By / Mar 5

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the first of the Selma to Montgomery marches. During the month of March 1965, civil rights leaders led three protest marches that were pivotal in advancing the rights of black Americans. Here are five sets of facts you should know about these historic marches:

1. Segregation in America officially ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet in some Southern states measures were still being taken to obstruct black Americans from registering to vote. During the same month as the passage of the civil rights legislation, an Alabama judge issued an injunction forbidding any gathering of three or more people under sponsorship of numerous civil rights groups. This order shut down efforts to oppose disenfranchisement in the state for the remainder of 1964.

2. During the first few months of 1965, several groups and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the injunction and lead marches in Selma, Alabama. During a peaceful protest on February 18, white segregationists attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators in the nearby town of Marion. In the ensuing chaos, an Alabama state trooper fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and Baptist deacon. Civil rights groups organized a march for March 7 from Selma to Montgomery to demand justice for the murder of Jackson and to confront Governor Wallace over voting rights. In response, Wallace issues a declaration forbidding the protest and orders the state troopers to "Use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march."

3. After Sunday morning church services on March 7, approximately 600 demonstrators headed east out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80. When they came to Edmund Pettus Bridge, just outside the city, state troopers confronted them. The police shot tear gas into the crowd and began using their clubs to beat the protestors. By the end of the day, which will become known as “Bloody Sunday”, 100 of the 600 marchers required medical attention for fractured skulls, broken teeth and limbs, gas poisoning, and whip lashes. The brutality was broadcast on national television, causing Americans across the country to be dismayed by the police violence. Numerous civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths traveled to Selma to join the protest.

4. On Tuesday, March 9, King leads another march of 3,000 protestors. When they reach the bridge this time they are met by 500 state troopers. As the marchers near, the troopers open their ranks, seemingly to allow the protestors to continue on. King realizes that continuing will incite the police to more violence, so he had the marchers turn around and returned back to their rally point at Brown Chapel.

5. The injunction against the protestors is lifted on March 17 by a federal judge, with the backing and support of President Lyndon Johnson. The president then federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 army troops to escort the march from Selma.  On Sunday, March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel for the third attempt. On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from to the State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech How Long, Not Long. In the speech, King said:

"They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around."

Because of the attention raised by the protests, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote—first awarded by the 15th Amendment—to all black Americans.

By / Jan 19

Welcome to Questions and Ethics. This is Russell Moore, and today we are having a very special conversation with David Oyelowo who is the actor in the new movie, Selma, playing Martin Luther King, Jr. I saw that movie right before Christmas. I had a screening my friend, Joshua Dubois, put together, and it was a powerful movie. I mean, I found myself thinking about the movie constantly in the weeks since seeing it. And so it is a really great joy to have this phenomenal actor playing Dr. King with us today in this conversation. David, thanks for being with us.

David Oyelowo: My pleasure. My absolute pleasure.

RDM: Now, you, I understand, have always had a sense that one day you would play Martin Luther King.

DO: Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say always, but certainly since 2007. As the listeners can hear, I’m not from America. I am from the UK, and my wife and I moved to Las Angeles in May of 2007. July of 2007 I read the script for Selma and felt God very clearly say to me I was going to play Dr. King in this film, Selma. And at that stage of course I knew who Dr. King was, but I had never looked at him and thought, oh yeah, one day I am going to play him. I had never really delved deep into who he was either. But, you know, I do know the voice of God in my life, and having heard that—even though it shocked me, it confused me because you know, I’m British. At that point I hadn’t done any Hollywood films. I knew that I was not by any means going to be the first pick for this. But then you know that’s where the journey towards all of this began.

RDM: Was it difficult to sort of inhabit—as you mentioned, you are British and Dr. King was a Southerner, and you had to sort of recalibrate your accent and everything else—how did you prepare to sort of inhabit the life of this really remarkably phenomenal figure in American and in world history?

DO: Well, you know, God having told me that I was going to do this, he didn’t abandon me. He took me through an education in what it is to be African American in this country over the last hundred and fifty years. I did a film called Lincoln in which I played a unionist soldier opposite Abraham Lincoln, opposite Daniel Day Lewis, who played him in that film. I played an African American fighter pilot in the film Red Tails. I played a preacher in The Help, and then I played the son of a butler in The Butler, a character who is in the Freedom Rides, in the sit-ins, becomes a Black Panther and then a senator. So, you know, Lincoln is set in 1865. Selma is set in 1965. The Butler goes all the way up to 2008, the beginning of President Obama’s presidency. And so, you know, that was a journey I didn’t anticipate. Those films came along in between 2007 and now doing Selma. So, that helped in terms of just getting culturally, getting imbedded into what went on in this country racially, civil rights-wise over the last hundred and fifty years. And then you know, again, knowing that this is something I was going to do at some point, I spoke with everyone who would speak to me who knew anything about him, who knew him. Andrew Young, who was a right hand man to him, was incredibly helpful to me talking to me for hours on end, showing me footage that the public hadn’t really seen. I went to where he was born, where he died, and everywhere in between. And so, you know, between that and then just the work of when we actually knew we were going to start shooting, putting on a bit of weight, shaving my hairline back, breaking down the way he spoke, working with a dialect coach, shooting in Atlanta, at Selma, and Montgomery, all the places where some of these events took place, all of that helped with getting me into the character.

