The Moral Universe – More About Selma


I’m assuming most people who are interested have now seen “Selma,” and I don’t think this will have any spoilers if you haven’t.

Any movie about a historical event must of necessity conflate events in order to fit into a certain amount of time. “Selma” is no exception; the following is not meant to be criticism, but some background on the history that wasn’t shown.

Bernard Lafayette after a Freedom Ride beating

Bernard Lafayette after a Freedom Ride beating

Most important, to me, is that Bernard Lafayette is not even a minor character. Lafayette was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC [called Snick]) who, in 1963, established in Selma and its environs voting clinics where African-Americans were taught what they needed to know to register voters. Lafayette’s nickname was “Little Gandhi” because of his dedication to the nonviolent ideal. He and his fellow field workers faced a lot of threats, up to and including death, doing what they did, but they did it quietly and without fanfare.

So there was a major effort to register voters in Selma long before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. King set their sights on it. I revere Dr. King, don’t get me wrong, but there was a long-standing feeling on the part of SNCC that it started the work that got them beaten and killed and then the SCLC rode in as if a project was its idea alone. True, there was a need for the high-profile Dr. King in order to get television news stations to pay attention, but it was SNCC that integrated lunch counters and SNCC members who risked their lives as Freedom Riders and SNCC that had organized Freedom Summer in Mississippi the year before Selma, when three workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

When Lafayette left Selma, he left the voting clinics in the capable hands of Amelia Boynton, a black businesswoman. She is portrayed in the movie by Lorraine Toussaint and only speaks in a scene that is probably invented with Coretta Scott King. In fact she had been on the front lines for some time as well. (You may have noted that she was honored during the State of the Union address this week.) In one of the marches to the courthouse, a photographer got a picture that has become iconic of her being hustled along the sidewalk by Sheriff Clark. At the Bloody Sunday march, she was beaten so severely that she was left for dead; in the movie, John Lewis rescues her. He did not actually do that, suffering as he was from a fractured skull. He and Hosea Williams were the first to feel the posse’s batons. An unknown person rescued Mrs. Boynton, and thanks to that person, she has now reached the age of 107.

The antagonism between SNCC and SCLC is addressed in one short scene that makes SNCC chairman John Lewis and executive director James Forman look like sullen kids. In the scene, SCLC leaders such as Dr. King, Andrew Young, and Hosea Williams confront Lewis (remarkable look-alike Stephan James) and James Forman to try to talk it out. In real life, Lewis revered (and still does) Dr. King and made a painful decision to go along with the SCLC’s plans for a march from Selma to Montgomery; this cost him the respect of colleagues in SNCC because many were fed up with the nonviolent approach and in fact were founding the Black Panther right about the same time.

James Forman and Dr. King

James Forman and Dr. King

Forman did not join the Black Panther movement, but he was fed up with what he saw as the SCLC’s grandstanding. It would have been a nice touch, I think, had the actor who played Forman been dressed in the SNCC field uniform of bibbed overalls and white shirt. He was rarely seen out of those clothes. Bob Moses had started dressing that way when he was the first SNCC field worker to go into dangerous territory to try to register black voters; the feeling was that rural blacks who were poor would be afraid to talk to someone dressed in a suit and tie, which was the uniform for integrating lunch counters and bus stations.

Jimmy Lee Jackson died several days after he was shot twice by a state trooper in a diner while trying to protect his mother. It is unclear whether he was involved in the protests at all, but his death is what pushed James Bevel of the SCLC to suggest the march.

Bevel, played by Common, had been at Fisk University with John Lewis, where SNCC was created but had not been involved in the early days, preferring to enjoy the good life of dating pretty girls in his spare time. The most beautiful girl in the world, Diane Nash, joined SNCC and it may be that her influence brought Bevel in. After the couple married, they worked for the SCLC rather than SNCC. They were married at the time that the movie covers, though the movie suggests that they didn’t know each other well. In fact, the marriage was not going well, and they would eventually divorce.

I mentioned last week the important role played by New York Times reporter Roy Reed in bringing the eyes of the world to Selma. A piece of movie trivia: Reed is in the film as a sort of Greek chorus/moral compass of all that is going on, shown at various times on the phone relaying stories to the NYT.

Martin Sheen in "Gandhi"

Martin Sheen in “Gandhi”

Martin Sheen played a very similar role in “Gandhi,” though his character was a composite of reporters. But he is shown in the same circumstances, on telephones letting the rest of the world know that Gandhi’s nonviolent followers were being beaten by the Raj.

And Martin Sheen plays a pivotal role in “Selma” as Judge Johnson, who had to approve a permit for the march to take place. While the real Judge Johnson was no fan of integration, he was a fair jurist and granted the permit.

