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In a perfect world, “Selma” would exist solely as a depiction of darker days long since past, an American history lesson that concludes with reassurances that its horrors will no longer be perpetrated, tolerated nor celebrated. Alas, perfection eludes us on this mortal, earthly plane; “Selma” shows the evolution of change while beaming a spotlight on the stunted growth of that which has not changed. Its timeliness is a spine-chilling reminder that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Its story provides a blueprint not only of the past, but of the way forward.

There’s a reason why Ava DuVernay ’s film is called “Selma” and not “King”. Like Spielberg’s “ Lincoln ”, “Selma” is as much about the procedures of political maneuvering, in-fighting and bargaining as it is about the chief orchestrator of the resulting deals. “Selma” affords Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the same human characteristics of humor, frustration and exhaustion that “Lincoln” provided its President. This relatable humanity elevates King’s actions and his efforts. It inspires by suggesting that the reverence for Dr. King was bestowed on a person no different than any of us. If he can provoke change, we have no excuse not to as well.

As King, David Oyelowo is a revelation. Like Anthony Hopkins in “ Nixon ”, he channels the essence of his character rather than a dead-on visual interpretation. In recreating King’s speaking voice, Oyelowo resists the preacherly curlicues one might be inclined to use based on hearing King’s speeches. Like any good pastor, Oyelowo saves those cadences for his speech scenes, the last of which is so stirring and powerful it knocks the air out of your lungs. Oyelowo channels a conflicted King, a tired man with the weight of the movement on his shoulders, then merges that with defiance, humor, strength and strategic expertise. In Oyelowo’s excellent performance, King becomes a complex, flawed man whose faith in God kept him from utter despair.

Known for her superb indie dramas “ I Will Follow ” and “ Middle of Nowhere ”, DuVernay has proven herself a master of small, intimate moments. “Selma” never loses focus on the interpersonal dynamics between King and his followers, his detractors and his family. While touching base with details on SNCC, the SCLC and the organization of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, DuVernay gives memorable scenes to a wide variety of character actors in real-life roles. Andre Holland ’s Andrew Young , Stephan James ’ John Lewis , Colman Domingo ’s Rev. Abernathy and Common’s James Bevel stand out, but eagle-eyed viewers will also notice “ Dear White People ”’s Tessa Thompson , Cuba Gooding, Jr., Martin Sheen and Wendell Pierce . Even comedian Niecy Nash shows up as a gracious, funny host who invites King and his cohorts into her home.

“Selma” continues DuVernay’s exploration of female empowerment by devoting time to King’s marriage to Coretta Scott King (a powerful Carmen Ejogo ). We’re reminded that the movement is as hard on her as it is for her husband, especially since she is home with the kids and the constant victim of harassment from citizens and the government. In one of the film’s best scenes, King is asked a very hard question by his wife. The actors and the director take their time here, with Oyelowo and Ejogo silently and masterfully working the uncomfortable pause between question and answer. In another very good scene, Coretta Scott King meets with Malcolm X (a convincing Nigel Thatch), and their dialogue is an informative piece of strategizing.

In addition to reminding us how good she is with drama, DuVernay puts Hollywood on notice by mastering huge sequences heretofore unseen in her work. Her staging of “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettis bridge is a spectacular mini-movie that could stand on its own as a short. Narrated by a journalist calling in the story, the scene takes on documentarian proportions. With this scene, and her horrific staging of the 16 th  Street Baptist Church bombing, DuVernay and her editor Spencer Averick make you feel the intensity and chaotic terror of the violence. Dozens of kneeling, peaceful protests fill the screen end to end, and the juxtaposition between the historical depiction on the movie screen and the current images on today’s TV screens does not go unnoticed.

During the fight for voter rights, King has several meetings with President Johnson (a jarring but effective Tom Wilkinson ). Their scenes, and Johnson’s scenes with J. Edgar Hoover ( Dylan Baker ) focus on the political gamesmanship required to bring about change. “Selma” points out the media’s role in influencing the hearts and minds of the American people, and how easily that can be manipulated. King knows about this media power, and how his team handles it is a precursor to today’s social media shenanigans.

The prescient timing of “Selma” could not have been planned. Its opening scene is a casual reminder of what life was like before the Voting Rights Act, with poll taxes and absurd literacy tests suppressing the Black vote. Miss Sofia herself, producer Oprah Winfrey , shows up in the opening scene as a woman on her fourth journey to the voting bureau to take the test that will give her a right she already had. Winfrey disappears into an ordinary person’s countenance, and her gradual disappointment as she realizes once again she will be denied is both heartbreaking and a warning.

“Selma” works as both an epic and a small scale drama, and credit must be extended to DuVernay’s longtime cinematographer, Bradford Young . Young’s camera loves Black skin, and he lights it in beautiful, fearless, shadowy Gordon Willis flourishes the likes of which I have not seen in Hollywood cinema. His stylistic touches during the action scenes are startling and original. That there hasn’t been more talk about his work (he also shot “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) is something of a travesty that “Selma” should correct.

This is an emotional movie that aims to anger, sadden and inspire viewers, sometimes in the same scene. “Selma” takes no prisoners and, while it welcomes moviegoers of all hues, it has no intention of sugarcoating its horrors for politically correct comforting. This film—one of the year’s best—is an announcement of a major talent in Ms. DuVernay, but its core message will not be lost nor hidden by the accolades it receives. Through the noise, “Selma” speaks to us: From the top of the hill of progress, it is just as easy to slide down backwards as it is to move forward. Attention must be paid.

Odie Henderson

Odie Henderson

Odie "Odienator" Henderson has spent over 33 years working in Information Technology. He runs the blogs Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire  here .

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Film Credits

Selma movie poster

Selma (2014)

Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language

127 minutes

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King

Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Baines Johnson

Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King

Andre Holland as Andrew Young

Omar J. Dorsey as James Orange

Alessandro Nivola as John Doar

Giovanni Ribisi as Lee White

Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy

Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper

Common as James Bevel

Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson

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Selma Movie Analysis Essay

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Historical accuracy, portrayal of key characters, impact on the audience.

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Deep Focus: Selma

By Michael Sragow on December 29, 2014

Selma

Selma begins with the camera squarely framing Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), as if for a formal portrait. The immediate effect is ironic. He’s rehearsing a solemn line for an award speech, and he’s unhappy about something , which turns out to be his tie—or, rather, his “ascot,” as his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), calls it. She adjusts the neckwear. King complains about feeling ill at ease in such a swanky getup. When he spins out his blue-sky ideal about taking a calm job as a minister in a college town, Coretta looks pleased and then wistful, as if her husband has pulled this nostalgic number on her once too often. The director, Ava DuVernay, cuts to the dais at a grand occasion, and King accepts the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace.

With this opening vignette, DuVernay ( Middle of Nowhere ) and the credited screenwriter, Paul Webb, mean to signal audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look at the world-changing figure whose nonviolent campaigns against institutional racism propelled America’s boldest civil-rights advances of the 20th century. But even if you know nothing about King, both the cute business with the ascot and the dreamy escapism about a quieter life are too wispy to introduce this complex character. They’re like anecdotes about the human side of Great Men that educators employ to make biographies “relatable.” If you do know something about King, this Nobel Prize moment is inadequate.

At that time, the real King was depressed for many troubling reasons: rifts between King’s longtime partner in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), and other members of the SCLC; scandalous behavior among members of King’s entourage in Oslo; bogus FBI-spread rumors about his mismanagement of funds and links to Communism as well as the agency’s hyperbolic gossip about his extramarital affairs; frustration that 19 white Mississippians accused of murdering civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman had been released from prison (briefly, it turned out); and apprehension over the violence he rightly thought would erupt in Selma as soon as he started marching there for voting rights.

It’s understandable that DuVernay would make a priority of avoiding excessive detail. But too much of the movie is like that opening: deliberate, broad, uninspired. Selma is nothing if not ambitious. DuVernay aims to evoke the urgency behind King’s goal to enfranchise Southern blacks—that’s why she interrupts her chronology to depict the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls in 1963. (She envisions them chattering, pre-explosion, about Coretta Scott King’s hairstyle.) And she seeks to emphasize the grounded political wisdom behind the high-flying rhetoric of King’s nonviolent protest. When King arrives in Selma and confronts the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), his youthful competition, he states three principles of protest: “Negotiate, demonstrate, resist.” He explains that raising white America’s consciousness is as crucial as organizing black communities. King’s marches provoke racists to behave badly so national media will take notice. DuVernay lays that much out clearly. But when his legions proceed to the courthouse, the awful spectacle of Southern white lawmen brutalizing righteous citizens overpowers the film’s attempt to engage viewers more deeply. DuVernay’s scenes of street atrocities achieve a dogged power, but her rendering of King’s character fails to provide a counterweight to all the carnage. With police batons thudding against flesh and bone, and almost surreal images like a mounted posse-man in a cowboy hat lashing men and women of all ages, the movie captures horrific challenges to civil disobedience. But it doesn’t clarify King’s own complicated responses to events.

What is King thinking when he sees Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), outraged by the sheriff’s manhandling of an elderly gentleman, wallop him with her handbag, inciting a violent takedown? No matter how intensely Oyelowo grimaces, you can’t read what’s going on in King’s mind. While the moves and countermoves on the street spiral into a destructive dance, King strives to control his own political dance with grassroots political groups on his left (SNCC) and reactionary public figures on his right, like Sheriff Jim Clark (Tim Houston) and Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). How did King maintain his balance, ethically and tactically? (Even The New York Times once declared: “Non-violence that deliberately provokes violence is a logical contradiction.”) You can appreciate the sincerity of DuVernay’s work and still regret her lack of nimbleness and her psychological opacity. She awkwardly focuses on the same abused marchers in each busted-up demonstration. Watching this movie is like reading a large-type edition of a long and workmanlike biography.

The key politician in King’s sights is President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). One of the film’s major disappointments is its failure to imbue LBJ with a scale or fascination equal to his towering domestic accomplishments and imposing wheeler-dealer personality. The script depicts him simply as a beleaguered Chief Executive who stubbornly sticks to his own timetable. Having signed the milestone Civil Rights Act of 1964, the president tells King that his first priority is waging the War on Poverty to benefit impoverished blacks and whites alike, no matter what the facts are on the ground in Selma. He agrees that the federal government should guarantee the right of blacks and other minorities to vote, forcing the ban of prohibitive poll taxes and bogus literacy tests. But he thinks that pushing this issue soon after the civil rights bill would jeopardize his anti-poverty crusade. In the movie, he resents King so much for hectoring him that he gives his consent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s extortionist tactics, which include recording King’s infidelities and mailing a damning sex audiotape to his home. DuVernay’s clever use of printed legends from FBI logs help her set the time and place of crucial scenes and maintain a modicum of suspense. (Dylan Baker plays Hoover as an albino snake.) The film barely acknowledges the genuine anguish Johnson was suffering over U.S. policy in Southeast Asia—a serious omission, since the first U.S. combat division reached Vietnam on the very same day as the first aborted march from Selma-to-Montgomery. In this movie, the president finally gives King exactly what he wants because he doesn’t want to be seen as a small-minded cracker like Roth’s George Wallace. A more generous view of events would suggest that Johnson welcomed the pressure King put on him to do what he knew was right all along. Selma gives King and only King the moral high ground.

Often a first-class actor, Wilkinson fails to summon an iota of LBJ’s sloppy energy. Instead, he acts like a man in a perpetual snit, until the president gives his stirring plea to Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Even then, the way DuVernay sets up the action and the way Wilkinson plays it, when LBJ says “We shall overcome,” he sends a message of reconciliation specifically to King. It’s a reductive interpretation. Johnson was talking to King, but he was also, in a rare feat of eloquence, addressing the better angels of each American’s nature. He had used every hustle in his arsenal to advance a progressive domestic agenda. For Johnson and for the country, that occasion was cathartic.

In the greatest speech of a dreary public speaker, was Johnson trying to rise to the level of Martin Luther King Jr.? The civil rights leader, of course, was a magnificent orator. The film’s chief pleasure is hearing Oyelowo deliver roof-rattling variations on the preacher/activist’s call-and-response style. King had the podium artistry to inject adrenaline into gravitas. When seized by the moment, he entered a zone that was at once spiritual and sensual. Oyelowo emphasizes the visionary roll of King’s distinctive cadence, then adds his own startling staccato punctuation. His achievement is all the more impressive since the words he speaks are not King’s. DuVernay wrote the speeches herself, to bypass copyrighted material. Her pastiches lack the sinewy religious texture of King’s own writing, but their sleekness allows Oyelowo to connect with youthful, secular audiences who’ve never read the King James Bible. It’s when King descends from the lectern that Oyelowo gets into trouble. He’s praised his director for letting him take an extra second or two in playing out a scene, but his conversations often unfold in the same tempo as his sermons and stem-winders, especially when King is with Coretta. Did he actually speak this sagely and ceremoniously at home?

The script for Selma suffers from naming emotions rather than conjuring them and from invoking ideas rather than dramatizing them. In what should be the movie’s boldest domestic scene, Coretta and King listen to an audiotape that’s allegedly of him making love to another woman. But all Coretta wants to know is whether King honestly loves her—and whether he loves any of “the others.” Should these be the sole questions? Despite Oyelowo’s array of facial contortions and Ejogo’s haunting, tremulous elegance as Coretta, the movie leaves you with only the most general notion imaginable of King’s marital guilt. Selma acknowledges King’s infidelity without suggesting how it fit into his temperament or affected his marriage.

The movie is even more evasive about the most intriguing and under-chronicled episode in the Selma voting-rights campaign: King’s decision to curtail the second try at a march to Montgomery. He retreated from state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the town’s “Bloody Sunday” two days earlier, after lawmen broke up their battle line and cleared a way for the marchers. King kneels in prayer before turning back. Is he looking for direction from God? According to King biographer and civil rights historian Taylor Branch (in At Canaan’s Edge ), King had been reluctant to flout a federal court order prohibiting a Selma to Montgomery march. Now “King stood stunned at the divide, with but an instant to decide whether this was a trap or a miraculous parting of the Red Sea. If he stepped ahead, the thrill of heroic redemption for Bloody Sunday could give way to any number of reversals—arrests, attacks, laughingstock exhaustion in hostile country—all with marchers compromised as flagrant transgressors of the federal order. If he stepped back, he could lose or divide the movement under a cloud of timidity. If he hesitated or failed, at least some of the marchers would surge through the corridor of blue uniforms toward their goal. ‘We will go back to the church now!’ shouted King, turning around.” Another biographer, David J. Garrow, says that King had cut a deal with one of LBJ’s emissaries to stop until the march was cleared in federal court. The movie, by contrast, shies away from practical explanations and leaves King’s oddest move in a haze. King turns around and walks slowly back, amid his puzzled, angry flock.

