The Dec. 25 release of the movie Selma showcases not only one of the key chapters in the civil rights movement but also one of the most important episodes in American history, one that paved the way for more recent social-justice struggles.
Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., Selma tells the epic story of how disenfranchised black Americans won the right to vote by organizing in the streets, lobbying in Washington, D.C., and being brutalized on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a shocking act of state violence that helped win the support of President Lyndon Johnson.
In the late winter of 1965, Selma became a battleground for a voting-rights campaign that featured local activists, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the young movement leaders John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On Sunday, March 7, Lewis was among a group of several hundred peaceful demonstrators who were routed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Lewis was severely beaten, and the carnage from the event was depicted in iconic photos and news footage broadcast that evening. The brutal images from the day—which became known as Bloody Sunday—stunned Americans, emboldened young civil rights organizers and turned the voting-rights demonstrations into a global phenomenon.
Two days later, King led a second demonstration that, by prearrangement, turned around before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Turnaround Tuesday” frustrated and upset young SNCC organizers, who vowed to participate in voting-rights efforts that they had earlier decried as a top-down strategy from movement leaders out of touch with the grass roots.
Eight days after nonviolent protesters were brutalized in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a major civil rights speech to a joint session of Congress. Privately, Johnson had confided to King that the chances of passing major voting-rights legislation on the heels of the previous summer’s landmark Civil Rights Act were slim. Bloody Sunday transformed this political calculus, turning the crisis of race and democracy into a national issue with global implications. Johnson announced his full-throated support for voting rights, which he said were vital to both the “dignity of man” and the “destiny of democracy.”
But civil rights activists were not done. From March 21 to 25, upwards of 25,000 people walked from Selma to Montgomery. The demonstration contained symbolism and substance. Symbolically, the successful demonstration illustrated that ordinary people could resist racial violence, whether it came from individual white racists or local law enforcement, on the road to political self-determination and citizenship.
Substantively, militant activists in SNCC used the march as a way to burrow into some of Alabama’s poorest and most segregated areas, such as Lowndes County, the buckle of the state’s black belt. Over the next year and a half, SNCC would help organize local people into a new movement for independent political organizing that adopted the black panther as a symbol. So in a very real sense, King’s uncanny ability to mobilize, coupled with SNCC’s dogged efforts to ensure that local people controlled their own political destiny, helped to produce the nation’s first Black Panther Party.
Just over four months later, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. King received a ceremonial pen and was perhaps the happiest person in the room that day.
Selma, the movie, documents living black history. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision eliminated key Voting Right Act provisions that have, through voter ID and other mechanisms, made it harder for blacks and other people of color to vote.
More recently, the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the aftermath of grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have echoed aspects of the demonstrations witnessed in Selma. Both movements have confronted regimes of state-sanctioned authority and violence with an uncompromising vision of social justice. Yet there remains a clear difference, since we know how the Selma movement ended, while contemporary protests continue.
The best way to view Selma, both cinematically and historically, is through fresh eyes. On that final triumphant day in Montgomery, when King looked out at a multiracial crowd of thousands, perhaps he could see what many could not: that the movement he helped lead in Selma would continue, almost five decades later, through Ferguson, Mo., New York City and many other cities as an unceasing quest for racial justice and equality for all.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.