The True History Behind the LBJ Movie

5 minute read

The basic facts of what happened to Lyndon B. Johnson in the years surrounding 1963 will likely be well known to anyone who goes to see Rob Reiner’s new film LBJ, out Friday. Johnson served as Vice President under John F. Kennedy, and then became President following Kennedy’s assassination — an event that has received extra attention this month in light of the release of new records about the assassination. But the movie, starring Woody Harrelson, isn’t confined to the assassination itself. It also addresses aspects of Johnson’s career such as his evolving views on civil rights, his relationships with Southern Senators and the origins of his feud with JFK’s brother, U.S. Attorney Robert F. Kennedy.

Here’s what to know about the real history behind some of the film’s major plotlines:

Why did JFK pick LBJ to be his running mate?

As TIME explained in 1960, “The November election called for a firm alliance with the Solid South to balance Kennedy strength in Roman Catholic industrial centers—and to save Kennedy from Al Smith’s loss of seven Southern states in 1928.” With Johnson, a Texan Protestant, Kennedy tried to “placate the Southerners and give his ticket a conservative aura,” and “jolted Nixon’s campaign strategy by upsetting his hopes of hauling in a lot of Southern electoral votes.”

Why didn’t RFK and LBJ get along?

“It goes back to 1956,” says historian and ‘LBJ: Architect of American Ambition author Randall B. Woods, when LBJ refused a request from Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy to be JFK’s running mate, which “angered” RFK. He got even angrier when Johnson supporters leaked word of his brother’s Addison’s disease and accused Joe of being a Nazi sympathizer when he was ambassador to Great Britain. Articles that glamorized the Kennedy family also irked Johnson—a feeling that shows up in the movie as Johnson angrily leafs through the Jan. 26, 1962, issue of LIFE magazine, which dubbed Robert Kennedy “The No. 2 Man in Washington” and “a political phenomenon such as never quite existed before in the U.S.” (You can read the full cover story here.)

Who’s that one Senator whom LBJ keeps dining with?

When Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1949, Georgia Senator Richard Russell became his mentor. Russell was a hard-line segregationist and his friendship helped Johnson transition from being a Congressman who represented the liberal oasis of Austin to a Senator who represented the whole of Texas, a state with more conservative voters who required a more “middle ground” approach to policy, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office. Russell got Johnson on the Armed Services Committee and made him chairman of its Preparedness Subcommittee, and two talked strategy over Sunday dinners. “Johnson’s political genius and effectiveness came in no small part because he knew every member of Congress, their political characteristics, their districts and what would keep them in office—and he learned that from Richard Russell,” says Woods.

What made LBJ eventually support the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

The film generally portrays Johnson as not especially motivated to pass civil rights until after the JFK assassination. After all, he’s been known as a “Southern strategist” who voted with the South against civil rights between 1937 and 1957 and even gave a segregationist speech against an anti-lynching bill on the Senate floor. His support for the first major civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction, in 1957, appeared to represent a change for him — though, while the law provided for equal accommodations, it didn’t come with federal penalties. Still, Johnson’s view on civil rights was more nuanced than that overview might imply, Woods explains. “He had a natural tendency towards racial justice,” says Woods, between growing up with a populist state legislator as a father and having worked at a heavily Hispanic school in South Texas. Notably, he didn’t sign the “The Southern Manifesto” against the Brown v. Board of Education.

So when the timing was right, he seized on it. In the spring of 1963, civil rights activists in Birmingham were attacked by police dogs and fire hoses, and that September the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. Many members of Congress thought that passing a civil rights act would restore calm and get the demonstrations to stop. Woods says Johnson would’ve been aware of the polls showing that white Americans in the Midwest and North believed the federal government’s force should be used in the South. Johnson wrote a memo to JFK telling him the time had come to push hard for the Civil Rights Act, and the President was about to do so when he was killed. Even so, Woods says politicos like Russell had told Johnson that “JFK would not have been able to get the ’64 Civil Rights Act through Congress because he wasn’t a Southerner.”

Johnson believed that the Civil Rights Act was “in the interest of the white South as well as the black South,” Woods says, as the situation had reached a point at which things could turn even more violent if African-Americans’ more peaceful attempts to win justice didn’t yield some results. And more importantly to people like Russell, who “loved the South more than anything,” as Woods puts it, he told them that “the region would be forever relegated to cultural and political backwater.”

“He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition,” LBJ biographer Robert Caro once said. “But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at