The release of Selma, the drama detailing the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Albama, has unleashed its own drama with critics charging that director Ava DuVernay’s film unfairly depicts President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s actions during that period. Less than a year before the marches, King published an article in LIFE outlining the contours of his complicated relationship with the president.
A few days before the film’s release, Mark K. Updegrove, director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum, wrote in Politico that the film’s version of Johnson “flies in the face of history.” One of the movie’s central tensions—indeed, the driving force behind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s decision to march—is Johnson’s reluctance to prioritize voting rights legislation over his War on Poverty. In reality, these critics say, Johnson was a much more willing partner than the movie leads viewers to believe. “In truth,” Updegrove wrote, “the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.”
Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as Johnson’s top aide for domestic affairs, further stoked the fire, writing in the Washington Post, “Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration.” He added that the march was Johnson’s idea, a suggestion DuVernay took to Twitter to call “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”
The May 15, 1964 issue of LIFE featured an excerpt from King’s then soon-to-be-published book Why We Can’t Wait (an expanded version of his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). Of Johnson, King wrote about the benefits of getting to know him while he was John F. Kennedy’s Vice President:
King went on to praise Johnson’s grasp of the complexity of the problems, as well as the strength of his resolve to address them, though he added that he wouldn’t hesitate to escalate the pressure if Johnson veered off-course:
Those views, designed for public consumption and no doubt political in nature, provide a window into the relationship of two men who helped enact one of the most significant changes to come out of the Civil Rights movement.