Just months shy of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, director Ava DuVernay takes us on a historical journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with the nationwide theater release of the Martin Luther King Jr. Biopic, Selma.
I thought I knew what to expect when I took my seat in the movie theater on opening night. After all, I know black history. I’ve studied the Civil Rights movement. I idolize Dr. King and have mirrored shards of my young life after his: I attended Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater; I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. of which Dr. King is a distinguished member; and lately the pulpit has become my sounding board for social justice advocacy and activism. I thought I knew what to expect when I took my seat in the movie theater on the opening night of Selma.
I expected the violent resistance to peaceful protest for progress in the Jim Crow south. I expected the noncooperation and inaction of the U.S. government in enforcing voter’s rights for disenfranchised Blacks. I even expected the most intimate, personal, and sometimes uncomfortable glimpses into the humanity of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I expected these things. What I did not expect was the eery feeling that while I was watching history play out before me in major motion picture, what I was witnessing felt a lot like yesterday instead of 50 yesteryears ago.
I thought I knew what to expect when I took my seat in the movie theater on the opening night of Selma, but I was wrong. I didn’t expect for Selma to feel like yesterday. I didn’t expect the image of unabated violence against black bodies by law enforcement in 1965 to resonate yet and still in 2015. I didn’t expect we’d still be marching for equal rights under the law for people of color. I certainly didn’t expect yet another small U.S. city would be the epicenter of such a big movement to combat racial inequality and injustice in America.
Selma, Alabama 1965 – population ~27,900, felt a lot like Ferguson, Missouri 2014 – population ~21,100.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot and killed by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, is Jimmie Lee Jackson relived: an unarmed black man shot and killed by white Alabama State trooper James Fowler in Selma 1965. Fowler was a significant player in escalating the acute racist conflict that ultimately led to the Selma to Montgomery march, just as officer Wilson became the villain that catalyzed the #blacklivesmatter movement in 2014.
The parallels between Ferguson and Selma – now and then, are quite startling and downright discouraging when viewed through a “progressive” lens; and yet there’s hope in history. Our past informs our present, and history tells us that before we can cure cancer, we must first identify and address its symptoms. The cancer is the same in both Selma and Ferguson – systemic racism. However the symptoms that exposed this cancer in 1965 and 2014 are decidedly different.
While it’s clear that there were a myriad of issues surrounding systemic racism in America in the 1960’s, it’s unclear as to which issues were of greatest priority to the leadership of the civil rights movement, as depicted in one scene of the movie Selma where members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) intensely debated why they should coalesce around a particular issue. With the support of key civil rights actors, it was ultimately Dr. King’s assertion of voter’s rights as the “symptom” to focus their attention on attacking the much larger cancer of systemic racism.
Whereas King and others had the luxury of choosing which issue they’d organize around and where they would stage their protest, we didn’t choose Ferguson, MO or the killing of unarmed black men as our issue; it chose us. The criminal injustice system, that is: police brutality, excessive use of force by law enforcement, racial profiling, and mass incarceration, is the symptom that has chosen us and it’s what we must continue to mobilize around in order to cure America’s long suffering from the cancer of systemic and institutional racism.
As Ferguson is our Selma 2.0, and the ratification of the criminal injustice system is our voter’s rights act, who will be our Martin Luther King Jr? Oprah Winfrey, producer and co-star of Selma recently faced criticism for her comments suggesting a lack of defined leadership present in the #blacklivesmatter movement:
“What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes. And this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ I think what can be gleaned from our film is to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention required when you want real change.”
Is Oprah right? Many assumed that with the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States, he would be the 21st Century’s champion for the civil rights of people of color as King had been in the 60’s; that’s a false assumption. Barack Obama is not the President of black people exclusively, and to expect such would be unreasonable. But if not him then who? Who do we heed to for guidance? For direction?
It’s my belief that our success as a movement hinges upon our ability to lead not as individuals, but as a unified front. Such leadership has proven to be effective as we’ve witnessed significant progress in equal rights for LGBTQI and immigration reform, respectively; both have made positive strides as movements, yet neither have definitive identifiable leaders. The success of their respective movements have been in the collective voice of each group and their ability to coalesce around pointed issues, using their strength in numbers to leverage change .
The march from Selma began 50 years ago with the intent to disturb a longstanding system of racism in America by advocating for people of color to be able to exercise their right to vote. March 25, 1965, after 5 days and 54 miles of protest by thousands of peacekeepers and justice-seekers, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr exclaimed from the steps of the Montgomery capital,
“There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”
I thought I knew what to expect when I took my seat in the movie theater on the opening night of Selma. But I was wrong. I didn’t expect for Selma to feel so much like yesterday. I expected my feelings of rage and despair toward the injustices of the 60’s to end with the conclusion of the film. I didn’t expect that today, that march for justice and equality would continue through Ferguson, MO and many other U.S. cities, under the leadership of not just one King, but multiple Kings and Queens. I didn’t expect to see myself and others on screen, re-imagined not as King, because they’ll never be another Martin Luther King Jr, but as a King.
Good leadership can be defined by the number of followers you amass, but great leadership is measured by your ability to develop and cultivate more leaders. Never has there been a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of men and women, children and adults, of every race, gender expression, sexual identity, class, and faith pouring into public spaces to die-in and live-out the American dream: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” We are the leaders of the new movement, and King would expect for us to be great.
Because #blacklivesmatter. #alllivesmatter.