It’s hard for millennials to imagine that not so long ago, blacks, who Constitutionally had the right to vote since 1870, were routinely blocked from exercising that right. But antagonistic county commissioners and viciously contrived regulatory barriers in the South routinely denied even the ability to register. In Selma, Alabama, a majority of the people were black, but just one percent had been allowed to register. Often, assertion of their rights led to violence, including death. That battle is the subject of a powerful new movie, Selma, opening here in January, specially screened on Monday night at AMC Boston Common Theater.
In 1965, during the early weeks of the Selma voting rights campaign, 70 million people watched in horror as our black-and-white televisions broadcast how peaceful protests were met with tear gas and clubs. Local sheriff Jim Clark was a Bull Connor type, out for blood. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to persuade President Lyndon Johnson to introduce a voting rights act to end the nefarious practices, but LBJ insisted over and over it was just not the right time (I wish Bryan Cranston had been available for the role).
MLK was determined to bring about change, and called for a peaceful march across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge to start the 54 mile trudge from Selma to Montgomery to petition Governor George Wallace. The resulting beatings and deaths (including the killing of Massachusetts Unitarian minister James Reeb, a white man) prompted national outrage. Finally, LBJ bowed to pressure and promised to file a bill the following week to effect needed changes. King and his colleagues continued to lay plans for the march.
Following a local hearing, legendary federal Judge Frank Johnson defended the protesters’ right to do so under the First Amendment (A George Wallace law school classmate, he had earlier ruled in favor of Rosa Parks.) King was joined by clergy from the north and south, white and black, some celebrities (notably Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne) but mostly clergy and ordinary people of principle and courage- who included Ralph Abernethy, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and many outstanding individuals who later became leaders and household names. From 2000 marchers, the crowd grew to 25,000. Sit-ins occurred in Washington and elsewhere. This was a pivotal and emotional moment in the civil rights movement, giving voice to the despair of longstanding injustice and hopelessness.
Director Ava DuVernay’s movie delivers a powerful impact, effectively using grainy old news footage of the march, tapping into a range of emotions. Following the screening, journalist Carmen Fields moderated a thoughtful panel that included former mayor Ray Flynn, Mayor Marty Walsh, and ministers Jeffrey Brown and Liz Walker, commenting on the ingredients for building a social movement.
All reflected on Ferguson and Staten Island, where grand juries refused to indict police who had used excessive force, killing unarmed black men in situations of minor infractions. All spoke passionately about the need for social and economic justice and the importance of exercising those hard-won voting rights. “Fifty percent participation isn’t good enough, or 18 percent in a state election in an off year,” said Walsh. “People have put their lives on the line for the right to vote.”
The message of Selma, (event and movie) clearly resonates with Walsh. On Wednesday, in his annual report to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, he outlined his initiatives in economic development, housing, early education and public safety. He spoke of “police and community working together” to build trust and the importance of going beyond feel-good rhetoric. Boston’s economy is soaring he said, but “growth itself isn’t good enough.” “Inequality is slowing down the economy.”
Selma should be required viewing for millennials and teens who didn’t live through the civil rights movement of the sixties. It could help them understand the despair that still exists when people are treated unequally by the law and by habit. The film could help move today’s protests to the next step and foster the conversation necessary to make substantive change.
Whether we admit it or not, bias remains deeply ingrained. Prior to today’s Chamber meeting, a highly placed black executive shared with me the subtle forms of bias she experiences, such as when upscale Boston restaurant maître d’s regularly seat her and her husband at out-of-the way tables, something, she said, that doesn’t happen in the western suburbs. The time for constructive dialogue is long overdue.
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