Selma: Civil Rights and Strategies for the Future

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By Douglas Williams

Dallas County Election Clerk: What is the preamble to the United States Constitution?

Annie Lee Cooper: (recites part of the preamble)


Dallas County Election Clerk: How many county judges are there in Alabama?


Annie Lee Cooper: 67.


Dallas County Election Clerk: Name them.

And with that, any hope Annie Lee Cooper might have had that she would be able to cast a ballot in the 1964 elections vanished with the sound of a rejection stamp being mercilessly smashed against her voter registration application. This was the cruelty of a system of tests, taxes, and turpitude that kept Black voters across the old Confederacy from having any kind of say in what the Framers meant to be a democracy. It is the story of my grandmother, Dorothy Marie Boone-Anderson, who had to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar before officials in Nansemond County, Virginia would allow her to cast a ballot.

It is also the powerful beginning to the best major-studio movie any socialist will see this year.

Strategy

If you have not done political organizing, especially issue-based organizing, it can be easy to miss the foundational work that must be done in order to bring a movement to public view. After all, the public only gets to see the final product of what has either been weeks, months, or years of planning in the making. Social media has furthered the hyper-individualized perception of what activism looks like, with ordinary people seemingly just one hashtag or major event away from being catapulted to the heights of celebrity activism. But if you look back on any rights-granting movement for change, the final victory was won by coalitions of people united for a common purpose.

The greatest gift that director Ava DuVernay gives us with Selma is when, at several points in the movie, she pulls back the curtain and allows us to see the kinds of intense deliberations that forge these bonds. Debates over policy priorities. Debates over strategy. Should the movement continue to negotiate with President Lyndon B. Johnson, or should they forgo politicking altogether and use the community’s unquenchable thirst for freedom as their ultimate pressure point? A central tension that plays out in these discussions is one that we leftists are all too familiar with: that of the young upstarts (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) versus the movement veterans (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). It is a division that we have seen in contemporary movement work as well, as the division between the young activists powering the Black Lives Matter protests and the older activists from the Civil Rights Movement era clash in forums more public than ever.

From these battles, however, Selma gives us a lesson: that any movement requires a bit of give-and-take, a bit of compromise, and a bit of patience. Rome was not built in a day, and neither were the movements that have given us the America that we know today. The work of building coalitions is central to our collective liberation, and even if the cinematography had not been fantastic, the score moving, or the acting impeccable, Selma would be well worth the price of admission simply for its portrayal of that work.

Past as Prologue

“We’ve gotta stop thinking about 1965 and start thinking about 1985.” -President Lyndon B. Johnson to Alabama Gov. George Wallace in “Selma”

The great irony of this movie is in the one person who would have had the ability to see what his legacy had wrought at either bookend: George Corley Wallace, Jr.

Alabama’s longest-serving governor (he served sixteen years in total) did not start out as the deadly demagogue who would incite his white far-right base to murder throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Far from it, in fact; as a judge in Alabama’s Third Circuit, he was known for his fairness in dealing with defendants and their counsel. J.L. Chestnut, who was the first Black lawyer in the history of Selma, Alabama, once stated that, "Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me 'Mister' in a courtroom." When he ran against Attorney General John M. Patterson in the 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary, then the only race that mattered in the one-party hegemony that was Southern democracy, he had the backing of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP as he stumped on a platform of increased funding for public works and education. His defeat at the hands of the Klan-backed Patterson led him to remark to an aide, "Seymore, you know why I lost that governor's race? ... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."

The rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

While campaigning in Laurel, Maryland for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, he was shot several times by Arthur Bremer outside of a local mall. The shooting left him paralyzed from the waist down and ended any hope he had of becoming President. A few years later, citing his conversion to Christianity, he renounced his segregationist views and apologized to Black leaders in Alabama for the pain and hurt his actions had caused them. When he returned to the Governor’s Mansion for the final time in 1983, he would make amends by appointing more Black people to state office and judgeships than any governor in Alabama’s history.

That’s right: the man who most symbolized the visceral hatred that Southern whites held for their Black neighbors spent his last years in public life seeking to dismantle the legacy he had wrought. And yet, the cruel twists of fate that have characterized race relations in the United States are such that we are still fighting these battles today. The Supreme Court has decreed that we have made enough progress on said race relations, in fact, that we no longer need the protections afforded to us by the law that these marchers fought for five decades ago. The juries of America have decided that murder is okay so long as you are wearing a badge. It is hard not to see a photo like this, with fully armed police using the weapons of war against their own citizens, and think of Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark leading his officers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to carry out the atrocity now known as Bloody Sunday.

We come up on Black History Month in a time of social, economic, and political crisis for the Black working class. This movie is like a salve, soothing the wounds of our battered souls and healing the battle scars from our fight to overturn the systems that continue to keep us “in our place”. But it is also a roadmap; a visual aid showing the power that human beings can have when they decide that enough is enough. If we can overcome the structural and personal barriers that stand in our way, we may one day get to see the mountaintop that Martin Luther King, Jr. prophesied on the night before his murder.

For all that they have given us, we owe them at least that much.

Doug_Wiliams_AID.png Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama. He blogs at The South Lawn and Hack the Union. 

In recognition of Black History Month. 




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