Alline Reese, the Rev. Frederick D. Reese, Selma Mayor George Evans and Selma native Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) in the lobby of Selma, Ala.’s Walton Theatre Jan. 10, 2015
Sherrel W. Stewart

Selma, Ala.: In 1965, when nonviolent activists in Alabama made that valiant trek from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote, the Rev. Frederick D. Reese was in the front row, leading the way with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. On Saturday the 85-year-old Baptist minister sat in a packed theater in downtown Selma, watching as events from that period unfolded on the big screen.

“I thank the Lord for Him bringing me and others through this and allowing me to see this day,” Reese said after the movie. “Many of those who were with us are gone.”

It was Reese who wrote the official letter to King in 1964 inviting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to Selma and lead the fight for voting rights. The movie brought back memories.

“I think about all the difficulties. So many gave so much,” he said.

Reese, the former president of the Dallas County Voters League, doesn’t seek recognition for his work in civil rights. Like many ministers who came of age during the days of segregation, he stepped up because it needed to be done, a sacrifice credited with prompting the passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which secured voting rights for millions throughout the South and paved the way for the election of black officials throughout the country.

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“The movie focused on the real true meaning of what we were doing at the time,” Reese said. “It helps others understand what we went through and why.”

Reese was among a crowd of 270 people filling Selma’s Walton Theatre on Saturday, during a special free showing of the movie Selma for senior citizens.

Nationwide in its first full weekend of viewing, Selma, starring David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, played on 2,179 screens and brought in more than $11 million.

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The movie will be shown for free to Selma residents through the end of January. Since Selma does not have a regular movie theater, city leaders worked with Paramount Pictures to offer the movie at the Walton, a previously closed venue downtown.

Carrie Wilson, who has lived in Selma 53 years, said she was in the city at the time of the march but did not participate because she was far along in pregnancy. Still, she remembers what it was like in that city and in the South during the ’60s.

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“At one point in the movie I had to wipe the tears,” she said. “I cried when the state troopers retreated and the marchers kneeled down to pray.”

William Bowman, a 49-year-old white resident who was an extra in the film, said that although he was not of age during the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he appreciates the history and was glad he had an opportunity to participate in the filming of the movie.

He said he did not play one of the violent whites in the movie. In one scene he was filmed in a group on the back of a truck. In another scene, he said, he marched across the bridge between two black women, the three of them with their arms locked.

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“I am vision-impaired, legally blind,” Bowman said. “I knew one of the women who was the granddaughter of Amelia Boynton [the longtime civil rights activist]. We locked arms and walked in unity, making sure we didn’t fall.”

Michael Nimmer, vice president of the Edge Theaters, estimated Saturday that 1,000 people have watched the movie at the Walton each day since it started showing on Jan. 9.

“It’s been packed,” he said. As soon as one show ends and the theater is swept clean, the next crowd enters, quickly filling the main floor and the balcony. Selma Mayor George Evans has attended several of the showings, taking about 10 minutes before the start of the movie to welcome the crowd.

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Nimmer said that Edge, owners of theaters in Birmingham and Greenville in Alabama, is volunteering to assist the city with the shows.

“This is important to our history and to our state,” said Nimmer, who brought some of his staff to usher and collect tickets. The city has coordinated volunteers from churches and civic organizations to also assist at the theaters.

“I’ve read about this in history, but I didn’t live through it,” said Nimmer, who is white and lives in Greenville, about an hour away from Selma. The movie, he said, is something that must be seen.

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Sherrel W. Stewart is a freelance writer based in Alabama.