurred Nash to weigh in? Ava DuVernay‘s Selma biopic has been one of Hollywood’s top stories in the past few months, with the African-American director making strides in an industry that is notoriously and predominately male and White. Naturally, the historic moments depicted in the film have been reopened for discussion – and debate.
In the film President Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, is portrayed as being at odds with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) over the nonviolent Selma demonstrations – which was a deliberate choice by the director who said she did not want to create a “White-savior movie.” Her decision to portray President Johnson as an ally with Dr. King’s chief detractor, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, prompted Joseph A. Califano, a former top domestic affairs assistant to President Johnson, to say the following in a Washington Post op-ed column:
In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.
Not exactly, says Nash, who helped co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was a central participant on the ground during the Selma to Montgomery marches. In her NNPA column Nash takes Califano’s stance to task and says that the movement in Selma occurred far ahead of Johnson’s presidency.
More from the Nash’s column:
Joseph Califano’s statement that Selma was Lyndon B. Johnson’s idea is patently false. Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had come to Alabama earlier to organize to obtain the right to vote, for me, the Alabama Right to Vote movement began the day the four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
That was Sunday, September 15, 1963 – before Lyndon Johnson became president.
James Bevel, my-then husband, and I believed that a man and a woman would not allow those four little girls to be murdered and do nothing.
On that fateful Sunday, in Edenton, N. C. in Golden and Mrs. Frinks’ living room (Golden Frinks was a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff person.), James Bevel and I conceptualized and wrote the plan that became the Selma Right to Vote movement. We believed that if Negroes in Alabama could vote, they could better protect their children from things like the church bombing.
Nash doesn’t squarely put what happened in Selma squarely on her shoulders, as she states in her piece that she and her ex-husband took their plan to the SCLC with immediacy. Nash, who was portrayed in DuVernay’s film by Tessa Thompson, added that Bevel (played by Common) called for the Selma-to-Montgomery March soon after the police killing unarmed of civil rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson on February, 26, 1965.
In Nash’s estimation, President Johnson allowed the environment that led to the deaths of Jackson, and activists James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo to continue despite his power to stop the carnage. Nash states that President Johnson’s inaction prior to the events of March 7, 1965, AKA Bloody Sunday, pushed the SCLC, SNCC and other groups to push forward for voting rights and sparked the violent standoff with Alabama police.
Although it can’t be verified, insiders say that DuVernay’s portrayal of President Johnson as a difficult and somewhat closeted bigot may have harmed her chances at the Academy Awards. DuVernay’s film is up for Best Picture and Best Original Song. Some feel that the director was snubbed for the Best Director category, which would have been a historic first for a Black woman.