Two years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Congressman John Lewis in his Capitol Hill office. I listened intently as he recounted an important moment in American history: crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. That Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday, a day when Black marchers in Selma who were marching to secure voting rights were beaten to a bloody pulp by police. Lewis, a student activist at the time, nearly died, as did others. A nation watched as the events unfolded. That march and the subsequent marches to the Pettus Bridge and from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year.
While this has been a moment that many within the civil rights space have known about and celebrated for the last 50 years, new generations of activists inspired by recent events and others who are less familiar with the story are being introduced to it in a new light. In the upcoming movie “Selma,” the inner workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are on full display as viewers are shown how the marches came to happen and the strategy behind them to get a voting rights bill.
Two years prior to the march, hundreds of thousands of people descended on to the National Mall to push for legislation that would eliminate legalized segregation. The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom helped to achieve the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act that banned public discrimination, the right to vote was blocked for many Southern Blacks who were met with literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes that made it nearly impossible for them to even register.
The film will reveal the strategy that it took to “organize, demonstrate, and resist,” as Dr. King says in one line of the movie. The strategy included organizing people who were willing to stand on the front lines, training them in nonviolent resistance, acting on their plan, and highlighting the issue through the media by drawing needed headlines.
But the movie also profiles the relationship, and at times, tensions between King and President Lyndon Johnson as each side pushes against the other. King focuses on the urgency of needing a bill to protect would-be voters, while Johnson feels that he has other issues and priorities that he must focus on and the passage of the Civil Rights Act just a year before has bought him a little time to focus on voting. King and his organization use his motto to create a demand that the President cannot ignore, and in many ways, they ensure that the legislation will be something that is presented.
Fifty years later, we are met with similarities to the movie, where Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed Black man, is shot by police, a scene very familiar to many who continue to protest the deaths of unarmed Black people.
We are also now dealing with a new fight to restore the Voting Rights Act that passed in 1965 but was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 with the removal of a key provision intended to protect voters from discriminatory laws.
There is also the juxtaposition of the fact that we now have a Black President and First Family, and the same man who marched across the Pettus Bridge, nearly dying, John Lewis, is now a Congressman. Just as they did in 1965, we need to organize, demonstrate, and resist.
We need to draw in media to shine a light on the issue and we need our relationships with elected leaders to be that of an accountability partner – to provide the necessary guidance to keep our community moving forward. It’s a time to refocus the movement, so that in 50 years, we have created change that will be reflected not just on the screens, but in the lives of our people.
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