In Selma, Ala., an elderly woman—Annie Lee Cooper—walks slowly up to a clerk to register to vote. The clerk tries to intimidate her, threatening to tell her employer that she’s making a “fuss.” She refuses to be dissuaded, so the clerk begins asking questions.
Can you recite the Constitution’s preamble?
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish …”
How many judges are there in Alabama?
What are their names?
And so it would go, question after question, until one finally stumps Annie Lee—as so many others had been stumped before her.
DENIED, the clerk stamps.
Dallas County, Ala., is 57% black, but less than 1% of its African-Americans are registered to vote. Only 130 souls. It’s been nearly a century since the Civil War, and it looks like it hasn’t changed a thing.
But there’s hope in the wind. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—civil rights leader and newly minted winner of the Nobel Peace Prize—is coming to town with his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 to its campaigns in Birmingham, King and Co. have been instrumental in enacting change throughout the South, culminating with the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If anyone can help shake off the shackles of voter discrimination in Selma, many say, King can.
President Lyndon B. Johnson has other political priorities this year, sadly. Worse, Alabama governor George Wallace has never been a fan of desegregation. J. Edgar Hoover thinks King’s a deviant, and mobilizes the FBI to bring the man down. There’s even friction within the movement: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that’s been working for years to get blacks registered in Selma, is a little resentful that King thinks he can succeed where the SNCC could not.
That’s all behind-the-scenes stuff. Because there on the streets of Selma, Jim Clark and his posse of club-wielding volunteers are waiting for King. They’ll show him and his cronies who really holds the power in Selma … even if they have to beat them bloody to do it.
The 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches are among the most important landmarks in the American Civil Right Movement, and as such this story is full of heroes.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s cagey leadership, unmatched charisma and unwavering commitment to nonviolence became critical ingredients in effecting change. Without the moral high ground that King so ferociously defended and the unparalleled attention that he drew whenever he came to town, one wonders whether Selma’s story would’ve ended differently. (Pres. Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to congress on March 15, in the midst of the Selma demonstrations.) Throughout this movie, we see just how committed King is to the cause—and how much he’s willing to sacrifice to see it through.
But he’s far from the only one. Everyone involved in the movement risks a great deal. Two people die for the cause: Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot to death by a police officer when he tried to stop the cops from beating his mother and grandfather, and James Reeb, a white pastor who had traveled to Selma to participate and was killed by unknown assailants. Many others are harassed and beaten and gassed. Even those not physically assaulted in Selma, like Coretta Scott King, have weathered years of mental and emotional strain. They’ve all sacrificed much for this righteous cause, and they’re prepared to sacrifice much, much more.
People sometimes overlook Martin Luther King Jr.’s deep faith and the faith of his followers as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Selma does not. King quotes scripture. He rallies supporters from the church sanctuary. And in one of the demonstration’s most curious moments—when King is himself to lead activists on a more than 50-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery—he stops and bends his knee in a posture of prayer. Thousands of demonstrators do the same. And when this impromptu silent prayer is over, King walks back across the bridge the way he, and they, came. He turns back for a variety of reasons, but one pastor surmises that one has to do with God leading King—supernaturally guiding him. The pastor says that makes sense to him because he’s felt the hand of God himself. “You’re tapped into what’s higher,” he says. “What’s true.”
When King returns for an attempted third march, someone asks him why he marches at all, given that it’s such a huge risk for him. “I’ll not be focusing on what I want today,” he says. “I’m focusing on what God wants.” And in a speech at Montgomery’s capitol, he quotes the famous Civil War battle hymn: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Church and faith leaders across the country, white and black, come to Selma to protest. We see priests and rabbis and nuns in the crowds, and King gives an especially warm greeting to members of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Not that any of that religious fervor sways Jim Clark. Someone suggests that even if “the Lord Jesus and Elvis Presley” together showed up to help, Clark would “beat the both of them.” A member of SNCC snidely refers to King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference as “The Lord and His apostles.” In a down moment, King phones gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “I need to hear the Lord’s voice,” King says, and Jackson sings a spiritual to him. When he worries over strategy, a lieutenant quotes from Matthew 6: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” At Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral, King says that “God was the first to cry” when the man was shot.
