Are you willing to cross that bridge? – A review of Selma
This past Sunday, as America commemorated the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I decided to take my 10-year-old daughter to see the film Selma. I am so glad I did. It was one of the most important and powerful films I have ever seen. I was brought to tears during the opening scenes of the film.
Selma opens with Dr. King delivering his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” at the funeral for three of the four children (Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley) killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. As David Oyelowo, who plays Dr. King in the film, delivers that famous eulogy, that horrible act of terrorism is re-enacted as four jubilant children walk down the stairs of their church ready to praise the Lord, when a violent explosion takes their lives.
The producers and screenwriters of Selma do not hold back when it comes to showing the true nature of the violence incurred upon African-Americans and their supporters during this time in the deep South, from the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed black youth killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965 (a crime for which the officer was not prosecuted until 2007), to the brutal killing of James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist preacher, at the hands of white segregationists also in 1965. We often forget, or are unaware, of just how violent it was for African-Americans living in the South. From 1877 to 1950, nearly 4,000 documented cases of race-related lynchings took place in the South (and that is just the ones we have records of). In school we are taught much about segregation and Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement, but we rarely hear about these horrific episodes. We rarely experience these intense human stories of suffering. There is no whitewashing of history in Selma.
I did not know the full story of the Selma march before seeing the film. I did not realize that it actually took three attempts to make that historic protest successful. The first attempt, with only African-Americans participating, ended with the events referred to as “Bloody Sunday” when Alabama police brutalized the marchers, including John Lewis, who is now a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. After the first attempt, Dr. King issued a call to religious leaders and laypersons on national television asking them to come to Selma, leading to the second attempt. This time with white folks participating, the cops stepped aside; but for reasons not made clear in the film, Dr. King refuses to lead the marchers across the bridge. Only after more violence, a courtroom battle, and the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a reluctant President Johnson does the third attempt succeed under the protection of federal troops. The lesson to be drawn here is that African-Americans could not have won alone. It took the will of the nation to end the oppression and bloodshed. Leaving this issue to states’ rights would have allowed entrenched racism of the Alabama political establishment to continue. Worse yet, another civil war could have erupted.
This past Sunday my daughter and I watched a film about a group of American heroes who fought, with some laying down their lives in the process, for the rights of each and every one of us. The words of the previous sentence were chosen very deliberately. The Americans who fought in Selma in 1965 deserve the same honor and recognition bestowed upon any veteran who has ever fought and/or died in any foreign war. As a veteran of the United States Air Force, I salute the heroes of Selma who fought for our freedoms. As St. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26 ESV). Racism and other forms of bigotry are only possible when the “other” exists, when we see a division between “us” and “them.” When we see beyond race, their rights become our rights. Much of the world’s troubles should be attributed to our failure to move from “other” to “brother.”
Selma is a movie every red-white-and-blue-blooded American should see. As the movie comes to a close, the marchers triumphantly cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Selma, Alabama waving American flags as protesters brandish their confederate flags. A very fitting closing which demonstrates exactly who the real Patriots were in that fight. So the question Selma leaves for us today is: Are you willing to cross that bridge?