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Lesson from ‘Selma’ rings true still

By Staff | Feb 3, 2015

When is a universal right worth standing together with friends, family and strangers and enduring brutal words, broken bones, and threats on your life? “Selma,” an adaptation of a portion of the life of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during his 1960s fight for voting rights on the ground in Alabama and at a distance with President Lyndon Johnson, stands as a line in the sand on the strength of races and genders working together to strike blows on injustice.

Underscoring the toll of the civil rights movement, “Selma” imaginatively and tastefully depicts a recreation of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls attending Sunday School. Prior to the explosion, they speak of dresses, friends, swimming, role models and hair styles – topics that extend beyond race. The aftermath is a starry universe.

That does not dilute the hate expressed through random beatings, whether by an individual, group or the then elected officials.

Which is why the non-violent mantra of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (portrayed in the film by David Oyelowo) grants him reluctant access to the nation’s chief executive Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson), who views him a lesser means of appeasement postponing the inevitable intervention confrontation.

King knows that LBJ will not act on an executive declaration for “Negro” voting, unless the demonstrations and protests stay in his face on the front pages of newspapers and top coverage by the television and radio media. The dilemma: Motivate the President to act (with Congressional approval) and minimize time, injuries and deaths. In other words, LBJ’s grand “war on poverty” is a veil along with the Civil Rights Act. As portrayed, he’s in a sticky political rubric which pits the federal government against action (or inaction) by individual states.

Bill Moyers, LBJ’s press secretary in a published interview, disagreed with some of the dramatic license taken by filmmakers.

Moyers calls the suggestion that LBJ participated in J. Edgar Hoover’s sex tape sent to Coretta King as an “egregious and outrageous” use of the worst kind of creative license.

He adds that the efforts to “delay” the voting rights portion of the Civil Rights Act is misleading. LBJ doubted Congressional approval. “The president knew he needed public sentiment to gather momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill,” Moyers said. Rather than stalling, the former press secretary recalled that LBJ told King to “go to [the South] and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

“Selma” director Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere,” “I Will Follow”) ensures that viewers comprehend the backstage, behind-closed-doors deliberate maneuvers by the articulate, charismatic civil rights leader, Presidential smoke screens, and the regional leaders facing change by holding deeply onto the status quo injustices. Voting will throw the rascal bullies out (eventually) and they protect white supremacy through eligibility ‘tests,’ like naming all county judges in the state or the entire preamble to the Constitution as voter qualification tests.

Structured through F.B.I. entries of King’s movements partly made by wiretaps, the freedom road may have been blocked with burly deputies but FBI director Hoover, Governor George Wallace and Johnson had hidden agendas. Johnson’s nod, for instance, allowed intimidation like threatening phone calls, which brought emotional pressures on King and his wife, Coretta (played by Carmen Ejogo known for “Purge: Anarchy” and “Away We Go”).

Ejogo often remains a step above taking care of the kids, worrying about finances, the children’s futures, and sharing her husband with the world. Echoing a feeling shared daily by significant others of first responders, she tells him, “I’ll never get used to the closeness of the fog of death,” which impacts their intimacy (or lack thereof). Her performance conveys a couple’s compassion and warmth for one another whether present or elsewhere.

Unless you live isolated from information networks, application to broader and continued battles for equal treatment smacks you in the face every time visible or invisible repression occurs. Or as a friend put it in conjunction with the recent Paris terrorism, “wake up people.”

Just in case you doubt, let me spell out the obvious commonalities and challenges. Inciting fervor through religious extremism etches on timelines throughout history. Targeted beliefs and believers change, but extracting emotional tyranny continues. Spiritual matters bond the faithful creating the growing unions for working together. Pay attention to the actions and words of the human leaders. Discover whether their conduct impairs their visions.

At one time ABC produced a series of “Afterschool Specials.” One depicted an unconventional teaching of the reasons for the rise of the Nazis. Dividing the class into two groups – the privileged and the unpopular – students through peer pressure quickly reinvented a classroom built on hate, where not everyone is equally valuable in his or her own right. As the emerging “society” grows nastier, the teacher schedules an assembly. Everyone comes to hear the mysterious leader. A projector displays an image of Adolph Hitler. (For those who are interested, check out “The Wave” available on specialized DVD.)

Perpetrating enslavement does not require a weekly auction, just daily politically correct followers, choosing to abide by so-called popular decisions, rather than allowing one’s mind to determine and question thereby piercing veils with transparency. Color of skin, gender and different choices are keys used ultimately to economically segregate. Yesterday accented less ambiguous “good guys” (and gals) versus “bad guys” (and gals). Today and tomorrow requires accepting the blends – whether found at Starbucks or brewed in a pot. Circumstances alter the definition of “having it all” or “an American Dream.” What’s cool in America may not be cool in Japan, for example. That does not make the Japanese ignorant, silly, of less value, and less lovable. Similarly “all” has as many definitions as there are individuals.

Intriguingly, unrestrained free expression prevents the intoxication of sameness. The latter leads to succumbing to someone else’s control of ideas, conduct and expectations. Locking doors of information creates secrecy so few celebrate going against the grain and off-the-wall traits or beliefs.

When you hear anyone complain about the multitude of camera depicting events, be wary. They inject perceptions, which assist in determinations. All perceptions count equally, no matter what is worn (or not worn), how you move (or don’t move), where you live (or just bed down), who calls you friend (or foe), when you were born, and why you prefer one choice or the other.

History has parallels. Be aware. Keep the cameras rolling and the pens scrolling. To borrow a phrase, ‘let the sunshine in,’ and do not look the other way. Imperfectness granted, flaws permitted, praise allowed. The journey is about varying degrees of happiness and finding loves which do not hurt you or anyone else.