Critics say "Selma" inaccurately claims LBJ clashed with MLK over civil rights

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, talks with civil rights leaders in his White House office in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 1964. The black leaders, from left, are, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); James Farmer, national director of the Committee on Racial Equality; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Whitney Young, executive director of the Urban League.

AP

The movie "Selma" opens nationwide one week from Friday and it's already generating Oscar buzz and controversy. Some say it could be Oscar politics at work.

According to "Selma," President Lyndon B. Johnson clashed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. over the Voting Rights Act and that's why King decided to march in Selma, where many black voters were disenfranchised, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.

Civil rights leader Julian Bond, who often worked with King, praised "Selma" but thinks LBJ did not deserve to be treated as a villain.

"He did support King's fight for voting rights. He probably is the best civil rights president America has ever had. The best. Absolute best," Bond said. "I think the movie people wanted Dr. King to have an antagonist. Why not have it be LBJ?"

LBJ loyalists agree. In an op-ed, Mark Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Presidential Library, wrote: "The partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history."

Former LBJ domestic policy aide Joseph Califano, a current CBS Corporation board member, added: "Selma was LBJ's idea."

Writer Gay Talese, who covered the Selma marches for the New York Times, disagreed on that point.

"I don't see anybody, historically or in any role, to have known that LBJ was the inspiration for that march. It's ridiculous," Talese said.

He said the film is true to the facts, down to the character flaws of both men.

"Johnson and King are dealt with as men of many moods and levels and temperaments. Complex people, both King and Johnson."

But historian Joshua Zeitz said the film is wrong to imply that LBJ ruthlessly tried to stop the marches in Selma, Alabama.

"The movie suggests that Lyndon Johnson ordered the FBI to blackmail Martin Luther King by sending him evidence that they had collected of his extramarital affairs," Zeitz said. "And there's absolutely not one scintilla of evidence to suggest Lyndon Johnson knew about it, let alone ordered it."

Still, Bond said people should still see the film to learn about the brutal reprisals in Selma.

"Unless you learn this, you'll repeat these things sometimes in the future, and we don't want to go through this period again," Bond said.

"Selma" director Ava DuVernay tweeted that LBJ's reluctance was not a fantasy made up for the film. It's worth noting the controversy erupted just as Oscar voters started selecting nominees for various categories -- a time when studios have been known to launch whisper campaigns against rival movies.