When the events depicted in the film Selma occurred, I was a four-year-old girl in rural New England. I do remember seeing Dr. King on the news when I was a bit older and definitely remember his assassination in 1968 in the midst of the Memphis strike by black public works employees who were facing discrimination. It was incomprehensible – then and now – that a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of such an important social movement could have been only 39 when he died. Because he was such a force and martyred so young, his legacy became a legend, masking his complexity as a human being. While the public life of some of those around King, such as Ambassador Andrew Young and Rep. John Lewis, was decades long and vital to keeping the civil rights movement going forward while remembered its momentous, if painful, past, King’s life has been shown on film only as a secondary character until the release of Selma a few weeks ago. The film shows how complicated things were for Dr. King during the 1965 voting rights struggle that led to the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Daniel Oyelowo portrays the complexity of Dr. King, trying to balance political, religious, tactical, family, personal, and interpersonal forces in situations where even the best possible course risked injury and death. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King underscores the precariousness of their family’s life and the strength of will that it took for her to keep the family together in the face of betrayal, wiretapping, and threats against all the family members, including their four children. Although based on actual events, the film is not a documentary and the script does not include King’s own public speeches, because his sons would not give the filmmakers permission to use them. Despite that, the speeches in the film sound like those of Dr. King and Oyelowo delivers them with passion.
Throughout the film, I was reminded of how far we have come as a nation – and how many challenges or even regressions are still to be rectified. While I am grateful that voter registration forms no longer ask for an applicant’s race, we have recently seen some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act scaled back and the advent of new voter ID laws and changes in polling hours and places that make it difficult for older voters, people of color, and those in low-income communities to vote as they are entitled to as US citizens.
In Selma, we see police arrest, beat, and use teargas against peaceful protestors. We sometimes see this happen now, too, in Ferguson, MO and other cities protesting against racial problems with policing. We saw police use similar tactics during the breakup of the Occupy movement. It’s sad that I have cause to worry more about my nephews who are of color being stopped or profiled by police than I do about my nephew who is white. In the fifty years since the march from Selma to Montgomery, we should have progressed more than we have.
Near the beginning of the film, a number of protestors, including Dr. King, are jailed for trying to enter the courthouse through the front door. I immediately thought of the members of We Are Seneca Lake and their supporters, who have been barred from entering the court room and the town hall in Reading, forced to stand out in the frigid cold, not even able to wait in heated cars because the police have banned parking near the court. Non-violent civil disobedience to keep Crestwood from expanding fossil fuel storage in the salt caverns near the drinking water supply of 100,000 people has turned into over 180 arrests with hearings by a judge who refuses to recuse himself despite industry ties and who is violating the legal rights of the defendants.
There are many tactical/political conflicts in the film. What should be handled by federal, state, or local governments? When is the right time for a march or civil disobedience or legislation? When is the right time to bring in allies? What is the relationship between faith values and government? Who makes the final decision on strategy? These factors and others have been playing out for me over the last several years in our fight against high volume hydrofracking in New York State. While I am not in a leadership position, I have interacted with many different organizations and leaders with differing opinions on the right way to proceed. Should we work for a continued delay or a ban? Legislative action or executive/regulatory action? Work on local bans or just on the state level? Argue on scientific grounds, environmental grounds, economic grounds, or moral grounds? I admit that my own approach was to throw everything I could at the problem, changing tack depending on the circumstance.
While we were thrilled but stunned by the Dec. 17 announcement of an impending state-wide ban , we still have a lot of work to do on infrastructure and waste disposal projects in the state, continuing work to keep the ban in place, accelerating our roll-out of renewable energy and efficiency projects, and helping our allies to stop unconventional fossil fuel production in their states, too.
As in Selma, any victory is only partial and leads to more work. Keep on keeping on.