Selma’s deceptively idyllic opening soon gives way to the depiction of racism taken to a terrible zenith on that terrible Sunday – September 16, 1963 when the lives of four Sunday school children – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were sacrificed. Another child, Sarah Collins, lost her right eye in the attack and more than 20 other people were injured.
It is no coincidence that the 16th Street Baptist Church and Birmingham, Alabama featured so prominently in galvanizing the civil rights movement. With its racist governor George Wallace and the brutally barbaric Police Commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ O’Connor the climate was one which allowed for the protection of the KKK perpetrators of the Birmingham church bombing, stalling any investigation and criminal conviction for over ten years.
Selma, Alabama was chosen for the iconic march to Montgomery partly because it was still rigidly segregated in the 1960s, any African American trying to eat at so-called ‘white’s only’ establishments were beaten and arrested, there was no outward socialization between the races and that area of the Southern ‘black belt’ was clingingly stubbornly and illegally to its past. One must remember this was deep Dixie country. The selection of Selma as the battleground between integrationists and racists was a well-designed strategy whose sole intention was to force the hand of Lyndon B. Johnson into enacting new civil and voting rights legislation. Johnson, the Vice President at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination found himself in 1964 the newly elected President caught between ushering his own agenda into play and crafting a response to the nightly visions of brutality played out across American television screens. Ordinary Americans were aghast at the constant images of murder and mayhem perpetrated by Americans against other Americans.
Selma the movie, pays homage, primarily to Dr. Martin Luther King, a martyr and staunch proponent of the Mahatma Gandhi style of resistance, who believed in using non-violent tactics to effect changes in the status quo. Director Anna Devurnay focuses on King the man, and yes, there is evidence of his infidelities; brought to light and used by the FBI in an attempt to destroy King’s image as a God fearing family man and sully his efficacy as leader of the non-violent movement. King’s weakness in that regard is countered by his steadfast resolve to stare death in the face while always showing the power and strength behind the confrontational, but non-violent movement. The movie also brings to life the other nameless, faceless freedom fighters, starting with Jimmie Lee Jackson, murdered by state police after a peaceful demonstration; Amelia Boynton, activist and one of the organizers of the Selma march, beaten unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, the SNCC brothers Colia and Bernard Lafayette instrumental in spearheading the Selma voter registration campaign, James Reeb the white Boston minister murdered after participating in a symbolic march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, following the televised brutality on March 7 1965 – Bloody Sunday when state troopers and police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and billy clubs leaving many bloodied and broken. The marches were led on that occasion by the current Member of the US House of Representative John Lewis and Hosea Williams. Annie Lee Cooper, civil rights activist, forever remembered as the woman who fought to exercise her voting rights and punched Selma Sherriff, Frank Clark. Cooper was fired from her job in a nursing home for pursuing her dream to vote in Alabama, a right she had already held in the States of Ohio and Pennsylvania. She died in November 2010 at the age of 100.
I was also powerfully reminded of the countless nameless supporters who answered the call to participate in that monumental march from Selma to Montgomery, those who provided food and shelter to the vanguard activists, and in so doing jeopardized their own safety, but nonetheless sacrificed for a greater cause.
The movie Selma does its job of injecting new interest in a slice of history that many would like to sweep under the carpet, it shines a light on America’s shameful racist past. Some would say America’s continued racism – evidenced by the escalating deaths and civil rights abuses of young black men at the hands of police officers across the length and breadth of America.
There are those detractors who have complained that little celluloid space was devoted to those who stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttleworth, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, John Lewis and Bayard Rustin to name a few, but Selma the movie is another trigger for the start of a much needed and hopefully continued conversation.
I was moved afresh at how far African Americans have come and yet how little things have really changed. Dr. King’s dream is alive, the spark is dim, but the flame has not been entirely extinguished. Every black child needs to see this movie, at least once and be inspired to live their own dream.