The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.
– Amendment 15, United States Constitution, ratified February 2, 1870
Ava DuVernay’s film Selma does a fine job of narrating the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. The screenplay, by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay, also presents a convincing portrait – one far from hagiography – of Martin Luther King as a real human being, an activist riven by doubt about the methods used to drive the movement forward, and a man not without sin who struggles to be honest with his wife. But, as every review has observed, it is David Oyelowo’s magnificent portrayal of King that carries the film.
I saw Selma with my daughter, who is of a generation inspired by the struggle for black American civil rights as something in the past, belonging to a time when things were done differently. For me, though, watching the film brought back memories of being a teenager and how I’d read in the newspaper or hear on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South. The Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness, having a deeply radicalising effect.
The film begins in December 1964 with King and his wife in Oslo, preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. King worries about his ‘high on the hog’ appearance. Then as King makes his acceptance speech, speaking of the ‘lost ones whose deaths pave our path’, Ava DuVernay cuts to the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham a year earlier as four little girls make their way downstairs, chattering about hair styles. The bomb which destroys them roars in from the right side of the screen like a devouring monster.
Then we are in Selma as a local civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) is sneeringly denied the right to register to vote by a supercilious registrar. First, he asks her to recite the preamble to the Constitution (which she does); then, he demands she tell him how many county judges there are in Alabama (again, she has the answer); finally, he defeats her by asking her to name them all.
This represents exposition of the highest order: in three scenes, King’s status as leader of the movement has been established along with the movement’s central purpose, and the cynical brutality of the white establishment’s response to its demands spelt out unflinchingly.
Selma: applying to vote
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and on his return from Europe, King met with President Johnson and urged him to introduce a strong Voting Rights Act. Johnson was reluctant, arguing that as the 1964 Civil Rights Act had only just been, it would be impossible to get another. King responded by saying: ‘Well, we will write that act. We will write that act.’
Alabama was a flashpoint for civil rights battles. Throughout the state, black citizens applying to vote were repeatedly blocked by local registrars who would give impromptu literacy and civics tests featuring absurdly difficult questions designed to fail all applicants. By 1965, there were counties in Alabama where not a single black person had voted in any election for the previous 50 years. In a recent interview, civil rights activist John Lewis spelt out how bad things were then:
In certain points of Alabama during those years, especially in the Black Belt and in Dallas County, it was just almost uncontrollable fear. You knew if you went to Selma, some of the surrounding areas and towns and community, it was like putting your life on the line. It was very risky. People had some real reservations about getting involved in places like Selma.
In Selma, only 130 of 15,000 black citizens were registered to vote. As the film demonstrates, the local branch of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been active in Selma for some time, trying to get black residents onto the voting register. In January 1965 they decide to invite King and other activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to join their protests. The SCLC national leadership decides to make Selma a test case. Before King sets off south there’s a scene in which the tensions between King and his wife are revealed, and his self-doubt as he phones Mahalia Jackson, asking her to inspire him with a song (this is not a screenplay fabrication: he did this quite often).
Selma: Martin Luther King urges ‘give us the vote’
In Selma, King and other civil rights leaders march with black residents to the registration office to register. After a confrontation in front of the courthouse, several marchers, including King, are arrested and thrown in jail. Meanwhile, the protests grow, leading to one of the film’s most visceral representations of the violence meted out to the protesters: a horrifyingly re-staging of the wanton murder by a white police officer of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and Baptist church deacon. This was the incident that triggered the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Jackson, his mother Viola, and his 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee, were among several hundred people taking part in a march on the night of 18 February 1965, intended as a peaceful walk to the County jail where a young civil-rights worker was being held. With his mother and his grandfather, Jackson ran into a café , pursued by Alabama State Troopers. Jimmie Lee was clubbed to the floor, and when Viola attempted to pull the police off, she was beaten. When Jackson tried to protect his mother, a trooper shot him twice. (A grand jury later declined to indict the trooper.) There is a powerful, almost wordless, scene in which King encounters Cager Lee at the mortuary, grieving over his grandson’s body. With Jason Moran’s spare piano notes echoing gospel on the soundtrack, King attempts to offer solace to the old man. Relying almost entirely on facial expressions, it’s a superbly-acted scene.
Jackson’s death led the SCLC to initiate the first Selma to Montgomery march, which took place a few days later. For a feature film, it makes a good job of presenting the tensions between the local organisers and the national figures who descend on Selma, revealing something of the differences over strategy between the SCLC and the local SNCC activists. Malcolm X also makes a brief appearance, speaking with Coretta King, not long before his assassination in New York by members of the Nation of Islam. Though brief, the scene is a reminder of that other major current in black politics (‘by any means necessary’), and of the shift in Malcolm’s outlook prior to his assassination.
The portrayal of the violent response of state troopers to the first attempt to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery on 7 March 1965 is, once again, unflinching. We see the protesters attacked with clubs and tear gas by state troopers and local lawmen under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark, and retreating marchers pursued by mounted police who continue to beat and club them to the ground.
The protesters were attacked as they came over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Intrigued, and remembering vividly the sight of the bridge with the name emblazoned on it, I wondered who it was named for. The answer? Pettus was a Confederate general during the American Civil War, and later a US Senator. After the war, he led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Bloody Sunday: Officers attack the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge, 7 March 1965
Images of the attack on the marchers went around the world; I remember their effect on me when I saw them in the morning newspaper. In America, television coverage of what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ triggered national outrage. SNCC leader John Lewis, who was bludgeoned on the head with a police baton, said: ‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, but can’t send troops to Selma’. Lewis, who has been a representative in Congress since 1986, was back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge yesterday for an interview with CBS News.
