(The Washington Post) – “Selma” delivers a powerful dramatization of the bloody civil rights march in Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The depiction has received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but has been criticized for various deviations from historical fact. Supporters of President Lyndon Johnson have decried his portrayal as an antagonist who only reluctantly supported the Voting Rights Act after attempting to obstruct the Selma effort. Even George Wallace Jr. has spoken out, insisting that his father, the former governor of Alabama, never advocated violence against the marchers (a contention difficult to believe given the level of brutality recorded that day). But all the criticism has overlooked the particularly troubling mischaracterization of one of the movement’s most critical players – Coretta Scott King. The movie presents a Coretta who exists under a fog of fear as she endures the terror of Selma. It portrays a Coretta who blames her husband for leaving the family during his trips to lead the movement. It shows a Coretta who timidly acquiesces to the charges that her husband dishonored their marriage vows and tearfully asks if he loves his mistresses. That Coretta is pure Hollywood fiction.
The film’s misrepresentation of Coretta continues a disservice done to her life and accomplishments in many accounts of the Civil Rights era. She was not a tormented victim. She was more than an accessory to her iconic husband’s story. Before Coretta met Martin, she was a student activist in the peace movement at Antioch College. She protested the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, before Martin took up the controversial stance. For example, in 1965, she addressed a major peace rally against the war in Madison Square Garden, the only woman to do so. In 1962, she went to the Disarmament Conference in Switzerland as a delegate of Women Strike for Peace, a group formed by Bella Abzug. And not only did she march with Martin in Selma, she later moved her children into a squalid Chicago tenement to dramatize the pathos of poverty. Even after Martin was assassinated in 1968, she remained a brave activist in her own right. She was an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights, fearlessly defying many Christian leaders.