The supporting actors bring oomph to their small roles and are dead ringers for their historical counterparts. They include Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, Common as James Bevel, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Bayard Rustin, and Stephan James as young John Lewis. Along with Oyelowo, and Domingo as Abernathy, they imbue the whole ensemble with comradely warmth and solidity. It’s hard to resist this cast’s portrayal of idealism in action, or to feel any distance from the characters’ pain as truncheons scar their flesh. They act with the vitality of performers caught up in what Branch calls “Selma’s unique collaboration between a citizen’s movement and elected government.” This particular triumph was to win blacks their voting rights while setting an example of focused, disciplined protest. Its tragedy is that this inspiring episode can still be called “unique.”

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Selma

  • A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr.'s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
  • The unforgettable true story chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. Director Ava DuVernay's "Selma" tells the story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history. — Miss W J Mcdermott
  • Alabama, 1965. While black citizens of Alabama constitutionally have the same voting rights as whites, they are hamstrung by racist local registration officers, politicians and lawmen. Dr Martin Luther King and his followers go to Selma, Alabama to attempt to achieve, through non-violent protest, equal voting rights and abilities for black people. — grantss
  • In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) accepts his Nobel Peace Prize. Four black girls walking down stairs in the Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church are killed by a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan. Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote in Selma, Alabama but is prevented by the white registrar. King meets with Lyndon B. Johnson and asks for federal legislation to allow black citizens to register to vote unencumbered, but the president responds that, although he understands Dr. King's concerns, he has more important projects. King travels to Selma with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash. James Bevel greets them, and other SCLC activists appear. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover tells Johnson that King is a problem, and suggests they disrupt his marriage. Coretta Scott King has concerns about her husband's upcoming work in Selma. King calls singer Mahalia Jackson to inspire him with a song. King, other SCLC leaders, and black Selma residents march to the registration office to register. After a confrontation in front of the courthouse, a shoving match occurs as the police go into the crowd. Cooper fights back, knocking Sheriff Jim Clark to the ground, leading to the arrest of Cooper, King, and others..
  • A chronicle of Martin Luther King's (Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, forcing a famous statement by President Lyndon B. Johnson (Wilkinson) that ultimately led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
  • In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), Jr. accepts his Nobel Peace Prize. Four African American girls are shown walking down the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church, talking. An explosion goes off, killing all four girls and injuring others. In Selma, Alabama, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote but is prevented by the white registrar. King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson and asks for federal legislation to allow African American citizens to register to vote unencumbered. Johnson says he has more important projects. King says that the right to vote is important because for decades African American's have been systematically prosecuted & hunted by whites in a still segregated South. The white criminals are never apprehended by white officials chosen by an all-white electorate, & in the rare occasion they go to trial, they are freed by an all-white jury, as you can't serve on the jury unless you have the right to vote. President Jhonson wants King on his side as he does not want the African American civil rights movement going back to its extremists roots under Malcolm X. King travels to Selma with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash. Selma is an Alabama town & heart of the anti-African American sentiment in the south. King checks into a hotel that bars African Americans. James Bevel greets them, and other SCLC activists appear. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover tells Johnson that King is a problem, and suggests they disrupt his marriage. Coretta Scott King has concerns about her husband's upcoming work in Selma. King calls singer Mahalia Jackson to inspire him with song. King and African American Selma residents march to the registration office to register. After a confrontation in front of the courthouse a shoving match occurs as the police go into the crowd. Cooper fights back, knocking Sheriff Jim Clark to the ground, leading to the arrest of Cooper, King, and others. Alabama Governor George Wallace speaks out against the movement. Coretta meets with Malcolm X who says he will drive whites to ally with King by advocating a more extreme position. Malcolm & King never saw eye to eye as King was a proponent of non-violence, while Malcolm wanted to raise a African American army to fight for African American rights Wallace and Al Lingo (state police sheriff) decide to use force at an upcoming night march in Marion, Alabama, using state troopers to assault the marchers. A group of protesters runs into a restaurant to hide, but troopers rush in to beat and shoot Jimmie Lee Jackson. King and Bevel meet with Cager Lee, Jackson's grandfather, at the morgue. King speaks to ask people to continue to fight for their rights. The Kings receive threats to their children, and King is criticized by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the Selma to Montgomery march is about to begin, King talks to Young about canceling it, but Young convinces King to persevere. The marchers, including John Lewis of SNCC, Hosea Williams of SCLC, and Selma activist Amelia Boynton, cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and approach a line of state troopers who put on gas masks, and then attack with clubs, horses, tear gas and other weapons. Lewis and Boynton are among those badly injured. The attack is shown on national television as the wounded are treated at the movement's headquarter church. Movement attorney Fred Gray asks federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson to let the march go forward. President Johnson demands that King and Wallace stop their actions and sends John Doar to convince King to postpone the next march. White Americans, including Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb, arrive to join the second march. Marchers cross the bridge again and see the state troopers lined up, but the troopers turn aside to let them pass. King, after praying, leads the group away, and comes under sharp criticism from SNCC activists. That evening Reeb is beaten by two white men on the street, and King is told of his death. Judge Johnson allows the march. President Johnson speaks before a Joint Session of Congress to ask for quick passage of a bill to eliminate restrictions on voting, praises the courage of the activists, and proclaims in his speech "We shall overcome". The march on the highway to Montgomery takes place, and when the marchers reach Montgomery King delivers a speech on the steps of the State Capitol. King concludes by saying that equality for African Americans is approaching.

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Marching toward Justice in Selma

By Anonymous

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a complex film mired in conflict and history. At its heart is the campaign to secure full voting rights for African Americans with the march from Selma to Montgomery serving as its nexus. I choose this film for its historical consistency and compelling performances. Selma is able to draw from history and show the internal conflict within the civil rights movement in 1964-1965. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is the main protagonist though it also stresses the importance of the collective and highlights other important figures too.

The civil rights movement in America is long and amorphous; however, Selma ‘s story starts at Dr. King’s Nobel prize ceremony for his work in civil rights. The film makes an earnest effort to humanize the legends of history surrounding the civil rights movement between 1964-65. Before Dr. King’s speech, he is distracted by his ascot, and during it, he is reminded of the past events that compel him. Selma immediately has us looking backward to help orient us in history, provide a sense of scope and give an idea of what motivates Martin Luther King. Dr. King begins his speech at the esteemed ceremony in well-lit room filled with dignitaries and elites.

“I accept this honor for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the more than twenty million American Negroes” …the scene fades.

We flashback to a sunlit church in Birmingham Alabama. Four little girls chatter while walking down the church steps and past ornate stained glass on their way to service. As the frame focuses on one girl, mid-sentence an explosion interrupts her. The totality of the tragedy is revealed as the motionless children lay buried in rubble. A reminder of the radical discrimination that left no place safe for people of color. The Birmingham bombing took place the year prior, September 15, 1963 (Parrott-Sheffer, C., n.d.). King described it as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

Title I of the 1964 Civil Rights Rct granted equal voting rights to people but had some critical flaws. In the courthouse in Selma, Alabama, where Annie Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) slowly and quietly fills out her voter registration in anticipation of exercising her newly given right. Downtrodden, she approaches the clerk’s booth. The close-up exchange of expressions conveys the causality and mutual understanding of the racism of the time. The everyday racism of the clerk alludes to the power dynamic, they both know Annie is eligible to register, but they also know she is powerless. Inevitably we arrive at a close-up of “DENIED” stamped across her registration as sad music shuffles Annie away, looking down at her feet, crushed. A straightforward example of the shortcomings of the civil rights act. It showcases the imbalance of power despite the law and contextualizes Cooper’s link to the struggle.

The Civil Rights Act is only six months old, and Martin Luther King has come to discuss voting rights again. They exchange pleasantries before sitting down to discuss matters of the nation, and the tone changes. The President asks, “How can help?” Dr. King asks for the fulfillment of voting rights for African Americans. President Johnson points out that African Americans had the right to vote through the 1964 civil rights act. King explains the flagrant denial of voting rights in the South.  President Johnson tries to pivot priorities to the war on poverty as he towers over King and pats him on the back. King’s face scrunched with frustration but remains composed, explaining the gaps in enforcement in the South. He also points out that registering to vote is a prerequisite for serving on a jury, further contributing to inequalities in the system. King requests a federal law that guarantees the right to vote without restriction and robust enforcement of the law. President Johnson tries to postpone any further action for now.

This scene is crucial to the movie. The Birmingham bombers escaped conviction, likely due to a lack of enforcement and African American jurors. (Parrott-Sheffer, C., n.d.) The scene also incorporates Annie Cooper’s story into the movie by showing how easy it was to deny her vote and what little recourse she had to refute the decision. Additionally, it lays out the contrast between King and Johnson, who could not be more different in background and perception. This is also where things start to get tricky.

Screen snip of MLK Jr. and marchers crossing the Selma Bridge from the film Selma

Martin Luther King is a legendary civil rights leader and humanitarian. He also had his issues; adultery among one. However, President Johnson has even more mixed and colorful history. He is on record, having used the n-word multiple times. As a senator, he opposed every civil rights measure, over 20 in total. President Johnson knew of the FBI’s wiretap on Martin Luther King and received regular updates (Conversation WH6707-01-12005, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition):

From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader. (Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities pg. 81)

The program was funded and continued for years on the assumption that Dr. King’s or his advisors were secret communists through the program never produced any evidence. The program continued years after his advisor quit and broke ties.

We have seen no evidence establishing that either of those Advisers attempted to exploit the civil rights movement to carry out the plans of the Communist Party. (Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities pg. 85)

President Johnson also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later the voting rights act of 1965. He waged war on poverty, reformed healthcare, and increased federal funding for education. DuVernay’s depiction of President Johnson was consistent with historical text. The director of the FBI was able to falsely convince him that there was a chance that Dr. King had secret communist ties. Martin Luther King was a keystone player in the civil rights movement. Without him there it was no unifying strategy or pressure to change. But President Johnson is the actual agent of change, and that is due to his position foremost, but ultimately his openness to being persuaded to do something he doesn’t initially understand or want to do. Johnson has a character arc that lands him in a good place, and it is hard not to see him as a flawed hero by the end of the film. A march on Selma wouldn’t make sense if Martin Luther King and President Johnson were on the same page at that time. Selma (2014) offers a reasonable and logical course between these events.

No one is spared in the telling of Selma . What I covered only accounts for the first ten minutes of this two-hour film, but those minutes are crucial. Selma shows the civil rights movement was not just a unifying of America, but a hard-fought battle among a fractured America for its future. Selma is not an easy movie to watch, but it does reward patience and understanding. It illustrates how easy it was to subvert the civil rights act of 1964 and how it served to placate white Americans. I appreciate how much care was put into explicitly speaking to the principle of the issues and showing real-world examples played out. It does a great job of outlining the strategies that overcame deep and powerful racism in America. Most of all, it makes a solid case on how the march on Selma was instrumental in the civil rights movement.

“Is Selma Historically Accurate?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2015, www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/12/reel-history-selma-film-historically-accurate-martin-luther-king-lyndon-johnson.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.  “Selma” movie. Accessed Wed. 25 Aug 2021.  http://www.lbjlibrary.org/press/selma-movie.

“Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on 25 July 1967,” Conversation WH6707-01-12005, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2, ed. Kent B. Germany] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4005335

Martin Luther King Jr. – Acceptance Speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Wed. 25 Aug 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/acceptance-speech/

Parrott-Sheffer, C. (n.d.). 16Th Street Baptist Church bombing. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/16th-Street-Baptist-Church-bombing

Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americas: Book III. Report No. 94-755. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976. (https://archive.org/details/finalreportofsel03unit)

Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Crucial Lessons of Democracy in “Selma”

selma movie summary essay

Movies about media are special because movies are media, so these movies reveal much about the way their directors think about their art—and about its place in the world. That’s one reason why “Selma” is a distinctive political film. No less than an inside-Hollywood drama or a backstage musical, “Selma” tears away the curtain on the making of images—indeed, some of the most important images in American history. The movie tells the story of how these images were made, and shows the colossal sacrifices endured in the effort to make them. It’s a movie about history and the creation of history—and, in the process, it takes its own place in history. That built-in historicity is essential to the movie. It exemplifies what’s best in “Selma” while also revealing the limits of its effectiveness.

The movie’s essential subject is voting rights—the obstacles placed by Southern states to black people registering to vote—and the effort by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (played majestically by David Oyelowo) to persuade President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to push for a law eliminating barriers to voter registration and granting the federal government oversight of election laws in states and localities that had practiced discrimination.

The story is how King overcame Johnson’s hesitations about introducing such legislation: by relying on public protest to put public pressure on the President. As depicted in “Selma,” King was, in effect, producing films—organizing events that would be recorded and photographed, broadcast and published—and his “films,” which is to say, the news images of the protests, were intended to test the conscience of the nation. He anticipated the outcome of that test—the outrage that such images would arouse—because he also anticipated the horrific possibility, even likelihood, that the protests would result in violence against the protesters by the local police (all white).

The movie’s director and (uncredited) co-writer, Ava DuVernay, captures the terrifying and tragic sense of King’s leadership: his understanding that justice would come at the price of the protesters’ sacrifice, and that he, like a military officer, was leading (and even, in his absence, sending) troops into battles from which some would likely not return, or return grievously wounded. DuVernay depicts King as a master of diplomacy as well as of strategy. He not only expertly managed the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Johnson, he also held together his own fractious coalition of civil-rights organizations. In retrospect, the divisions among these organizations seem surprising to recognize, given their shared goals, but one of the crucial stories that “Selma” tells is the dependence of political movements and historical moments on individual leaders, especially King.

