Shared from the 2/1/2015 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition

Arkansan gets call: He’s portrayed in civil-rights movie Selma

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BILL BOWDEN

Roy Reed (left), at his home in Hogeye, recalls the 1965 events in Selma, Ala.

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Democrat-Gazette file photo

At right, Reed sits at his typewriter in 1958 while working for the Arkansas Gazette, before going to work for The New York Times.

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AP

Tear gas fills the air as Alabama state troopers and volunteers break up a civil rights demonstration in Selma, Ala., in this photo taken March 7, 1965. Arkansas journalist Roy Reed, who covered the “Bloody Sunday” demonstration for The New York Times, said the movie Selma realistically portrays the violence.

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Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

In this copy of a news photograph provided by Roy Reed, Alabama Public Safety Director Wilson Baker waves for reporters, including Reed (right), to get out of the street as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is released from jail in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965.

HOGEYE — Roy Reed was surprised to learn that he’s portrayed in the movie Selma. The news came in December when Reed, who lives in the Hogeye community in Washington County, got a call from someone at Paramount Pictures.

Reed, an Arkansas native, isn’t an actor. He was a reporter for The New York Times in 1965 covering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the voting-rights campaign in Selma, Ala.

On March 7 of that year, Reed was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River in Selma. He saw “Bloody Sunday” in which police and posse members beat black marchers with clubs and bullwhips.

It was a turning point in the civil-rights movement, Reed said. For the first time, people in living rooms across the country saw the violence on television.

“It sent a tidal wave of rage,” Reed said. “I guess people in the North knew bad things were happening in the South, but this they couldn’t avoid. It was right there on their television set, and it was so brutal.”

Reed’s story about the attack was printed on the front page of The Times the next day.

His story’s lead paragraph read: “Alabama state troopers and volunteer officers of the Dallas County sheriff’s office tore through a column of Negro demonstrators with tear gas, nightsticks and whips here today to enforce Gov. George C. Wallace’s order against a protest march from Selma to Montgomery.”

Eighty-four of the 525 marchers were injured, and 17 were hospitalized, according to a subsequent article by Reed.

In the movie Selma, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, actor John Lavelle plays Reed, dictating his story from a nearby pay phone while the attack is still underway.

Reed said he’s happy with how he is portrayed in the movie, noting that he was not as good-looking as Lavelle. Reed said director Ava Du-Vernay took a few liberties with his character, but nothing excessive. Reed said he actually dictated the story from the comfort of his room at the Hotel Albert in Selma.

In the movie, it’s Lavelle

— as Reed — who narrates the melee on the bridge, as the perspective of the attack shifts back and forth from a fog of tear gas to flickering black-and-white television images.

Lavelle reads — not quite verbatim — from Reed’s story: “The troopers were waiting more than 300 yards beyond the end of the bridge,” Lavelle says. “Behind the troopers were dozens of possemen, 15 of them on horses, and perhaps 100 white spectators.”

Maj. John Cloud gave the order for the 50 Alabama state troopers to advance, according to Reed’s story, and the posse followed.

“The first 10 or 20 Negros were swept to the ground, screaming, arms and legs flying,” Lavelle says. “A cheer went up from the white spectators lining the south side of the highway.”

Reed remembers the violence and his eyes burning from the tear gas.

“It was probably the most brutal thing I had to watch as a reporter,” he said. “I was impressed with the movie. It was really well done, especially the scenes of the beatings. I thought they must be using the old footage from the archives, but I guess not.”

Reed had been at The New York Times for only a month when he was dispatched to Selma, where tensions were growing in February of 1965. Reed said he worked on stories in Selma for a month before Bloody Sunday. By mid-March, the Times had four reporters in Selma, and Reed was writing the lead story every day.

The Times had this policy of never having him uncovered,” Reed said of King. “It was almost a death watch.”

INTERVIEWED KING

Reed, 84, grew up in Hot Springs. He worked at the Joplin Globe, Arkansas Gazette and The New York Times, before moving to Hogeye in 1978 to teach journalism at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, 13 miles away. Reed retired from teaching in 1995.

He said he interviewed King a few times and had some casual conversations with him.

“He was very easy to get along with, likable guy,” said Reed.

In the movie, Lavelle, as Reed, introduces himself to King, played by Daniel Oyelowo, at Brown Chapel Methodist Chapel in Selma.

“Dr. King, are you truly nonviolent if you’re provoking violence, sir?” Lavelle asks Oyelowo.

“We are here using our very bodies in protest to say to those who deny us that we will no longer let them use their billy clubs in dark corners in halls of power,” said Oyelowo. “We’ll make them do it in the glaring light of day, Mr. Reed.”

Reed said he doesn’t recall ever asking King such a question, but it was a long time ago.

