Selma and the struggle for civil rights

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, with Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in the film Selma. Photo: Paramount Pictures
David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, with Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in the film Selma. Photo: Paramount Pictures
Published March 6, 2015

Director: Ava DuVernay
Released January 2015
127 minutes
Rated: PG-13

“Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe.” Martin Luther King Jr. might have added that there can be no justice, equality or freedom for any of us, unless everyone can claim those things as their birthright. If some are oppressed, then we are all oppressed. Or so we would know if we were not so often blinded by our instinct to separate ourselves from “the other.”

For America in the sixties, “the other” most often took the form of black people. Racial tensions were rife across the country. Indeed, Selma (which was an Academy Award nominee as Best Film of the Year) opens with the bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young African-American girls. It was just one of many instances of homegrown terrorism rearing its ugly head-without any help from the foreign ideological fanatics who bedevil us today.

The movie takes place in 1965, culminating in three attempts in March of that year to peacefully march along the 54-mile highway linking the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery (the state capital) in support of voting rights. The trouble was that some state governments were making brazen use of arbitrary (and discriminatory) administrative hurdles, intimidation and outright fraud to shamelessly prevent blacks from registering to vote. When King and others beseeched the federal government to intervene, the Johnson administration was unwilling to do so, citing other priorities. Hence, the decision to march: “Those who have gone before us say, ‘no more!’ No more! That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

The first attempt to march was violently stopped by state troopers, who attacked the marchers, some of whom were beaten unconscious. That prompted clergy and other sympathizers from across the country to join the marchers for a second attempt. One supporter from afar, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was beaten to death by local thugs.

Through all of these trials-the violence, the naked racism and the open, venomous hostility-King and the other activists stood firm in the just cause of civil rights, and they stayed true to the means they used to struggle: non-violent protest. In both respects, they hewed close to the example of Christ. Their persistence, courage and determination helped build solidarity and shame those who prevaricated instead of acting. And it didn’t hurt that their chief antagonists were so despicable in word and action. Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson finally abandons all attempts to cajole the obstinate (one might even say bloody-minded) governor of Alabama into compromising, with the disgusted words, “I’ll be damned if history puts me with the likes of you.” In the end, there is a difference between right and wrong; and a discerning human being is capable of perceiving the difference-and choosing a side.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.


  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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