In “Selma,” DuVernay shows the seeming infinity of small good decisions—effective interactions, apt gestures, wise words—that sustain a few major great ones. She displays unhesitantly the somewhat unseemly and almost inadmissible principle on which a great person’s ability to make great decisions depends: power. Even the most devoted and modest activists working self-sacrificingly on behalf of a principle can’t get anything done without getting others to do it, and DuVernay shows that King’s leadership depended on the ability to gain the confidence both of the inner circle of competing or coördinating leaders and of the many who, in a practical sense, had little power except collectively, and harkened to him on the basis of admiration and trust.

That’s how the images of history get made—and how, as a result, history itself is made. And that’s also how, in its own way, the making of “Selma” converges with the events depicted in the film. Of course, no violence threatened the filmmakers as they recreated violent events. Lives weren’t on the line in the making of the film, and nothing in it suggests any sort of immodest or vainglorious comparison of a film crew to heroic and epochal activists. But timing is everything; these times are different from 1965 but not different enough—and, in some ways, they are even worse. The mainspring of the film, the subject that sparked the marches in Selma, is voting rights, and though they were granted by law in 1965 they’re once again under assault—precisely at a time when many whites are comfortably satisfied that things have, in fact, decisively changed since the bad old days of Jim Crow.

The year 2014 will go down in history, I think, as a year of new consciousness and new activism in the face of long-unaddressed inequities and injustices. Of course DuVernay couldn’t have foreseen the outrages of Ferguson, Missouri, and New York—the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the justice system’s subsequent failures. But those outrages weren’t the beginning, weren’t isolated incidents, but only the most recent and most prominent of such violent injustices. In filming the events of the mid-nineteen-sixties this year, DuVernay catches the spirit and the mood of today’s times.

DuVernay is a brilliant producer who, working on a surprisingly limited budget and a short shoot schedule, recreates a past era with a full and generous scope. Her ability to catch, embody, and transmit the feel of the time is inseparable from her sense of production. The actor David Oyelowo, in  a recent interview , explained that the specifics of the shoot infused the work with the spirit of the events themselves—the use of actual locations, the employment of veterans of the Selma marches in the film, and the use of the original pulpit from which King spoke in Montgomery, about which Oyelowo said,

I was like, “Don’t tell me! I have to actually give the speech. I can’t be dealing with the fact that God just showed up again (laughs).” It wasn’t until after that I was just like, “Oh, my goodness, the pulpit!” I just couldn’t. It’s the exact same one. When that’s going on, you just have to go, “O.K., something else is in charge here. Just stay in pocket and get the thing done.”

DuVernay’s contributions to the screenplay are uncredited, but they’re central to the film. Paul Webb, on whose original script the movie is based,  has the contractual right to sole credit , though his script was reportedly centered on Johnson and was significantly rewritten by DuVernay, who is responsible for the film’s fundamental shift of emphasis toward King. In the process, DuVernay, who was unable to secure rights from the King estate to his speeches (they’re  held by DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for Steven Spielberg ), wrote astonishingly faithful, albeit entirely original, imitations of his sermons and addresses.

Her writing is trenchant and decisive; it’s also dominant. The film’s best visual invention is centered on text: phrases taken verbatim from F.B.I. surveillance reports, put onscreen as if typed (with the sound of a typewriter added), to establish dates and settings and to apostrophize the action ironically about King and his activities. It’s significant that these most original images are words—ones that are documentary in the literal sense, derived from documents. (As the director  Jean-Marie Straub said  about the word “documentary,” “Who uses documents? The police!”)

DuVernay is focussed on process as determinedly as Steven Soderbergh, which is why, as in Soderbergh’s films, the drama in “Selma” seems to pivot on small events that occur as if in the corner of the screen. One such moment is a judicial ruling to allow a third march across the bridge—the triumphant one—to take place. Very little screen time is devoted to that judicial battle, but its brisk decisiveness makes for an agonized contrast with the state of things today. As I watched the scene, I mentally footnoted it: were such a case to arise in a Southern circuit of the federal court today, I wonder whether there’s a judge who’d see to the rights of mainly black protesters rather than to those of the authorities.

One of the embedded stories of “Selma” is the division, within both the Democratic and Republican parties, on the issue of civil rights—or, conversely, the alliances of Democrats and Republicans on (alas) both sides of the matter. Some Democrats (such as Hubert Humphrey) had long taken up the fight for equality; others, from the South, were brazen segregationists. Similarly, the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, had many partisans on the side of civil rights, while its ascendant far-right segment (the Goldwater wing) defended segregation.

As Democrats took the lead on civil-rights legislation and enforcement in the nineteen-sixties, and the G.O.P. tilted decisively right, many Southern whites switched parties. Then, the South was solidly Democratic; now it’s solidly Republican. The result is that the Republican Party has been transformed into something that even the most ardently segregationist Democrats could never have dreamed of achieving—a white people’s party—and that’s the party that composes the current Supreme Court majority and that controls both houses of Congress.

The voting rights that were fought for in the events of “Selma” are today under attack from state governments across the country, in the North as well as the South—whether through simple gerrymandering, the intimidations of stringent voter-I.D. requirements and their vigilante enforcement (which  Jane Mayer wrote about  in the magazine), or the simple calculated scarcity of polling places, subjecting black voters to  disproportionately long waiting times  and thus placing impediments to their vote—and even from the grossly disproportionate rate of incarceration, where felony convictions often result in disenfranchisement. Meanwhile, in 2013, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was  significantly weakened by the Supreme Court : “Our country has changed,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in his majority opinion. Yes, it has: not least in the disheartening role now played by the Court on matters of civil rights. It is  no longer a reliable guarantor of voting rights .

At a time when protest is once again a spark for reform, it’s worth seeing it in the light of “Selma,” which offers crucial lessons in democracy. First, protest isn’t an exception to, departure from, or repudiation of the political process, it’s a part of the political process. Second, the media aren’t independent of the political process, they’re an inextricable part of it, and the creation of images is a political act. That consciousness informs the making of the film, which as a result takes on the tone of history in the making, and becomes a quasi-official work in itself—a resolutely public set of images about the making of public images.

Oyelowo brings a grand and mighty presence to his performance of King (and, I confess, I heard a little British tang to several of his vowels). He doesn’t have the verve or the swing that Jeffrey Wright brought to the same role in the 2001 TV movie “Boycott,” about the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 subsequent to the arrest of Rosa Parks—but Oyelowo’s sculpted strength is apt to the story that DuVernay tells. Wright plays King in a time of expansiveness, when the civil-rights movement was rising to action and his leadership was first developing. Oyelowo plays him at a moment when triumph and tragedy fuse, when progress remains bound to its heavy price—when he already belonged to the ages.

Ultimately, the text of “Selma” and the film’s subject dominate the movie’s actual images. DuVernay displays more originality and audacity as a producer and screenwriter than she does as a director. The film has little visual inflection to match the spoken rhetoric that she crafts. There’s no framing of the words in action, which is what turns language into an aspect of cinematic style. DuVernay’s great achievement in simply making the film exceeds that of any of its individual images, and I think that the gap is no accident. Daring and original cinematic images tap into the director’s unconscious, escape from the director’s intention, and enter the free-flowing realm of uncontrollable impressions and expressions. They risk misunderstanding and misinterpretation, bare conflicts and contradictions that are at odds with a work's public profile and overt import. But they're the way that movies enter history: they make the difference between a timely and notable event and an enduring work of art.

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How a Homegrown Teen Gang Punctured the Image of an Upscale Community

Selma

Review by Brian Eggert November 11, 2015

Selma

In the same way that Steven Spielberg focused on an episode of Abraham Lincoln’s push for civil rights in the film Lincoln as a small representation of a larger biographical canvas, filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses Selma as a microcosm to explore both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement on film. Few films have been made about Dr. King, and almost none about the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery, but DuVernay’s expertly crafted picture tackles the material with just the right balance of historical and dramatic attention. Paul Webb’s balanced screenplay considers both the national and human sides of the story, never losing sight of his characters or the significance of the events before us. Not even the elegant performance by David Oyelowo as King distracts from the overall story, leaving Selma perhaps the best film about the civil rights movement since Spike Lee’s Malcolm X .

Just five short decades ago, desegregation may have been in place according to law, but it was not enforced in the Jim Crow South. President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) had passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but African Americans who wished to exercise their newly won right to vote, and who otherwise outnumbered white populations in the South, were met at voter registration booths by an opposing white power, reinforced by Alabama’s famously racist Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). On this battleground, Dr. King and his party arrive and know unequivocally that Selma is just the hotbed they need to draw attention to their cause, in part due to the short-tempered, intolerant local Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). And it’s just the kind of exposure they need after their failed, yearlong desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia. To succeed, King needs not only media exposure but backing from the White House, and Webb’s script goes back-and-forth between King’s grassroots campaign and his lobbying with LBJ.

But King is also operating in one of the most tumultuous periods in history, with the Vietnam war raging, Malcolm X’s assassination approaching (Nigel Thatch appears onscreen as the figurehead, in an uncanny resemblance), and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) at his most paranoid. The opening scenes demonstrate this sharply, cutting from King receiving a Nobel Peace Prize to the bombing of a Birmingham church where four girls died. Meanwhile, King also has a family to consider, including his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who receives wiretaps of King’s extramarital affairs at their home. And even with the possibility of losing focus in the shuffle of such political and personal turmoil, Selma demonstrates how King could balance such chaos and remain, for the most part, composed. Of course, there are a couple of false-starts to the marches, one that involves a sweeping setpiece on Edmund Pettus Bridge where Selma police attack peaceful demonstrators, but it all ends with LBJ’s Voting Rights Act of 1965.

DuVernay may be an American director—and a former publicist-turned-indie filmmaker with two features to her name—but she’s tapped some fine British talent for her cast: Wilkinson, Roth, Ejogo, and reteaming with her Middle of Nowhere star, Oyelowo. Having played Forest Whitaker’s activist son in The Butler , Oyelowo is versed in civil rights drama, though he disappears into Dr. King’s presence, so weighted by the responsibility on his shoulders and death threats everywhere he goes, and delivers the speaker’s uniquely inflected orations with impressive accuracy. Still, it’s not just an impersonation Oyelowo gives; it’s a full-fledged embodiment, which will undoubtedly earn Oyelowo award consideration. Only Oprah Winfrey, who also produced, yet appears onscreen as a Selma woman denied voter registration, takes us out of the film. Beyond that, DuVernay’s treatment is never at risk of being outshined by its performances, central or otherwise.

Looming debates about the historical accuracy, or lack thereof, in Selma ‘s depiction of an N-word dropping LBJ and his role in the Selma marches may sour the experience for some, or at least bring the White House scenes into question—particularly a scene where LBJ seemingly taps Hoover to “take care of” King. From a certain point of view, these scenes are shocking; then again, the entire debate against Selma suggests that a filmmaker representing a moment in history isn’t allowed any leeway to interpret the events from a dramatic perspective for the audience’s sake. Moreover, Webb and DuVernay could not use King’s exact speeches within the film due to rights issues, a problem not exactly within their control. At any rate, filmmakers have been altering history for dramatic purposes since Homer wrote about the Trojan War, and today the same debate arises each time a new historical film arrives in theaters. For a history lesson, open a history book; otherwise, let’s just accept that film is an artistic medium allowing for a certain degree of interpretation.

On a technical level, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick deliver a lightly styled, straightforward presentation that remains consistent from start to finish. If there’s a major quibble to be had, it’s the somewhat distracting, certainly paranoia-driving device where type-written FBI reports appear onscreen and detail Dr. King’s movements in Selma, fuelling the fear (and later arguments about historicity) that the government was against King. That aside, DuVernay has made a stirring, intelligent film about the civil rights movement, a subject that, surprisingly, so few motion pictures get right. It presents a single situation on an emotional and intellectual level, appealing to a vast range of its audience, which is something rare for this type of cinema. Most importantly, the film makes us reflect on a time not too long ago when things were very different, and also forces us to consider how far we still have yet to go.

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selma movie summary essay

SUBJECTS — U.S.: 1945-1991; Diversity/African-American; Civil Rights Movement;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Leadership, Courage, Human Rights;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Fairness, Citizenship.

AGE : 12+; MPAA Rating PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language;

Drama; 2014, 128 minutes; Color.

Advisory to Teachers Thinking About Using this Film

Historically speaking,  Selma  is a deeply flawed movie. However, its historical errors present an opportunity to teach students about how nonviolent direct action turns powerful politicians into advocates for change.

Selma misrepresents the extraordinary role played by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (“LBJ”) in developing and passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act and falsely claims that LBJ was complicit in the FBI’s attempts to sow marital discord between Dr. King and his wife. The purpose of the director/ screenwriter was apparently to provide a clear villain for the story arc of the film and because, as she said, “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” These errors undercut some of the great strengths of the film in its largely accurate description of the Selma protests and its nuanced portrayal of Dr. King.

For teachers who want to use the film, this  Learning Guide will assist in turning its flaws into strengths.  In addition, the Guide contains materials to enhance classes in the Civil Rights Movement and U.S. history of the 1950s and 1960s. These materials will be helpful to students whether or not they watch the movie. They include the following:

  • LBJ grew from a typical Southern politician who consistently opposed civil rights laws to the man who did more for racial equality than any other 20th century white leader. By 1958, when LBJ began his campaign for the Presidency, the civil rights movement had turned much of the nation against segregation.  He knew that he could not be a candidate with nation-wide appeal unless he changed his position.  However, as he began to promote integration, LBJ realized that the idea of equal rights spoke to his core values.  As a result, after 1958, he began taking political risk after political risk to actively support the civil rights movement.  
  • The odyssey of LBJ is an example of the process by which nonviolent direct action uses both the beliefs and self-interest of politicians in a democracy to lead them to change their positions and to enthusiastically work for reform.  This is a basic tenet of Gandhi’s Satyagraha. 
  • Pointing this out in the context of the movie Selma is an excellent way to teach about nonviolent direct action.
  • The relationship between MLK and LBJ was extraordinary because it involved cooperation between an activist and the most powerful official of a country to secure major social and political reform.
  • The tale of Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities is much less important than the abuse of power by the FBI, which went far beyond the agency’s proper role when it wiretapped Dr. King and his associates, presented selective and misleading information to government officials, leaked derogatory information about Dr. King to the press and others, and engaged in unauthorized covert activities to “neutralize” Dr. King as an African American leader.
  • While LBJ may have condoned some of the leaks of derogatory information about Dr. King, he was not responsible for any of the FBI’s covert activities targeting MLK. However, LBJ committed a grave error when he allowed the FBI to collect information on the political activities of Dr. King and other civil rights activists and used that information for his own political advantage.
  • None of the many journalists, politicians, and clergy who were offered the details of Dr. King’s extramarital sex life took the FBI’s bait and used the information against Dr. King or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  With the “Me, Too” movement, the result would undoubtedly have been very different today.
  • Dr. King’s extramarital sexual relations were unwise, hypocritical, and, in some cases, perhaps criminal. They put at risk the entire Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy/Johnson legislative program which was designed to correct civil rights abuses. Fortunately for the United States, scandal did not overtake Dr. King while he was alive.

