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From Selma the march to Selma to movie, the struggle continues

By: 
Jesse McLaren

January 16, 2015

This year is the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, where hundreds of Black people resisted state violence to win the right to vote. Half a century later, the fight to recognize the movie Selma, as part of #BlackLivesMatter, shows the struggle continues.
 
Mainstream history often reduces the Civil Rights Movement to a kind American president responding to Martin Luther King’s simple dream. Selma detonates that myth in the first five minutes. Beginning after MLK has made his famous speech and after President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, shows a stubborn LBJ patronizingly explaining to King that “this voting thing is just going to have to wait”—despite Black people being terrorized and humiliated.
 
Selma shows that the President had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support civil rights—preferring to strategize against it with FBI director J Edgar Hoover who considered King to be “political and moral degenerate” (though the surveillance of King began under Kennedy), or appealing for non-violence from “both sides” ie between unarmed and non-violent Black marchers, and armed and violent white police. As King says in the film, “the President could stop this (violence) with a stroke of his pen; he chooses not to.” Johnson’s former advisor has lashed out against the film Selma by ludicrously suggesting that “Selma was LBJ’s idea,” to which the director Ava DuVernay, tweeted, "Notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so."
 
Self-emancipation
As Selma shows, it was Black people themselves who won their right to vote. Local activists, joined by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, had been organizing a voter’s registration campaign in Selma, and called on King and other activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join them. After police beat protesters and murdered activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, activists organized three consecutive mass marches toward the state capital of Montgomery against the racist governor George Wallace. The film shows the constant harassment and violence to which they were subjected: random acts of violence, FBI surveillance and harassment, and police brutality—most notoriously the police using horses, tear gas, clubs and whips to drive protesters back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a leader of the KKK).
 
Selma shows civil rights were not granted from a white savior, or won single-handedly by a saintly Martin Luther King—but rather won through organizing, training, marching, protesting, and going to jail. The film explores debates on strategy and tactics within the movement. It shows King’s stress and self-doubts, and features numerous other movement activists—including Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Diane Nash, and James Orange from SCLC; John Lewis and James Forman from SNCC; Amelia Boynton from the local voter’s league; a brief scene between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X; King’s advisor and organizer of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin (usually left out of history for being gay and a socialist); and some white activists who were involved (and some who were killed) in supporting the movement.
 
Given this wide cast it’s surprising not to see Ella Baker (who co-founded both SCLC and SNCC) or Stokely Carmichael (who was part of the frustration with non-violence that led to the Black Power movement). This script's downplays these politics and the link between civil and economic rights, but it does anticipate the rising anti-war movement—contrasting the millions spent on “liberating” Vietnam while denying basic democratic rights for African-Americans.
 
And the Oscar goes to...racism
While Hollywood is obsessed with films about America “liberating” people (including five nominations this year for Sniper, a film about a US soldier who massacred Iraqis), it doesn’t like films about people liberating themselves from America. It has taken Hollywood half a century to make a film about Martin Luther King.
 
Selma not only humanizes King and shines a light on other civil right heroes (and villains), but it does so with a star-studded cast—including Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, Common, Tom Wilkinson, Gioanni Ribisi, Tim Roth. It also has strong performances from its lead actors David Oyelowo (in the role of Martin Luther King) and Carmen Ejogo (in the role of Coretta Scott King), and great directing from Ava DuVernay. But the only Oscar nominations were for best picture and best song (by John Legend and Common)—in a year where every nominee for director or any actor are white.
 
It’s ironic that a film highlighting the exclusion of Black people from voting would be excluded from the Oscars—voted on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, a group that is 94 per cent white (with three quarters men and the average age of 63—born before the Voting Rights Act the film celebrates). By refusing to nominate DuVernay, the Academy has maintained its segregation of Best Director—a category that has never nominated a Black woman, and only three times nominated a Black man (though none have won).
 
Symptomatic of racism in wider society, the Oscars’ refusal to celebrate Black people portraying the Black freedom struggle shows the ongoing fight for liberation—half a century after Selma—and the importance of #BlackLivesMatter.

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