RDM: What struck me in watching this film is that it is a very morally serious film from beginning to end.  It starts with that act of awful terrorism against the children in the Birmingham church, and it goes all the way through the march on Selma and is morally serious without being preachy. You know, sometimes when films are dealing with morally serious issues, they can come across sort of like after school specials from back in the day where here’s the moral of the story and the people who are on the wrong side are totally wrong and cartoonish and caricatured, and it avoided that. I wonder how it was able to be morally serious in dealing with the complexity. I think it had a high view of sin showing how people could be on the wrong side without turning them into cartoon villains and showing the struggles that people on the right side were having internally as they are working through this. It wasn’t two-dimensional to me at all. Was that an intentional process as you are preparing to bring this Selma picture to the rest of the world?

DO: It was absolutely intentional, and I think that the way that you make sure that it doesn’t feel like an after school special is that you give every single character complexity and dimension. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and therefore that’s why we’re called to not judge. But there is absolutely, there is a moral code by which we are supposed to live, especially as Christians, and you know, Dr. King and his band of brothers and sisters, a lot of them were ministers, and what they were talking about was love in the face of hate, sacrificial love as exhibited by Christ in the Bible, and so they had a moral position, a spiritual position, but they were still human beings. They were fallible. And that is why I think it doesn’t feel like a sermon on film because you are seeing yourself in Dr. King. We wanted to make sure, even though he is an icon, even though he is a celebrated historical figure, he didn’t walk this earth thinking of himself as an icon. He was a fallible man. He had weaknesses. He had strengths. And we want to exhibit all of those so that we see ourselves onscreen. I truly believe that’s why we go to the movies. We go to see ourselves onscreen as opposed to just sit back and watch super humans interacting with each other. And that is what we did. We tried to give layering to Dr. King, layering to LBJ, layering to Coretta Scott King, layering to the movement to show that not everyone was moving in the same direction even within the movement. There were disagreements as to how to proceed, even though the endgame was the same, and that’s life. That’s what we all recognize. And I think that’s why people are watching the film and are identifying with it and are inspired by it because it reflects their own lives.

RDM: You know, one of the things that I’ve heard, and maybe you can correct me if this is not true, is that there was an issue that no one has the rights to use the actual content of the Dr. King sermons and addresses that we are all so familiar with, so all of the dialogue, all of the preaching, all of the speaking had to be new, had to be other than that. Do you think that that was helpful in kind of getting around the way that we all have—the March on Washington speech, it’s imbedded in our minds, and so it can sort of seem above reality. It’s something we know from history—So that in with this we were confronted with words we hadn’t heard before, content that we knew, but words we hadn’t heard before in the voice of Dr. King. Do you think that was effective in kind of moving this film into that extra layer of moral complexity?

DO: I think absolutely. The truth of the matter is that the Selma campaign is nowhere near as famous or as imbedded in the public’s consciousness as say, the March on Washington. You know, our film is after the period in which Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech, and it’s before the “Mountaintop” speech, you know, two of his most famous speeches. He did give the “Now is the Time” speech at the end of the Selma march, but even that speech is not that famous. So, even though we didn’t use the actual words, I think unless you are a scholar or a real student of Dr. King you are not going to watch the film and discernibly notice that we haven’t used speeches, but absolutely it was very freeing to not be tied to speeches that people could literally go onto YouTube and compare and contrast. I personally can’t think of anything worse than having to do the “I Have a Dream” speech because, like you say, it goes from what we talked about earlier of complexity and dimension and really feeling like you are there and watching these people living and breathing onscreen to suddenly you go into your sixth grade class of doing that speech and you disconnect from what is going on in the film. Also, you know, in not using the actual speeches, it meant that we were able to tailor the speeches and tailor what was being said to the narrative that we were weaving. We wanted this to not just be about politics. We wanted it to be about the people. We wanted you to see who Dr. King was behind the veil, at home with his kids, when he was with his friends, and we didn’t just pick information out of the air. We spoke to people, read a lot, you know, spent a lot of time, like I said, with Andrew Young who knew him intimately. And so, I think that that was something very freeing for us. It also meant that we had to really study certainly Dr. King’s cadence, his rhythms, the way he spoke, in order to, even though we weren’t using the actual words, to make it feel like him. But that’s all you can do as an actor playing him is to evoke the spirit of him. I can’t actually be Dr. King, and you know, once you are already doing that, you know, you should use words that speak to that spirit so to speak.

