Historical Background on Selma

As part of our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observances, our school took the entire boarding community to view the film Selma. As a history teacher with an avowed interest in civil rights history (not to mention an Alabama native), I was asked to give a short talk providing some historical background during our morning assembly, especially for those students in 9th and 10th grade who may not be quite as familiar with the civil rights movement. Here’s what I wrote:

The setting for the film you’re going to see tonight is Selma, Alabama in 1965. To give you a sense of the historical context for this film, we must keep in mind that this twenty years after the end of World War II. Those twenty years were exciting ones, if a little scary: it was during that time that the United States had become the wealthiest country on the planet, and the nation was in the thick of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

It was also during this time that what we today know as the civil rights movement emerged into national consciousness. African Americans, particularly in the South, had been advocating for their full rights as American citizens for decades (if not centuries), but it was in the wake of World War II that these scattered efforts became a full-fledged social movement.

There are a few key ideas I think you all should understand before you see this movie. As African American men returned home from war, having fought overseas in defense of democracy, they began to raise the question much more vocally of why they should be expected to fight and die for democracy in Europe or Asia when they were denied democracy at home in America. Despite the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (which granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote, respectively) at the end of the Civil War, white southerners had effectively denied those rights through a number of legal tricks, as well as through intimidation and physical violence. Without representation in government, southern states had passed extensive legislation (known as “Jim Crow laws”) that segregated African Americans from the white population and often relegated them to an economic and social condition not that different from slavery in some ways.

In 1946, a World War II veteran by the name of George Dorsey was murdered (along with his wife and another couple), which brought national attention to the problem. In the wake of Dorsey’s murder, then-President Harry S. Truman created a President’s Commission on Civil Rights to study the situation of black people in the United States.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (also known as the NAACP) began to challenge Jim Crow laws, especially those creating separate schools for whites and blacks. In 1954, this culminated in the famous Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and ordered the desegregation of American public schools. At last, the American government had signaled to African Americans that someone was listening. Of course, significant progress on the desegregation front was a long time in the making, and by some measures, one could argue that it still has not been fully achieved. But Brown v. Board is often viewed as the beginning of the “civil rights movement,” because in its wake, African Americans began to push much more assertively for their rights.

The following year, in 1955, a seamstress and activist by the name of Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and took a seat near the front. When she was ordered by the white driver to move to the back of the bus so that a white passenger could have her seat, Parks refused. She was arrested for violating Montgomery’s segregation laws, sparking a black boycott of the Montgomery bus system that ultimately lasted an entire year. As the boycott got underway, local activists searched for a leader, ultimately settling on a young and relatively unknown Baptist preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Soon, King was the public face of the boycott and would, in the years to come, become the most most recognizable figure of the entire movement.

Now, I don’t think it does any disrespect to Dr. King to point out that although we celebrate today as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there were hundreds of other leaders of the civil rights movement, and thousands of people who put their lives and their livelihoods at risk to participate in the various boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other actions that would dramatize the plight of southern blacks in the media.

As the civil rights movement progressed, King and his followers promoted what they called non-violent direct action. Often, they intentionally violated segregation laws in hopes of eliciting a violent response from the local authorities and gaining media attention for their cause. Often, this strategy worked perfectly. Occasionally—as in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and 1962—it did not. There, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had read King’s books and studied his tactics, and Pritchett simply enforced the laws without violence. Because there was no dramatic conflict to play on television, the media gave the movement there little attention.

Still, demonstrations spread across the South, and in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The Civil Rights Act outlawed many forms of segregation, but King and others believed that without the right to vote, African Americans would continue to suffer at the hands of whites.

King and his fellow leaders learned from their mistakes in Albany, and as the movement gained strength, they made the conscious decision to target cities with law enforcement known for their violent response. By 1965, they had identified Selma as a prime target for a march, and the focus of their efforts there would be voting rights in particular.

This brings us to the film.

My wife and I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you that it is powerful. For me, it has some personal significance. First, my mother was actually born in Selma in 1953—twelve years before the events depicted in the film. Although she and her family had moved away by 1965, they still lived in Alabama, and I grew up hearing her stories about that time and place. Those stories are ultimately what led me to pursue a two degrees in history, and when I was in graduate school at the University of Alabama, I did a lot of research on a very poor rural county about an hour and a half from Selma. In the 1960s, African Americans accounted for about 80% of the population of Greene County, Alabama, but the local government was all white. The banks and most businesses were white-owned as well, so whites had a pretty firm grip on the local economy. The schools remained completely segregated until 1965—the same year as the events in the film, and eleven years after Brown v. Board—and even then, only one black student (a girl named Mattye Hutton) was enrolled in the previously all-white high school. As soon as this happened, white families began to send their children to a newly formed private school called Warrior Academy.

By the end of the decade, though, things had begun to change. As a result of the actions you will see in the film today, African Americans did claim their constitutional right to vote, and in the elections of 1969, Greene County was one of the first counties in the South to elect a majority-black government. One of the first things the new school board did was to fire the superintendent—allegedly because he refused to allow a school program celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated the previous year.

So in that sense, the events in Selma were a success. They did contribute directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and made it possible for African Americans to elect officials who would be sensitive to their needs and concerns. But let’s be clear: This story is not all rainbows and sunshine. For all the progress made as a result of the civil rights movement—and there has been much progress—the story does not end with King’s untimely death.

Warrior Academy did not admit its first black student until 2004—fully fifty years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board. Even today, we need only look at the headlines to see that injustices still exist: after all, Michael Brown and Eric Garner became household names in 2014. And here are a couple of other statistics that may startle you: Despite representing only 30% of the U.S. population, people of color make up roughly 60% of those in prison. On top of that, voter laws in many states permanently deny some convicted felons the right to vote, even after they have served their prison sentences. What this means is that in those states, more than ten percent of their voting-age African American population is actually ineligible to vote.[*]

So here’s a final thought that struck me as the credits rolled on Selma. In 1965, when he led the marches there, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in his mid-thirties—not that much older than me. Realizing this caused me to reflect on what I’m doing with my life. Am I standing up for the causes I believe in? Too often, I’m afraid, I’m not. Life is too busy; or maybe I’m just too scared to speak up.

John Lewis, another individual you’ll meet in the film, is now entering his twenty-ninth year as a member of Congress—a position he would not even been allowed to vote for, let alone serve in, prior to Selma. In 1965, John Lewis was in his twenties—not that much older than you.

So to me, that’s what this movie is all about—really, what this day is all about: it is an opportunity to reflect on some very important questions. What do you stand for? What kind of life do you want to lead? On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we have an obligation to honor the sacrifices made not only by King, but by the thousands of others who marched alongside him. To do that, I think, we must look not only to the past, but to the future as well. So what are the causes that spur you to action? We don’t necessarily have to put our lives at risk as the marchers in Selma did, but if we don’t work to make the world a better place—if we live only for ourselves, in other words—we will have failed those who paved the road we travel.

Thank you, and I hope you all enjoy Selma as much as I did.

[*] http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/cjprimer2009.pdf




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