Henry Louis Gates Jr.
In this March 7, 1965, file photo tear gas fills the air as state troopers, ordered by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, break up a march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
In this March 7, 1965, file photo tear gas fills the air as state troopers, ordered by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, break up a march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
Photo: AP Photo

When it comes to spurring Oklahoma to grapple with a century-old race massacre that schoolbooks had left behind, much of the credit is due to an unlikely historical resource: HBO.

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For 99 years, Oklahoma had failed to reckon with the 1921 Tulsa massacre in which white residents torched and carpet bombed the city’s black community, killing 300 and leaving 10,000 homeless.

The opening scene of the popular superhero series, The Watchmen, released last year by HBO, depicts these heinous acts of violence. The show prompted lawmakers in Oklahoma to confront the state’s past, and last month Oklahoma’s Education Department announced it was adding the Tulsa massacre to its curriculum.

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That is the power of entertainment. It can capture an audience far beyond the reach of politics and academia. And it can use that reach to remind us of the failings of our past and their impact on the present.

When Ava DuVernay’s widely acclaimed film Selma was released in 2014, it shone a light on both the horrors of the voting rights movement and the power of activism. It depicted a 25-year-old John Lewis, then-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, marching defiantly into the batons and tear gas of the Alabama State Troopers. The film also reminded us of the critical role youth played in advancing the voting rights movement.

Since the film’s release, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program has captured the inspiration of Selma to help teachers improve civil rights education across the country.

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Today, on the 55th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research launches Selma Online. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and developed with Teaching Tolerance and Left Field Labs, the free online teaching platform uses scenes from Selma to educate students on this pivotal chapter in our nation’s history and the importance of protecting the right to vote.

Given our current political landscape, protecting the right to vote remains critical to defending our democracy and carrying on the spirit of Selma.

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By 1976, state felony disenfranchisement laws had excluded 1.17 million citizens from voting throughout the U.S. By 2016, the number of disenfranchised felons had grown to 6.1 million as a result of policies leading to mass incarceration.

In 2013, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder weakened the enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. States began to enact restrictive laws around postal addresses, polling places and identification laws. As recently as 2018, five states advanced bills to restrict voting rights.

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As Selma’s Amelia Boynton reminded us in her historic 1964 race for Congress, “A voteless people is a hopeless people.” Educating, motivating and activating students on the right to vote is central to our future as a nation.

We can use everything within our power–a cadre of dedicated yet under-resourced teachers, the power of the internet, the accessibility of film–to capture the spirit of youth activism and promote change.

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Or we can gloss over the past and be complicit in fostering the divisions and inequality that run rampant today. The decision is ours.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root.

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