New Orleans The movie, Selma, has attracted some attention and controversy. There were no nominations for best director or best movie and in fact for the first time in decades all of the Academy Awards were as lily white as the management structures of the big movie studios. Others thought President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t get a fair shake since he was presented as the target that SCLC and the protestors were trying to leverage, but I have no sympathy for those folks trying to take away credit from the role of movements, organizers, and people on the ground. Others just want to confuse art with history, and I’m not willing to go there either, but I will say that Selma is a movie worth the price and invaluable for organizers’ eyes and work.
There’s one scene among many that should be clipped out and required viewing for organizers. It occurs when Martin Luther King to huge drama, cameras rolling, and a march column filled behind him with many people, including religious who had answered his call for help, stops the march coming over the bridge and stares down at the Alabama state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies amassed in a phalanx and the bottom of the bridge. Suddenly the police break ranks and line the sides of the road to let them go. King just stares down silently for a while seemingly trying to figure out what to do. He then takes a knee on the bridge, followed by everyone behind him in the march, and bows his head to pray. He says nothing to his comrades and other march leaders. He stands. He stares. Then he turns silently and walks back through the crowd, returning to Selma and leaving the police watching their back. This is not movie time fiction, though it may not follow reality exactly.
This is one of organizing history’s great teachable moments. Clearly King and the SCLC leadership and march organizers had seemingly dropped the ball in their preparations. In the polarized campaign in Selma, Alabama, they had neglected to discuss how to respond to the tactical situation if the police yielded the highway. They were already under a court order not to march to Montgomery, which they were disobeying already on the bridge. In the debriefing later with the key leaders and organizers of the march there is heated disagreement over King’s turnaround. He argues they were not prepared to go to Montgomery with supplies and logistics and that he feared a bloodbath in a trap. His loyalists argue “my King, right or wrong.” King has his say and walks out of the room.
The movie-makers want the viewer to puzzle over whether or not King made the right call there and in the follow-up make believe argument between the character of John Lewis and the character of his SNCC colleague try to put a finger on the scale so that the viewer might side with King. The organizer has to wonder though. If King and SCLC had never discussed the possibility that the police might yield, what were they thinking? If they were not prepared to go to Montgomery once they got to the bottom of the bridge, then what was the point of the march? If it had been planned as a symbolic protest and passive civil disobedience at the bottom of the bridge, then why were the leaders arguing in disagreement? King could have simply turned, said that they had made their point, and would come back later and march to Montgomery as advertised. There’s nothing in the movie or in many descriptions of this part of Selma and the battles over Pettus Bridge that indicates that this was the plan. If it were not part of the plan, then what was the point? Was it to provoke more bloodshed, regardless of King’s expression of fear about that in the movie? Often in training organizers we use the Melian debate. Pettus Bridge and this slice of the movie might be an even better case study.
I should stop here but let me add a couple of other observations. Another slice I would clip out of the film for organizers would focus on the camaraderie of the SCLC team. That rings true and speaks to the community that organizers build and is at the heart of the work. I liked Roy Reed from the New York Times getting a positive, minor role. He wrote the first piece about ACORN for the Times in the 1970s. It was good to see other veterans of the movement when they were about the movement and later comrades in the work.
And, finally if anyone was ever to have been nominated for anything in this movie, it would be Henry Sanders in the role of the 82-year old Cager Lee outside the window of the morgue, mourning the death of his grandson in the first battle of the bridge, and talking to Dr. King. The expressions on his face during this short interlude and his acting spoke to hundreds of years of oppression, struggle, and hope more genuinely than anything I’ve ever seen on film.
See it for yourself.