“We are in Selma to negotiate, to demonstrate, and to resist.” So says Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film Selma. The film centers around the events of early 1965 when King and his colleagues descended upon Selma, Alabama to see that African Americans there, and around the South, would be able to exercise their right to vote, a right that local officials had been denying them.
In Selma, we meet Martin Luther King, Jr. the man. A man with moments of vulnerability and doubt, as well as a man of faith and conviction. We see King’s delicate relationship with his wife, Coretta, and the sacrifices she made for the movement. We also see, quite clearly, that he was a man whose strength was not his own, but just as Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses (Exodus 17:12), King was upheld by those who surrounded him.
In Selma we meet those men and women: partners in ministry Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, James Orange, and Mahalia Jackson, and young colleagues John Lewis and Diane Nash. It was their strength that upheld King in his darkest moments, and gave him the courage to move forward, one step at a time.
The film also introduces viewers to some of the women of the Civil Rights movement. Amelia Boynton and Annie Lee Cooper are women that history has all too frequently overlooked. Their roles in Selma demonstrate that this movement was, at it’s heart, from the grassroots.
Some of the most poignant moments in Selma take place in a prison cell. In one such scene, King asks a colleague what good is it having access to the lunch counter at Woolworth’s if a person can’t afford to buy a hamburger or read the menu or has been so broken down in his psyche that he doesn’t feel like he even belongs there. This is the question that remains today, albeit in a slightly different form. What good are equal rights when systems remain in place that continue to bar African Americans from equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and public safety?
In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court voted to strike down key components of the Voting Rights Act that King worked so tirelessly to secure. The U.S. Congress recently debated whether or not they will restore some of these components. As we saw in Ferguson and Staten Island this summer and fall, the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed remain all too real.
We still live in racism’s grip. Like all sins, it will not go away through wishful thinking or turning a blind eye. As Christians, we have a call to seek justice which means working to dismantle the legacy of our history of oppression. Justice is not inevitable, but something God calls us to work for. We are the agents of his reconciliation. It is our turn to hold each other up. To continue to fight the battles that King and his colleagues began. Together.