Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma march

Credit: Huffington Post / Stephen F. Somerstein via Getty Images

There is a moment in the movie “Selma” when Martin Luther King, Jr. says that Montgomery (bus boycott), Birmingham (desegregation of stores, public facilities, and accommodations), and Selma (voting rights) were all parts of the same struggle. I say: the struggle is the work of the moral evolution of humankind, and Selma is a mile marker on a road that reaches back to the dawn of human history and reaches forward beyond our sight and beyond our imaginations.

When I saw the movie, I was struck by how much things have changed and by how much they have remained the same. The movie tells the story of King, the Southern Christian Leadership conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lyndon Johnson, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. The purpose of the march was to push for a voting rights bill to follow quickly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Law, one of the most sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation in the nation’s history.

To fully appreciate this movie, it is important to remember just how very nearly completely African-Americans were disenfranchised in the Southern states. The movie does a good job of showing the humiliation of being asked to recite the preamble to the United States Constitution, or having to know how many state judges there were, or having to name them. Such so-called literacy tests were not the only impediments placed before African-Americans and their right to vote after reconstruction. There were poll taxes and the necessity of character references from a registered voter. A person’s name and address would be published in the newspaper, and if one’s employer or landlord objected to one’s attempt to register and vote, one could lose one’s job, house, or both.

White voters did not have to face such impediments because of a grandfather clause in the law that exempted anyone who was a descendant of a person who had the right to vote before 1866 from poll tax and property requirements. The 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended poll taxes or any other tax in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended poll taxes for state and local elections, ended literacy tests, and required pre-clearance by the federal government for any changes in the voting laws in states with a history of laws that disenfranchised African-Americans.

However, today, we face the erosion of voting rights. In June 2013, in a 5-4 decision in “Shelby County v Holder”, the United States Supreme Court said that section 4b of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. This is the section that contains a formula that would trigger section 5, the pre-clearance section of the law. Since the Court deemed the formula outdated, there is nothing to trigger section 5. The logic was that since African-Americans were able to register and vote in sufficient numbers in Southern states and various other areas in the country that pre-clearance was no longer necessary. Congress could work on a new formula, but there is little expectation that a Republican controlled Congress will address the issue.

Meanwhile, several states across the country have passed laws that require voter identification. The Southern states have some of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country. Such laws are in essence a new kind of poll tax. Many people do not have the necessary documentation to get a voter ID. Many people have to pay for the necessary documentation, and if the choice is food or voter ID, most people will choose to eat. Many people do not have the transportation to the government offices where they can get the ID. So we find ourselves, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, still fighting the voting rights fight. Beyond that, far too many Americans, black and white, do not bother to vote in local, state, and national elections. The fight against complacency is another aspect of today’s voting rights struggle. The movie reminds us of the sacrifices that both white and black Americans made for the sake of this precious right.

“Selma” depicts Bloody Sunday, the day marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery when they were stopped by police. They were beaten and tear-gassed and charged by police officers on horseback. It was a militarized attack not unlike the recent militarized assault by police on demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the movie we see a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot at point blank range by a police officer. He died from his wounds. Today Americans across the country have taken to the streets to protest police-involved killings of African-American men, women, and children. So fifty years after Selma, we are still marching and working for human dignity and equality in the United States. We are still making the case that black lives matter.

In my opinion, “Selma” is a close approximation of the historical truth of its moment. Ava DuVernay, the film’s Golden Globe nominated director reminds us that this film is not a documentary, that it is an interpretation of events. When we place this interpretation next to such documentaries as “Eyes on the Prize” and Spike Lee’s movie “4 Little Girls” we see that the historical reality is much uglier and far more disturbing than the movie. Contrary to Joseph Califano’s recollection, Selma was not President Johnson’s idea. SNCC had been working on voting rights there for more than a year before 1965. In “Eyes on the Prize”, we see him calling for voting rights legislation in the State of the Union address in January of 1965. Nicholas Katzenbach, U.S. Attorney General, says that Johnson wanted to start work on voting rights immediately. However, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Johnson expected that it would take time to craft the legislation and lay the groundwork for its passage. He expected to bring it before Congress in 1966. Goodwin writes:

“Though, in January, 1965, Johnson directed Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to begin the complicated task of preparing legislation to protect the voting rights of black Americans, no action was expected until the Spring of 1966. Then came Selma, and everything changed.” (Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, 228)

Regarding Johnson and Hoover, I know of no evidence that Johnson wanted head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover to send the King sex tapes to his wife. The more disturbing truth is probably that Hoover was working on his own.

