The controversy swirling around the movie “Selma” echoes ones involving other historical movies.
Selma, it is said, unfairly and inaccurately portrays President Lyndon Johnson, and omits important facts. Fact-checking could ensure the film gets the facts right, though that could impinge on dramatic effect.
However, omissions are inevitable, especially when telling a story as rich and complex as that of Selma. I should know. I was there.
The Kennedy administration had sued to stop discrimination in voter registration in Selma and the surrounding county in 1961. In 1964 and 1965, I was an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, working in Selma on the case to enforce laws against racial discrimination in voting and public accommodations.
Our case showed that although a majority of residents were African American, only 156 black persons were registered to vote. By contrast, 9,195 whites were registered.
At trial, the United States called 40 witnesses, and the court found that the board of registrars had discriminated against black applicants for voter registration. Although ordered to stop discriminating, the registrars continued to reject most black applicants and register most whites.
In 1964, the government asked for more relief, and I worked on the trial where we presented 56 witnesses.
Not only did the registrars discriminate, but the sheriff, prosecutor and judges in Selma arrested African Americans for urging voter registration, intimidated prospective applicants for registration, set unreasonable bail and generally attempted to stop them from registering to vote.
The United States responded with three lawsuits in 1963 and 1964.
The U.S. suits to stop discrimination and intimidation laid the foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As I wrote in my book, “Free At Last to Vote: The Alabama Origins of the Voting Rights Act,” the litigation played a crucial rule by exposing the nation to the extent of the racial discrimination in voting, and shaping the content of the act.
Bloody Sunday could not, standing alone, mobilize opinion to support a Voting Rights Act. The country would have to recognize that the attack stemmed from and was designed to reinforce a pattern of deprivations of the right to vote.
Bloody Sunday became the catalyst. The efforts of black citizens to register and of the United States to enforce their right to do so were the ingredients that led to adoption of the Voting Rights Act.
John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Albert Turner, who was strangely missing from the movie, and hundreds of brave African Americans risked their lives to save American democracy. But there is another important story to be told: The federal government can be a force for good.
Brian K. Landsberg is a law professor at the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law.