They wouldn’t let nobody turn them around

January 15, 2015

Marlene Martin tells the story of a landmark struggle of the civil rights movement that has been brought to life in a new and justly celebrated movie.

THE STRUGGLE in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. A new film Selma takes up a three-month period from this battle, beginning with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. winning the Nobel Peace Prize and ending with the successful 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, which preceded the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of two main pieces of federal civil rights legislation that dismantled legal segregation.

Prior to 1965, activists in the South had been working hard for many years trying to register Blacks to vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that formed after the wave of lunch counter sit-ins in early 1960 had made voting rights a main aspect of its work. SNCC had been in Selma, working with Black activists, helping to develop leadership, holding meetings and helping to organize people to register.

Amelia Boynton, a prominent local activist was frustrated with the slow pace of progress in Selma. So she reached out to Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King answered the call, and SCLC brought its resources into the struggle in Selma.

David Oyelowo (center) as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma
David Oyelowo (center) as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma

The film focuses on three attempted marches from Selma to the capital of Montgomery, to confront racist Gov. George Wallace. The first time, marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they were beaten, whipped and denied passage in an orgy of violence known as Bloody Sunday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is named after a Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.

In the film, this scene is intense. You feel as though you are on the bridge alongside the other activists, in a fog of thick tear gas. Then, all of a sudden, you see a horse coming forward and someone struck with a police billy club.

A few days later, with King at the head of it, activists attempt to cross the bridge again. This time, the troopers stood back to let the demonstrators pass. Whether King sensed a trap and was afraid of impending violence, or was concerned about violating a federal order not to cross before a coming hearing, King turned the march around. He lost respect among activists in SNCC and in the movement generally for this decision.

Review: Movies

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, written by Paul Webb, starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo and Tim Roth.

The third attempt happened several days later after a federal judge's order cleared away all obstacles. Federal law enforcement agents were on hand for protection, and 300 marchers were allowed to march to Montgomery.

The movie is magnificent. It is filmed beautifully--many of the scenes are close-ups, with low lighting and actors speaking in soft voices, giving the filmgoer the sense of eavesdropping on conversations. The acting is superb, too.

But most importantly, the film captures the gut-wrenching sense of the human feeling of what it is like to be deprived of a basic human right just because you are Black, and what it takes to gather the courage and strength to challenge the oppressor. Director Ava DuVernay said people might understand the civil rights movement period intellectually, but she wanted people to feel it and make it "part of their DNA." And she succeeds.

THE CIVIL WAR ended with Blacks gaining the right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, but the barriers put in place by Southern states made it all but impossible for Blacks to do so. The terror, threats, humiliation and difficulty of the process itself ensured that most Blacks would not vote.

There was the sheer physical abuse and even murder of people who attempted to vote. Herbert Lee was gunned down in broad daylight after he had volunteered to try and register to vote.

Blacks could lose their job or housing or both. Fannie Lou Hamer, who became known as a civil rights leader, lost her home and job of 18 years as a sharecropper when her boss found out she had tried to register to vote. There were administrative hurdles, too--forms to fill out, poll taxes to pay and back taxes, too. Then, Blacks had to approach the courthouse to face a registrar who was sure to intimidate and humiliate them, asking difficult questions to qualify, when whites were asked no such questions.

As a result, very few Blacks were registered. In Dallas County, where Selma is located, Blacks made up 57 percent of the population, but out of 15,000 Blacks of voting age, only 130 were registered--less than 1 percent. In adjoining Lowndes County, the population was 80 percent Black, and no Black had registered to vote in nearly 70 years, since the Reconstruction era.

The film captures all this in a scene of Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, attempts to register to vote. She approaches the registrar with her forms filled out. In the close-up shot, the humiliation she has to endure from a white racist who has no intention of allowing her to register is palpable.

"What is the preamble of the state constitution?" the registrar asks. "You know what a preamble is, don't you?" Annie then recites it, starting with "We the people..." He then asks how many county judges there. She answers "67." As an audience member, you feel pride that answers this question designed to silence her. Then there's a long pause, and the registrar says, "Name them." Obviously, she can't and walks away defeated. The moment makes you feel like you've been punched in the stomach.