The  Learning Guide  contains information, discussion questions, and assignments on the points set out above and introduces two wonderfully contrasting Alabama public figures: Alabama Governor George C. Wallace and U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson. Governor Wallace and Judge Johnson were roommates in college. However, in their public life, Governor Wallace resisted integration while Judge Johnson enthusiastically supported the constitution to force positive change in Alabama.

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

selma movie summary essay

Benefits of the Movie Possible Problems Parenting Points Selected Awards & Cast Helpful Background

Using the Movie in the Classroom Discussion Questions Social-Emotional Learning Moral-Ethical Emphasis Assignments and Projects  

CCSS Anchor Standards Bridges to Reading Links to the Internet Bibliography

DESCRIPTION

This movie is a description of the Selma voting rights protest, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards: 2015 Academy Awards: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song; 2015 Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Best Original Song – Motion Picture; 2015 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (David Oyelowo) – Drama; 2015 AFI Awards, USA Moivie of the Year; and many other awards.

Featured Actors: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.; Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King; Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper; Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson; André Holland as Andrew Young; Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Bayard Rustin; Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy; Omar J. Dorsey as James Orange; Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash; Common as James Bevel; Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton; E. Roger Mitchell as Frederick Reese; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Ledisi Anibade Young as Mahalia Jackson; Corey Reynolds as Rev. C.T. Vivian; Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams; Stephan James as John Lewis John Lavelle as Roy Reed; Trai Byers as James Forman Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson; Stan Houston as Sheriff Jim Clark; Tim Roth as Gov. George Wallace; Stephen Root as Colonel Al Lingo; Brian Kurlander Brian Kurlander as Voice on Recorder (voice) Jeremy Strong as James Reeb; Tara Ochs as Viola Liuzzo; Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray; Alessandro Nivola as John Doar; Michael Shikany as Archbishop Iakovos; Martin Sheen as Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

Director: Ava DuVernay.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

Selma shows a pivotal event in modern U.S. history and with corrections for its misinformation relating to President Johnson, can enhance a unit on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as U.S. history of the 1950s and 1960s. It contains an excellent characterization of Dr. King.

The movie will provide strong visual images of the effort of African Americans to secure the right to vote. The additional materials provided by this Learning Guide will enhance student understanding of the era, nonviolent direct action, and the cooperation between Dr. King and LBJ in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

Once LBJ’s role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Movement are fully explained to students, there are no problems with this movie.

Problems Here.

PARENTING POINTS

Watch the movie with your child and describe its major historical error: that President Johnson did not support the Selma voting rights campaign before the March 7, 1965, police riot on the Petus Bridge in Selma.  In fact, beginning in January of that year before Dr. King ever went to Selma, he and LBJ were working together to get the the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed into law.   If your child would be interested, have him or her read the sections of this Learning Guide on nonviolent direct action and discuss how nonviolent direct action works to convert powerful politicians into social reformers.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

selma movie summary essay

LBJ, Civil Rights Hero: a Classic Example of Nonviolent Direct Action

Converting the Leader of an Oppressor Group into an Advocate for Change

Click here for this section in word processing format suitable to be printed and handed out to a class.

A campaign of nonviolent direct action is an effort to create social or political change by: (1) mobilizing public opinion, (2) appealing to the conscience of the campaign’s adversaries, and (3) exerting economic, legal, or other pressure. The methods of nonviolent direct action include demonstrations, sit-ins, petitions, strikes, boycotts, advocacy in speeches, and peaceful public violation of selected laws — all designed to dramatize the injustice of the status quo and to apply pressure for reform. All legal levers of power can be used as part of a nonviolent direct action campaign, including court cases and electoral politics. Often, by design or happenstance, law enforcement will violently overreact to peaceful demonstrations, vigils, or sit-ins, providing publicity for the campaign and illustrating the need for change

Nonviolent direct action, also known as “civil resistance,” “non-violent resistance,” or “civil disobedience,” was developed by Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and India. It is the major political and advocacy innovation of the 20th century. See Learning Guide to A Force More Powerful . Since 1947 nonviolent direct action has been responsible for the vast majority of revolutions that resulted in changes of government or, as in the case of the U.S., major social and political reform. Examples include the Indian Independence movement culminating in 1947; the end of Apartheid in South Africa in 1984; the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The two most important proponents of nonviolent direct action have been Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The role that changes of conscience and public pressure play in campaigns of nonviolent direct action can be seen in the conversion of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) from a typical Southern politician who opposed civil rights laws to a man who both listened to his conscience and looked to his own political self-interest — and took the cause of black civil rights to heart.

Before Lyndon Johnson, only four 20th century political leaders of national stature had taken strong stands for black civil rights. Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned discrimination in federal employment and encouraged the employment of African Americans in the defense industry through executive orders. Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for better treatment of African Americans — for one example see Tuskegee Airmen . President Harry S. Truman ordered integration of the armed forces in 1948. President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the need for civil rights for African Americans on June 11, 1963, and proposed the law that eventually became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, the efforts of the Roosevelts and President Truman were limited, and President Kennedy was murdered before he could get a civil rights law passed.

LBJ served in the Congress for 28 years, rising to the powerful position of Senate Majority leader. It was not until 1957, after 25 years of opposing civil rights bills in Congress, that LBJ began to support civil rights for black Americans. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education had put the issue of African American civil rights squarely before the nation. As Johnson began to seek the Presidency, he realized that he would have to change his position on civil rights. When Johnson became Vice-President, he took civil rights for African Americans as his own cause.

While LBJ’s espousal of civil rights for black Americans was necessary for him to aspire to national office, it is also clear that he came to passionately believe in civil rights and he became an effective force for change. LBJ’s leadership was essential for passing the country’s major civil rights laws: the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodations, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 law that prohibited discrimination in housing. The anti-poverty programs of Johnson’s Great Society initiative assisted all poor Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black. Johnson issued an Executive Order requiring government contractors to take affirmative action to benefit minorities. Johnson also appointed the first African-American to head a federal government department and sit in the President’s cabinet (Robert Weaver, HUD, 1966).

Perhaps LBJ’s clearest statement of his belief in civil rights for African Americans came in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, eight days after Selma’s Bloody Sunday.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.

For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation [in this Joint Session of Congress] all the majesty of this great Government — the Government of the greatest Nation on earth.

Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. . . .

Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” . . .

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal.” “Government by consent of the governed.” “Give me liberty or give me death.” And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died . . . Those words are promises to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man, equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.

To apply any other test, to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race or his religion or the place of his birth is . . . to do injustice . . . .

The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety, and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change; designed to stir reform. He has been called upon to make good the promise of America.

The historical record shows acts of political courage by Johnson to support his pro-civil rights stand, including when, as Vice-President, he integrated a segregated eating facility in St. Augustine, Florida during the height of racial tensions. Another example is Johnson’s speech before the Louisiana power elite at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans just before the 1964 Presidential elections in which he told his audience that he would enforce to the fullest the recently passed Civil Rights law prohibiting segregation in public accommodations.

Historians and commentators speculate about why LBJ changed his position on Civil Rights. Some point to his roots as the child of a poor family who had to work hard to become a success. They also point to his experience as a teacher in a poor Hispanic school district and to his belief that government should actively serve the people. As LBJ said in his March 1965 speech to Congress, the protests awakened his conscience. Others assert that by 1957, in light of the protests mounted by the Civil Rights Movement, the nation outside the South had already changed to support an end to segregation and that LBJ altered his position on black civil rights to improve his prospects for winning national office.

The actual reason for LBJ’s change of position on civil rights was probably a combination of his life experience, philosophy of government, and conscience, combined with political necessity. The point is that while Johnson’s background and his belief that government should act to help people may have made him susceptible to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement to arouse his conscience, that is exactly what nonviolent direct action is designed to do. In addition, a fundamental strategy of any campaign of nonviolent direct action is to alter public opinion and therefore change political reality so that the leaders of a country find it in their self-interest to support the goals of the protestors. Thus, LBJ’s change of position on civil rights is a classic example of how nonviolent direct action works on a powerful political leader.

selma movie summary essay

LBJ and the 1965 Voting Rights Act

After years of community organizing, a major escalation of the effort to register voters in Selma was planned to begin in January of 1965. The Selma campaign was seen as a way to build public support throughout the North and West for a voting rights law and also as a way to “force Lyndon Johnson’s hand on the federal voting statute.” Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 380. On December 18, 1964, on Dr. King’s return home from Norway after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, President Johnson invited Dr. King and his family to the White House. On that occasion, Dr. King and the President had a brief private conversation.

The President spoke about how beneficial his “war on poverty” effort would be for African Americans, and how they would have to play a leadership role in the program. Dr. King reminded Johnson that there were still serious civil rights problems in the South, and that the need for federal legislation to ensure blacks’ voting rights was great. “Martin, you’re right about that. I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get a voting rights bill through in this session of Congress,” King later recalled Johnson telling him. It was less than six months since the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] had become law, the president pointed out, and he would need southern congressmen’s votes for other “Great Society” initiatives. He would lose those votes if he pressed for the voting rights measure. The time would come, Johnson said, but not in 1965.” Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 368.

There was at least one other meeting at about the same time, on this occasion with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in which the President reiterated his hesitation to go forward with a voting rights law at that time.

These conversations are moved forward in time, combined and dramatized in the movie without an acknowledgment that two months before the March 7 Bloody Sunday protest, President Johnson had come round and was actively working with Dr. King to secure a voting rights law. So far as TWM’s research shows, the only other scenes in the film in which Johnson appears that bear any relationship to the historical record are the scenes of President Johnson’s interview with Governor Wallace and his address to Congress. The other scenes in which the President appears, either didn’t happen at all or didn’t happen as shown in the film.

President Johnson was a complex man and often didn’t tell others his true intentions. For example, on December 14, 1964, before the conversations in which he counseled delay, the President had instructed his attorney general to draft new voting rights legislation. It is clear, however, that within days after the conversations in which counseled delay, the President came to fully support the passage of a voting rights law in 1965. This is shown by LBJ’s promise in his January 4, 1965, State of the Union address that he would have detailed voting rights proposals for Congress within six weeks. .

In fact, by January 1965 just a few weeks after he had counseled delay, LBJ and Dr. King were working together to get a voting rights law passed. This is shown by a telephone call between the President and Dr. King on January 15, 1965. In that conversation, which was recorded, LBJ requested that Dr. King mobilize public support for the voting rights bill to help LBJ convince a reluctant Congress to pass the legislation. The President told Dr. King that the voting rights act would be “the greatest achievement of my administration.” This telephone call pre-dated the large protests in Selma, the first of which was held on January 18. It occurred before Dr. King’s arrest while leading the Selma protests and almost two months before Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Between March 1965 and the next August, when he signed the bill into law, LBJ successfully shepherded the voting rights act through Congress.

King and Johnson were later to part ways as Johnson committed the U.S. to the War in Vietnam, which Dr. King opposed, and as Dr. King sought a radical restructuring of economic power in the United States. However, on the voting rights act, they worked together long before Bloody Sunday.

The FBI’s Abuse of Power: Surveillance & Covert Action Against MLK & the SCLC

In the U.S., it has never been a crime to belong to the CPUSA, to support it, or to cooperate with it. In addition, a U.S. citizen doesn’t lose his civil rights by virtue of having been associated with a subversive organization in the past or by taking the 5th amendment when questioned about his political associations. What is criminal are actions that laws prohibit, such as spying for a foreign power, or providing aid and support for a foreign power, destruction of property, or conspiracies to perform those actions. In the modern context, it is not illegal to advocate an interpretation of the Koran supported by the so-called Islamic State. It is, however, illegal to assist men and women to travel to Iraq or Syria to fight for ISIS.

J. Edgar Hoover made a career out of investigating subversives and radicals, and later, organized crime figures. In 1924 he was appointed head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation by President Calvin Coolidge. Hoover was periodically reappointed to his position as director of the Bureau, and its successor, the FBI, by the next eight U.S. Presidents. Hoover made the FBI into a professional and scientific crime-fighting organization. LBJ waived the mandatory retirement age for U.S. civil service employees and allowed Hoover to stay in power at the FBI until his death at age 72. By that time, Hoover had been in charge of the FBI for 37 years. During this time, most Americans considered J. Edgar Hoover to be a hero.

There was, however, a dark side to the FBI and its long-time Director. Hoover kept secret files on political figures and used the threat of disclosure of information about their personal lives to intimidate Congress and the Executive Branch. Every President after Franklin Roosevelt (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) kept Hoover in office because of the potential political costs to themselves or their allies of the information in Hoover’s files. Hoover died in office in 1972, while Nixon was President.

Another problem with Hoover’s administration of the FBI was that he ordered the Bureau to illegally wiretap and to take covert punitive actions against persons that he considered to be subversive or undesirable. The covert actions included burglaries, planting forged documents, leaking secret information from government files, and spreading false rumors. The FBI targeted the professional and personal lives of the people Hoover thought were threats to national security.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids government searches such as wiretaps or bugs without a warrant and the Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from taking punitive action against individuals without due process of law, i.e., without a conviction by a court or a finding by an administrative agency with procedural safeguards to protect the individual’s rights. The efforts of the FBI to destroy the career and family life of Martin Luther King is the most egregious example of covert activity by the FBI directed at the leader of an important social reform movement.

