Two horrific episodes in the history of the American South bracket the story of Selma the movie. Within minutes of the opening, little girls at church in Birmingham are massacred by a bomb left in the church building which housed a black congregation. By the end of the movie, we witness the brutal beating of peaceful marchers by government forces.
In between these racist acts of violence, we witness the personal and organizational push to be able to exercise the right to vote. The organizational push is led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Selma is important both as a place in history and as a film telling a story. As the story unfolded on the screen, any adult my age has to be cognizant that these events happened in our lifetime. This is not some ancient story prior to civilization. It is a story and experience not very far removed from our own. The characters could very well be those who I have encountered in my lifetime.
The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the struggles of King and the movement he led. He obviously faced external opposition from the system he challenged. Racist individuals and governmental played together to deny the right to vote to American citizens. This included governmental offices from Selma to Montgomery to Washington D.C.
Some issues of factual accuracy have been raised regarding the role of President Johnson. No matter how LBJ was portrayed, clearly the government served as the enemy of those pursuing their voting rights. That is until the pressure created by the Selma march caused reversals in government action.
Internal struggles existed within the black community as to the right and effectiveness of King’s non-violent approach. The movie tipped its hat to this by introducing Malcolm X into the discussion. We also see glimpses into King’s personal struggles in his marriage. Flawed men may still be honored as heroic.
In 2015 it may seem that the right to vote is a given. We should be mindful, as with other rights, of the sacrifices others have paid for what we take for granted.
Selma should facilitate discussion of the issues of race which still face our nation. All of us are flawed. May we strive to foster justice nonetheless. May we see our own flaws more clearly than we see them in those who differ from us. Only then will two sides be able to reach out together for the common good.
Finally, this movie suffered great damage by not being able to use the actual verbiage of King’s speeches. The trust which protects the intellectual rights to these speeches and the makers of the film were not able to come to financial terms for their inclusion. What was lost was more than financial. A new audience missed the opportunity to hear one of the great speech makers in our history.