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.


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