The FBI’s actions that related to Dr. King can be divided into three parts.

Part One — Reckless Claims that Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement Were Associated With Communists

For several years before 1957, Stanley Levison, a New York attorney and businessman, was a key player in the finances of the Communist Party – USA (“CPUSA”). Levison first met Dr. King in 1956 and from 1957 until Dr. King’s death in 1968, Mr. Levison was a close advisor to Dr. King, ghostwriting chapters of Dr. King’s books, raising money for the SCLC and other civil rights organizations, and counseling Dr. King on strategy. In fact, Mr. Levison was Dr. King’s closest white advisor.

The Levison/King relationship occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was an enemy of the U.S. and the CPUSA was closely tied to the Soviet Union. For example, from 1957 on the CPUSA had so few adherents that it could not support itself and until 1969 the Russian Communist party gave it millions of dollars. The financial support was intended to be secret; however, the FBI had thoroughly penetrated the CPUSA and the U.S. government knew exactly what was going on.

In addition, Dr. King unwittingly stoked the government’s fears about his relationship with Levison. In 1963 and thereafter, Dr. King was repeatedly warned by high ranking U.S. officials who believed the FBI reports that Levison was a communist, including President John F. Kennedy, that if his association with Mr. Levison were made public, it would pose a danger to both the Civil Rights Movement and to President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. Dr. King at first refused to sever his relationship with Levison stating that he had asked Levison about his CPUSA connections and that Levison had satisfied him that he was not a CPUSA member. Dr. King stated that he didn’t care about his supporters’ past political affiliations, so long as they were committed to the Civil Rights Movement. Later, under mounting pressure, Dr. King claimed to have disassociated himself from Levison. However, Dr. King kept a “secret” channel open to Levison through an associate. Dr. King sought Levison’s advice by asking the associate to find out what “our friend” had to say about issues facing Dr. King and the Movement. While Dr. King thought these communications with Levison were secret, he was wrong. The FBI was wiretapping both Levison and the associate.

Moreover, when Mr. Levison was called to testify before a Congressional committee in April 1962 and asked about his CPUSA connections, he made an introductory statement denying that he had ever been a member of the CPUSA. He then took the 5th Amendment and would not answer any questions.

It turns out that Mr. Levison had ended his relationship with the CPUSA long before 1962. The years of government surveillance of Mr. Levison, revealed only that he acted as a loyal advisor to Dr. King. Neither the wiretaps nor other evidence from the FBI’s thorough penetration of the CPUSA revealed any evidence that Mr. Levison participated in CPUSA activities after 1957. To the contrary, the FBI knew that Mr. Levison had split with the CPUSA and that its leaders didn’t trust him. Thus, in its repeated claims in leaks and memos to government officials that Dr. King had connections with members of the CPUSA, Hoover and the FBI knew that they were playing fast and loose with the truth.

This is the story of two failures. One is the fact that a 50-year campaign by the CPUSA to attract African-Americans to its cause, produced few results. The second was the inability of Hoover and the FBI to stop LBJ from working with Dr. King despite a barrage of memos alleging that Dr. King had ties to the CPUSA. LBJ and Hoover had been friends for years. One can only assume that LBJ, who was a committed anti-Communist and Cold Warrior, knew that the FBI director hated Dr. King and that the FBI’s claims about King’s communist connections could not be trusted.

Part Two — The FBI’s Covert Action Against Dr. King

The wiretaps of Dr. King and the bugging of his hotel rooms began in November 1963. While the wiretaps failed to disclose any substantial evidence of CPUSA influence on Dr. King, they did provide evidence that Dr. King was engaging in extramarital sex with women. The FBI’s attention then shifted to Dr. King’s “moral weakness.”

J. Edgar Hoover’s personal dislike for Dr. King has been summarized by Ben Christensen of CNN :

Hoover’s contempt for King’s private behavior is clear in the memos he kept in his personal files. His scrawl across the bottom of positive news stories about King’s success dripped with loathing.

On a story about King receiving the St. Francis peace medal from the Catholic Church, he wrote “this is disgusting.” On the story “King, Pope to Talk on Race,” he scribbled “astounding.” On a story about King’s meeting with the pope, “I am amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate.” On a story about King being the heavy favorite to win the Nobel Prize, he wrote “King could well qualify for the ‘top alley cat’ prize!”

One of the reasons why Dr. King was hated by Hoover was that Dr. King had dared to criticize FBI inaction in investigating murders of black and white civil rights activists. While the criticism was legitimate, Hoover disliked anyone who criticized him or his beloved Bureau. Eventually President Johnson made a personal appeal to Hoover after the killing of the three civil rights workers, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, two of whom were white, and the FBI moved into action against the KKK and others who tried to use violence to resist the Civil Rights Movement.

With respect to Dr. King, the goal of the FBI was no less than, in the words of an FBI memo of December, 1963, to “neutralize King as an effective negro leader” and to hobble the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“SCLC”) that he led. A U.S. Senate investigating committee later stated:

The FBI’s effort to discredit Dr. King and to undermine the SCLC involved plans touching on virtually every aspect of Dr. King’s life. The FBI scrutinized Dr. King’s tax returns, monitored his financial affairs, and even tried to establish that he had a secret foreign bank account. Religious leaders and institutions were contacted in an effort to undermine their support of him, and unfavorable material was “leaked” to the press. Bureau officials contacted members of Congress, and special “off the record” testimony was prepared for the Director’s use before the House Appropriations Committee. Efforts were made to turn White House and Justice Department Officials against Dr. King by barraging them with unfavorable reports and, according to one witness, even offering to play for a White House official tape recordings that the Bureau considered embarrassing to King. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Case Study , CONTELPRO, Docs, Church Committee, Final Report — Book III, 23 April 1976.

The Senate Report also cited anonymous letters, planted newspaper articles, and disruption of SCLC fundraising activities.

Both Hoover and LBJ were fascinated by the details of Dr. King’s sexual encounters captured by bugs planted in Dr. King’s hotel rooms, and there was an element of sexual voyeurism about their interest. Johnson would privately tell people, “Goddammit, if you could only hear what that hypocritical preacher does sexually.”

What is most remarkable is the stonewall-like refusal of almost everyone who was offered information about Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities to take the bait and use the information to destroy Dr. King’s leadership. There were two likely reasons for this. First, in American politics for many decades, including the 1960’s, there was an unstated understanding in the press and among many people in the political establishment that the personal and sexual lives of public officials were their own business and were not to be publicized. This changed in the 1980s when the Presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart was torpedoed by allegations that he was a womanizer. Since that time, the private lives of public officials have been fair game for public comment. In addition, it is likely that the people to whom the FBI tried to leak the story, almost all of whom were white, realized that Dr. King’s value to American society was so great that that his personal failings should be overlooked.

However, the persistent efforts of the FBI over four years to injure the reputation of Dr. King and the movement with allegations of ties to communism and the details of Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities did take a toll. It distracted and worried Dr. King and his advisers and it kept some influential people from supporting the movement and made fundraising more difficult.

Perhaps the worst of the FBI covert activities against Dr. King was a letter written by the head of the FBI’s intelligence operations, William C. Sullivan, in the Fall of 1964. The letter claimed to be from an anonymous disappointed admirer of Dr. King. The letter contained deliberate misspellings and awkward constructions to make it appear authentic. It was accompanied by an FBI tape that included recordings of Dr. King having sexual intercourse with an unknown woman and sent to the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. The letter stated that Dr. King would be exposed and implied that the only way out for him was suicide. People often sent the SCLC tapes of Dr. King’s speeches and Dr. King’s wife, Correta Scott King, liked to listen to them. The package was duely forwarded, unopened, to Mrs. King. When Coretta King opened the package in January of 1965, she found the tape and the letter. Some excerpts from the letter are set out below:

Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure. . . . You will find on the record for all time your filthy, dirty, evil companions, male and females giving expression with you to your hidious [sic] abnormalities. . . . It is all there on the record, your sexual orgies. Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal. . . . You are on the record. You have been on the record – all your adulterous acts, your sexual orgies extending far into the past. This one is but a tiny sample. . . . You will understand this.. . . King you are done. . . . There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

The tapes contained excerpts of conversations that occurred in several different hotel rooms that Dr. King had occupied in different cities. When Dr. King and his advisors listened to the tapes, it was obvious that it could only have been created by the FBI. In fact, the letter that accompanied the tape was written with the apparent knowledge and approval of J. Edgar Hoover.

Contrary to what is described in the movie, there is no evidence that President Johnson knew of or condoned any FBI covert actions and efforts to disrupt Dr. King’s family life. There is some evidence that Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s closest aide, approved leaks to the press of information derogatory to Dr. King, but beyond that, these appear to have been illegal actions known only to the FBI, taken under orders from J. Edgar Hoover.

Part 3 — Providing President Johnson with Information about  the Political Plans of Dr. King and his Political Allies

The wiretaps of Dr. King, the SCLC, and their associates also revealed information about their political intentions and strategies. This information was forwarded to the White House, along with information about Dr. King’s extramarital sexual activities and the absence of any information of CPUSA penetration of the Civil Rights Movement. In time, wiretaps were installed specifically to determine the political intention of Dr. King and his allies. This information was used by President Johnson against his political opponents such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Governor George C. Wallace — Demagogue

George Corley Wallace was a four-term governor of Alabama (1963-1967, 1971 – 1979 & 1983 – 1987). Wallace dominated Alabama politics so thoroughly that when the state constitution prohibited him from running for a second consecutive term in 1967, he had his wife elected. Unfortunately, she died in office. Wallace claimed to be a populist but actually did little for the people of Alabama.

Wallace used racial hatred as an easy way to distinguish himself as a politician. After losing his first race for governor in 1958, Wallace told an aide, “[Y]ou know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outniggered by John Patterson [his opponent]. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again!” Wallace explained to another supporter, “I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

Upon being inaugurated as Governor, Wallace stood at the Alabama Capitol at a bronze star marking the place where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath as President of the Confederacy. Wallace said,

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!

Wallace resisted integration until 1972 when he announced that he was a “moderate” in matters of race. In subsequent elections, he won with the help of black voters. Note also that by 1972, the 1965 Voting Rights Act which Wallace had opposed, had dramatically increased the number of black voters.

Wallace ran for President in 1986, 1972, and 1976 on a states-rights platform, which for him was a thinly veiled racist message. In 1986, as a third party candidate, Wallace received almost ten million popular votes and won in five Southern States, garnering 46 electoral votes. In 1972 he ran in the Democratic primaries and his campaign was doing well but an assassin shot him five times, paralyzing Wallace from the waist down. Wallace spent the rest of his life in a wheel-chair, completing his term as governor and winning and serving two more terms. In the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries, Wallace won only three Southern states, losing the rest to Jimmy Carter, who went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

Wallace was a demagogue, good at winning elections and willing to use hatred, fear, and division to do so. He was a poor administrator. Alabama state government before Wallace had not been good at delivering services to its citizens. During the period in which Wallace dominated Alabama politics, the state’s schools, prisons, mental hospitals, and other essential institutions were so poorly operated that conditions violated the constitutional rights of Alabama citizens. The federal courts were required to repeatedly intervene to correct these violations. Fortunately for Alabama, the U.S. District Judge sitting in Montgomery was a remarkable man, named Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. — U.S. District Court Judge

The judge shown in the film approving the march from Selma to Montgomery and ordering the government to protect the marchers was U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., generally held to be one of the best judges in U.S. history. Judge Johnson was a U.S. District Court Judge in Alabama from 1955 to 1979. He was then appointed to the Court of Appeal and served there from 1979 – 1999. The history of Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s is, to a great extent, the story of a struggle between Judge Johnson and the State of Alabama in which the Judge sought to require the state to comply with constitutional requirements in its schools, prisons, voter registration offices, and mental hospitals. For much of that time, the struggle was between Judge Johnson and his former friend, George C. Wallace.

Frank Johnson was born and raised in Winston County, Alabama, an area of rugged hills in the Northern part of the state. Winston County was known for its independence. Unlike the rest of Alabama, Winston County supported the Union during the Civil War. It was a center of guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy and a refuge for tens of thousands of deserters from the Confederate Army. After the Civil War, Winston County was reliably Republican when the rest of the state voted solidly Democratic.

George Wallace and Frank Johnson went to law school together and were friends. One story has it that Johnson made meticulous notes on the cases that students were required to read. Wallace never cracked a book outside of class. Johnson would pass his notes to Wallace and another friend to read during the class, so that if called upon, they could answer questions intelligently. The friendship between Johnson and Wallace didn’t last long after law school.

When he returned from service in the armed forces during the Second World War, Frank Johnson was politically active in the very small Republican party in Alabama. In 1955 when Johnson was 35 years old, he was appointed to the bench by President Dwight Eisenhower. At that time, he was the youngest federal judge ever appointed.

Before 1965, Judge Johnson had several voting rights cases in his court. He often found patterns and practices of discrimination and rigorously enforced the law. He was described as “the foremost champion of voting rights on the Southern bench.” Unfortunately, most federal judges in the South were not made of the same stuff as Judge Johnson, and despite attempts by the Justice Department to enforce voting rights under laws that existed before 1965, there was little overall improvement in extending the franchise to African Americans.

As shown in the film, Judge Johnson presided over the case brought by the protesters to sanction the march from Selma to Montgomery. He did order Dr. King and the protesters not to march until he could have a hearing. After the hearing he permitted the march. Unfortunately, First Amendment protections have been eroded by judicial decisions since 1965. Today, the march probably would not have been allowed to proceed.

Judge Johnson made important decisions correcting unconstitutional conditions in the State of Alabama that included the following: apportionment of the Alabama legislature; school desegregation; mental hospitals (being the first to find that persons confined to a mental hospital against their will and without being convicted of a crime had a right to treatment and that the state should not simply warehouse them; right to treatment cases soon spread across the country and resulted in reforms in the way that the mentally ill and developmentally disabled were treated.)

Additional Helpful Background: LBJ, Dr. King, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act

Below are excerpts from the January 15, 1965 telephone conversation between LBJ and Dr. King .

