The Film “Selma” depicts the circumstances of the Selma-to-Montgomery (Alabama) voting rights marches beginning March 5, 1965 led by several directorates of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) including Dr. Martin Luther King.
Please indulge me a little historical observation as I lived in the segregated South and I was very close to all this, even to have stumbled (out of curiosity, I assure you) into a real Klan rally complete with hooded Klansmen and three big burning crosses. But that’s another saga.
This history is extremely complex and I can only summarize the high points here, some additional factoids before you see the film.
“Selma” is a partially fictionalized portrayal of the circumstances in Selma, Alabama following the church bombing that killed four young girls on Sept 15, 1963, marking a major turning point in the civil rights movement. This event was probably the major force in galvanizing the waves of protesters, “freedom riders” and civil rights pantheon of high-visibility personalities that focused on Selma thereafter.
On July 2, 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Law of 1964 but the actual enforcement of the law was delayed. Shortly thereafter, activist John Lewis led a number of black citizens to the Selma Courthouse to register to vote and they were turned away by then Sheriff Jim Clark. Voter registration continued to be denied until the media attention of Selma-Montgomery marches of 1965 forced the issue into the emerging public TV media.
There were actually three marches over several months, 54 miles long down a two lane highway, mostly campaigning for voting rights. The first march on March 7 was later termed “Bloody Sunday” after police and white citizens affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan attacked marchers. There were several deaths and many severe beatings. Parenthetically, there was another “Sunday Bloody Sunday” memorialized by the band U2 in 1983 following a confrontation with police in Derry, Ireland, not related.
The second march occurred on March 9 led by Dr. King that was turned around by court order before it actually began. King elected to follow the court order as a strategy to get more out the judge next time around. This march became known as “Turnaround Tuesday”. Marchers were later beaten by Klan affiliates. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston was beaten so severely he was taken to the local public hospital in Selma who refused to treat him. He was then taken to Birmingham’s University Hospital two hours away where he later died on Thursday, March 11.
A week after Reeb’s death, on Wednesday March 17, a Federal Judge ruled that the State of Alabama (Governor George Wallace) could not abridge the protestors right to assemble. The media spectacle of “Bloody Sunday”, televised live on CBS prompted Lyndon Johnson to begin decrying the situation on public TV. On March 15, Johnson went on national TV to declare enforcement of the 1964 Civil Right Law, especially as it pertained to voting rights. Dr. King was quoted (while in jail): “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me”.
The third march took place on March 21, along Alabama Route 80 protected by the Alabama National Guard called out by the President Lyndon Johnson. The third march proceeded without harassment. The route is memorialized as the Selma To Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, and is a U.S. National Historic Trail now.
The film itself is rather melodramatic and highlights the violence that occurred in pretty graphic detail. It also hits briefly on the human failings of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. But the big lapse is that it portrays then President Lyndon B. Johnson as using the civil rights movement more for his political currency than beneficence. This is historically inaccurate, and if anything, applies more to John and Robert Kennedy.
I find it very interesting that most of those in the theater were too young to have any conception of the events of 1965 and never heard of Selma. I once asked a gaggle of Fellows and Residents who Timothy Leary was; none had a clue. None of these theater audiences can comprehend any of it, and like Vietnam, it may eventually be forgotten, which means that the popular record of it may be films like “Selma” and “12 years a slave” which are NOT accurate documentaries, but stylized “docudramas”. Not the same thing.
Currently, there is a lot of unrest and consternation about the occasional black male shot by white guys (sometimes cops) in altercations, which seem to resolve in favor of cultural bias. There are political and legal resolutions of these problems in progress, and these will hopefully be effective although lengthy.
In the early 60s, the Ku Klux Klan, aided by the police instituted a well organized and systematized terror reign in which black (and white) advocates of basic civil right were routinely brutalized and killed using dogs, electric cattle prods, high pressure water hoses, tear gas, guns and clubs. Blacks were routinely lynched for appearing to admire white women. There was NO recourse. If any of the accused landed in a courtroom, they were routinely acquitted or given ridiculous sentences. Any discrimination occurring today is a thin shadow of the Klan in its heyday that few remember now.
“Selma” is a very good, stylized drama but remember that it isn’t an accurate documentary. It’s for entertainment value and it does that well. A word about David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King. He studied King’s diction and mannerisms for months and nailed it. I’ve seen and heard King and Oyelowo is as good a replica as anyone has ever seen. He hits every mannerism, especially when giving a speech. It’s an Academy Award meriting performance.
If you really want to understand civil rights in the 60s, the most comprehensive and accurate collection is from Pulitzer winning author Taylor Branch. The ultimate authority and his books are very readable. Highly recommended by me..
I give “Selma” 4 of 5 attack dogs. Recommended by me for entertainment value.