Selma, as Current as it Gets

Bloody_Sunday-officers_await_demonstrators

State troopers await demonstrators on Bloody Sunday

Jan. 18, 2015 (San Diego) A woman walks into the County Office trying to register to vote. The Clerk demands that she first repeat the preamble of the Constitution. Then he demands the number of County Judges and finally their names. The scene is part of Selma, the movie directed by Ava DuVernay that chronicles the three months of the civil rights movement leading to the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, and this scene is a good summary of the many tactics used to keep African Americans in the South from voting.

Fast forwards fifty years, in Shelby County v Holder the Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In effect, we are back where started. Pre clearance, where states with a history of racist voting policies, had to clear new voting laws with the Department of Justice, was removed. The Department of Justice has filed lawsuits for voting ID laws, which are nothing more in implementation than the old poll tax. While we do not expect African Americans to be asked to tell how many gummy bears are in a jar before a ballot is given, or rather at least not yet, similar tactics are afoot.

Why are we back where we started? The country is becoming increasingly a minority majority country, and certain interests, yes the usual suspects, do not want minorities to vote.

There is another aspect about Selma that was striking. Those involved in the civil rights movement of the era were willing to die for the cause. They knew they were at danger at all times, and they also knew (like some things ever change) that the FBI was keeping tabs on them. Why? When J Edgar Hoover speaks and refers to Dr. Martin Luther King a radical, in the mind of Hoover King was a radical. What King wanted was nothing short of revolutionary.

The excuses given by politicians are very similar as well. It is as if we went and watched a movie about the present with 1960s vehicles. In the end there was a connection drawn to the current civil rights movement, and Ferguson. It was correct since the struggle for social justice never ends.

As to the portrayal of both King and LBJ, they were the same confused and conflicted leaders that history (outside of cartoons) present. King had his moments of doubt, and Johnson could have never whipped the votes for passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act without the march on Selma and the people who were injured and killed on national television at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Yes, the acting was superb, and the environment was very well recreated. Some creative license was taken with some events, but “Eyes on the Prize” is a documentary, this is not. This is a good introduction to the movement, and the dynamics that were part of it.

It is a worthy watch on Martin Luther King weekend and a good reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have gone back. Voting matters, playing both the outsider and the inside game is how we achieve real change in this country. Yes, the country in 1965 felt like it could have gone into a civil war.

As to Governor George Wallace, yes, he was that stuck in the past. Things were done because that is what the people, his people, whites, wanted them done. The man resisted the changes that were coming, and would be pleased to see how far back we have gone.

On a personal note, I have met Congressman John Lewis, and even today, the man is committed to peaceful resistance. He is a man that speaks out of moral courage. He has also walked the path of civil resistance.

Edited to add clarity to some sentences.

Twitter: @nadinbrzezinski

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Categories: analysis, civil rights, VRA

3 replies

  1. MY RESPONSE YOUR MESSAGE ABOUT “SELMA!”
    Dear Nadine-
    It was a pleasure to read your remarks about the film, “Selma,” and your relation of that time period to today. I, certainly, agree with you that we retrogressed this year, beginning with the rescinding of most of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court. As with women’s rights, it seems like we have to fight
    these battles all over again.
    I remember the period of the civil rights movement quite well, it was a very emotional time; one could indeed feel very passionate about what was taking place in locations like Selma, AL. “Selma” is a film I, recently, saw with fellows from my Unitarian Universalist Men’s Group. We went to a late afternoon showing of the film, so that we could go to dinner and discuss it afterward. To a man they liked this film.
    To me, this film came across like a hybrid, half documentary/ half dramatic film. I would give the film makers credit for doing a thorough job of compressing some very meaningful parts of civil rights history into a couple of hours. This was no mean feat, given all of the many and varied things that took place leading up to the final march. However, by doing this, it detracted from the normal character development and dramatic interplay that a fine film usually has.
    Nevertheless, there were several tense scenes that I felt were quite believable, e.g., between Martin and Coretta Scott King, during which she regretted not having their own home, and between Martin and Lyndon Johnson, when Martin indicated that they could not wait any longer and had to proceed with their nonviolent protest. However, in both of these scenes the actors lacked the passion that I would have liked to have seen between them. In contrast, I felt the passion in John Lewis’ plea to Martin to continue leading their protest for voting rights, when Martin and he were in a car together. It’s too bad that the film only rarely had King show a great deal of emotion. There were a few glimpses of self doubt about whether or not he should persist in this particular struggle, and there was a very tender scene at the morgue with the elderly father of the young man beaten to death in the restaurant, but little else depicting emotion from Martin.
    There was one very passionate confrontation, following the beatings in one of the marches, where one young man was determined to get a weapon to kill some of those white folks, and one of the leaders stood up to him and explained why they had to proceed nonviolently. To me, it was the most convincing statement of their strategy behind the Selma march.
    Although Tom Wilkinson did not look anything like Lyndon Johnson, he certainly did a good job of acting like him. I, also, felt that David Oyelowo did a very good job of portraying Rev. King in his many moods, though he did not have the persuasive power in his public speaking voice that King did. Carmen Ejogo was a good choice for Corretta Scott King, as well. I, also, was taken by the song, ”Glory,” that was played in the film; its music and lyrics were by John Legend and Common.
    I believe that the film emphasized the organizational consciousness-raising of the black community, so that these people could stand up for their rights as human beings. It was a given that there would be beatings, imprisonments and, possibly, even deaths; however, if enough black citizens braved whatever the white establishment dished out, and the black people managed to keep on coming to demand their right to vote, they would win in the end. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. enunciated this, and it did come to pass!
    I enjoyed seeing Selma very much; it brought back that whole period of time to me.
    Yours for a more positive future, John.
    JohnP.Falchi 3955 Atascadero Drive San Diego, CA 92107

