‘Selma’ as a Tool for Teaching American History

By Catherine Gewertz — January 02, 2015 1 min read
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The new movie “Selma” offers teachers an opportunity to engage students in discussion about the civil-rights movement. But if the film’s critics have anything to say about it, those discussions should zero in on its fairness and accuracy.

According to a story this week in The Washington Post, close advisers to the late Lyndon B. Johnson contend that the movie wrongly portrays the former president as an opponent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s push for voting-rights legislation. One former Johnson aide even suggests that using the 1965 Selma march to catalyze support for such a bill was Johnson’s idea.

Reporter Karen Tumulty draws on historical accounts of the period leading up to the Selma march, weaving them together with criticism of “Selma” and interviews with some of those who worked closely with King and Johnson. She concludes that each side has valid claims of inaccuracy about the movie.

“That is because Johnson and King’s relationship was a partnership of two shrewd Southerners who had common goals but sometimes conflicting priorities. And the unspooling of events a half-century later can look very different, depending on whether it is viewed from the perspective of Washington deal-making or from the dangerous front lines.”

Aides to King say that he had been planning to use the Selma march to draw public attention to the need for voting-rights legislation long before he met with President Johnson about it.

As the Post points out, “Selma” is hardly the first Hollywood movie to spark claims of inaccuracy. But with the interpretation of events that it offers—however disputed—it gives students and teachers an open door to research, debate, and discussion. The story itself, with its many citations from history and recent criticism, offers teachers valuable resources for those discussions.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.