Johnson and Hoover are not the main actors in this story. Ordinary people are. The Bloody Sunday confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge showed the nation the brutality of the local police. SCLC put out a call across the nation for people to come to Selma to join the march. An integrated, interfaith group of clergy did come. Entertainers and union leaders and just regular folk came. Finally, when the federal courts allowed the march, it went forward. In August of 1965, Johnson signed a voting rights bill.

“Selma” touches the major elements of the movement at that moment: the willingness of Malcolm X to work with SCLC and SNCC, the FBI surveillance of King and others, Andrew Young arguing the logic of nonviolence to angry people who wanted to respond to violence with violence, and King’s unwillingness to disobey a federal court order. The actors in this movie portrayed a complexity of emotions that showed us that the heroes and heroines of this moment, as in all historical moments, were ordinary people who by insisting on their own human dignity created extraordinary circumstances and then summoned the courage to meet the demands of the moment.

Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo did an excellent job of showing us the pain that King felt when he heard of the deaths of volunteers. He knew the strategy of non-violence would provoke violence and drama necessary to bring attention to the injustices that needed redress. People were beaten. People died. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King for the second time (she also played her in the television movie “Boycott”). She shows us Coretta Scott King’s nervousness before her meeting with Malcolm X. Amelia Boynton Robinson, played by Lorraine Toussaint, advises her to remember those who came before her, to absorb and to lean on their strength. This resonated with me because when I remember the stories of our ancestors who insisted upon their human dignity, it reminds me that there is something within the soul and spirit of humanity that resists the degradation of itself.

I recall enslaved Africans packed like animals on slave ships, laying in their own filth who decided to live. Survival became a revolutionary act. Enslaved Africans revolted, ran away, feigned ignorance, and worked at their own pace as a form a resistance. When Mum Bett sued for and won her independence in 1781 Massachusetts, renaming herself Elizabeth Freeman, when Robert Smalls commandeered a Confederate ship during the Civil War and delivered it to the Union Navy, when dignified African-Americans were elected to local, state, and federal office during Reconstruction, when some African-Americans refused to drink from segregated water fountains or attend segregated movies while living in the Jim Crow South, maintaining their dignity through the terrorism and the ordinary daily indignities perpetrated against them in the U.S. version of apartheid, when I think of the laughter through tears, the music produced through pain, the hope in the midst of tragedy, the fun and food and gospel and blues, and jazz and hip-hop, I am reminded of my own responsibility to stand up, to speak up for the dignity of every human being on this earth. And when we meet that challenge, this is the glory that Common and John Legend sing and rap about in their Golden Globe winning song “Glory.”

My only major complaint about the movie is the relative silence of Diane Nash, played by Tessa Thompson. We saw hints of the romance between her and Rev. James Bevel, played by Common, but we barely heard her voice. In Spike Lee’s movie “4 Little Girls”, Nash remembers the response of some of the civil rights activists after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls. A nonviolent response was not automatic. Nash describes the two options that they considered. The first option: to locate the people responsible and kill them. The second option: to work on voting rights so that the vote would help African-Americans protect their children. They decided for the option that would have more long-term and far-reaching consequences, to work for the right to vote. This was the beginning of the voter registration effort in Selma.

I realize that no one movie can tell the entire story of the civil rights movement. This means that we need more movies which show us more of the love stories, which show us more of the discussions and moral dilemmas, more of the family dynamics, more of the very humanity of people who have become iconic in our minds.

In the end, “Selma” is both entertaining and inspirational. It helps up to remember the past and to know our own present obligation to carry the torch of freedom, equality, of justice and peace.

(See the story of Selma in a larger context of African-American history.)

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Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”


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