RDM: As a man of faith, what would you say is the role of faith in this film and then in the larger picture in the Selma march itself?

DO: Well, faith is a huge theme in the film, and it was of course the thing they needed to hold onto fastidiously for this to work. Racial tension, discrimination, the legacy of slavery, these were deep-seated and very long challenges for black people in this country up until the sixties, and to have faith that things were going to change was something that you had to dig deep for because in all honesty the evidence of centuries gone by suggested that this was an uphill battle that was going to continue to be the case. But I think what you see in Selma, the film, is not only was Dr. King a speaker of the word—we celebrate him as an orator—but he was a doer of it, and that is the attribute I most admire in any Christian. You know, we have the Bible as the foundation of our faith. It is full of words, but you know faith without works is dead. You have to actually get out there and do it. And for thirteen years, from the age of twenty-six until his assassination at thirty-nine, he left his home and did it. There were so many times he could have said you know what guys, enough. My life is being threatened every day. My kids’ lives are being threatened. My wife’s life is being threatened. And my health is being challenged. There is so much pressure upon me. I feel like I’ve done all I can. But until the day he died he was living out the calling he felt came from God, and I think for me as a Christian that is one of the most inspiring things I have felt playing him is that he was not just a talker, he was a doer.

RDM: Now, one of the things you couldn’t have known as you were filming this movie is that it would be released after one of the most difficult years in recent American history as it relates to racial tensions in this country with the Michael Brown case, with the Eric Garner case, with the Ferguson protests, and other things. What do you hope this movie will do or communicate in a time in which we are just not as far along as we would have hoped we would have been in American society on these issues?

DO: Well, my hope is that people will see this film and remember again how costly the vote, which is now a right for all peoples, how costly it was. People died for this. It was hard fought. There were centuries in which it was not the right of black people, of women. Even beyond the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, you know, we are talking about another hundred and two years people are still being marginalized and prevented from voting in Selma in sixty-five. And the Voting Rights Act was actually passed after that campaign. Now, so the two things for me is that to not vote, in many ways is to really diminish what these incredible Americans did. And not just black—white as well. After Bloody Sunday, as shown in the film, black and white came together. People of all faiths came together to not just deem this a black cause, but an American cause. And you know, we are now in a time in the country where the Voting Rights Act is being dismantled. People are being marginalized from voting yet again. That is something that I think would really sadden both Dr. King and LBJ’s hearts, when they fought so hard to get this thing passed. The other thing that I am very encouraged about is the protests that are going on beyond Ferguson and the Eric Garner situation is that they are largely peaceful. They are not just black people. They are black and white. They are young and old. And people are making their voices heard in I think an effective way. It’s now just, what are the demands? How do we go from here? How do we governmentally change things so that we don’t make the mistakes of the past again? That’s why I feel so blessed that this film is coming out at this time because I think it would be easy for young people to make the mistake, we are in a completely new day, this has never happened before, these protests are completely fresh and new. Well, they are not. And you know, to look at individuals like Dr. King and several of the foot soldiers and amazing people who brought about change in the sixties and to look at what they did as a blueprint I think would be something that would be an amazing legacy of the film, and an amazing legacy of the people who brought about this change back in the day.

RDM: This is David Oyelowo, who is the actor portraying Martin Luther King in the new film Selma. David, thanks so much for being with us today.

DO: My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

RDM: I really encourage all of you to go and see this movie, Selma, and to reflect on it and think about what this movie means in terms of thinking about this time in American history both in terms of the depravity evidence there, when you have people who are being beaten on their way to simply peacefully protest for their right to vote, but also the hope that comes with people who are driven by more than just the immediate in order to fight for generations yet to come. It’s an inspiring thing to see.

This is Russell Moore, and this has been Questions and Ethics, and we will be back next time to talk about issues of the day.

By / Jan 9

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Selma (**** out of 4) is ultimately about the hard sacrifices made by ordinary Americans “in order to form [this] more perfect union” mentioned in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. This sometimes means breaking unjust laws to establish justice or insuring domestic tranquility by disturbing the peace. Our nation’s history and the history of humanity in general is filled with such paradoxes in order to ensure the general welfare of our nation and other civilizations do not leave behind oppressed minorities who have historically been discriminated against and denied equal dignity. The blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity have not always been extended to everyone.