I also recommended last week three sources of information (I know there’s a lot more out there) about the history of Bloody Sunday: Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, John Lewis’s Walking with the Wind and March the most excellent PBS series by Henry Hampton, “Eyes on the Prize.” Since last week, the imminent release of March 2, Lewis’ second graphic novel about the civil rights movement, was announced. I think we can’t know too much about the history of the movement; even with what we do know, tragic history has repeated itself. That loop has to be broken.


Dr. King and the Hawaiian Lei Worn by Marchers from Selma


My good friend Jane, who lives in Hawaii, forwarded this to me. I always noticed the leis when I saw documentaries about Selma, but never thought to find out where they came from. As Native Hawaiians were pro-Union during the Civil War, for the most part, of course they would be sympathetic to the civil rights cause. What a beautiful gesture bringing the leis was, and that they came all the way from Hawaii to March1

Hawai'i Forward


When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, many of the leaders wore Hawaiian lei. The story of how these marchers ended up with the lei is surprisingly modest and simple.

One version of the story is that the Rev. Abraham Akaka sent the lei to Dr. King. Since Rev. Akaka was a giant figure in the Aloha State, it fits that these two icons might know each other. Dr. King paid a visit to Honolulu in 1959 to address the state legislature. Rev. Akaka also served as the first chair of the Hawai’i Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and lobbied for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

noa-back-in-hawaii338It turns out that the lei were delivered by a small group of kama’aina (photo right) who flew to Alabama to join the march: Glenn Izutsu, student body president at the…

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The Moral Universe – “Selma”: Teach the Children Well


Having had a week now to live with “Selma,” and having listened to the soundtrack several times, I have to say that it is the most important movie I have seen in a very long time.

To label a film “important” may seem similar to telling someone that their blind date has a nice personality, but I mean it most sincerely. It is good movie-making as well as chronicling an epic turning point in American history; it is timely, compelling, inspiring, and if I could afford it, I would pay for every middle school student in my state to see it.

As the newly elected treasurer of the Berkshire chapter, NAACP, I am very proud to say that we are helping to finance middle school students in the county to see this movie and have received commitments from two major cinemas to hold it over for two weeks to accomplish this.

I pray that every middle school in the nation is planning to find similar ways for students to see this movie and then follow it up with a Black History Month project on the Civil Rights movement in general.

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay could not have predicted that our supposedly “post-racial” country would come apart at the seams in the summer of 2014; it can be assumed that her movie’s opening was meant to herald the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 2015. However, Selma’s painful events were echoed in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island in the just-past sorrowful year, and one can’t help but draw comparisons.

In fact, the song that is played at the end of the movie (which has been nominated for an Oscar) and must have been written late into the post-production work. “Glory,” written and performed by rapper Common and John Legend, refers to Ferguson and is a blend of rap and gospel music that is simply beautiful. It was one of only two awards I was excited about during the Golden Globes (the other was Michael Keaton winning for “Birdman.”)

For me, who’s watched many documentaries and read countless versions of Bloody Sunday in Selma, the biggest significance of the film is that it introduces the pantheon of heroes and heroines of the movement to young people who might otherwise never know anything more about the subject. I am including young African-Americans, who may be in desperate need of heroes and heroines right now. “Selma” should be a jumping off point to studying the entire period from 1960 to 1965 at least.

Anyone who wants to read more should get Taylor Branch’s second volume of his three-part series about the Martin Luther King Jr. year, specifically pages 552 through 600 of “Pillar of Fire.” It follows step by step the timeline and important details of the voting rights work in Selma once Dr. King became involved.

Congressman John Lewis’s memoir, Walking with the Wind, is also an important source from one of the last living survivors, and key players, in the Selma march and the movement in general. Much was happening in Alabama on voting rights long before Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference got involved, and Congressman Lewis was in on it from the beginning as a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Another important source is “Eyes on the Prize,” a 1980s 14-hour PBS series by documentarian Henry Hampton. The whole series is must-see viewing for anyone who thinks of themselves as culturally literate; the final instalment is just about Selma and will move you in many ways.

That Ms. DuVernay was not nominated as Best Director and David Oyelowo not nominated as Best Actor is an indictment of the white male majority of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. “Selma” was nominated as “Best Picture,” but seems like somewhat of an appeasement nomination. Every piece of the movie comes together to present not only one of the saddest days of our history but also a glorious day when the Voting Acts Right was signed.

Roy Reed

Roy Reed

I’m going to address in another blog some of the history that had to be conflated to make a two-hour movie. But a special, personal note that I have to insert: A New York Times reporter named Roy Reed is portrayed in the movie by actor John Lavelle. Mr. Reed’s actual reportage is used to narrate the Bloody Sunday stampede of Sheriff Clark’s posse toward the marchers on March 7, 1965. Mr. Reed is the father of a dear friend and I have met him on a few occasions, but at a time when I was not well acquainted with his history. His reporting helped people in the North to understand the travesty of racism in Alabama and also helped to bring people flocking to Selma to try the march again.

So having met Congressman Lewis in August, I now have two touchstones to Selma, living history that, I hope, will keep me committed to this effort.