Selma: We Can't Wait

Delta Winds cover 2016Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Selma: We Can't Wait

Nicholas Chellsen

Ava DuVernay's 2014 film, Selma, begins with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. As his wife, Coretta, helps him with his tie, the couple discusses their desire for an ordinary life. Dr. King describes being a small-town pastor while Coretta talks about being a homeowner. However, we know from history that their life was anything but ordinary. Through Selma, we see Dr. King's uncomfortable relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson and his strategy of non-violence. We also learn why the events in Selma, Alabama, fifty years ago still matter today.

Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, Dr. King heads to Washington, D.C., for what will be one of his many meetings with President Johnson. In one of these meetings a portrait of President George Washington, a known slave owner, hangs on a wall above the activist and the politician as a subtle reminder of America's history of discrimination. Shortly before meeting with Dr. King, President Johnson asks an advisor, "Aren't we done with this?" From Johnson's perspective, the recently passed Civil Rights Act should have ended racial discrimination and given Blacks the right to vote. However, during the meeting, Dr. King informs him that while they "technically" have the right to vote, there is still voter discrimination at the state level in the South. While Johnson has expressed his desire to help, saying that signing the Civil Rights Act was the "proudest moment" of his life, he is hesitant to enforce it, simply saying that it can wait.

Dr. King disagrees: "It can't wait, Mr. President . . . because there have been thousands of racially motivated murders happening in the South." He continues that the murders go unpunished because they are "protected by white officials, chosen by an all-white electorate." Even if the murderers are tried, "they are freed by all-white juries." King explains that the reason Blacks cannot serve on juries is because they are not registered to vote. Johnson is unmoved, and reiterates that his administration is going to "set this aside for a while." After his meeting with President Johnson, Dr. King tells his associates waiting for him, "Selma it is."

Upon arriving in Selma, Dr. King takes on the role of strategist. He meets with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC), and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Among them is the young John Lewis. Dr. King tells them that his plan in Selma is to "raise white consciousness . . . by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night." Together, they plan a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, on Sunday, March 7,1965. However, Dr. King stays behind, feeling that he needs to be at home with his family.

The march is instead led by SCLC leader Hosea Williams and SNCC leader John Lewis. However, as the demonstrators reach the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 300 state troopers stand armed and waiting for them. After the demonstrators refuse to disperse, the state troopers attack them, leaving many of the demonstrators with fractured ribs, heads, arms, and legs. "Bloody Sunday" is broadcast into homes throughout America, and the phrase appeals to "white conscience" as Dr. King had hoped. This leads to many white demonstrators participating in the second Selma to Montgomery March a few days later.

However, despite this newfound support, Dr. King makes the decision to turn around when they reach the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Because of this, he receives criticism from members of both SCLC and SNCC. This is a particularly interesting scene because Dr. King's message to Johnson had been "It can't wait." However, when he arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, either a divine or gut feeling tells him he needs to be patient. Eight days later, Dr. King's patience pays off as Federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson approves the SCLC's plans for another march from Selma to Montgomery. Shortly before the third march, President Johnson speaks before Congress asking for swift passage of the Voting Rights Bill, a law eliminating voting restrictions at the federal, state, and local level.

The film concludes with Dr. King speaking to a mixed crowd of demonstrators and state troopers in Montgomery. While the demonstrations in Selma and The Voting Act of 1965 are seen as major victories in ending discrimination in America, Ava DuVernay instead leaves her audience with a sense that the fight for equality is not yet over. "When will we be free?" Dr. King asks the crowd. His answer is not "Now," but instead "Soon and very soon." This sentiment is continued as the credits roll to John Legend singing, "The war is not over, victory isn't won. But we'll fight on to the finish, and when it's all done we'll cry 'glory.'"

During the Oscars, John Legend and Common earned an Oscar for their song "Glory." In Legend's acceptance speech, he took the opportunity to address discrimination happening today in America, fifty years after Dr. King's efforts in Selma. "Selma is now," he stated. "The struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more Black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850" (Time).

John Legend is not the first person to address these issues. Voter ID laws in states such as Pennsylvania could potentially disenfranchise 750,000 voters, many of whom are Black or of low social economic status (PBS). Black men are twice as likely to be arrested as white men, as well as receive 10% longer sentences (American Progress). One in every fifteen Black men is incarcerated compared to one in 106 white men (American Progress). Also, despite only making up 14% of frequent drug users, African-Americans make up 37% of those arrested for drug crimes (American Progress). To quote Dr. King when he was in prison in Selma, "Is that equality?"

I was reminded of both Dr. King and those who marched alongside him as I watched President Barrack Obama and many others march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7 of this year. Among the marchers was John Lewis, who has now served as a Congressman for more than twenty-five years. "Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished," President Obama said, addressing the marchers. "But we're getting closer. . . . We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar" (White House).

I often wonder how we can soar when there is racial tension throughout the United States, from the streets of Ferguson and the courtrooms of Staten Island. As I see these stories on my television, I become more and more aware that the only thing I have control over is my own actions. I can turn off biased media as well as call out friends when they make jokes perpetuating stereotypes. While it may not seem like much, I think there is something we can all do. In order for future generations to soar, we all need to decide as individuals what we are going to do to carry on Dr. King's dream. We cannot simply "set this aside for a while." There needs to be urgency in our actions. As Dr. King said, "We can't wait."


Works Cited

DuVernay, Ava, dir. Selma. Perf. David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Alessandro Nivola, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey. Paramount, 2015. DVD.

"Everything You Need to Know About Voter ID Laws." PBS. 2012 June 23. Web. 2015 May 8.

"John Legend and Common's Acceptance Speech at the Oscars." Time. 2015 Feb. 22. Web. 2015 May 8

"Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches." White House. 2015 Mar. 7. Web. 2015 May 8.

"The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States." American Progress. 2012 Mar. 13. Web. 2015 May 8.