Malcom X, a prominent Muslim who advocated for a more violent fight for civil rights, shows up in Selma to help—providing, he tells Coretta, a bogeyman to help convince scared whites that King’s way is better.
Onscreen, J. Edgar Hoover calls Martin Luther King Jr. a “political and moral degenerate,” and it’s suggested that the FBI is behind an audio recording being sent to the King household, allegedly of King having sex with another woman. Coretta and King listen to the grunt-and-moan-filled tape together. “That wasn’t me,” King tells Coretta. “I know … I know what you sound like,” Coretta answers—leaving it unclear as to whether the recording was of King or not. But no matter: Coretta knows of King’s affairs already. She asks her husband whether he loves “any of the others,” and King hesitates a good long while before saying no.
Historically, perhaps the most important moment in the Selma demonstrations took place on March 7, a day that has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” And the movie shows the events of the day in graphic detail. Horse-mounted police and volunteers charge into demonstrators to beat them with clubs—some of which are reportedly wrapped with barbed wire. People scream and run, only to be run down. They’re gassed, too, and the demonstrators eventually regroup near a church where we see a variety of bloody wounds and bandages.
Police beat Jimmie Lee’s mom and elderly grandfather in a restaurant. When he tries to pull his relatives away, a policeman shoots Jackson in the gut, and the dying man slides down a jukebox. (We also see his corpse in a hospital.) James Reeb is chased down, punched and kicked; his face slams bloodily onto the pavement. “Now you know what being a n-gger feels like here, boy,” his assailant says. Reeb later dies.
Protestors sometimes fight back, despite King’s protestations. When Clark orders demonstrators on their knees and an old man apparently can’t move fast enough, Clark storms into the sea of people to force him down. Annie Lee Cooper then hits Clark with her purse, and deputies beat Cooper for her belligerence. After Bloody Sunday, a protestor demands that Andrew Young (a member of King’s SCLC) tell him where the church is hiding its guns. Young talks him down. “You can’t win that way,” he says. “I’m not talking about the Bible, I’m talking facts. Cold, hard facts.”
A bomb rips through a church, killing four little girls. We see their bodies in the rubble. Coretta frets about the death threats her family regularly receives. We hear one of them on the phone. King, though, seems resigned to it, saying Selma’s “as good a place to die as any, I suppose.”
Two f-words and a half-dozen s-words. We hear sporadic uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard” and “h—,” along with racial epithets. The n-word is spit out close to 10 times, including once by LBJ; “cracker” comes up once or twice. A bystander flips off a cameraman. God’s name is paired with “d–n” five or six times, and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells His followers, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
When we hear about the Civil Rights Movement and King’s commitment to nonviolence, we naturally concentrate on the innocent part. True, King himself wasn’t so pure in his personal life, but when it came to the Movement, he stressed how important it was to take the moral high ground: Protestors should not fight back, no matter how much they might be roughed up and abused.
That dovelike posture also was incredibly shrewd, though. As Selma tells us, King’s “passive” posture wasn’t just about taking the high road. It was about showing the world you’re taking it. King’s strategy was dependent on drawing attention—and television cameras—to places like Selma, and letting everyone see the barbarism being doled out to the protesters. King wanted the protests to be “in the newspapers every morning, on TV every night.” No one wanted innocent people to get hurt, least of all King. But he knew that if protesters were seen on national television being lambasted and abused, outrage would follow, which in turn would be followed by change.
Selma’s Jim Clark couldn’t have been a better foil for King’s strategy. (Indeed, King chose Selma to make a stand because of Clark’s reputation, according to the movie.) And when Clark and his comrades bore down on and beat up African-American marchers on Bloody Sunday, the world reacted just as King hoped it would. Clark won the fight but lost the war.
Selma is more than just a cinematic civics lesson, though. (Probably a good thing since it’s being criticized from some quarters for playing around with the political facts.) And it’s not merely the sum of its theatrical parts. (Also good since some of them involve violence, foul language, sexual sins and, of course, disturbing acts of racism). This powerful movie manages to soar in a way that few do, reminding us all of how a determined movement led by a flawed-but-passionate preacher helped right one of America’s greatest wrongs. It’s a beautifully acted, emotionally stirring picture that makes us better understand why King—whose thirst for justice was in part powered by his Christian faith—is so lauded today, and why his death at the hands of an assassin was such a terrible tragedy.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.