Note that the 1964 Civil Rights Act referred to by the President in this conversation forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the workplace, schools, and facilities open to the general public. It is the landmark Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s.

President Johnson: . . . I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man’s got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, or whether he’s got to quote the first ten amendments, or he’s got to tell you what Amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens, and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in, he’s got to do it. And if we can just repeat and repeat and repeat—I don’t want to follow [Adolf] Hitler, but he had an idea—

King: Yeah.

President Johnson: —that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people’d accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina where—well, I think one the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee [Institute], or the head of the Government Department there, or something, being denied the right to cast a vote, and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, and get it on television, and get it on . . . in the pulpits, and get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he’ll say, “Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair.”

President Johnson: And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

King: Yes. You’re exactly right about that.

President Johnson: And if we do that, we’ll break through as—it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration. I think the greatest achievement in foreign policy—I said to a group yesterday—was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But I think this’ll be bigger, because it’ll do things that even that ’64 Act couldn’t do. . . . [End of Conversation]

Analysis of the Movie Selma as a Work of Historical Fiction

The genre of historical fiction presents events from the past in a fictional format. Most Americans get their post-schooling history from movies that are works of historical fiction. Responsible directors trying to present a reasonably accurate view of historical events will sometimes change specific facts or the sequence of events to make their stories more interesting or to simplify complex situations. So long as the important historical facts are retained, these changes are legitimate poetic license. Unfortunately, some directors distort the historical record out of ignorance or to support their own agenda.

The director of Selma who also wrote some of the script claims to be a student of the history of the period covered by the movie. In addition, the producers of Selma are distributing it free to high schools through the “Selma for Students’ Initiative,” claiming that the movie is responsible for historical fiction suitable to being shown to students.

TWM’s research, including both primary and secondary sources, shows that the presentation of the events of the protests, the portrayal of Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and the description of the resistance they met in Alabama, are all reasonably accurate and beneficial. Actor David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King is excellent. [This reviewer had the privilege of attending a speech given by Dr. King in Tallahassee, Florida, a few weeks after the bombing in Birmingham that killed the four little girls. In those days, whites attending civil rights protests or meetings were always placed in the front rows to increase their visibility, so Dr. King was only about 15 feet away. This reviewer could observe him closely,y and even now, some 50 years later, the event is clear in his mind.]

However, as discussed in the section or the Learning Guide entitled President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Hero of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, only a few of the scenes in the film in which LBJ appears are reasonably accurate, and some show the opposite of what actually occurred. In fact, contrary to the impression left by the film, LBJ was committed to passing a voting rights law in 1965; he and Dr. King worked together to get the law passed; LBJ’s role was one of the indispensable parts of that effort.

Thus, in its description of the role of President Lyndon Johnson, the general historical accuracy of the film falls prey to director/screen writer Ava Duvernay’s desire for a clear villain and her insistence that, “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.”

What’s Right with Showing How Much LBJ Did for Black Americans?

It’s a sad irony that LBJ is depicted as resisting civil rights for African Americans in a movie that sells itself as a reasonably accurate portrayal of a pivotal event in the struggle for equal rights. The suppression of LBJ’s advocacy of civil rights also misses an opportunity to show power of nonviolent direct action to motivate leaders to do the right thing. However, the most regrettable fact about director/screenwriter Duvernay’s false depiction of LBJ as the Southern White antagonist of Dr. King and an opponent of reform, is that the film misses an opportunity to promote social cohesion in the U.S.

Cohesion in multi-ethnic, multi-racial societies is always difficult to achieve. It is easy to divide people from others and to motivate them with anger. One of the great glories of the U.S. is our ability to resist the challenges of those who seek to divide one group from another and our capacity to achieve social cohesion in a society of many races, ethnicities, and religions. Thus, the occasions when people come together to do the right thing are important to emphasize. Many white Americans have much to answer for in their treatment of African Americans. However, there have been occasions when whites did the right thing. Good conduct should be encouraged and actions which foster cohesion in society should be celebrated; this is a major component of nonviolent direct action. LBJ’s actions on civil rights after 1957, and especially during his Presidency, are a series of wonderful right actions, one after another, and American history students should know about what he did. Certainly, he should not be misrepresented as resisting the Civil Rights Movement while he was President.

Why Director/Screenwriter Ava Duvernay Wanted to Suppress LBJ’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Ava Duvernay, the first black female director to make a successful feature motion picture, explained her position on the controversy over the way LBJ is treated in the movie in an interview for the January 5, 2015, edition of Rolling Stone Magazine .

Rolling Stone: Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.

DuVernay: Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The [draft of the script received from screen writer Paul Webb] was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. . . .

This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.

Rolling Stone: Many presidents couldn’t have done it.

DuVernay: Absolutely. Or wouldn’t have even if they could.

This sounds like the director came to the film with an agenda and that she imposed that agenda on the actual facts by declining to acknowledge President Johnson’s role as “a hero of that time.”

There are some arguments supporting the director. It was not until 1957, seven years before the Selma march, that LBJ first supported legislation protecting civil rights for African Americans. Thus, the movie’s timeline for LBJ’s conversion from an opponent of civil rights legislation to the politician who did more for black civil rights than any other 20th-century white leader is only about eight years off. Writers of historical fiction often telescope timelines to show important facts of history; this is a legitimate technique of writing historical fiction.

In addition, one of the traditional failings of Hollywood films in showing the history of black America is that the movies focus on white heroes helping blacks, ignoring the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was led by African Americans and its victories were won by mostly black demonstrators, with whites playing a relatively minor, but still helpful role. Movies about the Civil Rights Movement that focus on whites include The Help and The Long Walk Home . Even films about the important contributions of free blacks and former slaves in winning the Civil War have focused on whites, see e.g., Glory . The reasons for this are not necessarily racism. The vast majority of the movie-going audience is white. Those audiences will more readily identify with white heroes. Moviemakers want to sell tickets and thus want to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Director Duvernay’s statement that she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie” is a reference to those films.

However, there were plenty of villains in the story told by this movie, including George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Sheriff Jim Clark, and the reluctant Congress. In addition, LBJ could have been made out to be less of a villain simply by excluding made-up scenes and by showing how he came to be an advocate for civil rights. Especially egregious is the false scene with J. Edgar Hoover in which the LBJ-character gives tacit approval to an effort to undermine Dr. King’s family. There is simply no evidence that President Johnson was aware of the poison pen letter and the tape.

In addition, it would not have been difficult, for example, to insert a scene or two that told the story of Johnson’s pre-1957 opposition to civil rights laws, about his change of position as a result of nonviolent direct action, and his leadership on civil rights when he was President.

As the movie stands, Selma will leave the millions of Americans who watch the movie with a serious misimpression that divides rather than unites. In that sense, it is not good historical fiction and should only be shown in classes if teachers correct for the misimpression that LBJ as President resisted moving forward on civil rights in general and on the 1965 Voting Rights Act in particular.

USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM

After showing the movie – turning students back to history.

Show the class videos from the period. TWM Suggests:

  • Clips of Dr. King speaking. The following are free on Youtube. Selections from Selma Speeches of Martin Luther King 1965 (3:20 minutes);
  • Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech August 28, 1963 ; (17:28 minutes; clips of better quality can be purchased for a reasonable amount on the Web with some of the money going to the King Estate.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Discussion questions relating to the fbi and mlk and to <em>selma</em> as a work of historical fiction., questions relating to the fbi and mlk.

5. Beginning in 1963, the FBI wiretapped the telephones of Dr. King, the SCLC, and various advisors to Dr. King in order to determine whether the Communist Party—USA, had infiltrated the Civil Rights Movement. Were those wiretaps justified?

Suggested Response:

A good discussion will take into account the following: (1) these event occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was an enemy of the U.S.; (2) the CPUSA was closely associated with the Soviet Union and was secretly financed by the Russian Communist Party; (3) Stanely Levison, a close advisor to Dr. King and a fund raiser for the Civil Rights Movement, had previously been a CPUSA insider, (4) The FBI had information that Mr. Levison had split with the CPUSA and that he was not trusted by CPUSA leaders; (5) Dr. King resisted severing his relationship with Levison, even when he was asked to do so by President John F. Kennedy and other high governmental officials; (6) later, Dr. King claimed to have severed his relationship with Levison but he secretly kept in touch with Levison and sought Levison’s advice through an intermediary; (7) when called before a Congressional Committee in 1962, Levison made a misleading statement that he was not a member of the CPUSA and then he refused to answer any more questions on the grounds that the answers might incriminate him (5th Amendment); and (8) none of the years of FBI wiretaps and bugs of Mr. Levison, Dr. King, or the SCLC revealed any CPUSA influence on Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement or that Mr. Levison acted in any manner other than as a loyal adviser to Dr. King. [Items 5, 6, & 7 can be ignored because as it turned out that they were not particularly important, and Dr. King and Mr. Levison had a right to do these things.] Reasonable minds can differ on the conclusion to be reached from these facts. One valid position is that Dr. King’s close association with a former CPUSA insider was suspicious enough to justify an investigation. (What if Levison’s departure from the CPUSA was a lie and he was still involved with the CPUSA?) Another valid position is that the FBI knew that Levison had split from the CPUSA and there was no basis to invade the privacy of Dr. King and his advisers. A third valid position is that while the wiretaps were initially justified, once it became apparent that Mr. Levison was operating only as a loyal adviser to Dr. King, they should have been discontinued. The legal background for this response is that the First Amendment prohibits government interference with the rights of citizens to express their opinions and to freely associate. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. The only reason justifying the wiretaps was national security. If there were no threat to national security, the wiretaps should have been discontinued.

6. Present the same question as #5 but add: (9) the wiretaps were continued for the purpose of obtaining information on Dr. King’s political activities and those of his associates. Assuming the initial wiretapping was justified, were the wiretaps intended to gather political information justified? Explain your reasons.

Once it became apparent that Mr. Levison was operating only as a loyal adviser to Dr. King and there was no national security need to continue the wiretaps, they should have been discontinued. The First Amendment prohibits interfering with the rights of citizens to express their opinions and to freely associate. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. Since there was no national security issue to justify the wiretaps, there was no reason for them.

7. When the wiretaps revealed information concerning Dr. King’s extramarital sex life and information concerning the political plans of Dr. King and his associates, what should the FBI have done with the information? Justify your response.

It should have kept the information secret and done nothing with it. The information should not have been provided to government officials such as the President. The only possible legitimate purpose for the wiretaps was to protect national security. Dr. King’s private life and the political plans of the Civil Rights Movement did not affect national security.

8. Why is the story of the FBI wiretaps and covert actions to “neutralize Dr. King as a negro leader” a more important story than Dr. King’s affairs with women outside of his marriage?

The actions of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were actions by a government agency that betrayed its core responsibilities and violated the Constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches. Dr. King’s betrayal of his wife was not related to his public mission of being a civil rights leader and did not violate a law.

9. We live in a society in which to protect against terrorism, the government is using increasing surveillance of our personal activities. What should the security agencies of the government do with the following types of information that may be collected by the government: (a) information on our sex lives; (b) information on our personal business transactions; (c) information on our beliefs; (d) information on our political activities.

First, many will contend that this information should not be collected at all unless there is probable cause to believe that the person whose information is being collected is a terrorist or a threat to national security. But there will always be information collected that doesn’t apply to national security or which relates to persons who are not the target of the investigation. Unless the information bears on national security interests, it should be kept secret and not acted upon by the government in any way nor leaked to the press or others.

Questions Relating to the Movie Selma as a Work of Historical Fiction

10. Was the writer/director Ava Duvernay justified in omitting the collaboration between President Johnson and Dr. King in securing passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act because, as an African American, she didn’t want to make a white-savior movie? Explain your reasons.

Reasonable minds can differ on this response. TWM believes that it was inappropriate to omit a description of the collaboration between LBJ and MLK. The main reason is that showing the two men working together for the voting rights law would promote cohesion in our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. It would not have been difficult, for example, to insert a scene or two that told the story of Johnson’s pre-1957 opposition to civil rights laws, about his change of position, and his leadership in that area when he was President.

See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction .

See Discussion Questions 1 and 4 in the Learning Guide.

1. Ever since he moved into a leadership position in the Civil Rights Movement in 1954, Dr. King received frequent death threats and expected to be assassinated. The night before he was killed, he talked about his possible death in a speech. This was a time in America, after the assassination of President Kennedy, when death was a real threat to national leaders. Why did Dr. King persevere in light of the threats on his life?

Dr. King believed that God had placed the burden of leadership on him and that he could not evade that service.

HUMAN RIGHTS

2. If a person from another country looked at the United States before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and compared how the country acted to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, name an Article of the Declaration that was regularly violated in the U.S. Explain why and compare the situation to the present day.

There is no one correct response. Violations occurred in Articles 1 – 3, 5 – 12, 16, 20, 21, 23, 25 – 27 & 29.

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

CITIZENSHIP

See the Discussion question under Courage.

See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Film.

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include research projects and essays on the follow topics. The depth of the research and length of the study should be adapted to the needs and abilities of the class.

1. Research and write an essay evaluating the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. Research and write an essay evaluating the role of the FBI in its investigations of Dr. King and the SCLC.

3. Research and write an essay on nonviolent direct action as it applied to the process by which LBJ became an advocate for black civil rights. 4. Research and write an essay on the career and accomplishments of one of the following people shown in the film:

a. Andrew Young; b. Ralph Abernathy; c. Hosea Williams; d. John Lewis; d. Diane Nash; e. George C. Wallace; f. Frank M. Johnson, Jr.; and f. J. Edgar Hoover.

5. Trace the paths by which the techniques of Gandhian non-violent direct action came to be practiced by the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Be sure to research and discuss the role of the Reverend James Lawson in that process.

6. Write an essay answering the following question: Was the writer/director Ava Duvernay justified in omitting the collaboration between President Johnson and Dr. King in securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because as an African American, she didn’t want to make “another white-savior movie”?

7. Assume that a person from another country looked at the United States before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and compared how the country acted to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Name an Article of the Declaration that was regularly violated in the U.S., explain why this was a violation of the Universal Declaration, and compare the situation to the present day.

Additional Assignments.

