Is ‘Selma’ a turning point for how we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.?

By Jennifer J. Yanco

Ava DuVernay’s film Selma captures the sense of terror and the extremes of violence that were unleashed on those who dared to challenge the racist order in Selma in 1965. The film reminds us of the enormous courage of those who joined forces to confront this brutality head-on. But while Selma is a film about events in the past, it would be a mistake to think the issues it grapples with are over and done. Selma presents a past that bleeds in to our present. As Black Lives Matter today confronts a racist order that grants impunity to police and civilian violence against yet another generation of black people, DuVernay’s film challenges us to take seriously our role as heirs to the legacy of Selma, Alabama.

A key figure in this legacy is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., beautifully portrayed by David Oyelowo. Selma opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in non-violence. This is juxtaposed with a scene of utmost violence—the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little girls just a little over a year before.

DuVernay shows us the radical Dr. King—confrontational, strategic, and committed to non-violent resistance. This Dr. King was a man of deep faith and steely resolve and bears little resemblance to the conciliatory, non-confrontational figure that is held up as a national hero/saint. The film reminds us, too, that Dr. King was not the popular, beloved figure we think we remember, but someone who was tracked by the FBI and despised for daring to demand racial justice. This image of the radical Dr. King has been suppressed in the interest of creating a national hero who reassures us in our complacency rather than leading us in the dangerous work of confronting injustice.

King called upon people of good faith to stand up in the face of injustice. DuVernay's film effectively conveys the power of non-violence in calling attention to injustice. We see King’s rejection of violence as both a spiritual stance and a strategic one. When someone approaches him suggesting that folks take up arms, King reminds him of the likely consequences when one is outnumbered by a far better-armed enemy.

We get a brief glimpse of King the anti-war activist when he refers to the irony of fighting a war for freedom in Vietnam when there was so little freedom for Black people here at home. The film doesn’t show us King’s more far-reaching radical stance vis-à-vis what he called the Giant Triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism—a stance that earned him the further ire of the establishment. But as DuVernay has made clear through her title, this is a film about Selma and the people who made history there. King was one of them and this film allows us to see this slice of his life, not all of it.

There is a danger in our viewing of this film that it will shore up beliefs that Selma is something of the past—over and done, victory won. But recent dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and the institution of onerous new requirements should give us pause. And this is on top of a criminal justice system that systematically disenfranchises huge numbers of African Americans.

We may like to think that we were all there—or would have been had we been alive—joining in the struggle. But the fact is that the courageous people of Selma and their allies from elsewhere were going against the grain. They had very little support from either the government or the general public, who thought they were "going too far" and that this kind of public protest was just "stirring things up". Sound familiar? We are hearing the same kind of commentary today regarding the anti-racist protests going on around the country.

John Legend’s song “Glory”, sung by Common at the closing of the film, makes the connections clear, bringing the power of Selma into the present. The song refers to Ferguson and by extension to the widespread protests and uprisings triggered by events there. “Selma’s now for every man woman and child…” We are the inheritors of the courage and resolve of all those who were on the front lines in Selma. The film gives back a sense of how much power people really have—if we choose to take it.

Ava DuVernay’s film Selma could be a turning point in the way we remember this chapter in the Civil Rights movement and, in particular, Martin Luther King, Jr. The film shows us a radical King, speaking truth to power—a thinker, a strategist, and an organizer—quite distinct from the watered-down popular memories we have constructed of him. It is a powerful portrayal of this critical piece of our history and points to its relevance today. That is a huge contribution.

Misremembering Dr KingBorn in Boston, Jennifer J. Yanco is author of Misremembering Dr. King: Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest and served four years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central and West Africa. In 1999, she developed and taught an adult education course, “White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action.” Taught by an ever-expanding group of instructors, the course continues to draw a wide range of students. Yanco holds an M.S. from the Harvard School of Public Health and a Ph.D. in Linguistics and African Studies from Indiana University. She is currently the US Director of the West African Research Association and a Visiting Researcher at the African Studies Center at Boston University.