Sitting in the theater at the beginning “Selma”, I watched the little girls in their Sunday School dresses walking down the spiral stairs of the church, laughing, arguing, smiling, talking until—
I was jolted even though I new what was coming. The shock reverberated through my body with the kind of electricity I feel when I am in a near miss, a car swerves suddenly, I trip on a stair and just catch myself before falling. That is an amazing experience, for a movie to make you feel in peril. This movie does it, in a way that worries at you, that hums malevolently under the surface of images. “Selma” is not like any movie I have seen about real historical trauma. It is centered in the people and not only the main characters, not just in King, but also in Hosea Williams, not just in Coretta but in the woman who tried to register in the opening scenes. It is not a movie that depends on bold action, although there is plenty of that, but rather it is a movie that hones in on imperfections in the human beings in the midst of the epic struggle for voting rights for African Americans in this country 100 years after their supposed emancipation. It is a movie that particularly resonated with me given my participation in the end of that march into Montgomery in 1965. It brought back memories of sitting in at the Justice Department in when Johnson and his Attorney General Katzenbach would not send protection for the marchers after the massacre on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I could see again the cops in their array of blue uniforms, waiting to drag us into the elevator and down the steps of the marble pillared building. The black federal cops cried, openly, as they came for us. Days later many of us were on the train to Montgomery, riding through the heavy spring night.
Yet even in the city, and then in the place where much of this came together, I was not aware of all the intricate exchanges, the bargaining, the anger over phones, the pleading, the infighting between SNCC, COFO, CORE and Martin Luther King’s SCLC. I knew some who had participated in Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 just before I arrived in the capitol for college. So much groundwork had been laid, so many lives lost before white college students arrived in numbers. It took the deaths of Reverend James Reeb, a white man from Boston, or Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, to galvanize the country. And the fact that this is what it took is one of the most shameful, violent parts of a very violent history of domination of this country from its white supremacist inception.
Because before these days of Selma, before King, and before Freedom Summer, there were the unremarked upon deaths of thousands of black citizens who lived in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. What pervades the film is what I have been waiting to see or read or hear white people talk about: what happened after the college kids left; what happened after I left, to those who jumped into our line from the rich white homes we passed on the way, those black maids and gardeners, and kitchen help? It was my thought when it was happening—my desire to stop them from that risk, to turn away the teenager who took my hand as he came in off the edge of trees along the graveled road. But what I did not understand then, twenty-one years old, and from suburban Connecticut was that what would happen to the them when we left was already happening, day and night, from burning crosses to beatings to the daily, relentless indignities in houses and on the streets, in offices and in movie theaters, in churches and in schools. The entire system where we walked and chanted had been entrenched and maintained by fear and intimidation. That ten year- old girl who sang with us, the old man who whittled his wooden toys beside the train when we stopped so the FBI could check for incendiary devices before we left, knew exactly what they were doing. My desire to warn them came from ignorance then, ignorance of the enormous weight of death and destruction, of humiliation inflicted over centuries on a people in a land governed by white supremacy.
In “Selma”, there is a scene where King has to confront the enormity of his plans in the form of a horrible killing of a black young man. And what you see is King’s knowledge, his awareness that this death is what the movement needs, in addition to the deaths of whites, to bring about a cataclysmic change in the structures and institutions that oppress black men, women and children. He knows that what he organizes, what he insists has to happen, will take the lives of those who follow him. And Johnson knows this too. The movie spirals around this, insists on it, illuminates with it: if the four little girls in Birmingham could not bring outrage that would compel action, then it would take more. More organizing, more marching, more jailing, more reporters and television clips, more deaths. What so many of us did not know who went down there at the time was that these deaths were only a tiny portion of deaths that had gone before.
What I see now, and why this movie is so important, is that the work is still going on in places that are invisible to me, and there are imperfect people who organize and imperfect people who are speaking. There are fights about language and battles behind the scenes about slogans. There will always be disagreements about actions, marches, arrests and their effectiveness. Now, though, it is not the single leaders as spokesmen or spokeswomen who are insisting on action, and the outcome is not dependent on major news outlets. We have Facebook, Twitter Instagram now; we have young men and women who are ready to use all of those, their bodies, their time to chip away at white supremacy.
The important thing is to support them, wrangle with them, disagree and come back and disagree some more. It is time for connections to be made between Selma’s history and our current denial of basic human protections for black men. It is time to see that “Black Lives Matter” is still an urgent plea, a strong declaration that must be made in a country that deeply does not believe it. Nothing is over yet; nothing is finished. “Selma: reminds us that we have founded this country on the oppression of slaves, perpetuated it in Jim Crow south and are continuing it today, in the way blacks are killed, jailed and denied livelihoods.
When I left Montgomery I left it more dangerous than before I came. Yet I know that with all my privilege I would do it again, because in all its imperfection, that march and that movement provided a national focus, a scene that came into the bedrooms and living rooms of Americans and horrified many of them. Now we have to admit that horror still remains, that voices that must be heard. And they are not necessarily the voices of single charismatic leaders, but they are the teachers in schools who defy scripted instruction and teach our complete history. They are the lawyers who work to free the wrongfully incarcerated. They are the groups who occupy parks, who fight foreclosures who build affordable homes and who fight racist education practices. They are those who provide free meeting spaces and who have potluck dinners at their churches and who provide mentoring and who run neighborhood groups and who call serious attention the racism that governs our city, our country They are the voices and they have always been there. They have always asked that we pay attention,that we listen, that we walk together.