Audiences are flocking to see Selma the new Hollywood movie depicting the story of the voting rights campaign in 1965. It’s the story of Bloody Sunday, and the marches from Selma to Montgomery. It is history I know well. It was my great honor to chronicle the events and the people for the documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965.”

It’s long bothered me that the civil rights movement—an American story—is still little known to most Americans – black or white. Not to mention that many people think the movement is the achievement of just two people, Rosa Parks and the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. The names and sacrifices of the hundreds of Americans who made up this nonviolent army have been relegated to the sidelines, if recognized at all. No wonder Selma’s director Ava Duvernay has to keep correcting widespread confusion that the movie focuses on a woman named Selma portrayed by Oprah Winfrey rather than the voting rights campaign in the Alabama city.

But, I’ll admit to mixed emotions sitting in the theater watching actors portray the real people I interviewed.  I met Mrs. Amelia Boynton my first night in Selma. The middle-aged schoolteacher was one of the first black professionals to line up outside Selma’s courthouse to try to get inside to the voting registrar. Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies beat back anyone who got close to the door.  Mrs. Boynton became a living symbol of Selma’s brutal effort to keep blacks from voting the day Sheriff Clark singled her out, beating her with his Billy club. She was bruised and battered, but not deterred. Boynton is now 104 years old, and to see her embodied in the person of actress Lorraine Toussaint is truly satisfying. And to see Andre Holland who plays Rev King’s young lieutenant, Andy Young, speak words taken directly from my interview with Young is thrilling.  

The recent controversy about how the movie portrays President Lyndon Johnson’s role in Selma and his relationship with Dr. King gave me pause. The portrayal is appropriately nuanced –Johnson supported Voting Rights legislation and worked with Dr. King. But Selma was not his first priority or his idea. It’s patently untrue and insulting to suggest that MLK would need LBJ to tell him and civil rights organizers how to get the nation’s attention on civil rights. Critics are right to question the movie’s suggestion that the President ordered FBI surveillance of King. But, Johnson knew about the surveillance and didn’t stop it.

Selma’s release overlaps with today’s national celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, his 86th. Hopefully, the retelling of the Selma protest will lead to the recognition of the real MLK.  Not the King sanitized in the I have a dream speech, but the activist who stood shoulder to shoulder with those who put their bodies on the line to change race relations in America.

“Eyes on the Prize” captured Selma’s powerful story in precise historical detail, something the movie Selma does not do. But, if the Oscar-nominated film can draw people into the history and raise awareness of what it took for African-Americans to get a guaranteed right to vote, then that’s a good thing. And maybe the next time someone proclaims, “This is our Selma!” what will come to mind are the ordinary people who survived tear gas, Billy clubs, and murder, and would not be deterred from marching to justice.