Selma: A Bittersweet March–by Kenneth Evan Haynes

Posted: February 5, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized

MV5BODMxNjAwODA2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzc0NjgzMzE@._V1__SX1394_SY676_This past Tuesday, I went to see Selma, a film that depicts Dr. Martin Luther King’s (MLK) march from Selma, Alabama to the capitol steps in Birmingham to protest African Americans being denied the right to vote. At that time in America’s history in 1965, much of the south was still segregated, despite President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing discrimination against all races, including segregation. A large part of this segregation was that voting registration offices denied African Americans their right to vote.  After the Civil Rights Act made it illegal deny African Americans that right, voting registration offices in southern states, including Alabama’s, required them to pass a verbal patriotic test similar to what an immigrant would have to know to become a citizen in order to be legally approved to vote.

This is fact is made clear in one of the opening scenes of the film where Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) fills out the form that should register her to vote.  She walks to the registrar’s window and places her form through the slot for the registrar to inspect. Normally for any Caucasian citizen, the registrar would scan the form and then stamp it with the word “Approved,” signifying the citizen being granted the right to vote; but since Cooper was an African American, the registrar asked her to recite the preamble of the constitution, how many judges were appointed for the state of Alabama, and to name those judges.  Cooper recited the first paragraph of the preamble, gave the number of judges when the registrar interrupted her recitation, but could not name the judges, so the registrar stamped her form “Denied”.

Denials like hers and those of others drove MLK and his friends to protestant action, action that they knew might cost them their lives.  The story of that action is bittersweet.  Bitter because of the hateful acts of racial bigotry that were done to MLK and his friends, including two murders.  Sweet because of MLK’s faithful God-fearing response and the resilience of his compatriots.

Scripture is not often quoted in films, but Selma is salted with it.  In one scene, MLK (played by David Oyelowo) tells his friend Rev. Hosea Williams (played by Wendell Pierce) that he worries that their efforts could risk the lives of others down the road.  Williams responds by quoting Matthew 6:26-27: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”

And yet, MLK is given very good reasons to worry.  In several scenes, his wife receives a call to their house accusing her husband of adultery and saying they will be damned.  The other forms of persecution depicted are far more violent and sometimes brutal. One young man was killed by a policeman the night after MLK and his friends made a stand against denials to vote at the Selma registry office. In addition, the FBI are watching and recording MLK’s words and deeds throughout the film, and in several scenes an agent of theirs tries to talk MLK into backing down. Their last conversation is about the speech he plans to make on the capitol steps after the march.  The agent fears there may be an attempt on his life during the speech.  MLK responds, “I’m like any man, I want to live a long happy life. But I’m not doing what I want; I’m doing what God wants me to.”  MLK was willing to be persecuted to death for his Lord. I wonder if Christians in the American church today can truthfully say the same.

  1. dbw says:

    So I don’t come across the wrong way: i’m referring specifically to the “capitol steps.” (Hint: They’re not in Birmingham.)

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