Saturday, January 24, 2015

Selma Fifty Years Later: A Movie, a Movement, and the Continuing Power of Non-Violence

Agape is . . . an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theo­logians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not be­cause he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said 'love your enemies.' . . . it is this idea, it is this whole ethic of love which is the idea standing at the basis of the student movement." – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1961
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and county sheriffs, accompanied by a posse of angry, hate-filled racists, attacked civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Armed with clubs, cattle prods, and tear gas, the troopers were an intimidating symbol of police brutality under cover of states’ rights that continues to haunt the racial landscape fifty years later. The marchers that day were led by a coalition of civil rights groups, including members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The protestors sought voting rights for blacks, a right so basic that today many take it for granted. But in 1965, if you were black and lived in the South, even the simple act of registering to vote, or trying to, could get you beaten or killed. No right was more threatening to existing power structures than the right to vote. Southern whites who opposed reform resorted to any means necessary to maintain their power.

Organized efforts that sought to change laws and force southern localities to allow blacks and minorities the right to vote were met by obstruction, absurdly difficult “literacy” tests, intimidation, and violence. A week before the first Selma march, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old civil rights activist and deacon of his local Baptist church, was beaten and shot in cold blood by an Alabama state trooper when he tried to protect his grandparents from baton-wielding officers. Jackson and his grandparents had fled to a church-run cafĂ© after police forcefully ended a non-violent march for voting rights on the streets of Marion. It was but one horrific example of the risks and dangers of engaging in non-violent protest against a power structure that used violence and bloodshed as a first resort.

This past weekend, we saw Selma, a powerful movie about the movement and the marches. The film is presented from the grass-roots perspective of the protestors who risked their lives to reform a nation, and the leaders of a movement that changed America forever. “When evil men plot, good men must plan,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.”

I believe Selma is the most important dramatic film of the year. Much like last year’s Lincoln, which focused on the final four months of Lincoln’s life and the political maneuverings required to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Selma requires the viewer to live inside one seminal moment over a short time frame. This compressed focus forced the director to capture an entire historic movement, including its moral gravity and tactical shrewdness, in three attempted marches across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The history of the civil rights movement by 1965 had spanned nearly 350 years, from when slaves were first forced onto America’s shores in 1619, and the film helps us sense and feel this broader history without directly contending with it.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the timing of this movie is particularly relevant. Just last year, the United States Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and Republican state legislatures across the country – still holding tight to the mantle of states’ rights – cynically sought to impose increased voting restrictions that disproportionately impact the poor and minorities. By depicting the historic brutality of Alabama state troopers, county sheriffs, and local police, a form of American terrorism depicted accurately in the movie, the film helps explain why a racial divide still exists in the perception of the use of force by white police officers on the black community. And it helps us better understand why the recent events of Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland resonated in ways more emotional than rational, whether or not such perceptions are supported by the particular facts of those events.

Although I believe that Selma’s portrayal of LBJ as a secondary, and somewhat counter-productive, figure in the struggle for voting rights was factually inaccurate and unnecessary (there is no excuse for factual distortions in movies depicting historical events), it nevertheless captured the essence of the relationship and tension between King and Johnson. King was an effective, outside agitator, impatient with the progress of the slow-moving political system. As much as LBJ desired historic voting rights legislation on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was also contending with many countervailing forces, including an obstructionist Southern bloc in the House and Senate, the creeping war in Southeast Asia, and his commitment to the War on Poverty, which he did not wish to jeopardize. King was at times a distraction and thorn in the side of Johnson and other political leaders sympathetic to King’s causes. Although the two men were in many ways closely allied and needed each other, it was the tension between the two men which, in the end, moved a nation in the direction of a more perfect union.

But what makes Selma such an important movie is its portrayal of SCLC, SNCC, CORE, King and other black activists as the primary tacticians, the movers of black liberation in the 1960s. Unlike past films, such as Mississippi Burning, The Help, and Blindside, Selma does not depict white people as the key agents of redemption, but instead underlines King’s brilliance, his role as an organizer of a moral movement and symbol of American justice. It shows King as a human being, a husband and father, a less than perfect man in his mid-thirties trying to balance his private life with his role as a national civil rights leader and the demands of his friends and allies. The movie is packed with many fascinating characters that should each have a movie of their own – Andrew Young, James Bevel, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Ralph David Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and many others – the people whose courage and commitment made the movement what it was. It is a group portrait that emphasizes how important the activists on the ground were to achieving true social change.

Selma also portrays the impatience of Dr. King, his pleas of “why we can’t wait,” which the daily violence against blacks in the South brought home so forcefully. The movie opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in December 1964. Only months before, three CORE civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner) had been arrested by a deputy sheriff and released into the hands of Klansman. When the young men’s bodies were found buried in an earthen dam, it was discovered they had been shot to death. A little more than a year before King spoke in Oslo, four young girls were blown to bits when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by white supremacists. The church had been a frequent meeting place for King, Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and other black clergy and civil rights leaders, and had been used by SNCC and CORE to register African American voters. In the twelve months leading up to King’s appearance in Oslo, the homes of numerous civil rights workers throughout Mississippi, and black churches across the state, were bombed and burned with the complicity of the Klan and rogue law enforcement officers.

