Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A History Not Too Distant: "Selma"

I spent part of yesterday at the movie Selma.  It's not the national day of service that many see as the appropriate way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but it seemed fitting.  I liked the movie more than I thought I would, and I expected to like it.

What I liked most about the movie is how it showed the Movement leaders as regular people, people who didn't always know what they were doing.  And I saw the depiction of Lyndon Johnson as fair.  He wasn't shown as evil, but he was conflicted, and he was a man who had lots of issues competing for his attention.

Even George Wallace wasn't entirely unsympathetic--we see him roll his eyes in disgust at how the local Selma white leaders let the situation go off the rails.  And in an earlier sign, we see King talk about what hasn't happened in a different Alabama town, that the sheriff is always polite and makes no mistakes and that situation isn't letting the Movement go forward.

I thought the movie handled the violence well.  There's enough to make me wince, but not so much that I had to leave.  The explosion of the Birmingham church was especially shocking--a surprise, because I could see it coming.

I spent my elementary school years in Montgomery, Alabama:  1971-1977 and a brief time from 78-79.  During that time, George Wallace was governor.  It's interesting to think about how this movie is not that far removed from my own lifespan.  Like many elementary school children across Alabama, like George Wallace, I stood on that gold star at the statehouse where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy.  Cotton still surrounded the major cities in Alabama, and the major cities were quite small.  In one of my classrooms, we pulled apart cotton as we learned about the importance of the cotton gin.

Oh, Eli Whitney, what a difference your invention made!

As a child growing up in the cradle of the Confederacy and then, the Civil Rights Movement, I don't feel like we spent an inordinate amount of time on that history.  Later, when I went to college in South Carolina, I met people who were still enraged over various Civil War issues; I remember writing to someone, "It's like it's still 1860 here in these peoples' minds."

In my first class that I taught at the University of Miami, I stood there amazed as my students got into a heated argument about the greatness of Kennedy.  The student from Massachusetts was dumbfounded as the children of Cuban immigrants flew into a rage about the Bay of Pigs.

I was astonished at their ability to argue about events that happened before they were born, to argue with a passion as if the events had just happened last week.

But I digress.  Back to Selma.  I am amazed, again and again, at how young King was.  I kept thinking, how did he know what to do?  But the movie shows that of course, he didn't always know what to do.  But we see what keeps him grounded is his strong faith--at key moments in the movie, he prays.  The scene at the second march on the bridge where he drops to his knees was very powerful for me.  For more on the spiritual aspects of the movie, see this post on my theology blog.

It was also powerful to see the hatred depicted--those days not too long ago when it was perfectly acceptable to spew such hatred publically. 

I want to believe that those times are behind us.  I know that younger generations are likely to respond to racial issues differently, but I also know that we are still judged by all sorts of items--skin color, gender tone of voice--that are out of our control and are a very small part of our talents and abilities.

I want to believe that those times are behind us, but I also know that without vigilance, hatred makes a comeback.   And I also know that many people are born without the privileges that I have.  I want to make the world a place with better chances for all.

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