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Where are we 50 years later? What can we learn from Selma?

Edmund Pettus bridge
Edmund Pettus bridge Photo: Jack Rabin collection / Penn State Special Collection

Note: I invited Vanessa Julye, author of Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice and her husband, Barry Scott, clerk of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, to write thier reflections about Ava DuVernay's film Selma. Below are their thoughs and stories, with queries for reflection at the end. - Lucy

We were blessed with the opportunity to preview Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma (2014), twice. Each time we sat in the movie theatre, we experienced a range of emotion from anger to horror to tears to cheering.

Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, Annie Lee Cooper, James Forman, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Orange, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Bayard Rustin, Hosea Williams, Malcom X and Andrew Young were all represented. Scores of local citizens who were subjected to threats, violence and indignities were portrayed. White people who also answered the call were also presented like Reverend James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who worked for AFSC at the time and Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother who responded to the invitation to come and support the voting rights movement.

Edmund Pettus bridge Penn State collectionSelma documents the violent three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a courageous campaign to secure equal voting rights in Selma. The film includes the struggles leading up to and including the march from Selma to Montgomery concluding with President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The film Selma does not focus solely on the experiences of the important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but illustrates the negotiations practiced in politics, demonstrates the significance of community and the power of ordinary individuals as catalysts of change. It also vividly portrays the lengthy preparation necessary for and the very violent consequences of non-violent civil disobedience. In many ways, Selma is timeless.

Integrity, equality, community and peace are all Quaker testimonies. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his inner circle evidenced those testimonies in their struggle for voting rights for African Americans in Selma. It is refreshing and inspiring to witness examples of these testimonies being lived out.

When Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote she is subjected to three voter quantifying tests. Annie is first asked to recite the Constitution's Preamble, which she does successfully. For her second attempt, she is asked how many county judges are in Alabama. When she answers that question correctly, for her third test Annie is told to name all 67, which she cannot do, so her application is denied.

Martin Luther King, Jr. marching with archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Selma, c. Penn State CollectionWatching this scene brought up the pain of my (Vanessa) father’s experience of trying to register in Mobile, AL. My dad was born and raised in Mobile. When he went to the courthouse to register to vote he was shown a jar filled with marbles and asked, “How many marbles in the jar?” When he didn’t guess the correct number his application, like Annie’s, was denied. What made this scene even more devastating for me is the fact that this country is returning to those days of restricting our right to vote with new voter qualifying tests, the voter ID laws.

Halfway through the film. I (Barry) physically shivered...in recognition. I saw my grandfather who died in 1977. I saw him in the form of Henry G. Sanders portraying Cager Lee, an 82 year old and the grandfather of another character in the film, Jimmie Lee Jackson. I deeply loved my grandfather with whom I spent many of my childhood summers. My visceral reaction to seeing Sander’s jaw line brought to me a flood of feelings of the love that I received from him and others in my family.

My grandfather would have been 70 in 1965 (Sanders was 72 when the part was filmed). I, once again, wondered how my people had survived the onslaught that people of African descent have had to weather in this country for the last four hundred years. I tried to imagine how I could have endured what they must have had to endure and I was again indebted to them, their community and to those leaders who fought, and worked, and died to provide us with the world that we have now. We, hopefully, can find the faith, courage and love to follow in their footsteps for all of our grandchildren.

Seldom do we experience challenges to our faith or see raw examples of the sacrifice of living into these beliefs. In Selma we experience examples of all of these as well as the humility of those following a path of a religious leading; a leading that cost some of them their lives. This combination is presented with incredible power, energy and grace in Ava DuVernay’s film. One of Selma’s gifts is the rare opportunity to recognize that the best examples of these testimonies are carried out by ordinary people living and working closely together while listening to and following God even in the face of opposition from the inner circle.

While watching Selma we were struck with the knowledge that 50 years later the strategies implemented for change demonstrated in this film provide a blueprint for addressing some of the issues we are struggling with today. We hope that Friends will notice the parallels between 1965 and 2015. The Civil Rights Movement is not finished. In the film President Lyndon B. Johnson says

“But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome…”

Structural racism continues to operate today. The struggle for equal voting rights along with the dehumanization of African American lives and experiences continues in 2015. We encourage you to go see Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma and spend some time reflecting and discussing the queries below.

1) In what ways do we support each other in order to seek God’s will and act upon our understanding of truth?

2) How does Selma reflect life today? What seems different and what is the same?

3) What do we see as the source of the unrest as evidenced in both Selma and the Black Lives Matter movement?

4) What role did faith have in the film? How did it support the movement? Are there lessons in this film that will help Friends address today’s issues?

About the Author

Vanessa Julye works to increase awareness of racism in Quaker and other religious communities. She has a calling to ministry with a concern for helping the Religious Society of Friends become a whole blessed community.