King wasn’t in Selma on Bloody Sunday. But the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery resumed on March 21 with King leading the group out of town. The march ended five days later on the steps of the state Capitol. Hundreds of people made the entire trip

— through cold weather and sometimes torrential rain. By the time the marchers got to the Capitol, there were 25,000 of them, wrote Reed.

Some described the march as the greatest civil-rights demonstration in American history, according to his article the next day.

JOHNSON IN THE MOVIE

When Reed got the call from Paramount Pictures in December, he wasn’t particularly interested in a private screening of the movie. But his wife, Norma, said, “Why not?”

Paramount leased a screen at the Razorback Cinema in Fayetteville for a private showing. Reed took his wife, members of his book club and some other friends, about 60 people altogether.

Reed said he came away thinking the movie hadn’t been fair to President Lyndon Johnson, who was an advocate of voting rights for all Americans.

“My first impression was he’d really been dealt with unfairly,” said Reed. “I came away from the first viewing thinking he had not been given proper credit for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I thought he was portrayed as reluctant.”

Reed said he went to see the movie a second time and decided the reluctance he saw in Johnson’s character was accurate regarding the timetable for voting rights, but not the issue itself.

In the movie, Tom Wilkinson, who plays President Johnson, tells Oyelowo: “You’re an activist. I’m a politician. You got one big issue. I got 101.”

Reed said, “That pretty much encapsulates the problem” that Johnson had. Johnson had many other items on his agenda, including his “war on poverty.”

Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former Johnson aide, also felt that Johnson was slighted in the movie, and he wrote a column in The Washington Post on Dec. 26 saying so.

Califano wrote that the film falsely portrays Johnson as being at odds with King and of even using the FBI to discredit King, as also being only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

“In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him,” wrote Califano.

“I don’t blame him for being mad,” Reed said of Califano. “At a glance, the movie does make Johnson look a little slow on voting rights. But on second viewing, I got a much more nuanced impression, that he might have been reluctant but it was for tactical reasons, not because he didn’t believe in voting rights for all people.”

Reed said Johnson “twisted arms” to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, but King knew there was more work to do because black people were being denied the right to vote.

“And, of course, he was right,” Reed said. “I think Johnson needed some convincing on that.”

Reed covered the Johnson White House for a year beginning in 1967. It was a time when presidents called reporters into their offices for impromptu news conferences and offered them rides in the presidential limousine.

“I will say for Lyndon Johnson that he was a great president on civil rights,” Reed said. “There are still people out there who claim to believe that Johnson was a closet racist. That is nonsense. He was the farthest thing from it.”

THE FBI INVESTIGATION

The one part of the film that Reed really takes issue with is the insinuation that Johnson gave FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover the go-ahead to discredit King.

“That is dead wrong, and I’ve known it in my heart for a long time,” Reed said.

Reed said he discussed the matter recently via email with James P. Turner, a former college roommate who worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Turner told Reed that an investigation after Hoover’s death determined that Johnson had nothing to do with Hoover’s campaign against King.

“It was purely an FBI operation. It was Hoover’s personal campaign.”

Another thing about the movie stood out to Reed: It didn’t use King’s actual words. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg owns the rights to King’s speeches, Reed said.

Reed said the difference was obvious in the funeral eulogy of Jimmy Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper. The screenwriter tried to capture the essence of King’s speech without using his words.

Reed was there for the funeral in 1965.

“Martin Luther King’s eulogy was the most eloquent condemnation of evil that I had ever heard,” Reed wrote in his book, Beware of Limbo Dancers, in which he devotes a chapter to the funeral oration.

In the eulogy, King said Jackson was murdered by every indifferent white minister, lawless sheriff, irresponsible politician, the timid federal government and the “cowardice” of every black person who accepts segregation and “stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.”

In the movie, the speech was similar but not the same. Having to capture Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech without using King’s words must be daunting, said Reed.

King’s sentences were always perfectly crafted, Reed wrote in his book. There was no room for “uh” or “ah,” even in the reverend’s private conversations.

“I remember that he laughed,” Reed wrote of King. “He was not a solemn man except in the pulpit.”

Reed said he considers himself a footnote in the civil-rights movement, a reporter who happened to be a witness to history in Selma in 1965.

“I was there as a reporter, an observer covering what, as it turned out to be, one of the turning points of the civil rights movement,” said Reed. “I think you could draw a straight line from Bloody Sunday to the passage of the Voting Rights Bill.”

The Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress, and signed by President Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. It closely followed the language of the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting practices or procedures.

“Although ratified on Feb. 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century,” according to the Library of Congress website, loc.gov. “Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.”

Reed said Selma was his first real assignment for The Times after attending Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship and getting hired at the newspaper.

“Suddenly you’re down there in the grit and grime and the tear gas,” said Reed. “It’s a different world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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