“Selma” powerfully reflects black people boldly and defiantly speaking truth to power.
"Selma" powerfully reflects black people boldly and defiantly speaking truth to power. Whatever the range of critiques regarding the film, the courage and dignity with which the people of Selma, Alabama and their allies met their mission to secure voting rights for black people, is riveting in its portrayal. Despite being whipped with blood-letting, nail infused Billy clubs, having their jobs threatened and friends, family and allies murdered for seeking and advancing justice, they continued to persevere. Despite my own critique in “Ten Responses to Selma,” I am grateful to DuVernay, Pitt and Winfrey and the others who made this film possible. The film truly reflects the dignity, strategic thinking, bravery and compassion of black people. It also reflected the vision of Dr. King and young men including SNCC activist John L. Lewis and SCLC strategist James Bevel. From his mentor theologian Howard Thurman to activists whose names will never be known, King’s vision also was forged by other movements and voices contemporary to the times. What was not at the table was the fierce leadership of the movement’s female “architects,” including Ella Baker, Septima Clark and Fannie Lou Hamer. The presence of SNCC strategist Diane Nash nuanced beyond recognition. And while the voices of everyday people did not form the primary dialogue, the fierce determination of people including Amelia Boyton, Jimmy Lee Jackson and Annie Lee Cooper was apparent.
How many have walked even one mile, let alone fifty-four miles, dressed in the same reflections of dignity, self-respect and perseverance? Their feet were not comforted by Nike Air Jordan shoes or Adidas. Many women were attired in church lady outfits and men suits. Allies including Michigan housewife Viola Liuzzo and Unitarian Minister James Reeb came in a heartbeat and were murdered at the hands of white supremacist.
Despite King’s decision to turn back on the first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and march to Montgomery, the insistence and agency of local people and other activists from around the country, resulted in accomplishing the fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery. That stride toward freedom resulted in twenty-five thousand people assembling on the steps of the capital at Montgomery and in the same year, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The inherent pride and belief by black people in black people (supported by diverse groups of celebrities, religious leaders, union members and educators) went the distance in that pen being put to paper to make the Voting Rights Act a reality. In the aftermath of Ferguson and the daily killings of black people across the country, this generation of activists is making Black Lives Matter. They have the legacies of Selma, and the wells of so many other battles and victories claimed for social justice, from which to draw.
The experience of Selma and this film translate differently across the generations. But, I feel a sense of reassurance now that my forty-one- year-old daughter, sixteen- year- old grandson and thousands of young people have seen the movie. My grandson loved the film and the closing song “Glory” by Common and John Legend. Interestingly enough, he was most taken by the FBI tracking notes that came on the screen during the film. He curiously noted “No one could say this wasn’t real.” I plan to sit with him this week, using my own FBI file, to discuss how millions of citizens have been tracked across administrations and decades because of their determination to secure what is so inherently ours: Equality and Freedom.
I highly recommend the reading list noted in this link: http://www.jsums.edu/hamerinstitute/resources/hamer-inistitute-suggested-reading-list/
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Black Scholar and aired on NPR.