Scenes like this throughout the film take the viewer face to face with the reality of oppression in the Jim Crow South. In one scene, after a young activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson is killed following a demonstration, King approaches Jackson's father at the morgue, and says simply: "There are not words." You see the father's surprise in seeing King, and after they talk a bit, he answers just as simply, choking back tears, "He was a good boy."

David Oyelowo, a Nigerian-born British actor, plays King. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance and will probably get nominated for the Oscars--he's amazing and deserves to win. Ava DuVernay won best director at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first Black woman ever nominated in that category for a Golden Globe. She didn't win either, but she, too, is likely to be nominated by the academy, and Selma will almost certainly be on the list for Best Picture.

I HOPE Selma picks up some awards and generally gets a lot of attention that sends curious moviegoers out to see it. They will learn that the early civil rights movement had many aspects to it, not all of which we're familiar with. The movie goes behind the scenes, into the rooms where debates and discussions thrashed out the movement's strategies--the very thing that gave life to a movement that, contrary to popular myth, didn't just come fully formed from the minds of leaders like King.

It was great to see this focus in the film. I wish there was more of it--and more substantial input from others in the movement. There wasn't enough depth given to SNCC, nor activists like Dianne Nash, the SNCC member who first came up with the plan to protest at the Montgomery capital and bring their demands straight to Wallace. Unfortunately, she is in the background in this movie, with little to say.

Martin Luther King's role in the civil rights movement is sanitized in popular culture. You don't read about King wrestling with questions like what is the best way to go forward, or expressing fear or doubt. You don't read about his debates with others in the movement and how they together developed and honed their strategy and tactics.

But you get to see this in Selma. In one great scene, King is addressing civil rights activists in a church that is filled to capacity. David Oyelowo's performance captures another side of King--just how good an organizer he was, with an ability not just to rouse a crowd, but convey what he believed was needed to win: determination, courage, sacrifice.

DuVernay couldn't secure the rights to use King's words, so she instead wrote the speeches herself. In this scene, King starts out slowly, but then swells, bringing the crowd to its feet. By they end, they are chanting along with him and applauding loudly:

As long as I am unable to exercise my constitutional right to vote, I do not have command over my own life. I cannot determine my own destiny for it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed. Those that have gone before us say no more.

That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard. We will not wait any longer. Give us the vote. We are not asking, we are demanding, give us the vote.

While the movie depicts an important part of history, it couldn't be more relevant to today. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Bill that requires states with a history of discrimination to get federal permission before changing any voting laws. Within hours of this ruling, Texas implemented a photo ID requirement, as did Alabama. Other states soon followed with similar rules that are clearly designed to make it more difficult for poor, oppressed people to vote--which, not coincidentally, means many Black people.

THERE IS some controversy about the historical accuracy of parts of the film--specifically, whether the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson is accurate. Several historians feel the film depicts Johnson's relationship with Martin Luther King as too adversarial, pointing out that Johnson already had his Secretary of State working on a voting rights bill when Selma hit its high point, something the film doesn't mention.

Joseph Califano Jr., a top domestic aide to Johnson at the time, went so far as to say that Selma was Johnson's idea, pointing to a transcript of a phone discussion between Johnson and King in which the president suggested that provocative protests would help get the bill passed.

Ava DuVernay's responsed that the claim that the Selma campaign was Johnson's idea was "jaw-dropping and offensive" to the "Black citizens who made it so." In an NPR interview, she develops her point more, stating that Selma was the culmination of many years of work by civil rights activists--that it was their idea and their fight, and Johnson's words to King were echoing back from what the civil rights movement had already done.

The film ends with the third and final march over the bridge and to Montgomery, intercut with real footage from the march in Black and white. It' a powerful sight--ordinary people, Black and white, old and young, marching through Klan country and looking proud, defiant and happy.

The 300 marchers from Selma were greeted in Montgomery by 50,000 supporters from across the country. As Sheyann Webb, a young marcher, described it:

I felt real good at the last march. It was like we had overcome. We had reached the point we were fighting for a long time. And if you were to just stand there in the midst of thousands and thousands of people, and all of the great leaders and political people who had come from all over the world, it was just a thrill.

Selma is a wonderful movie that brings the civil rights movement to life. To think that a Hollywood movie has never been made about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement is incomprehensible. Finally, that's been done, and done so well that I hope it inspires many more.

Further Reading

From the archives