THE BLOG
01/08/2015 12:45 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

The Relevance of 'Selma' Today

The movie Selma, which opens in theaters nationwide this weekend, provides a depiction of one of the most pivotal points in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The events that occurred in Selma, Alabama in the early part of 1965, particularly Bloody Sunday on March 7, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 later on in that year. The movie explores many facets of the Selma campaign including the relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, interaction among different segments of the social justice movement, the fierce resistance by state and local officials to the opening up the ballot box to all races, King family dynamics, brutal beatings, and more.

One of the most significant features of the movie as it relates to present day America are the many barriers that were put forth to block people from exercising their right to vote such as poll taxes, ridiculous qualification tests, literacy exams, morality requirements, property ownership requirements, and voter voucher laws to name a few. The Selma campaign dramatized these injustices and the brutal manner in which they were enforced in a way that brought national media attention and pressure for change. The Voting Rights Act would contain provisions that prohibited many actions that previously interfered with a citizen's ability to vote.

The recent weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder decision in 2013 rolled back the clock on voting rights and opened up new avenues of voter suppression. The Court ruled that the formula in Section 4 that specified what states would have to receive clearance from the Federal government before making minor changes to their voting laws was unconstitutional thus invalidating the preclearance provision in Section 5 also.

Since the discarding of Section 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states that previously needed preclearance to change voting laws have been passing measures that restrict access to the ballot box at a rapid pace. North Carolina passed laws that shortened the period for early voting by seven days, prohibited same-day voter registration, imposed new photo identification requirements, and required the throwing out of ballots that were cast at the wrong polling station. On the same day as the Supreme Court ruling, the Attorney General of Texas, Greg Abbott, immediately moved to enact stricter voter ID requirements. Other states have followed suit.

The movie Selma centered on the fight for federal legislation to break down excessive barriers to exercise the right to vote in 1965. In 2015, we have our own set of voter suppression measures and tactics enacted by states that need corrective action via federal legislation. These issues need to be highlighted and dramatized in order for it to be catapulted back on the current Congressional agenda.

The movie also touches on some of the divisions in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.This presents a counter narrative to the notions of some who believe that everyone feel in line behind Dr. King all the time. The movie portrays some of the tensions between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and some in the the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who felt that King was usurping the Selma campaign that they felt they had started and resented his prominence and media spotlight.

The fact is that by the final year of Dr. King's life most of his peers in the Civil Rights Movement including Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and several others had denounced him in one way or another. A great deal of it came after his strong denouncement of the Vietnam War in New York City's Riverside Church in 1967. This is important to remember now at a time when many recent articles have referred to a "generational division" in the modern day civil rights movement.

One particular incident at the December 13, 2014 "Justice for All March" in Washington D.C. has especially been blown out of proportion. Some activists from Ferguson, MO rushed the stage and grabbed the microphones because of what they saw as a lack of youth being represented. The irony of this claim was that there were many activists in their teens, 20s, and 30s like March co-chairs Mary Pat Hector and Emerald Garner who are 17 and 23 respectively that spoke as well as the March's opening speaker, 33 year old Reverend Charles Williams II. The person that the microphone was snatched from, Kirsten John Foy, is in his 30s and was one of the major organizers of marches in Staten Island for Eric Garner well before the grand jury outcome was announced.

The film is a good reminder that tactical disagreements and organizational divisions are nothing new but that it is vitally important for differing factions to unite their efforts toward major overarching goals. What will matter in the end is not petty bickering over who got to speak on what platform but rather what lasting impact and positive change came out of the particular campaign. The challenges facing the country are immense and there is a place for everyone to contribute his or her efforts and gifts in a push for large scale change. As we move into 2015 there must be a renewed emphasis on legislation and policy demands that go hand in hand with the massive demonstrations that have been taking place over the last few months.

There have been varying sentiments expressed from some in the modern day movement that echoed some of the complaints from the previous generation's SNCC about not wanting to have a "figure head" or singular leader of the movement. There is certainly some validity to these points but there is also little doubt that there was a need for a leader like Dr. King or currently Reverend Al Sharpton who can leverage their relationships with the President and other key policymakers to bring about needed change. They needed Dr. King's relationship with President Johnson as another avenue to put pressure on for changes in the law. Similarly, history will link many of the accomplishments of the Obama administration such as the Affordable Care Act and reforms in the criminal justice system to Rev. Sharpton and others who have played a similar role to King in terms of their interaction with our current President.

The film alluded briefly to President Johnson's War on Poverty and foreshadowed a shift in focus to the economic standing of minority communities. Dr. King posed the question "what does it profit a man to be able to have access to any integrated lunch counter when he doesn't earn enough to take his wife out to dinner? What does it profit a man to have access to the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities and not earn enough to take a vacation?" Though not shown in the movie, the importance of the economic issue was blatantly brought to the forefront later on in 1965 when riots broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles five days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

King would go on to spend a great deal of the last years of his life focusing on poverty and was in the process of planning a massive Poor People's Campaign at the time of his assassination. Likewise, economic justice is an issue that we must wrestle with in present day America. The national job outlook is trending up with recent reports that suggest job growth at rates not experienced since the 1990s. Even with that positive news the unemployment rate for Blacks (11.1 percent) and Hispanics (6.6 percent) is still higher than the national average (5.8 percent). Furthermore, underemployment is rampant in many communities as the working poor continue to struggle to make ends meet. Even issues like education and health are inextricably linked to the economic status of communities. We as a nation cannot adequately address the education of students without addressing the financial predicament of their parents and the economic development of their communities.

Finally, the movie gives viewers a glimpse into the personal agony that Dr. King and his family experienced throughout those turbulent years. As we reflect on the movie Selma and the upcoming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday it is important to not only remember the dream but to remember the cost of the dream. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1955 from Boston University, Dr. King and his wife Coretta could have stayed in the North and lived a life of relative leisure but he opted to go back to the South and ultimately devote himself fully to the cause of civil rights and social justice.

Dr. King would pay an incredible personal price for this cause. He was arrested 30 times. His house was bombed when he lived in Montgomery, Alabama. He was stabbed in 1958 in New York City while on a book tour. He was assaulted on an airplane. He was pelted with rocks while marching for open housing in the Chicago suburbs. He was harassed for years by the FBI. The Ku Klux Klan had contracts out to kill Dr. King when he came to various cities across the South. He was under the imminent and credible threat of death every day for years.

Dr. King and many of the other individuals who contributed to the movement and the passage of those monumental pieces of legislation risked everything and left all that they had on the field. Our challenge is to lose ourselves in the mission of making this country a better place with more avenues of opportunity for all people. Our challenge is to leave every ounce of energy and ability that we have on the field. If we do that then we will win on voting rights, we'll win on gun violence, we'll win on police brutality, we'll win on education, we'll win on job creation, and we'll win on advancing the cause of justice.

--

Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University