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 caf√© 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.”

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