Tuesday, January 13, 2015


A review of the film

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Starring: David Oyelowo & Carmen Ejogo

For anyone who is familiar with the civil rights movement, the word Selma has a unique meaning.  This is where those who dedicated themselves to overturning Jim Crow segregation, faced off against the armed forces of the state of Alabama. 

After the initial demonstration endured an attack by those armed forces, they returned and marched on to the state capitol in Montgomery.  Shortly after this demonstration, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that allowed Black people to vote in the former Jim Crow states.

This is how most history books generally report this momentous event.  The film Selma gives us a more intimate view of the events surrounding the confrontation.  We see the individuals who stood up after being beaten, arrested, and even seeing loved ones murdered, continue to challenge powerful state and federal authorities.

A background to the story

While this is a powerful film worth seeing, there is a considerable amount of information not included in the film that I feel is worth considering.  The confrontation between the civil rights demonstrators and the Alabama armed forces took place at the Edmond Pettus Bridge. 

Edmond Winston Pettus was a brigadier general for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.  He later became a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  After the defeat of radical reconstruction Pettus became a U.S. Senator from Alabama.

We might consider that after the Civil War the U.S. government adopted the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  These amendments gave citizenship rights as well as voting rights to every male citizen of this country.  This included the four million Black people who had been slaves before the Civil War.  It wasn’t until 1920 that women gained the right to vote.

There was an exception to the 14th Amendment.  This stated that anyone who had participated in “insurrection” was not eligible to be elected to public office.  This would include anyone who served in the Confederate armed forces.  If this was the case, how was it possible for Edmond Winston Pettus to become a U.S. Senator after the 14th Amendment was signed into law?  Why was it that millions of Black people were effectively prevented from voting when the 15th Amendment clearly supported this right?

The answer to these questions is clear.  The U.S. government cared more about appeasing Jim Crow segregationists than they did about supporting the rights of Black people.  We can see the slight change in government policy in one of the characters in the film Selma.  This was President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Johnson started his career as a Democratic Party Jim Crow politician from Texas.  His personal friends included many of the Jim Crow politicians throughout the south.  This is why John F. Kennedy chose Johnson to be his Vice-Presidential candidate.

In the film Selma there is a scene that portrayed President Johnson meeting with the then Alabama Governor George Wallace.  At this meeting Johnson chastised Wallace for not allowing Black people to vote in Alabama.  The facts were that it was Johnson who was required to ensure that each and every Black person in this country was in no way restricted from voting. 

In fact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were mere redundancies of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  An honest President would have acknowledged this and admitted that every President since the defeat of radical reconstruction was in willful violation of the law.  This was one of the main reasons why Jim Crow segregation was allowed to exist.

By any means necessary

One of the aspects of this film worth discussion was Dr. Martin Luther King’s advocating of non-violence.  Malcolm X, on the other hand, advocated for defending the struggle “by any means necessary.”  Malcolm went to Alabama and talked to young people about the need to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan.

There are at least two events in history that prove the correctness of Malcolm X’s approach.  Before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power the German Social Democratic and Communist Parties had a massive following.  These parties had armed wings designed to defend these organizations.  However, when armed thugs loyal to the Nazis attacked working class demonstrations, the social democrats and communists refused to use their forces to defend workers.  This was one of the primary reasons why Hitler was able to come to power.

In South Africa the African National Congress advocated for non-violence for most of its history.  Then on March 21, 1960 about 5,000 people demonstrated against the apartheid system in Sharpeville.  The police fired on the unarmed demonstrators and murdered 69 of the participants.  Most were shot in the back.

This event caused Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to abandon their strategy of non-violence.  Clearly non-violence only works when opposing forces are willing to respect it.    

The struggle continues

While I disagree with Martin Luther King’s support of non-violence, he was one of the clear leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.  I would also disagree with his decision to support Lyndon Johnson when he ran for President.

However, while he may have made several mistakes, I believe he was a consistent supporter of the struggle for liberation.  This led King to give a speech in opposition to the war against Vietnam in April of 1967. 

My opinion is that, the resistance of the Vietnamese people, the opposition to the war in the United States, as well as King’s anti-war speech, were the main ingredients that ended the political career of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson had been elected to office by perhaps the largest plurality in U.S. history.  After four years in office, he declined to run for re-election.

The film Selma isn’t just about and event that occurred in the past.  Today demonstrations are erupting against murders carried out by the police, against “stop and frisk” searches, and for a higher minimum wage.  These demonstrators are finding themselves opposed to the same forces that civil rights activists opposed half a century ago.  These would include: corporate interests, the police, as well as local and federal government.      
For anyone interested in supporting the struggle for justice in this country, we have a long history to draw on.  The film Selma gives us a glimmer of a part of that history that says that working people have the potential to change the world.


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