Selma is a portrayal of the organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the everyday people in Alabama devising and implementing a strategy to secure voting rights for Black people particularly in the South. At the start of the film, we see that the federal government essentially abandoned the South, with little to no implementation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 or basic protection of the rights of Black people. The March to Selma, in which Dr. Martin Luther King played an important part, was a catalytic moment forcing the hand of then President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) to put forth and later sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film is painful at points—displaying the brutal violence and murder of both Blacks and Whites, who together, hand in hand, protested the denial of the Black vote in Selma, long after desegregation’s Brown v. Board win and the Civil Rights Act was passed.
So where is Selma today? What does opportunity look like 50 years later? Today, Dallas County, where Selma is located, is home to one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation – one of every two children is living in poverty and the county is ranked 66th (out of the total 67 counties in the state) in terms of overall health, safety, education and economic wellbeing for children and families. Children of color, primarily Black, are of course situated worst. Over 30% of Blacks and Latinos living in the state of Alabama are poor. Further, states including but not limited to Alabama continue to block the votes of Black citizens whether with voter ID laws or redistricting efforts. The state, and therefore its school systems and neighborhoods, are still hyper segregated. The Dallas County school system for example is 76% Black, in a state where the overall Black population is only just over 33%. From this data we see that the giant gains of Civil Rights are being lost at an increasingly rapid pace; in fact, we have never shifted away from an era of retrenchment.
The road ahead will be difficult. Director Ava DuVernay paints an accurate picture of the risk, difficulty and complexity of one of the most important actions of the Civil Rights Movement. (For an even more in-depth look at the movement as a whole, check out I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne) Whether in the behind the scenes conversations about SCLC’s strategy, which at times was a risk to protestors’ lives, or the deliberate attempts by the CIA (ordered by LBJ and orchestrated by J Edgar Hoover) to dismantle Martin Luther King’s home life, DuVernay did not paint the rosy, pink-tinted Hollywood picture that so often glosses over our collective American history. Instead, we were able to see the reality and the hard, often overlooked work of community organizing, campaign strategy and the art and science of winning real change. I appreciated this most because I believe without an understanding of where we’ve been there is no chance to change the trajectory of our future. And as the film reminds us, each generation leaves a legacy. We must, as Americans, think about the one we want to leave behind.
Where do we go from here? At one point in the screenplay, Dr. King in a conversation with LBJ elegantly connects the issue of voting to a host of other issues, including the justice system. Dr. King knew that voting was one piece of the puzzle for racial equality. He and many movement leaders knew that voting rights could be one of the most strategic, visible and tangible entry points for making change for Black people as a whole.Today’s activists are building on this legacy in their own way.
The most recent ray of light has been the thoughtful, longstanding, organizing and protests that have been the reaction to the senseless killings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of police. We have seen movement and coming together, without any one leader and under the anthem #BlackLivesMatter. Today’s activists know that Black lives mattering can’t just be about protecting Black bodies from the brutality of police violence and the criminal justice system. Black lives mattering has to be about the opportunity for Black people to thrive.
This means an overhaul of the institutions and policies that shape every aspect of our lives. It also means a short-term reform agenda that’s strategically linked to longer term transformational efforts all centered in and led by communities of color that are most impacted. This means investments in the civic infrastructure of our country. This means more philanthropic and government resources for community leaders to authentically engage and organize around multiple issues from voting to housing to employment to economic development and so much more. This means investments in our people, their children’s schools, their training and employment, and where they live, to allow us all, particularly those communities of color that have historically been left out, to better access opportunity.
Let’s continue this work.
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