In Oslo, King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize “on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.” He emphasized that the movement of which he was a part profoundly recognized that which is required to achieve justice –
…that non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. . . . [N]on-violence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
We have come a long way as a nation since the Selma marches. It is a testament to the strength of core American principles, a Constitution that recognizes the principles of equality and liberty and the dignity of every human being. But it must not be forgotten that the progress we have made did not come easily, or without risks and dangers. And progress once made can be taken away if we do not remain vigilant in opposing those forces that would reverse the gains made by King and so many others. As described by A.O. Scott in The New York Times, Selma “takes up history with its eyes very much on the future, reminding us that the voting-rights victory nearly 50 years ago was not inevitable and is not yet complete. The nonviolent fight against white supremacy required not only righteous vision but also strategic insight and tactical discipline. The ideology that would sanction the beating and killing of black Americans who dared to assert their citizenship has not vanished, though its methods, language and partisan affiliations may have changed since 1965.”

Selma is an important film because it documents a momentous time in American history, helps us empathize with all the people, black and white, who put their bodies and lives on the line in support of a cause that was simple and just, and reminds us of how fragile the freedom is we so cherish. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” said King. “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Monday, January 12, 2015

To Find Strength in What Remains Behind

…life every now and then becomes literature…as if life had been made and not happened. – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Only through art can we achieve perfection. Through poetry and literature, a beautiful painting, a thoughtful sonnet, or perhaps a prayer for peace, we can put forth a thought, a story, an image, or a philosophical query that achieves precisely what the artist or author intended. When I write, I edit and re-write, changing words and sentences, restructuring paragraphs, until I am satisfied that the combination of written words has the desired effect. But life, as we know, is not a work of art; perfection eludes us all.

“We have two lives,” wrote Bernard Malamud in The Natural, “the life we learn with and the life we live after that.” I have often longed for the chance to re-live my past with the benefit of hindsight and experience; to undo past mistakes, rectify wrongs, and make my life more extraordinary. But that is not the life God granted us. We are not perfect beings. The world is not a perfect world. It is why time is so precious and fleeting.

One need only scan the morning headlines to see that life is fragile, that memories and experiences can exist and disappear within the space of a day. The daily obituaries help us mourn and remember the more famous among us. Recently, we lost two public figures I have admired along the way, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whose magnificent speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 continues to inspire; and former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican, champion of civil rights, and the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.

And then there was Paris. The massacre of innocent journalists and cartoonists by a group of Islamic extremists brought home how vulnerable we are to tragedy. One morning we awaken, shower, and eat breakfast before starting our daily commute. We exit the train platform and walk to our office building, say hello to the lobby attendant, and grab a morning coffee before sitting at our desk and beginning the day’s work. And then, in an instant, it is finished. A flash of gunfire and we are forever gone, but a distant memory to the people we have touched and loved along the way.

I have for most of my life evaded suffering and great heartache. But despite this good fortune, I have made my share of mistakes and not always risen to a form of my higher self. There are things I would like to do over, days I would like to re-live, different choices I might make if confronted with them again. But these are trivialities in the long view of life, a speck of molecular dust that make-up the vast and varied galaxies of the universe. As time passes and memories fade, the best we can do is cherish our remaining days and make the most of them.

Lately I find myself contemplating the poetry of William Wordsworth; thinking of those who have left us, whose memories we cherish. Of family members and friends we have lost along the way, through this journey we call life. “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” As I grow older and understand better the fragility of life, the quickness with which it can be taken from us, I have tried to appreciate each day with grace and humility, setting aside the impatience of my younger days. I cannot change what has already been, but I know now I can more wisely value the gift of life, the beauty of nature, and the power of art in all its forms. “In the primal sympathy which having been must ever be; in the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering; in the faith that looks through death, in years that bring the philosophic mind.”

There are times I yearn for the lost innocence of youth, the freedom and joy of believing that life is infinite and the possibilities endless. When the days run long, I connect with Bernard Malamud’s description of Roy Hobbs: “He remembered how satisfied he had been as a youngster, and that with the little he had had - a dog, a stick, an aloneness he loved (which did not bleed him like his later loneliness), and he wished he could have lived longer in his boyhood. This was an old thought with him.” Looking back with regret, atoning for past mistakes, seeking redemption – these are universal themes, experienced in life as in art. But only in literature and film, in poetry and theatre, can life be perfected and unfinished business resolved.

*     *     *     *

“The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Something is at stake in every event.” Too often, we fail to appreciate the power of our encounters, the seemingly trivial moments when missed opportunities preclude us from affecting the lives of others, and from spreading human compassion. The homeless man I ignore on the corner of JFK and 19th Street; the security guard I walk past every day, not bothering to learn his name or understand his story; the many acquaintances along the way whose lives I never touched. We live in a society founded on the altar of self-interest, on individual expression and achievement. Concern for the common good is considered weak or subversive. We are afraid of embarrassment, unwilling to take risks with each other for the sake of human advancement and a better world.

“I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life,” wrote Heschel in Who Is Man? (Stanford University Press, 1965) nearly a half-century ago. “A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for moral responsibility.” Has anything changed? We live in a time of religious extremism born of alienation and disconnectedness, growing inequality, human suffering and mass violence, political division and self-righteousness. With a sense of hopelessness in many parts of the world, humanity needs a sense of embarrassment. For we have misunderstood the meaning of our existence.

Human beings are better than we allow ourselves to be, individually and collectively, each of us more profound, more intricate than is revealed in our daily lives. “What is the truth of being human?” asks Heschel. It is found, he says, in our “lack of pretension, the acknowledgement of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy.” Let us strive for goals within and outside of our reach and rise to a higher level of existence. As a new year begins, let us proceed with humility and kindness, empathy and understanding. Let us edit and re-write the script and approach the perfection we seek in art, literature, poetry and film; in the best and most compassionate forms of religion and morality. For in the end, we should strive to endow not just individual and isolated acts with meaning, but to shape our lives, our total existence, with significance and purpose. As mortal beings we can never achieve perfection. Instead, says Heschel, “The truth of being human is gratitude; the secret is appreciation.”