“Why Selma Matters”

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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!

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5 thoughts on ““Why Selma Matters”

  1. Oh wow! I think you covered a great deal of what affected me so strongly: the details! I, too, lived through these times, but I was relatively young and these events were happening on TV, not in my neighborhood in Bellaire, Texas. However, being a Texan, I was already aware of LBJs legacy. I didn’t fully recognize the scope of his legacy for many years. But people in Texas either loved him or hated him; and everyone had their “personal” stories of his largesse or his skulduggery. I appreciated the individuals highlighted, the conversations, the phone calls, even the FBI logs on the screen. Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” highlighted the Black Panthers and other films have taken King’s work forward, as well as Malcolm X’s. I appreciate this film in keeping the focus tightly on Selma and all of the ins and outs of what happened, who was involved, who disagreed and why, who agreed and why … I especially enjoyed John Lewis’ character because he is still with us (along with Andrew Young), and I have a mental image of Representative Lewis standing right behind and just to the right? of President Obama when he took his first oath of office in 2008.

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  2. Once again Gloria, your blog has hit it out of the park. I saw “Selma” Friday night, and as someone who was a toddler during the Selma march and surrounding events, I kept identifying with those beautiful little girls who were blown up in the Church —babies, really. How that event ALONE didn’t have ALL people of ALL colors outraged is hard to swallow. I was so very pleased that this was a movie in which the death of black people was just as tragic as the death of white people — and thought it was important that Dr. King chided Pres. Johnson for calling the widow of the (white) Bostonian clergyman but did not call the family of Jimmy Lee Jackson. Yes, I think young people need to see “Selma”, but I think it’s important that we talk about it afterwards. I’m also resonating with your emphasis on the conversation btwn Dr. King & Rev. Albernathy—and feeling optimistic now that Pres. Obama is making Junior College free/accessible. This, hopefully, will help matters.

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  3. My dad was a young rabbi in the Chicago suburbs when he responded to Dr. King’s call by going to Selma for the second march. In a sermon he preached on the sabbath after his return, he told the following story: “I spoke to many people while I was in Selma, residents of Selma, school children, civil rights workers stationed permanently in Alabama and Mississippi, visitors from many parts of the nation. Every person I spoke to is dedicated to the same ideal of human freedom. A twelve year old girl in Selma, when I asked her why she wasn’t in school, said that she was learning something else today spelled F-R-E-E-D-0-M. I said, ‘Yes, I know what that spells.'”
    He concluded: “I consider it a great privilege to have participated in a small way in the struggle for
    human freedom this week. I went to Selma hoping to serve the cause of freedom. I came back
    having served myself much more, having strengthened my own commitment to justice and
    equality, and having deepened the spiritual measure of my life.”

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  4. …Well said.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but I will be going to see it at some point this week.

    The unpunished murders of black youth at the hands of whites in recent years and the outcry that followed seemed to answer the question as to weather or not the current generation is willing to fight the good fight. Ferguson and New York echoed with the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Peaceful protests were held not only across the country but around the world as people came together to voice the common humanity we all share.

    It is unfortunate the executions of two NYPD officers last month and everything that happened afterward took the spotlight away from the struggle for justice still being fought. My hope is those still peacefully protesting continue to do so even though the media’s no longer watching.

    I also agree “Selma” is the type of movie that demands a debrief after you’ve watched it. I kinda feel like I have to see it today since many of my coworkers have seen it already but priorities force me to wait until at least Thursday to see it due to the showtimes.

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  5. What troubles me sometimes now is that there are many who are indifferent not only to history of African Americans in this country, but to the violence upon them even today. Selma seemed so much a time of at least an outcry, a reaction, a horror…and maybe we see that in the Black Lives Matter response. That is where the hope is. And just maybe I have been spending too much time working with people who simply are resistant to even having conversations and reflecting in depth and reading about and listening, especially listening, to those who are the ones who experience oppression and white supremacy and racism every damn day. Will have to go to those who nurture me and understand my continuing sorrow at being 70 and seeing such powerful individuals and corporations, from the Koch brothers to the NRA to the Supreme Court causing real loss of life, as well as the cops and their indifference to black lives. Maybe I need to put on some Aretha, or Bille Holiday or Coltrane or Candy Statton, or….
    and dance!

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