[  ]
Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Honoring Rev. King, Recommending “Selma”




“Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.

“The threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishing of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything.” 

—“Our God Is Marching On!”, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965


Selma: A Hard-Won Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

We inserted the advance-screening disc of the new film Selma into the DVD player last night with some trepidation, hoping to like the film, but fearing it would be heavy-handed, simplistic, or possibly loose with the facts, but to our great relief we found it to be none of these. Selma is really good, and we highly recommend it.

The film is focused on a significant turning point in the long Civil Rights movement, when, in February and March 1965, activists decided to make Selma, Alabama, the place to dramatize black disenfranchisement. Of 15,000 potential black voters in Selma, 325 were registered, compared to 9,300 of 14,000 eligible whites. The county sheriff, James G. “Jim” Clark Jr., was a known hothead who wore a lapel pin reading “Never.” Activists knew they could rely on him to overreact and escalate the situation.

The activists’ goal was to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery (once the capital of the Confederacy). The 54-mile march would take them along route 80, the Jefferson Davis Highway. On March 7, some 600 marchers were driven back by police and troopers with tear gas, nightsticks, and bullwhips from crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River. Seventeen people were hospitalized. A second attempt, joined by King, was aborted. The third march was successful. Some 3,200 left Selma on March 21; four days later, 25,000 arrived in Montgomery. (The excerpts above are from King’s speech to the marchers after they had reached their destination.)

Selma_posterThe persistence of the civil rights activists in Selma—aided by televised images of horrifying police brutality against peaceful demonstrators—led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act may sound familiar: it was recently eviscerated by five conservatives on the United States Supreme Court on the dubious grounds that federal, legal protections of voting rights for minorities are no longer needed. (See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past” LNW 6/26/13.)

About the Film

David Oyelowo’s performance is strong and steady—he portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a fallible human being—and the supporting cast of actors playing Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), John Lewis (Stephan James), the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are convincing and well cast. One strength of the film is that it shows a hard-working and committed network of activists, sometimes in conflict, of which King was the leader, but, naturally, not everyone always agreed with his priorities or methods.

Some good dramatic tension is shown in repeated disputes between members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded following the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56), of which King and Abernathy and others of their generation were leaders, and the younger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “snick”), which played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington and Freedom Summer (1964). Some of the younger activists had lost patience with King’s insistence on nonviolence—particularly after the murders and beatings by white supremacists during Freedom Summer—and some accused him of Uncle Tomism and derided him behind his back as “de Lawd.” A less impatient member of SNCC was its chairman, John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.). At Selma on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, his skull was fractured by an officer’s nightstick; the scars are still visible.

One weakness in the film was needlessly inflicted by the difficult Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. estate (his children, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice). The producers of this film—including Oprah Winfrey, who appears in the film—were not allowed to use direct quotations of King’s speeches. “The intellectual property wasn’t available to us,” said the film’s director, Ava Duvernay. Thus, David Oyelowo must paraphrase what King said. And many of his speeches are hotter, more radical sounding—more like Malcolm X (who also makes an appearance in Selma)—than the more polished and scripture-infused oratory of the historical Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

We cannot imagine what harm could be done by allowing the producers of a film that honestly, admiringly portrays the courageous work of Rev. King to use his words. (Perhaps the heirs were displeased by the film’s not hiding—but not depicting, either—the fact of their father’s extramarital affairs.) Even with the formidable influence of Oprah Winfrey, who must have tried to persuade the heirs to allow use of his words, perhaps the price demanded was too high, but in any case permission to quote the civil rights leader was not granted.


Historians, too, have questioned the film’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as obstinate, delaying, more of an obstacle than an ally, who insists on doing things on his own schedule of political convenience. Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson is good, however, and even if the film’s depiction is contrary to some historical facts, the president’s obstinacy is not extreme, and in the end he bows to the forces of history on the march. (The photo above shows MLK, LBJ, and activists Whitney Young and James Farmer in the Oval Office in 1964 before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Historian William Manchester records the kind of federal assistance the real LBJ sent after Alabama governor George Wallace asked for help in protecting all the outside agitators (including many clergy) who were pouring in in response to MLK’s invitation to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery:

[LBJ] complied by sending 1,863 federalized national guardsmen, 250 U.S. marshals and FBI agents, two regular Army MP battalions, demolition experts to search the roads and bridges ahead of those making the hike, and helicopters to hover overhead. In addition, the hikers were provided with huge tents for overnight stops, a 600-gallon water truck, latrine trucks, ambulances, trucks for rubbish, and scout cars to set up campsites in advance. 

—William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972 (p. 1060)


Selma to Montgomery in Photographs

Two excellent photo portfolios are A Long March into History: Stephen Somerstein Photos in ‘Freedom Journey 1965’ in The New York Times and “The Long Road,” photographs by Steve Schapiro in The New Yorker online.


More about Civil Rights at Levees Not War:

Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past (6/26/13)

The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South (7/11/13)

Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer (6/26/14)

Marching on Washington for Economic and Social Justice (8/29/13)

Read All About the 1963 March on Washington (8/27/13)

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica (6/12/13)

“There Is a Creative Force in This Universe”: The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street (1/16/12)

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years: Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance (1/6/12)

. . . or just click MLK


Color photograph above, showing David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from Selma (2014). Black-and-white photographs below by Stephen Somerstein, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. The first photo shows John Lewis of SNCC, center, and, behind him to his right, Andrew Young of the SCLC (later U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta). Click on any picture to see a ten-photo slideshow. “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein” is on view at the New-York Historical Society through April 19, 2015.


front line

walking by

white onlookers

walking in Montgomery


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Print This Post Print This Post

Leave a Reply