Congressman John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, 14 February 2015
The immediate response of the movement’s leadership was to announce that there would be a second attempt to march two days later. The film deftly outlines both the repercussions in Washington, with President Johnson reluctant to intervene, and King’s struggle with his conscience, fearing leading the marchers toward even greater bloodshed. We see that, behind the scenes, King is negotiating with Johnson (ably played by Tom Wilkinson) to secure immediate legislation to eliminate racist obstacles to voter registration, and to send in Federal troops to guarantee the safety of the demonstrators. At the same time, LBJ is under pressure from FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) who simply wants to destroy King’s reputation (the film adroitly represents FBI wire-taps on King and other civil rights activists as on-screen captions which serve to identify key historical figures and explain events).
‘Selma’: King and other civil rights leaders on ‘Turnaround Tuesday’
The second march took place on Tuesday 9 March; again, troopers, police, and marchers confronted each other, but as the troopers stepped aside to let them pass, King halted the march and knelt to pray, before leading the marchers back. He was fearful that, without Federal protection, the marchers would be ambushed. The film explores the subsequent divisions among the movement leaders over King’s action, and the way forward. Then there is another brutal act of violence: that night, a group of white racists beat and murdered James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, who had joined other clergy and sympathisers – many of them white – from across the country.
Selma: King asserts ‘we all bear a responsibility for our fellow men’
There are fine performances in the scenes involving the local and national civil rights leadership. Wendell Pierce (Rev. Hosea Williams), Colman Domingo (Ralph Abernathy) are King’s SNCC lieutenants, and Stephan James is convincing as SNCC activist John Lewis. Musician Common plays activist James Bevel (and performs the song which accompanies the closing credits), while Tessa Thompson is student activist and freedom rider Diane Nash and Lorraine Toussaint takes the part of leader of the Selma campaign, Amelia Boynton Robinson. Along with Carmen Ejogo in the central role of Coretta Scott King, all these actors succeed in bringing their characters to life. (Amelia Boynton Robinson is now 103 years old and, unable to travel to the film’s opening, Paramount Pictures set up a private screening in her home.)
John Lewis then and as portrayed in the film by Stephan James
Hosea Williams: recognition card issued by the Alabama Dept. of Public Safety in the 1960s
Diane Nash then and as portrayed in the film by Tessa Thompson
The third march began on 21 March, after a Federal judge had ruled in favour of the marchers, endorsing their right to protest under the First Amendment, and six days after President Johnson had himself announced a dramatic turnaround of his own in his speech to Congress announcing the introduction of the Voting Rights Act and urging its passing. Some critics have suggested that Selma’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is unfair, but the scene in which his speech is broadcast live does the President – and the moment – justice. We see listeners, at first sceptical and hardly paying attention, slowly absorbing the import of his words:
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans–we are met here as Americans to solve that problem. […] Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. […]
This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—federal, state, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote. This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. […] To those who seek to avoid action … and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple: Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the colour of their skin. …There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. […]
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. …Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Thousands strong, the march crosses over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on 21 March, 1965
The marchers covered the 54-mile route, protected by Federal troops and with helicopters hovering overhead. About 25,000 people walked to the Alabama State Capitol Building in Montgomery where, on 25 March King delivered a speech before the building flying the Confederate flag and occupied by the racist state governor, George Wallace:
They told us we wouldn’t get here… but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’ […]Now it is not an accident that one of the great marches of American history should terminate in Montgomery, Alabama. Just ten years ago, in this very city, a new philosophy was born of the Negro struggle. Montgomery was the first city in the South in which the entire Negro community united and squarely faced its age-old oppressors. Out of this struggle, more than bus desegregation was won; a new idea, more powerful than guns or clubs was born. Negroes took it and carried it across the South in epic battles that electrified the nation and the world. […]
In the film, the section of the speech delivered so convincingly by David Oyelowo is one in which King makes the point that ‘racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races’, but as the result of a political stratagem employed by powerful interests in the South ‘to keep the southern masses divided and southern labour the cheapest in the land’. I thought of Bob Dylan’s ‘Only a Pawn in the Game’, written in response to the murder of Medgar Evers, which expressed that idea with such clarity.
Demonstrators approach the Capitol Building in Montgomery at the end of the march
Martin Luther King addressing marchers at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery
For nearly 100 years the right of Black Americans to vote had been systematically obstructed across the South. With the passing of the Voting Rights Act southern politics were transformed. Selma ends by cataloguing the subsequent careers of those featured in the film. Most striking has been the career of John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and he only surviving leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He has served as Congressman for Atlanta, Georgia since 1987, is a member of the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives.
But there is also a reminder at the film’s conclusion that, even now, voting rights remain contentious, with portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 having been struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and new voter ID laws sparking heated debate over the impact on voter participation. Moreover, the failure to indict white police officers following the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island mean that the struggle depicted in Selma remains highly relevant at this moment. As the final credits roll, we hear ‘Glory’, written and performed by John Legend and Common, bringing things up to date, both lyrically and musically. They sing:
Resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up…
They say ‘Stay down,’ and we stand up…
King pointed to the mountaintop, and we ran up…
Now the war is not over
Victory isn’t won
And we’ll fight on to the finish
Then when it’s all done
We’ll cry glory, oh glory
- 1965: Selma & the March to Montgomery: Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement: History and Timeline