<i>5. Beginning in 1963, the FBI wiretapped the telephones of Dr. King, the SCLC, and various advisors to Dr. King in order to determine whether the Communist Party—USA, had infiltrated the Civil Rights Movement. Were those wiretaps justified?</i>

CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS

Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

Historical accuracy and the erroneous portrayal of the role of president lyndon johnson.

  • The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw by Joseph A. Califano, Jr., The Washington Post, December 24, 2014;
  • “Selma” vs. “Selma” by Sam Tanenhaus, The New Yorker, January 26, 2015;
  • Gay Talese, Henry Louis Gates, defend Ava DuVernay and ‘Selma’ by Soraya Nadia McDonald, The Washington Post, January 7, 2015;
  • Not Just a Movie by Maureen Down, New York Times, January 17, 2015;
  • Another Lyndon Johnson Scholar Disputes The History In ‘Selma’ Huff Post by Ryan Buxton, January 15, 2015 interviewing historian Julian E. Zelize (there is more on the video than in the printed article);
  • Selma writer tells his side of row with director by Vincent Dowd, BBC Entertainment and Arts, February 20, 2015;
  • What ‘Selma’ Gets Wrong: LBJ and MLK were close partners in reform by Mark Upgrove, Politico Magazine, December 22, 2014;
  • We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’ by Gavin Edwards, Rolling Stone Magazine, January 5, 2015;
  • January 8, 2015 Letter from Cecil Williamson, President Pro Tempore of the Selma City Council
  • Lyndon Johnson opposed every civil rights proposal considered in his first 20 years as lawmaker by W. Gardner Selby in PolitiFact✓Texas, April 4, 2014;
  • How Accurate is Selma? by Dee Locket , Slate Magazine 12/24/14;

Civil Rights Movement Generally

  • Civil Rights Timeline from Infoplease;
  • Key Events in the American Civil Rights Movement by Greg D. Helmeth;
  • The Day President Kennedy Embraced Civil Rights—and the Story Behind It by Jonathan Reider, The Atlantic magazine, Jun 11, 2013;
  • Lyndon Johnson article from the History Learning Site by Sarah Heasman, London University;
  • Speech at the Jung Hotel, New Orleans (October 9, 1964) Lyndon B. Johnson;
  • Ten Things You Should Know About Selma Before You See the Film by Emilye Crosby, 1/4/15; from the Common Dreams website;
  • Letter from a Birmingham Jail by MLK 4/1/63;
  • Text of Dr. King’s Speech at the End of the March Made on 3/25/1965;

Videos with Original Footage

  • Selma Alabama Story Civil Rights Newsreel www.PublicDomainFootage.com;
  • Bloody Sunday – Selma, Alabama video with original footage with music, 6 minutes;
  • Selma 50 years later: Remembering Bloody Sunday from LA Times Story of Amelia Boynton-Robinson a demonstrator at Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 6:08 minutes speaking to Los Angeles Middle School Students in 2015;

J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and Surveillance of Dr. King

  • Article on the FBI in the Encyclopedia of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University accessed on April 26, 2015;
  • The FBI and Martin Luther King by David J. Garrow, The Atlantic Monthly, July-August, 2002;
  • What an Uncensored Letter to M.L.K. Reveals by Beverly Gagenov, New York Times Magazine, November 2014;
  • Speech of James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., February 12, 2015 ;
  • FBI tracked King’s every move by Ben Christensen, CNN, 12/29/2008;
  • The FBI vs. Martin Luther King: Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s “Suicide Letter” to Civil Rights Leader Democracy Now Interview with historian Beverly Gage, 11/18/14, Interviewers Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate;
  • Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover by Kenneth D. Ackerman, Washington Post, November 9, 2011;
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Case Study , CONTELPRO, Docs, Church Committee, Final Report — Book III, 23 April 1976.;
  • Biography of Hoover in Bio.com ;
  • What Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr. by John Meroney The Atlantic Magazine, Nov 11 2011;
  • The FBI vs. Martin Luther King: Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s “Suicide Letter” to Civil Rights Leader , 11/28/14;

George C. Wallace

  • Former Ala. Gov. George C. Wallace Dies Obituary from the Washington Post ;

Other Lesson Plans

  • Front Page History: Teaching About Selma Using Original Times Reporting by Michael Gonchar, January 17, 2015; using the front page articles from the New York Times for the month of March, 1965 as primary source material; this is suitable for Middle School students;

BRIDGES TO READING

See Martin Luther King Jr.: 12 essential reads by Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2013;

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine , the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Bearing the Cross & Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow, William Morrow & Co., Inc., New York, 1986;
  • The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. — From “Solo” to Memphis by David J. Garrow, 1981, W.W. Norton Company, New York; note that as additional government documents have been made public, Mr. Garrow has modified his conclusions, see e.g., The FBI and Martin Luther King by David J. Garrow, The Atlantic Monthly, July-August, 2002;
  • Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., a Biography by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., 1978, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, especially pp.50 – 54 (friendship with George Wallace) 102, 103, 181 – 192 (Selma March Ruling), and 220 – 223 (Wallace’s legacy);
  • Protest at Selma — Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by David J. Garrow, 1978, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.;
  • Judgment Days, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America by Nick Kotz, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005;
  • Wallace by Marshall Frady, 1976, Meridian Books, New York;
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. by Marshall Frady, 2002, Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York.
  • Interview of Joseph A. Califano, Jr. by Robert Scheifer at the LBJ Presidential Library, on C-SPAN 2 Book TV – The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years. March 26, 2015.

This Learning Guide was written by James A. Frieden and last updated on August 22, 2019.

selma movie summary essay

LEARNING GUIDE MENU:

Supplemental materials:.

  • 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action have been cataloged.
  • For a more complete description of nonviolent direct action, see TWM’s Learning Guide to A Force More Powerful .

selma movie summary essay

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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: PG-13. Ideally, in terms of understanding complicated content, this film is best suited for students of high school age or older. covers controversies in King's private life (adultery), which will inevitably bring awkwardness and giggles from junior high kids, counterproductive to learning from the movie.
: 128 minutes (2 hours, 8 minutes).
's treatment of President Lyndon Johnson, historical accuracy is excellent. The film opens with King's acceptance of the Noble Peace Prize, through his involvement in the Selma to Montgomery marches (March 7-25, 1965).
to print this sheet. We strongly recommend having students research (and take notes) on each person before watching the movie, in order to better understand the events as they are presented. Additional notes can be taken during the film.
: Andre Holland, Ava DuVernay, Bradford Young, Carmen Ejogo, Clay Chappell, Colman Domingo, Common, Cuba Gooding, Jr., David Dwyer, David Oyelowo, Dylan Baker, Ebony Billups, Elijah Oliver, Giovanni Ribisi, Haviland Stillwell, Jim France, Jordan Christina Rice, Ledisi Anibade Young, Lorraine Toussaint, Martin Sheen, Mikeria Howard, Nadej K. Bailey, Nigel Thatch, Oprah Winfrey, Paul Webb, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Trinity Simone
  
  
 
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Review: ‘Selma’ is a powerful telling of the MLK story

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“Selma” is a necessary film, even an essential one, with more than its share of memorable performances and vivid, compelling sequences.

But welcome as it is for being the first Hollywood production to put the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his accomplishments front and center, it is also inconsistent and not always as strong as its strongest moments. This may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but it is hard to avoid.

If there is a temptation to canonize “Selma” and brush aside its less successful elements, that’s not surprising given how good much of it is and the heroic nature of the story, not to mention the decades it’s taken for this history to reach the screen.

Oscars 2015: Full coverage

Directed with passion and conviction by Ava DuVernay and starring a mesmerizing David Oyelowo as King, “Selma” relates one of the great American dramas, how events in and around a small Alabama city forced this country to live up to its democratic rhetoric and ensure the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Oyelowo, whose recent credits include “Interstellar” and the forthcoming “A Most Violent Year,” met DuVernay when he starred in her moving and accomplished “Middle of Nowhere,” and his support was key in getting the director this job.

DuVernay’s intimate style helps in her successful attempt to humanize King, his wife, Coretta Scott King (a deft Carmen Ejogo), and his circle of advisers and comrades in arms, to see them not as monumental icons but, rather, real people with personal lives and problems. Given what they accomplished, “Selma” can’t help but mythologize this group as well, but it is a low-key mythologization rather than the bombastic sort.

This technique works best with King and his wife, in part because of what the actors bring to the table. Oyelowo has felt driven to play the civil rights leader for years, and how expertly he has captured the body language and the cadences of King’s delivery is even more remarkable when you realize that copyright issues mandated that the speeches he delivers are not word for word accurate but only reasonable facsimiles of the real thing.

Ejogo, especially strong in the scenes that reveal the strains and tensions in the King marriage, also has a history with her role, having played Scott King in the 2001 HBO movie “Boycott,” about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts a decade earlier.

As written by Paul Webb, “Selma” starts with just such an intimate moment, with King practicing his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in a Stockholm hotel room while his wife helps him with an unfamiliar ascot and he worries about living too high on the hog.

DuVernay is equally good at conveying the sense of camaraderie the civil rights movement could not have existed without. Helped by Bradford Young’s clear-eyed cinematography and Aicha Coley’s spot-on casting, this is especially visible in an early scene of a warm, convivial luncheon of leaders of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s an ability to convey the black experience that brings to mind such fine Charles Burnett films as “Nightjohn” and the masterful “To Sleep With Anger.”

After the Nobel, compelled by the near-impossibility of black people registering to vote (something we see firsthand with Oprah Winfrey as a would-be voter), King decides this is an issue that cannot wait.

That puts him on a collision course with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who thinks the war on poverty should be more of a priority. “This voting thing is just going to have to wait,” he tells King, but, presidential support or not, King is not to be put off.

Selma, we come to understand, was hardly picked at random. Not only were the statistics especially grim — a 50% African American population who made up only 2% of voters — but the state courthouse was an especially camera-ready target, and the local county Sheriff Jim Clark was racist enough to be a tempting adversary. In fact, one of the themes of “Selma” is how tactical so much was, how geared to getting on the network news and influencing public opinion nationwide.

That doesn’t mean anything was easy. Far from it. As on-screen type from FBI logs indicates, the bureau followed King everywhere, and he and his wife were plagued by abusive anonymous phone messages. And King had to deal with rifts within the civil rights movement, specifically with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been organizing in Selma before his people arrived.

The heart of “Selma” is the three separate 50-mile marches attempted by the movement from Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Alabama’s capital of Montgomery. Each had a different character, each is choreographed to different music. But it is the first one, when the marchers were met with horrific violence, that makes the most disturbing impression.

Yet as well done as much of “Selma” is, it periodically falls from grace with moments that are either emotionally flat or excessively agitprop in nature. Consistently the most ineffective scenes are those that involve powerful but obstructionist white people, especially the unhelpful trio of Johnson, Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker). The deftness with acting and character that can be this film’s strength simply deserts it here.

But “Selma” never loses its ability to be powerful when it needs to be, and the film gets frequent infusions of momentum from its big emotional scenes, like the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Fred Stanfield). Even if you can’t ignore the elements that do not work on screen, you can be grateful that this momentous chapter in American history has been filmed at last.

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MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: In limited release

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MLK's Selma Campaign: Political Obstacles and Compromises

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MLK's Selma Campaign: Political Obstacles and Compromises essay

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62 Selma (2014)

Marching toward justice in selma.

By Anonymous

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a complex film mired in conflict and history. At its heart is the campaign to secure full voting rights for African Americans with the march from Selma to Montgomery serving as its nexus. I choose this film for its historical consistency and compelling performances. Selma is able to draw from history and show the internal conflict within the civil rights movement in 1964-1965. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is the main protagonist though it also stresses the importance of the collective and highlights other important figures too.

The civil rights movement in America is long and amorphous; however, Selma ‘s story starts at Dr. King’s Nobel prize ceremony for his work in civil rights. The film makes an earnest effort to humanize the legends of history surrounding the civil rights movement between 1964-65. Before Dr. King’s speech, he is distracted by his ascot, and during it, he is reminded of the past events that compel him. Selma immediately has us looking backward to help orient us in history, provide a sense of scope and give an idea of what motivates Martin Luther King. Dr. King begins his speech at the esteemed ceremony in well-lit room filled with dignitaries and elites.

“I accept this honor for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the more than twenty million American Negroes” …the scene fades.

We flashback to a sunlit church in Birmingham Alabama. Four little girls chatter while walking down the church steps and past ornate stained glass on their way to service. As the frame focuses on one girl, mid-sentence an explosion interrupts her. The totality of the tragedy is revealed as the motionless children lay buried in rubble. A reminder of the radical discrimination that left no place safe for people of color. The Birmingham bombing took place the year prior, September 15, 1963 (Parrott-Sheffer, C., n.d.). King described it as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

Title I of the 1964 Civil Rights Rct granted equal voting rights to people but had some critical flaws. In the courthouse in Selma, Alabama, where Annie Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) slowly and quietly fills out her voter registration in anticipation of exercising her newly given right. Downtrodden, she approaches the clerk’s booth. The close-up exchange of expressions conveys the causality and mutual understanding of the racism of the time. The everyday racism of the clerk alludes to the power dynamic, they both know Annie is eligible to register, but they also know she is powerless. Inevitably we arrive at a close-up of “DENIED” stamped across her registration as sad music shuffles Annie away, looking down at her feet, crushed. A straightforward example of the shortcomings of the civil rights act. It showcases the imbalance of power despite the law and contextualizes Cooper’s link to the struggle.

The Civil Rights Act is only six months old, and Martin Luther King has come to discuss voting rights again. They exchange pleasantries before sitting down to discuss matters of the nation, and the tone changes. The President asks, “How can help?” Dr. King asks for the fulfillment of voting rights for African Americans. President Johnson points out that African Americans had the right to vote through the 1964 civil rights act. King explains the flagrant denial of voting rights in the South.  President Johnson tries to pivot priorities to the war on poverty as he towers over King and pats him on the back. King’s face scrunched with frustration but remains composed, explaining the gaps in enforcement in the South. He also points out that registering to vote is a prerequisite for serving on a jury, further contributing to inequalities in the system. King requests a federal law that guarantees the right to vote without restriction and robust enforcement of the law. President Johnson tries to postpone any further action for now.

