The movie, Selma, brings to life struggle for right to vote

By Murphy Browne Wednesday January 14 2015 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take? How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne? When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men? When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’ How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Excerpt from “How Long, Not Long” speech made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on March 25, 1965 on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., made his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech on the steps of the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama on the completion of the 54-mile long Selma to Montgomery march to petition for African-Americans’ right to vote.


On Sunday, March 21, 1965, approximately 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama in preparation for a walk to Montgomery, the state capital. On March 25, a group of approximately 25,000 people gathered to listen to Dr. King speak after the completion of the four-day walk.


Although Dr. King was the recognized leader of that third attempt during March 1965 to make the journey from Selma to Montgomery, there were many African-Americans in Alabama and specifically, Selma, who had worked for years advocating for African-Americans’ right to vote. The movie Selma, which is in the theatres in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, pays tribute to some of those activists.


Selma brings to life on “the big screen” the story of the African-American struggle during March 1965 to gain what is the right of every citizen (the right to elect our government representatives). African-Americans in the southern U.S. states were denied that right even though they and their ancestors built the American economy with their blood, sweat, tears and (during slavery) unpaid labour.


Reading and even writing about “Bloody Sunday”, the first attempt on March 7, 1965 to walk from Selma to Montgomery, did not prepare me for the sight of that fateful day acted out on screen “in living colour”. I re-read John Lewis’ 1998 book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, on the January 3-4 weekend and then went to see the movie Selma on Thursday, January 8. Even with Lewis’ description of police using “rubber hose wrapped with barbed wire” to brutally beat peaceful African-Americans, I was not prepared for the sights on the screen as I watched the film.


In his description of March 7, 1965 Lewis writes: “I was bleeding badly. My head was exploding with pain. There was mayhem all around me. I could see a young kid – a teenaged boy – sitting on the ground with a gaping cut in his head, the blood just gushing out. Several women, including Mrs. Boynton, were lying on the pavement and the grass median. People were weeping. Some were vomiting from the tear gas. Men on horses were moving in all directions, purposely riding over the top of fallen people, bringing their animals’ hooves down on shoulders, stomachs and legs.”


Lewis suffered a fractured skull from the vicious police attack on March 7, 1965 and he carries the scars from that “Bloody Sunday” of 50 years ago.


The movie Selma presents the brutal facts of “Bloody Sunday” and many of those who laid their lives on the line are portrayed. The Mrs. Boynton that Lewis refers in his book is Amelia Boynton Robinson (born on August 18, 1911) who was a 54-year-old civil rights activist in 1965. In December 2014, Boynton Robinson (now 103 years old) was interviewed by the New York Post and spoke of being savagely beaten by White police who then pumped tear gas into the unconscious woman’s throat, leaving her for dead. Boynton Robinson recovered and photographs of her unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 remain as evidence of that horrific day. She plans to attend the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March. In Selma, Boynton Robinson is portrayed by African Trinidadian actress, Lorraine Toussaint, who visited Boynton Robinson when she was researching the role.


Following the savage and vicious beating and other brutality visited upon peaceful African-Americans by White police in Selma, caught on camera for the world to witness, American President Lyndon Johnson was shamed into signing the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. The signing of the Voting Rights Act did not change the attitude of White people in the South and especially did not affect the behaviour of those who were in power.


From the History Channel website: “Although the Voting Rights Act passed, state and local enforcement of the law was weak and it was often outright ignored, mainly in the South and in areas where the proportion of Blacks in the population was high and their vote threatened the political status quo.”


In the movie Selma, President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act in the presence of Dr. King and other civil rights activists.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would have been 86-years-old on Thursday, January 15, 2015 if he had survived the single bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 that entered through his right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord, severing his jugular vein and major arteries before lodging in his shoulder on April 4, 1968 at 6:01 p.m.


After viewing Selma, I have to wonder what Dr. King would say of the recent spate of White police killings of African-American men, women and children. Would he still say: “Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’ How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice?”


Since 1965 “Not long” seems like a very long time!

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