Movements of the oppressed and of working people have always treasured the names of the places where their members have been martyred, where they have won famous victories or suffered defeats. No explanation or additional words are needed to communicate those memories to people familiar with history of rebellion and resistance. We know the significance of Peterloo, Saltley Gates, Orgreave, Cable street, Tiananmen Square or Stonewall. But maybe the majority of people who do not place themselves in our movement have little idea of their significance. New generations of radicalised people may have no idea. Communicating that memory is as important as today’s campaigns. Understanding the past gives us lessons for now and helps motivate our commitment.. to The film Selma is a beautiful tool that helps to keep the flame of memory alive. Moreover, events in one country can lead directly to events in another so Selma leads to the civil rights movement in Derry.
Schools today often teach about King and the ‘I have a dream speech’ but it is often not contextualised with the violence or politics of prior events. Teachers can now show this film.
Selma tells the story about the battle Martin Luther King led after the victories on desegregation when black people, through boycotts and mass action, had won the right to sit at the lunch counter or at the front of a bus or go to the same schools as white people. As he explains early in the film desegregation without voting rights is a hollow victory. It meant local courts or police in the South would never convict perpetrators of racist violence. Black access to political power was blocked. Formally the constitution guaranteed Black voting rights but the state and counties had Jim Crow laws that effectively prevented Blacks registering. We see a dignified Black woman correctly answering ridiculous questions and reciting bits of the constitution to a racist registration official only to be rebuffed because, despite knowing the number of county judges, she could not recite all 64 names!
By that time King had received the Nobel Peace Prize and had access to the White House. Several scenes show Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) negotiating with King. The president promises eventual change on voting rights but implores King to hold off. At that time the southern Democratic Party supported the Jim Crow laws and covered the racists. George Wallace, the racist Alabama Governor shown in the film, was a Democrat. LBJ had been elected as a Democrat. King refuses any deal and tells the president that the campaign would continue. The film shows the unfolding of that battle.
Unlike some Hollywood films about political leaders this one does not patronise its audience by skirting the political details and discussions. We see the planning and choices made. Selma is chosen because its local sheriff is such a racist. There is a disagreement between the local younger black activists who had been steadily organising the community. King is challenged when he retreats after winning the moral victory of seeing the police stand aside when the mass demonstration walks over the bridge in Selma. Debate about the virtues of non-violent action is aired. Political people would obviously love even more of this. The differences with Malcolm X are raised but in a quite perfunctory way. Contact with King is made via Coretta, King’s wife. Malcolm X suggests his involvement would help King because the government would concede due to the fear of worst trouble from his supporters. It would be interesting to learn more about this intervention. But too much political chat and the film would lose its mass audience.
A problem with such a biopic is that most people know the ending. A good director has to help you experience and understand the process. The film works because it puts you there on the marches, under the police clubs and in the smoke filled rooms where the decisions are made. It balances the leadership scenes with the role of thousands of ordinary people. Most activists do not get to experience the sweaty fear we see brilliantly shown in the film. Black people were aware of how the police were going to react, many had already suffered from them, but they still turned out in their thousands. The director slows up the action with still pauses in the bridge scenes and close ups of the demonstrators. You feel the tension in your stomach in the cinema.
For me also the film reframes the debate between King and the black nationalists around Malcolm X and others who advocated self -defence and rejected appeals to white liberal supporters. I remember many European radicals of the time thought King was well meaning but lumped him in with the reformists against the revolutionary actions of the Black Panthers and others. Here the film shows that King might have called for white liberal support but the centre of gravity of the movement was always black self-organisation. His team called the shots, not white liberals. King rejected a soft deal with LBJ. Even the final demonstrations, confirmed in the actual newsreels shown at the end, only contained a minority of white supporters. Also the strategic need to broaden the campaign with new allies and have a national impact in order to win is captured well in the film. Of course the debate continues about King’s legacy for the politics of the black movement.
As a political movement it relied not on trade unions, the democrats or left groups but on the organisational structures of the black churches and their biblical language and imagery. We see many of his great speeches take place in churches and the memorable phrases are often scriptural quotations. We are familiar with the reactionary role of religious ideology whether Christian groups denying women’s rights or ISIS barbarism. Here we can see religion’s progressive role. A lesson for activists is that people mobilise in all sorts of ways and we have to start from where they are and not impose any narrow schemas about what a movement should look like.
The film does not sanctify King in any way at all. We taste his fear in the night when he talks to his wife about death. You feel his tiredness and doubts. At one stage he even identifies the limits of achieving democratic rights without economic justice. He says what good is it if a black man can sit at the lunch counter if he can’t afford to buy a burger. His extra-marital affairs – also disgustingly exploited by the FBI – are honestly shown along with the pain of Coretta, his wife.
Women are shown in the film as courageous participants in the demonstrations and organisation but history is not rewritten for today. We see that there were hardly any in the leadership team meetings and we do not women on the platforms. However Coretta does play a political role in bringing Malcolm X into contact with King. Recent resistance against police violence shows much has changed in this area.
One clever way of sequencing the events and at the same time showing the repressive role of the FBI is the use of their intelligence logs which flash across the screen like subtitles throughout the movie. Edgar Hoover, the FBI boss, was a rabid anti-communist and racist and had no time for King who was the victim of all sorts of dirty tricks. We see LBJ trying to cosy up to King but at the same time use Hoover’s methods with impunity.
Of course Selma was an important victory that opened the door to other struggles and even led to the election of the first African American president. But in Obama’s America young black men are more likely to end up in prison than in college, a black person in Cuba has more chance than one in the USA of becoming a doctor and police are still regularly killing black people. Unfortunately nothing like the movement led by King exists today. Tellingly the film gives the later biographies of the team around King. Most became integrated into the Democratic Party’s institutional representatives. Despite Jesse Jackson’s radical campaign to become a presidential candidate from within the Democratic party the radicalism of King’s movement was mostly recuperated by that party. Obama was no Jackson.
The rap song that plays over the final credits includes another place, another word – Ferguson.