I was 8 years old when Dr. King led his infamous march from Selma to Montgomery and 10 when he was assassinated. I grew up in the south, just 20 miles north of Atlanta. So names like Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, and John Lewis were common to me and in the news. (Of course I can’t really say at what age those names became so familiar.) I’d like to say there was no racial bias in the home of my youth but really, I think like the rest of America and particularly the south, there were a range of values regarding race and ethnicity among my parents and six siblings.
I have memories of asking why people were entering the back door of the Strand theater and being told it was because they were colored. Somehow that was supposed to answer my question but it really didn’t. And while I may have a few facts and circumstances confused, I remember being told stories about how colored people were monkeys who lost their tails. Then there was something about Cain and Abel and how the bad brother was cursed by God and became colored.
I was distraught when Dr. King was shot. I had to leave the family living room to be alone. I remember being squat down next to a wall in my bedroom. Someone entered and I asked how they felt about the shooting. They answered, “I don’t want to answer because lightning might strike me down.”
My Mom had a niece (white) who married and had children with a black man. I was almost a teenager at this point. Her family shunned the niece. But my Mother didn’t. When we visited her niece the man wasn’t there. I suppose they were divorced or maybe they didn’t even marry and just had children together. My Mother said she didn’t agree with what they did, but loved her and her children all the same.
I grew up hearing tales of a grandfather who helped hang a black man. I was tormented by this thought; thinking of myself as a descendant of someone who committed such a heinous crime. I often think my return to Atlanta after Peace Corps service was to live in Grant Park where my Grandmother and parents once lived, and vote for our first black President – not because he was black but because he was the right person for the job. And while I acknowledged that at the time, that wasn’t my motivation to move back or to vote. My motivation was to heal. And by coming full circle – from a man who hanged another for the color of us skin to a granddaughter who voted for a man who happened to have that same color of skin, was healing for me.
As a teenager I grew to hate the then governor of Alabama, George Wallace. This was before I realized that to hate the hater, I become what I hate. One year at the North Georgia State Fair, Governor Wallace was there and was signing autographs. Being the instigator I was, I walked over and asked him to autograph the sleeve of my Army jacket (popular fashion at the time). He refused at first but finally gave in and I felt some sort of justice that I’d made him do something he didn’t want to do. (Okay give me a break…I said I was a teenager!)
It was with these experiences and many more like them that I went to see the much anticipated movie, Selma, directed by Ava DuVerney. I had high hopes and expected it to be hard to watch. I hadn’t read a lot about it because I wanted to go in with only my thoughts and expectations, not those of others. I knew that Oprah was in it and a lot of people I’d never heard of. Brad Pitt had something to do with it. It was the story told from the perspective of the marchers.
I won’t share any spoilers. I will say that within the first few moments of the movie I was completely engaged. As people (hard to call them characters) were introduced, I felt like I was getting to know people I had heard of my whole life but didn’t really know. Yet, they were all people I admired. The only portrayal I didn’t care for was that of President Johnson and you might think that’s a no brainer with all the controversy around his portrayal. I didn’t think the actor portrayed his persona as well as so many I’ve seen. It had nothing to do with whether his actions were portrayed historically accurate. Before he even spoke I felt like he was a bad choice to play LBJ.
I was moved by the movie on many levels and I learned some things. This wasn’t a documentary and I know that movies take liberties as all forms of story telling do. But I also knew there was a lot of historical accuracy and much of it I did not know…
First of all, I am a big fan of Congressman John Lewis. He’s known as the conscious of Congress for a reason. And I was especially honored to have him as my Congressman when I lived in Atlanta. I knew he had marched with Dr. King but I really didn’t know his story – where he came from and how he became engaged with Dr. King. It was painful to watch so vividly on the screen what he went through as a young man. And while I didn’t know it was possible, my admiration and love for him grew.
I knew the march in Selma was focused on voting rights for African Americans. And I knew that local officials during that time placed impossible requirements on those who wanted to register to vote. I didn’t realize just how impossible and ridiculous some of those were. And while I knew intellectually, I did not truly realize just how much like that time, some of our issues are today.
While watching a scene where the leaders were discussing topics to take to the White House, I thought about redistricting and picture IDs and our current political system. There remains a major gap in how people are treated in this country and politicians who do not serve all the people have clearly managed to create a system and structure in their favor once again. And we’ve allowed it.
I think for people like me the movie will be educational. Some people take offense to that because of the way President Lyndon B. Johnson was portrayed. They feel the movie devalued his true work and legacy like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Well, if Selma was a documentary, I would ask more questions. But I think it’s a movie based on the perception of those who were denied their rights and many who were beaten and who had friends, black and white, who were murdered by their government and by civilians for simply asking for what was already Constitutional theirs. I suspect not everyone saw President Johnson’s part the same way and my admiration for him wasn’t swayed by this one movie. I believe that politicians above all tend to reveal their light and their dark through their behaviors and actions. I say above all because they are under the scrutiny of public observation and historical reflection.
The people who might most benefit from watching this film, may not go see it. If you are on the fence about it, I encourage you to go. Go with an open mind and a few tissues. Go to learn or go to heal. Go out of curiousity. Just go. Pay attention. And consider our past in the context of our present. Is it possible to create a more loving, compassionate, and fair future?