The recent uproar over the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the movie Selma is quite enlightening. Staffers at the LBK Presidential Library are defending the former presidents reputation as a hero of civil rights. Their objection surrounds the movie painting LBJ as a reluctant ally at best.
If we really examine the man and his motivations we can see that he possessed great insight and vast blind spots in terms of racial justice. He stood as the leader of this nation reflecting the values that white Americans held at the time.
It is in this honest assessment that we can see our selves; as white Americans we have accomplished much in recognizing the abhorrent affects of racism. Yet, this is not where we started. Just as in this most recent portrayal, we have gradually evolved in our understanding of how insidious prejudice can be.
As we move forward we embrace an ever-expanding concept of social justice, spurred on by our exposure to the inequities in our world. For those of us over forty, for example, can we honestly say that our views and understanding of transgender rights have remained static over the last 20 years? For most, the answer is clearly NO. We have moved from ignorance of the issue, to acknowledgement and beyond to embracing social change via activism.
The real issue with the LBJ portrayal is that unconsciously we desire to believe the myth that a white man was a hero of the civil rights movement. Was he? well kind of, but he did not start as a hero, he had to be confronted, informed and challenged. There in is the rub; all of us need to be willing to confront our attitudes, ideas and actions if we are to manifest social justice in our time.
Those seeking a white wash of LBJ into an instigator of the civil rights movement are unconsciously expressing a desire to reframe history into a box that white privilege fits into. I admire LBJ for his ability to evolve his views and take action once he understood the magnitude of the situation. He evolved, may we all follow his example and continue to do so also. The attempted reframing of the discussion of the movie to be about the actions of a white President instead of the bravery of the people of Selma and MKL is distasteful at best. Yet there are lessons about our own privilege to be gleaned from the conversation.