When I taught U.S. History and U.S. Government in a diverse high school, my favorite topics to teach were the causes of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. These topics allowed me to build from foundational knowledge and push my students’ thinking to new levels. One of my favorite activities was dissecting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and discussing non-violent protest with my students, pointing out how restrained and strategic agitation could successfully bring white moderates into the fold, forcing politicians to take action. But my favorite question to pose to my students was this: Would you be willing to be spit on, beat up, called numerous vulgar names, and not respond with any violence or hatred in return? If you knew your name wouldn’t be in the history books, would you still be willing to sacrifice your dignity temporarily so that dignity could be recognized by law and fact for yourself and your posterity?

Throughout my history classes, I tried to demythologize the legends from our own history. I tried to teach Lincoln, MLK, and others as the flawed humans they were so that my students could truly appreciate the obstacles they faced, sacrifices they made, brilliance they displayed, and history God gave them the opportunity to shape. I wanted them to know that these men and women were no different from them and that these eras in history required men, women, and children whose names we’ll never know.

Selma does all of this perfectly, arguably too perfectly as controversy has arisen surrounding the depiction of LBJ as a President trying to make everyone politically happy as Vietnam begins to get out of hand and the nation realizes the 1964 Civil Rights Act didn’t magically solve all racial discrimination. But LBJ is instead depicted as someone sympathetic to Civil Rights, but not omniscient in realizing how history would judge him. This depiction is human and real, therefore resulting in a more authentic tale, meaning LBJ’s ultimate support and work toward passing the Voting Rights Act into law has more power at the conclusion of the film, knowing where he has come from previously. It’s important for Americans of all ages to know that LBJ’s hesitation to push the Voting Rights Act forward in 1964 doesn’t mean he was a racist bigot just as his signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not make him an angel. All humans are complicated. None are perfect.

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Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is revealed as a Nobel Prize winner in the opening scene of the film who feels detached from the people he is trying to help and navigates the rest of the film (and his life) as someone not dissimilar from Abraham Lincoln – trying to do the impossible by bringing together disparate and warring factions in the name of achieving equality and making that more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, and blessings of liberty a reality for all Americans of every race and creed.

David Oyelowo provides a performance that rivals Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, leaving me so transfixed that I often assumed I was watching footage of Dr. King himself. The Dr. King of Selma, just like the historic man himself, is not a perfect man. The film, after dancing around MLK’s infidelity in the first half, addresses Dr. King’s struggles and sins head on. This is not a man with all the answers, but a leader who must overcome his doubts in order to lead in spite of his detractors, his violent critics, and dissenters within his own movement. He often feels alone and like a failure, with everyone seemingly disagreeing and disliking his decisions. This MLK is not a mythological hero, but an imperfect man like us whom God used to bend the arc of history toward justice.

This is one aspect of Selma I appreciated – the film did not shy away from the role of faith and Christianity in Dr. King’s work. Whether it’s the images of rabbis and nuns joining the march or white clergy traveling to Alabama to join the movement, faith is prominent. Dr. King’s sermons are focal points in the film. As Dr. Russell Moore wrote about Ferguson, “The reason African-Americans tend to speak out against racial profiling and disparate sentencing is because often they can imagine their own sons or brothers or nephews in that place. As those in Christ, we have the same family dynamic at work, regardless of whether we are black or white, Jew or Gentile. In the church, a black Christian and a white Christian are brothers and sisters. We care what happens to the other, because when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts.”

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While the political jockeying and Dr. King’s leadership under fire were enthralling, Selma‘s true power was found in its depiction of ordinary people sacrificing security, comfort, and sometimes even their lives. We’ll never know their names. But they were there on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that Sunday, beat by state troopers. They sat in the pews at the funerals of those who sacrificed everything. They laid the groundwork before MLK came to Selma and continued working to make the dream a reality long after he left.

They showed up at the courthouse to be embarrassed when asked to pay a poll tax they couldn’t afford, pass a literacy test they couldn’t read, and answer questions no white person had to endure in order to register to vote.

They debated around their dinner tables just like Dr. King did with his team, wondering which obstacles to voting and equality should be dismantled first.

They were spit on, beat down, imprisoned, and killed so that the words and principles of our Founding Fathers could become a reality. But what Selma reveals moves beyond America to more fundamental truths about human dignity and equality. It shows what happens when regular people respond with the radical truths of The Bible. Comfort and security is lost but, as Dr. King says late in the film, God sometimes calls us to something greater, fighting peacefully yet forcefully for the imago dei in every human life.

This article was originally pubished at The Wise Guise.

Image Credit: Wayne Taylor