Manhood. A word that walks in tandem with bravery, fortitude, potency, and courage. A word that towers over cowardice, combats weakness, and extinguishes fear.
Dr. Martin Luther King identified it as, “not where one stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” In a moment of challenge and controversy, I (along with my equally manly roommates) chose to brave tonight’s elements–temps as low as -35F with the wind chill–to see Ana DuVernay’s film, Selma. Named for the town in Alabama from which Dr. King and thousands of others marched to Montgomery in 1965, the film offers viewers one of the rawest inside looks at the Civil Rights Movement as it related to American politics in any dramatic film to date. Throw in a couple cameos by Oprah and Common, and I was more than happy to risk frost bite for it.
One thing I noticed the movie got right is the idea that the methods of protest during the Civil Rights Movement were completed calculated and devised from within. All too often, I feel the events of the Movement are taught to children as a series of random and disjointed, yet impactful events, in an effort to discredit Black American leadership as actually being smart enough to orchestrate it all.
For example, we’ve all heard the story of Rosa Parks, the “tired, old seamstress” whose feet hurt too much for her to give up her seat to a white bus passenger, thus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was taught this story in a largely white school in suburban New Jersey, as were my students of color on the west side of Chicago. It took me until my sophomore year of college to learn that this “tired, old seamstress” was already a notable civil rights activist who had been arrested once before her now famous encounter on the bus in 1956, and was later quoted saying, “the only thing I was tired of was giving in.” That’s right, America. Rosa Parks was a badass. So why is her legacy boiled down to a tired, old, would-be-compliant citizen were it not for her aching feet?
The answer to the Rosa Parks question can be found in the second element I feel the movie got right. Selma depicts a legitimate sense of fear among the American government that led to its desire to reduce the Civil Rights Movement to a series of noble, but borderline coincidental acts led by the eternally peaceful Dr. King. I knew of the FBI’s efforts to tear down Dr. King, but didn’t realize the amount of pressure the man applied to the face of then President Lyndon B. Johnson, who despite all efforts to deflect him at times, had the utmost respect for Dr. King (there was even a line in the movie where LBJ mentioned how he had been unable to “convince” King to serve on his cabinet in any formal capacity).
Dr. King knew the importance of the right to vote among black citizens, and the role it could play in ending segregation and inequality. Grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and voting vouchers were all illegal barriers implemented by white politicians put in office by a white electorate, even though more than half of Selma’s population was people of color. White law enforcement officials could then arbitrarily prosecute and brutalize black citizens, who would not stand a chance in trial against a white judge, white attorneys, and an all-white jury. Selma became the site for the onset of the Voting Rights Act, a stage hand-selected by Dr. King with the help of President Johnson because only 2% of its 20,000 black citizens were able to register to vote. On limited resources, the Civil Rights Movement surmounted all outside efforts to ruin it because it was organized, unified, strategically calculated, and above all: just.
Though all these aspects of the Movement that the movie got right were refreshing to see on the big screen, the most glaring truth was also the most horrifying one: America still is what it was 50 years ago. Peaceful protesters seated in traffic with their hands up; officers using fear tactics and tear gas to incite violence and break up crowds; and worst of all, a broken legal system that only affords justice to some. For a seemingly historic film, Selma sure does a great job pitting America face-to-face with similar images, dialogue, and reactions that appeared following the decisions made only a few weeks ago in Ferguson and New York, two years ago in Florida, and so on.
We remain in trying times of challenge and controversy, and to stay comfortable and convenient is to perpetuate injustice. When I stepped outside this evening, all I had to brave was the wind. So many people I care about, and some I haven’t met yet, continue to brave so much more than weather each time they step outside. Much can be learned from Selma, but it is by no means a history lesson. It is a toolkit; a blueprint for social movements that WORK. Will it take more than 140 characters or a hashtag to create change in our time? Absolutely, but it’s certainly a start.
So what else will it take?
Educate yourself. Use your time and talents to educate others. Do not fear racism by pretending that it no longer exists, and do not excuse yourself from the role you play in allowing it to exist. Speak out against injustice anywhere, as it is a threat to justice everywhere. In the end, that is how man will be measured.