Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation.
Martin Luther King in Selma (1965…2015)
There’s a chilling scene in the just-released Selma where Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) peppers George Wallace (Tim Roth) over why he won’t ensure that black Americans have full protection to vote in his state. The notorious governor of Alabama assures the President that he doesn’t really have the power to do anything even if he wanted to: that’s up to counties and cities. And besides, if black folks get the full power of the vote (as enshrined in the Constitution a century earlier), then they will move on to more “demands:” for jobs, housing, health care and more.
Like all great historical films, Selma portrays then to illuminate now. In a post-Trayvon society, we are used to white leaders like Wallace utilizing pass-the-buck justifications for inaction, obsessing over the magic of smaller government and commandeering slippery-slope arguments to incite fear and vanquish guilt in their base. The voice of Wallace echoes through the decisions of leaders today, justifying police brutalities and fatalities in the name of law & order.
Perhaps my favorite scene is back at the White House where Johnson and Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) are verbally jousting in front of a looming portrait of George Washington. The words of the President and Civil Rights leader dart back and forth, debating the planned Selma-to-Montgomery march, Johnson pleading hopelessly for King to wait for voting rights to eventually climb the ladder of executive branch priorities. Washington’s haunting stare harkens back to the nation’s origins, interrogating President Johnson and too many white leaders in 2015, “Haven’t black Americans waited long enough already?”
Selma is as much personal as it is prophetic. It displays Dr. King’s struggle with both sheriff Clark (Stan Houston) on the street and with wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) back at home. It does not shy away from King’s painstaking decision to “turn back” in the midst of the second of three Selma marches, including the backlash he receives from members of his inner circle and the second-guessing from white allies who have traveled hundreds and thousands of miles to join him.
More than anything, Selma is successful because it penetrates our psyches at the start of 2015–in the wake of a tipping point of state-sanctioned murders of unarmed black men, from Michael Brown to Eric Garner to Tamir Rice. Arguably, the most emotional 4 minutes of the film starts when Alabama state troopers barge into a restaurant and kill the 26-year-old activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield). Jackson’s young mother weeps and screams as she crawls to her dying son. In the very next scene, King visits the morge and tenderly comforts Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders).
At the eulogy, King stridently proclaims,
We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.
Of course, Selma doesn’t trifle with the historic details, but they are worthy of noting because of the striking relevance: the state trooper who pulled the trigger, James Bonard Fowler, claimed that Jackson attempted to take his pistol from him, and called the shooting self defense. Sound familiar? In 2010, 45 years later, Fowler confessed that he lied and was sentenced to 6 months in prison.
It was TV footage of the massacre on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 that led to millions pressuring President Johnson into introducing and eventually passing legitimate Voting Rights legislation through Congress. This is a spectacular and horrifying scene in Selma. Just as it was in real life. It was this same TV footage that provoked Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs) to leave Detroit and her husband and 5 children to march with King less than 3 weeks later. She was murdered by the KKK driving activists back to Selma.
Following Selma, can bystanders armed with cell phone cams, today, inspire a revolution fully committed to a racial revolution? Do we have the focus, the will, the energy and the spiritual depth to negotiate, demonstrate and resist? Or have our sensibilities been all shocked out?
In several cities this week, every 7th, 8th & 9th grader will just need to flash their student IDs to get free tickets to Selma. Good thing. Let’s hope the same offer is available for the vanilla suburbs. We need courageous young activists of all colors to infuse history into their hashtags and creatively take their social media to the streets.
My prayer, as a white male whose grandfather proudly boasted of campaigning for a Wallace presidency in the 60s, is that Selma can serve to awaken us from the long American white supremacist waiting game that spans from George Washington to George Wallace to George Zimmerman (and Darren Wilson). If #blacklivesmatter can finally become a post-Selma reality, then the system which continues to produce murderers must be radically transformed. This can only happen if white Christian churches move beyond pietism to engage with political structures that do more than anything to determine one’s Fate. As King prophetically challenged two years after his Selma to Montgomery speech:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
We’ve waited too long for this already.