    • It is always good to see those who were part of the movement tell us of the time as they remember that era. I see it far more from the standpoint of a historian in training reading John Caro’s Master of the Senate (which details this period), as well as King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I just spanned at least five years in this response.

      Some of what bothered me from some critics was the calling of the portrayal of President Johnson to be incorrect. I understand people are trying to protect a legacy, but the legacy is enhanced by showing the minefield that Johnson had to negotiate. It was no mean feat for Johnson. Nor was it easy for King. You are right, there were moments this was a documentary, and moments this was a dramatic film. Sadly, I suspect the discussion of what is what will be reserved for the graduate seminar any longer.

      We have a new crop of leaders starting to emerge. I would love it if they watched it. Some of the dynamics presented between different areas of the movement are repeating themselves, and that could be a problem.

      Nadin

      PS, we rarely do movie reviews, though this was far more a review of where we are than a review.

  2. MY RESPONSE TO NADIN BRZEZINSKI’ MESSAGE ABOUT “SELMA!”
    Dear Nadin-
    It was a pleasure to read your remarks about the film, “Selma; I, certainly, agree with what you have said about how it relates to the present day. The U.S. Supreme Court Decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was surely a step backward. Soon afterward, many Southern state legislatures went right to work to prevent many Blacks from voting. Doesn’t it seem that, just like with “Women’s Rights,” we are having to fight these battles all over again?
    I remember the period of the civil rights movement quite well, it was a very emotional time; one could indeed feel very passionate about what was taking place in locations like Selma, AL. “Selma” is a film I, recently, saw with fellows from my Unitarian Universalist Men’s Group. We went to a late afternoon showing of the film, so that we could go to dinner and discuss it afterward. To a man they liked this film.
    To me, this film came across like a hybrid, half documentary/ half dramatic film. I would give the film makers credit for doing a thorough job of compressing some very meaningful parts of civil rights history into a couple of hours. This was no mean feat, given all of the many and varied things that took place leading up to the final march. However, by doing this, it detracted from the normal character development and dramatic interplay that a fine film usually has.
    Nevertheless, there were several tense scenes that I felt were quite believable, e.g., between Martin and Coretta Scott King, during which she regretted not having their own home, and between Martin and Lyndon Johnson, when Martin indicated that they could not wait any longer and had to proceed with their nonviolent protest. However, in both of these scenes the actors lacked the passion that I would have liked to have seen between them. In contrast, I felt the passion in John Lewis’ plea to Martin to continue leading their protest for voting rights, when Martin and he were in a car together. It’s too bad that the film only rarely had King show a great deal of emotion. There were a few glimpses of self doubt about whether or not he should persist in this particular struggle, and there was a very tender scene at the morgue with the elderly father of the young man beaten to death in the restaurant, but little else depicting emotion from Martin.
    There was one very passionate confrontation, following the beatings in one of the marches, where one young man was determined to get a weapon to kill some of those white folks, and one of the leaders stood up to him and explained why they had to proceed nonviolently. To me, it was the most convincing statement of their strategy behind the Selma march.
    Although Tom Wilkinson did not look anything like Lyndon Johnson, he certainly did a good job of acting like him. I, also, felt that David Oyelowo did a very good job of portraying Rev. King in his many moods, though he did not have the persuasive power in his public speaking voice that King did. Carmen Ejogo was a good choice for Corretta Scott King, as well. I, also, was taken by the song, ”Glory,” that was played in the film; its music and lyrics were by John Legend and Common.
    I believe that the film emphasized the organizational consciousness-raising of the black community, so that these people could stand up for their rights as human beings. It was a given that there would be beatings, imprisonments and, possibly, even deaths; however, if enough black citizens braved whatever the white establishment dished out, and the black people managed to keep on coming to demand their right to vote, they would win in the end. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. enunciated this, and it did come to pass!
    I enjoyed seeing Selma very much, Nadin; it brought back that whole period of time to me.
    Yours for a more positive future, John.
    John P. Falchi 3955 Atascadero Drive San Diego, CA 92107

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