January 19th was Martin Luther King Day. Currently playing in movie theaters is the film SELMA that recounts three months in 1965 when Dr.
King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference members organized a march in Alabama to focus on voting rights for blacks. The march was to go from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery on US Hwy 80. It would end in Montgomery where Dr. King planned to deliver a speech on the Alabama Statehouse steps. Much went wrong in Selma and thanks to CBS and other TV networks the country became aware, like with Vietnam, that there was something terribly wrong in Alabama.
David Oyelowo’s King is one of the most human performances of a Civil Rights leader I have seen. We see King with his ‘clay feet’ and with his deep conviction that the Holy Spirit has him to lead the cause for equal rights for all people without regards to the color of their skin. One aches for the young (37) preacher who longs for his own home and a small church to pastor. A place where his children can grow up and he will have time to teach a Sunday school class. The scene between Martin and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is so poignant when they talk about what their lives will be like ‘when all this is over’; one could weep for them knowing what their future held.
Central to this story are President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and George Wallace (Tim Roth). Johnson has just been elected by a landslide victory to be President. He has signed the Civil Rights legislation of
1964 and is ready to begin his war on poverty. King wants him to take care of Voting Rights NOW and not to wait three or four months. If you don’t remember, southern states invented all sorts of state laws to keep blacks from registering and voting in their states. It was close to impossible in the deep South for a black person to vote in any election.
The scene where Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) tries to register in Selma should make all of us deeply angry that such things happened. Not listening to Johnson, King goes ahead with his plans to have a voting march in the early spring in Alabama.
The movie shows how such a march was put together. The viewer gets to hear the conflicts explained between King’s supporters and SNCC and even Malcolm X. Malcolm comes to Selma to speak at a church and to Coretta while Martin is in jail. Three weeks later he would be dead. Watching this film, one see’s in King’s eyes what it cost him personally not to fight back. Being non-violent isn’t/wasn’t easy. Those people walking across the Edmund Petty’s bridge are probably some of the bravest people I have ever seen.
King and his core group of workers are young men. Andrew Young (Andre
Holland) and Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) make up his wise counselors. There is a beautiful scene between King and Abernathy that shows just how important their Christian faith was to these two pastors.
Both are in the Selma jail and a worn out King is struggling with what he should do. Abernathy wraps his arms around Martin and begins to quote Matthew 6: 25-27. King finishes up verse 27 and is comforted.
On March 7, 1965 the group begins their march out of Selma to Montgomery. King isn’t there because family issues have kept him home, but he will join them on Monday. Abernathy and Young are leading the group up the hill over the bridge across the Alabama River. At the foot of the hill are the state troopers and the police. Bloody Sunday is what ensues. CBS and other networks were covering the march and people all over the country saw first hand what was going on in Alabama. For those of us who have forgotten or never saw the film clips, this is a powerful film moment. King goes to Selma and calls on people of all faiths to join him there for the next march. The killing of a white Catholic Priest leads LBJ to call George Wallace to the White House for a ‘chat’
about giving up and letting the people be able to vote.
A federal judge rules the marchers have a right to march and Johnson orders the Army to protect the route and the march takes place on March 21-24. King delivers one of his passionate speeches on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building and LBJ asks Congress to pass the Voter’s Rights bill on March 15th.
Some of this history we have forgotten or it has been overshadowed by more current events. Go see this movie and remember. 100 years after Lincoln freed the slaves, black people in this country still were denied the right to vote; even though it was the law of the land as Wallace points out to LBJ. Remember the 82 year old man who would be the first in his family to vote next Election Day when most of us stay home from voting.
I love good historical movies because I love history. I am surprised that Oyelowo didn’t get an Oscar nod for this film. He is an amazing King. When he delivers the speech in Montgomery, you can close your eyes and hear Martin Luther King in the delivery. I liked how the actors blend into their parts. You aren’t focused on who they are as celebrities, but rather on the person they are in history. Like I said earlier; these are young men following their dreams and living their faith. Yes they had feet of clay at times, but they stepped up and helped bring an end to a terrible time in our nation’s history. High school students and even junior high students should all go see this film.