Yesterday afternoon my daughters and I went to see the movie, Selma. With a certain amount of Oscar buzz in the air (shared with American Sniper) my anticipation had been building for several days.
The movie opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Oslo, Norway where he received the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a smooth opening with their banter, and he worried about what folks back home will think of him wearing an ascot. The serenity and honor of that scene are soon forgotten as we are transported to the 1960s southern United States in all its racist splendor.
The movie centers around the need for federal involvement for securing the right to vote, already guaranteed in the Constitution but non-existent in a practical sense for most Black people across the South. Whether receiving an arbitrary pop-quiz, needing to be vouched for by another registered voter, or owing a “tax” for the years one was not registered to vote, the fix was in to keep Black Americans from registering. An example from the movie was a potential voter having to recite the preamble to the Constitution, followed by knowing the number of judges in Alabama, then being able to name them all. It was a cruel, tyrannical scheme.
While I watched this movie as a White son of the South, a few things came to mind.
1. As bad as Selma portrays the difficulties of racial progress, it pales in comparison to the reality. My lifetime is not long enough to put into a single film the atrocities perpetrated against African Americans by White Americans during and after slavery. This would be including but not limited to the Convict-Lease System, lynching, Jim Crow, and outright murder overlooked or dismissed. We should always remember a time when men like Byron Delay Beckwith, cold-blooded killer of Medgar Evers, and the murderers of Viola Liuzzo, a White mother and homemaker (shot by three members of the Klan for assisting with the march), were cheered for their actions. We should always remember the Nazis used the Jim Crow South as a pattern for discriminating against the Jews.
2. The echoes of the 1960s are still with us. Resounding throughout Selma are the fraternal twins, Law and Order, and Our Way of Life. Why should these people get the right to vote? It will interfere with our way of life. Alan Cross has convincingly shown in his book “When Heaven and Earth Collide” how southern protection of “our way of life” undergirded the entire racist caste system, helping excuse every abominable behavior. Law and Order was absolutely necessary, so they said, to allowing people to peacefully assemble, even to march in the streets, had to be met with force. The solution to marching in the street is teargas and vicious brutality.
Wait. Is this Selma, Alabama in 1965 or today? The echoes of the 1960s still sound to those with attentive ears. Recent demonstrations after the Eric Garner grand jury decision, when some law enforcement agencies decided not to arrest demonstrators, were met with both outrageous and outlandish cries of, “Why were these people not arrested? Don’t they realize how they are inconveniencing people? [In other words, “they are disobeying the law” and “causing problems to our way of life.”] Garner was castigated for selling single cigarettes, an outlandish law to begin with. And, to mention only in passing the illegal operation of the judicial system in the poverty stricken, mostly Black areas surrounding St. Louis.
3. The historical omissions or fabrications in Selma should not take away from the overwhelming reality of what was. Yes, LBJ was more supportive of the legislation than the movie implied. Yes, there may have been people around King whose roles were not as strongly emphasized in the movie as they might have been. Yes, King’s shirt might have been a different color. None of these objections should be allowed to distract from all the march symbolized and accomplished. Those of us who are part of the majority culture should not allow the conversation to deteriorate into a debate about factual accuracy, not matter how far into the sand some are willing to stick their heads.
To say the racial history of America is checkered would be understatement in the extreme. Movies like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, and The Help, are critical to ensure our memories do not get whitewashed (pun intended) from the horrid, inexcusable yet regularly excused acts that preceded us.