Selma Disappoints! Remembering LBJ on the 50th Anniversary of Medicare & Medicaid

Movie goers around the world will soon view a new biopic on the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Selma, the film chronicle of the events that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is disappointing because of its revisionist distortion of history and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role. I agree with Julian Bond, who was there and active in the movement as an aide to Dr. King, who recently said that the film needed a villain, so it incorrectly portrays the former president as such. The truth is, President LBJ and Dr. King collaborated on gaining passage of the VRA by a Congress that was reluctant to act on more progressive legislation so soon after passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Arguably, LBJ bested most if not all American presidents at getting Congress to pass progressive legislation (e.g., the CRA, VRA, Medicaid, Medicare), and he deserves better treatment by Hollywood than what was presented in this film.

LBJ personally shepherded through Congress and signed a transformative healthcare bill on July 30, 1965 in Independence Mo., the hometown of President Harry Truman, a predecessor who tried but failed to get this progressive legislation passed.   The bill, H.R. 6675, established Medicare, a federal health insurance program for the elderly, and Medicaid, a state-managed healthcare program for people with low income in the United States.  President Truman, who was present, then became the first Medicare enrollee.

“In this town, and a thousand other towns like it, there are men and women in pain who will now find ease. There are those, alone in suffering who will now hear the sound of some approaching footsteps coming to help. There are those fearing the terrible darkness of despairing poverty — despite their long years of labor and expectation — who will now look up to see the light of hope and realization,” said President Johnson at the signing.

LBJ’s passion about equality did not end with the passage of this new law.  When coverage began in 1966, Medicare was instrumental in the desegregation of hospitals across the United States.  Separate-but-equal hospitals had received federal funding since 1946 under the Hill-Burton Act.  However, to receive Medicare reimbursement, hospitals were required to desegregate. Although the condition initially met some opposition, more than 1,000 hospitals complied in just four months.

Why is this history lesson important?

Selma will be viewed by new generations of Americans who will see it and believe that LBJ was part of the problem when he was in fact so very much part of the solution to our nation’s issues with race relations and health care for the poor and elderly.

The producers of Selma should take lessons from the producers of Lincoln who gave us an entertaining film that while stretching the truth did not make a shambles of history and the former president’s legacy.

RIP LBJ…and thank you for your herculean efforts for poor and disenfranchised Americans.