This scene is crucial to the movie. The Birmingham bombers escaped conviction, likely due to a lack of enforcement and African American jurors. (Parrott-Sheffer, C., n.d.) The scene also incorporates Annie Cooper’s story into the movie by showing how easy it was to deny her vote and what little recourse she had to refute the decision. Additionally, it lays out the contrast between King and Johnson, who could not be more different in background and perception. This is also where things start to get tricky.

Screen snip of MLK Jr. and marchers crossing the Selma Bridge from the film Selma

Martin Luther King is a legendary civil rights leader and humanitarian. He also had his issues; adultery among one. However, President Johnson has even more mixed and colorful history. He is on record, having used the n-word multiple times. As a senator, he opposed every civil rights measure, over 20 in total. President Johnson knew of the FBI’s wiretap on Martin Luther King and received regular updates (Conversation WH6707-01-12005, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition):

From December 1963 until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader. (Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities pg. 81)

The program was funded and continued for years on the assumption that Dr. King’s or his advisors were secret communists through the program never produced any evidence. The program continued years after his advisor quit and broke ties.

We have seen no evidence establishing that either of those Advisers attempted to exploit the civil rights movement to carry out the plans of the Communist Party. (Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities pg. 85)

President Johnson also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later the voting rights act of 1965. He waged war on poverty, reformed healthcare, and increased federal funding for education. DuVernay’s depiction of President Johnson was consistent with historical text. The director of the FBI was able to falsely convince him that there was a chance that Dr. King had secret communist ties. Martin Luther King was a keystone player in the civil rights movement. Without him there it was no unifying strategy or pressure to change. But President Johnson is the actual agent of change, and that is due to his position foremost, but ultimately his openness to being persuaded to do something he doesn’t initially understand or want to do. Johnson has a character arc that lands him in a good place, and it is hard not to see him as a flawed hero by the end of the film. A march on Selma wouldn’t make sense if Martin Luther King and President Johnson were on the same page at that time. Selma (2014) offers a reasonable and logical course between these events.

No one is spared in the telling of Selma . What I covered only accounts for the first ten minutes of this two-hour film, but those minutes are crucial. Selma shows the civil rights movement was not just a unifying of America, but a hard-fought battle among a fractured America for its future. Selma is not an easy movie to watch, but it does reward patience and understanding. It illustrates how easy it was to subvert the civil rights act of 1964 and how it served to placate white Americans. I appreciate how much care was put into explicitly speaking to the principle of the issues and showing real-world examples played out. It does a great job of outlining the strategies that overcame deep and powerful racism in America. Most of all, it makes a solid case on how the march on Selma was instrumental in the civil rights movement.

“Is Selma Historically Accurate?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2015, www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/12/reel-history-selma-film-historically-accurate-martin-luther-king-lyndon-johnson.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.  “Selma” movie. Accessed Wed. 25 Aug 2021.  http://www.lbjlibrary.org/press/selma-movie.

“Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on 25 July 1967,” Conversation WH6707-01-12005, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2, ed. Kent B. Germany] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4005335

Martin Luther King Jr. – Acceptance Speech. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Wed. 25 Aug 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/acceptance-speech/

Parrott-Sheffer, C. (n.d.). 16Th Street Baptist Church bombing. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/16th-Street-Baptist-Church-bombing

Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americas: Book III. Report No. 94-755. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976. (https://archive.org/details/finalreportofsel03unit)

Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Review of the Movie Selma

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Types of Racial Discrimination

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This study examines mainly on racial discrimination, it focuses on the type of racial discrimination. The purpose of this study is to get more understanding on racial discrimination and types of racial discrimination that reflected in the black people on Selma. This object of the study is Selma. This study used qualitative method. The data were collected by watching the movie, reading the script, identifying the data, classifying the data and collecting the data. The data analyzing used several techniques such analyzing and reporting the data. The selected data were analyzed using descriptive analysis through the dialogues, narrations, and prologues in every scene. In analyzing the data, this research used Racial Discrimination theory to examine the social conflict that occurred to black people as the main characters. This research finds several things. The first is about racial discrimination, it is a differentiation treatment because of race which rejects a racial ethnic. Martin Lutter and another black people get the racial discrimination when they struggle to register the election of president. The second, many type of racial discriminations such they have been whipped and shot by the police and some white men. It is the portrayal of physical discrimination. They also get the hate speech by the white people, it includes verbal discrimination. In short, racial discrimination always exists even they got the same right like white people.

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This Article will examine how American civil rights law has treated “color” discrimination and differentiated it from “race” discrimination. It is a comprehensive analysis of the changing legal meaning of “color” discrimination throughout American history. The Article will cover views of “color” in the antebellum era, Reconstruction laws, early equal protection cases, the U.S. Census, modern civil rights statutes, and in People v. Bridgeforth—a landmark 2016 ruling by the New York Court of Appeals. First, the Article will lay out the complex relationship between race and color and discuss the phenomenon of colorism—oppression based on skin color—as differentiated from racism. It then will analyze “color” in Reconstruction Era anti-discrimination laws, examining how both “race” and “color” came to be included in these laws. It will illustrate that under early equal protection cases, prohibitions on “race” and “color” discrimination both aimed to curb racism. “Race” and “color” were e...

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The purpose of this research is to find the level of racism that happened to African American as seen in Selma movie. Further, the other purpose is to give the reflection about the effect of the racism toward African-American people as depicted in the movie. This research focused to examine the racism by using Jones’ and Day’s theory about the level of racism and on how the effect of racism itself. Further, the researcher used qualitative-descriptive method and Mikos’ data analysis for the movie. In this movie, the researcher finds the three levels of racism have appeared. The racisms are institutionalized racism, personally mediated racism and internalized racism. The first level which is institutionalized racism is marked by the legitimize and systematic intimidation in voting booths. Further, this racism gives positive and negative effect. Secondly, the personally mediated racism also appeared and it is shown by the limitedness of public access, police brutality and everyday avo...

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Selma gives an account of the American history using dramatic stories of the success of black people. The film is more about the process of political steering through fighting and bargaining of deals which were focused on eradicating racial discrimination. Although some events drawn from the film are not that accurate when compared to the history of the actual events, the inaccuracies do not disqualify the importance of the film. The film contains numerous scenes which portray the struggle for the liberation of the black people in the US.

In 1963 the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC) was founded by majority black students. The students were organizing the local black people in the dangerous work registering the black voters.

Bernard Lafayette and Colia in collaboration with Boynton held citizenship school classes which driven by the desire to reduce the level of illiteracy and conduct a door to door voter registration encouraging the black Americans to exercise their voting rights. The producers of this film intended to outline the historical formation of the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC) whose primary aim was to overturn segregation in the south and increase the black student’s voters.

According to the film, in 1964, David Oyelowo engages Tom Wilkinson met to discuss the subject of Africa American people being denied the right to vote. Tom Wilkinson urges David as he tells him not to start another conflict when they haven’t trumped the first one. He goes ahead to insist that the next battle which they should focus on fighting should be based on the eradication of poverty which he refers to “war on poverty.” About the sentiments of Wilkinson in the film, the voting issue should not be a priority because it was not serious and urgent. This scene was relating to the Martin Luther King when he was pushing for the black people to be granted their voting rights. David Oyelowo takes the role of Martin Luther King while Tom Wilkinson assumes the position of the 36th President of the US, Lyndon B Johnson In Selma, Mrs.

Boynton was very determined with the DCVL as she acted a crucial role in a long time nurturing the efforts of the black people to register as voters. In addition to her contribution, she readily encouraged the participation offered by the SNCC by supporting the work of the young activists. In Another scene, female activist Marie foster lectured citizenship classes before the arrival of the SNCC. In 1965 as SCLC started intensifying the hostility in Selma, both foster and Boynton were inspiring the black people while using themselves on the frontline. They also led the Bloody Sunday and the following march to Montgomery.

The above two scenes are very crucial as they inform the present generation on the central role of the women in achieving the right to vote among the black people in the history of the US. The scenes provide reasonable grounds on why America should celebrate the role of women in the liberation of the nation.

In conclusion, the Selma campaign is a mark of success of the civil rights movement because it was the catalyst behind the voting rights act passage in 1965. At some point, the film partially appreciates the effort of President Lyndon Johnson who approved the act into a law assuring the southern black population of the federal protection of their right to vote.

Despite the president being given credit typically, the film provides full credit for the efforts of the civil rights movement whose efforts in white opposition could not be ignored by the US government.

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COMMENTS

  1. Selma movie review & film summary (2014)

    Like Spielberg's " Lincoln ", "Selma" is as much about the procedures of political maneuvering, in-fighting and bargaining as it is about the chief orchestrator of the resulting deals. "Selma" affords Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the same human characteristics of humor, frustration and exhaustion that "Lincoln" provided its ...

  2. Selma Movie Analysis Essay: [Essay Example], 650 words

    Selma Movie Analysis Essay. The movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, is a poignant portrayal of the civil rights movement in the United States during the mid-1960s. The film focuses on the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists. Through its powerful storytelling and ...

  3. Selma' Movie Summary Essay

    Cite this essay. Download. Selma, a 2014 drama movie directed by Ava DuVernay, captures a significant moment in the civil rights movement of the 1960s - whilst also mirroring the struggle in the age of Ferguson and Garner. This movie is a perfect choice to have discussions about equality, civil rights, and social justice.

  4. Deep Focus: Selma

    Deep Focus: Selma. By Michael Sragow on December 29, 2014. Selma begins with the camera squarely framing Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), as if for a formal portrait. The immediate effect is ironic. He's rehearsing a solemn line for an award speech, and he's unhappy about something, which turns out to be his tie—or, rather, his ...

  5. Selma (2014)

    King travels to Selma with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash. Selma is an Alabama town & heart of the anti-African American sentiment in the south. King checks into a hotel that bars African Americans. James Bevel greets them, and other SCLC activists appear. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover tells Johnson that King is a ...

  6. Selma (film)

    Selma is a 2014 historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb.It is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches which were initiated and directed by James Bevel and led by Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams, and John Lewis.The film stars actors David Oyelowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Carmen ...

  7. Selma (2014)

    Marching toward Justice in Selma. By Anonymous . Ava DuVernay's Selma is a complex film mired in conflict and history. At its heart is the campaign to secure full voting rights for African Americans with the march from Selma to Montgomery serving as its nexus. I choose this film for its historical consistency and compelling performances.

  8. The Crucial Lessons of Democracy in "Selma"

    In "Selma," DuVernay shows the seeming infinity of small good decisions—effective interactions, apt gestures, wise words—that sustain a few major great ones. She displays unhesitantly the ...

  9. Selma (2014)

    In the same way that Steven Spielberg focused on an episode of Abraham Lincoln's push for civil rights in the film Lincoln as a small representation of a larger biographical canvas, filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses Selma as a microcosm to explore both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement on film. Few films have been made about Dr. King, and almost none about the 1965 march ...

  10. Selma Movie: a Cinematic Tribute to the Civil Rights Movement

    This essay delves into the heart of "Selma," a film that masterfully captures a pivotal moment in America's civil rights movement. Directed by Ava DuVernay and released in 2014, it centers on the impactful Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965.

  11. SELMA

    The following are free on Youtube. Selections from Selma Speeches of Martin Luther King 1965 (3:20 minutes); Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" Speech August 28, 1963; (17:28 minutes; clips of better quality can be purchased for a reasonable amount on the Web with some of the money going to the King Estate.)

  12. Selma Movie Analysis

    The movie Selma released on Christmas day of 2014 covers the Civil Rights movement and is praised for being a compelling movie and a historically accurate one. Selma is a historically accurate movie because it brought in other civil rights leaders, the facts that it got wrong were deliberately purpose, and it showed his relationship with Lyndon ...

  13. Selma 2014 Film Review and Guide

    This acclaimed film focuses on Martin Luther King's (1929-1968) role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Despite some controversy regarding Selma's treatment of President Lyndon Johnson, historical accuracy is excellent.The film opens with King's acceptance of the Noble Peace Prize, through his involvement in the Selma to Montgomery marches (March 7-25, 1965).

  14. Review: 'Selma' is a powerful telling of the MLK story

    Consistently the most ineffective scenes are those that involve powerful but obstructionist white people, especially the unhelpful trio of Johnson, Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and FBI ...

  15. MLK's Selma Campaign: Political Obstacles and Compromises

    2564. In Selma we look back at the 1965 campaign by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to secure equal voting rights for African-American citizens. That political battle was waged in the deep south, where King organized marches from the town of Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in protest of President Lyndon B. Johnson's hesitation on voting rights ...

  16. Selma (2014)

    62 Selma (2014) Marching toward Justice in Selma. By Anonymous . Ava DuVernay's Selma is a complex film mired in conflict and history. At its heart is the campaign to secure full voting rights for African Americans with the march from Selma to Montgomery serving as its nexus. I choose this film for its historical consistency and compelling ...

  17. Selma Movie Analysis Essay

    Selma Movie Analysis Essay. The Civil Rights movement took place beginning from around the 1940's throughout the 1960's. Selma is a popular 2014 historical drama film that centers over the Civil Rights movement during the year 1965, focusing on the five day, fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery led by civil rights activists Martin ...

  18. Selma Movie Analysis Of The Movie

    900 Words4 Pages. On December, 25th 2014, a wonderful and meaningful movie came to the theater, and its name is "Selma". The plot of the movie is built from an unforgettable historic event that changed the whole world, especially the life of minority ethnics among the United States. Under the hand of director Ava DuVernay, the movie takes ...

  19. (PDF) Review of the Movie Selma

    View PDF. Movie Review Selma Reviewed by Charles Collyer, co-director of The Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education The movie Selma (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of the campaign for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, culminating in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  20. Selma

    Essay Example: Selma gives an account of the American history using dramatic stories of the success of black people. The film is more about the process of political steering through fighting and bargaining of deals which were focused on eradicating racial discrimination. Although some events.

  21. Summary Of The Movie 'Selma'

    Summary Of The Movie 'Selma'. 2. "Selma" is a Drama and Biographical movie which was released on 9 January 2015 in USA. The movie was based on the effort of Martin Luther King's movement to secure the right to vote for African-American people through a march from Selma to Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. had a long way to go even though ...