What Happened in Selma?

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tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma, Selma March



Alan Singer is a social studies educator in the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York and the editor of Social Science Docket (a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for Social Studies).

This is not a movie review, although I do discuss the movie Selma. It is also not just a discussion of history. When I ask, "What happened in Selma?," I am really asking what has happened since the events portrayed in the movie and what happened to the struggle for civil rights and social justice in the United States that seemed so promising in 1965. As a teacher and teacher educator, I hope other teachers find this useful as they plan Martin Luther King Day lessons.

The movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. was nominated for Academy Awards including best picture and best original song. The movie's focus is on a very narrow historical timeframe, basically January to March 1965, the final stages of the struggle to secure federal support for voting rights for African Americans. On center stage in this version of the story is Martin Luther King. Other historical figures in this drama are assigned supporting roles (John Lewis), bit parts (the people of Selma), or play cartoon-like villains (George Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover) and King's foils (Lyndon Johnson). 

Some historians and political participants argue that the movie unfairly portrays President Johnson as a too pragmatic of a politician who used racial slurs and was willing to postpone legislation ensuring voting rights for African Americans. Actually Johnson was renown as a potty mouth who openly referred to Blacks as "niggers." We also know that during the 1964 Democratic Party National Convention in Atlantic City he actively pressured key delegates and his lieutenants to push aside Black demands for greater representation at the convention. Although director DuVernay stated that she intended the movie as art and not as history, I found no blatant inaccuracies, just some omissions. 

I agree with an essay SUNY Geneseo professor of history Emilye Crosby wrote for the Zinn Education Project that the biggest problem with the movie is that its intense focus on the role of Martin Luther King and the first three months of 1965 takes attention away from the long struggle by the people of Selma and many others active in the Civil Rights movement to bring the issue of African American voting rights to a head in the United States. 

As a result of the focus on King, two of the civil rights movement's more powerful vignettes, both covered in the documentary Eyes on the Prize, are left out of the movie. In the documentary we learn how during the "Bloody Sunday" police attack on marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge, Hosea Williams, one of the march's leaders, carried an eight-year old girl to safety. Later, the Black community gathered in Brown Chapel AME Church. What started as a virtual funeral, was transformed into a victory celebration as people joined together in singing "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." These stories are left out of the movie because King was not in Selma when they happened.

However, my greatest concern with the story told in the movie Selma is that it presents the final march from Selma to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act as a triumphant conclusion to the African American Civil Rights Movement. But history is much more complicated. The Voting Rights Act was seen by White supporters of civil rights as a final victory, but for Blacks it brought little immediate change. As White liberals drifted away from the movement, Black communities were increasingly radicalized and less than a week after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 rioting broke out in the Wattsneighborhood of Los Angeles. King recognized the divisions within the movement as well as continuing desperation in the African American community in a 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "Where Do We Go from Here?"

King's question, "Where Do We Go from Here?", remains the crucial one for people who believe in social justice. A look at Selma, Alabama today, what has changed and what has not, points to the long road the United States and the American people still must travel to achieve the dream Martin Luther King spelled out in his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The official website of Selma Alabama describes it as the "Queen City of the Black Belt" and the "Butterfly Capital of Alabama." Much has changed since 1965. The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, is African American, as is the City Council president, seven of the ten members of the City Council, the Chief of Police, and all five members of the school board. These are big changes, but much has not changed.

The biggest problem facing Selma according to a report issued by Auburn University is endemic poverty. Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma is located, is the poorest county in a very poor state. Almost 60 percent of Dallas County children live below the poverty line. In Selma, with a population of a little over 20,000 people, 80% of whom are African American, the official unemployment rate hovers at about 12%, more than twice the national average. Over forty percent of households are single parent families, compared to about 17% in the United States as a whole.

High crime rates and segregated, poor quality education, are major problems in Selma today. Violent crimes are more than double the national rate and crimes against property are 40% higher. The two high schools, Southside and Selma City have student populations that are virtually 100% African American. Southside ranks in the bottom 25% percent of state high schools as measured by student performance; Selma in the bottom 12%. Overall, the district is ranked number 85 out of 100 school districts in the state. White families in Selma, and some of the more affluent Black families, send their children to the better performing Meadowview Christian Schoolwhere the student population is over 90% White. As a result of poor student performance, a state team has taken over day-to-day operation of the public schools headed by acting Superintendent Larry DiChiara, who is White.

Selma schools are not just poorly performing by Alabama standards but the situation is even more dire because by some measures Alabama itself has one of the poorest performing school systems in the United States. The state ranks 49th in school funding and since 2008 leads the nation in state budget cuts to public education. Even boosters like state house speaker Mike Hubbard concede Alabama ranks in the bottom half of the states in student performance by every measure including 44th in overall K-12 student achievement. In a national report on fair student funding, Alabama received a grade of "D," although it did get a "C" for effort.

In 1967, Martin Luther King told the SCLC convention, "With all the struggle and all the achievements, we must face the fact, however, that the Negro still lives in the basement of the Great Society. He is still at the bottom, despite the few who have penetrated to slightly higher levels. Even where the door has been forced partially open, mobility for the Negro is still sharply restricted. There is often no bottom at which to start, and when there is there's almost no room at the top. In consequence, Negroes are still impoverished aliens in an affluent society." I suspect that fifty years later, with increased school segregation, police attacks on Black men, continued poverty, and the loss of voting rights protection, Dr. King would give a very similar speech.




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