Jan 19, 2015
The powerful new movie Selma is about the fight by black people to gain the right to vote in Selma, Alabama. The film, however, focuses mostly on the campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the ministers of the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Council) in early 1965.
In Selma, as elsewhere in the South, almost no black people had the right to vote. Federal law enshrined in the 15th Amendment of the Constitution stated that the right to vote could not be taken away “on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” But those were just words on a piece of paper. Enforced by the government at every level were myriad restrictions and technicalities that deprived black people – as well as most poor white people – of the right to vote. These restrictions were imposed through legally sanctioned violence, repression and terror.
As opposed to most depictions of the civil rights movement, the movie Selma does not portray the federal government and President Lyndon Johnson as the supposed champions of civil rights and allies of the black movement. The film shows Johnson refusing King’s request for help. When King disobeyed Johnson’s order not to support a voting rights campaign, Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover plotted how to stop King, by using the FBI’s bag of dirty tricks to track, threaten and blackmail King.
King went to Selma, Alabama, after a local committee of black activists had already been organizing for two years. This organizing was extremely difficult and dangerous. Selma was one of the main centers of the Klan and White Citizens Councils, that represented the local business elite. Young activists in SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, had also been in Selma for two years. SNCC had been founded by black students who had initiated the 1960 sit-in movement to desegregate stores and restaurants throughout the South. Thus, the basic organizing and several important campaigns had already been carried out long before King ever got to Selma.
The film shows that with the exception of one of the SNCC leaders, John Lewis, the SNCC organizers did not agree with King’s campaign. SNCC organizer James Forman said that their goal was to allow black people to express themselves and organize their own power in a lasting way. And they said they were afraid of what would happen after King’s campaign was over and he left town. They said that if black people were not organized to continue to defend their interests, they would be as vulnerable as ever, even if the campaign won some gains.
Some of this argument is actually in the movie. But, not surprisingly, the main sympathy and attention of the film makers is on King. In the movie, King explains that his main goal for the entire Selma campaign was to convince one man – Lyndon Johnson – to push Johnson to present a voting rights act that would finally gain black people the right to vote. Therefore King was very careful not to defy the framework that the federal government and its courts set for how far the demonstrations could go and what they could do. In other words, King believed that the very same government that was racist to the core could be pushed and pressured to safeguard the interests of black people.
The film shows that the courts and the federal government finally did step in. Johnson even reversed course and introduced a Voting Rights Bill. But these official moves were not made out of some “moral” conversion or reawakening – as King and the SCLC ministers preached. The U.S. political apparatus was trying to get ahead of the movement in order to try to control it and rein it in by temporarily granting some concessions.
They were not successful. On August 11, 1965, just five days after Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act, the Watts Rebellion erupted in Los Angeles’s largest black ghetto, one of many rebellions that were sweeping through not just the South, but the Northern cities.
The Selma campaign depicted in the film marked the end of just one phase of the black struggle in this country, just as a new phase was opening up.