LASA students from AP U.S. History (APUSH) and Facing History and Ourselves classes went to see “Selma,” a movie about events in Selma, Alabama during the civil rights movement. After the movie, director of the LBJ Presidential Library Mark Updegrove spoke to the students about Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) portrayal in the film and LBJ’s involvement in the civil rights movement.
On Wednesday, Jan. 21, the field trip attendees viewed the movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. LASA junior Zoë Feder said that before the movie, she didn’t have much knowledge of the events in Selma.
“I am a little embarrassed to admit that, but all I had really retained over the years about MLK was just a more general picture and then the March on Washington,” Feder said. “It just serves as a reminder how incredibly cruel and inhumane anything other than equal rights is.”
LASA APUSH teacher Jason Flowers designed the field trip to see “Selma” after reading articles about the historical accuracy of the movie. Flowers decided to arrange for Updegrove to come speak to the students about LBJ’s portrayal in the movie after reading an article written by Updegrove. Flowers said having Updegrove come to speak after the students saw the movie made the experience more memorable.
“I was really proud of the questions the students asked,” Flowers said. “They were insightful and drove the discussion in a very productive direction and, of course, Mr. Updegrove told great stories about LBJ and the civil rights leaders depicted in the film. I hope [the students] were able to get a greater appreciation for the struggle undertaken by these civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and all the others depicted in the film, in order to end segregation and regain the franchise, and also to more fully understand the part that Lyndon Johnson played in that struggle.”
LASA Facing History and Ourselves teacher Neil Loewenstern said Updegrove’s presentation clarified the history between LBJ and MLK. The movie showed an antagonistic relationship between the two when history, presented by Updegrove, showed they were actually working together. Loewenstern’s Facing History and Ourselves classes are doing a unit on discrimination in America.
“I hope students take away a better sense of the levels of discrimination minorities faced and struggled to overcome in this country,” Loewenstern said. “I hope students come to realize they have a place in that struggle, and that it is the actions of ordinary citizens like themselves that can create change. In terms of the presentation, I want them to understand there is a difference between a Hollywood movie representation of history and what that actual history is.”
Updegrove is the author of several books about LBJ’s presidency. Since the movie was released, Updegrove has been interviewed for several articles about his disagreement with the portrayal of LBJ in the film. During his presentation to the students after the movie, he discussed this fact with them. Though not happy with LBJ’s portrayal, Updegrove said he feels that “Selma” is a powerful movie that helps show the events of the civil rights movement.
“I’m glad that it illustrates, for young people in particular, how different this nation was just a half a century ago and how different it might still be if not for the leadership and sacrifices of so many who put themselves in harm’s way to create a better America,” Updegrove said. “I regret only that it doesn’t accurately capture President Johnson’s passion for civil rights and social justice and his productive partnership with Martin Luther King.”
The 2014-2015 school year is also the 50th anniversary of the passing of the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The events leading to the passing of the Voting Rights Act were what made up “Selma.”
“I thought it was important to observe that in some significant way,” Flowers said. “On a more practical level, College Board often observes these anniversaries in the form of essay questions on the AP exam, so I thought this type of activity would cement this period in the students’ minds better than a normal class.”
Feder said the movie changed the way she views the civil rights movement and that it added to her knowledge of the events during this time. She said that the movie helped her personally connect more to the events.
“I think movies really help us feel more personally connected to stories and characters,” Feder said. “So [‘Selma’] helped me see just how much the issues spread. To gain the civil rights they deserved, the people who fought through it had to consider so many different angles such as publicity, politics and just any person they encountered.”
Updegrove said that he hopes his presentation was able to help students learn more about the history behind the civil rights movement and LBJ’s involvement.
“I hope students know that we had a president 50 years ago, Lyndon Johnson, who partnered with Martin Luther King in the cause of civil rights for all Americans,” Updegrove said. “They may have disagreed at times on timing and tactics, but they shared a common goal to make good on the words that are written in our Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson exemplify what we can do, despite our differences, if we work together.”
story by Hannah Marks