Early January 9, 2015 my husband and I along with two other “senior” couples made our way to a theater to attend the first showing of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” The 6 of us sat in the theater as Black people of various ages filed in. Most of the audience members were middle aged and older. There were a handful of young people and almost no White people in attendance. I recognized that the demographic reflected the day and time. For most people, Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. represents a prime work or school time. Their movie going would take place on Friday evening, Saturday, or Sunday. The issue is not when they go to view this film. The important thing is that they do go to see it.
For many of the film’s viewers “Selma” will represent an important part of history. For my peers and me it will represent a lived experience. After we viewed the film my friends and I decided we needed to go somewhere to debrief. All 6 of us could remember where we were during each attempt to march in Selma. I remember when President Lyndon Johnson gave his speech proposing the Voting Rights Act and I almost feel off my seat when he ended, in his Southern drawl, with “And, we shall overcome!”
Protesting and on the ground activism were a way of life for us in 1965. It did not make any difference if you lived in the South or not. The “Movement” meant we were all expected to be involved. Although Selma was but one event, the film reminds us of all the related and ancillary events that made it so important. There were the tragic deaths of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. Reeb of Boston, and Viola Liuzzo. There was the role of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and the assassination of El Hajj Malik Shabazz—Malcolm X.
The film is also important because it underscores the central role of young people in organizing and leadership. Dr. King has become so iconic that we lose sight of his youth. He was 26 years old when he gave his powerful speech on the steps of the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery. John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and James Forman were even younger. Although beyond the scope of the film, the development and expansion of the “Black Panther Party” is an important response to today’s young people who ask, “why didn’t people fight back” in the midst of such oppression. The Panthers, who believed in self-defense, engaged in important work that did defend the community as well as developed programs that became the precursor for Head Start.
The film is also important because it helps young people see the antecedents to the current voter restriction laws. The strategy of keeping Black people out of the voting booths has a long, despicable history. Our youth must understand that when we say, “People died so you can vote,” we are not spouting a platitude. We are remembering actual people—some who were quite young.
I believe “Selma” is especially important for White people to see. They need to witness and own up to their own histories. They need to recognize that although many Whites did answer Dr. King’s call to action many more ignored it completely. They went about their lives as if the plight of Black people was of no consequence to them and they continue to live that way.
There are two pieces of dialogue in the film that spoke to me in an especially powerful way. The first happened between Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy when they asked each other the point of getting someone to sit at a lunch counter when she or he could neither read the menu nor afford the burger on it. As an educator, this question spoke directly to me. The second statement came in Dr. King’s Montgomery speech when he talked about the lie told to poor Whites that they pass on to their children—essentially that their whiteness was a protection and despite their impoverished circumstances they were superior to Blacks. This is a mentality I confront regularly among students who constantly declare, “we are post-racial!”
“Selma” is important on many levels—its facts (dates, events, etc.), its lesser-known characters (e.g. Annie Lee Cooper, Amelia Boynton), and its symbols (that Confederate flag is about more than “Southern” heritage). And, the most significant thing you can do in relation to this film is take a young person to see it.
Stay Black & Smart!