Selma and Sacrifice: Dignity and Vigilance

Watching Selma is a visceral emotional experience. True to life, it didn’t need to resort to the hyperbolic or maudlin, the sentimental or heavy handed—which makes it, to my thinking, considerably more profound and authentic than the self-important trainwreck God’s Not Dead. The story of Selma is itself compelling enough, a drama about issues like equality, dignity, respect, humanity, inhumanity. It requires no extra props, no tortured plot, no artificial melodrama, nor fictional caricatures to promote an agenda. It need not feign meanness or superficiality; history here is sadly replete with actual instances of such real people who, unwittingly, played their inverted roles to help justice prevail.

The movie chronicles the story of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) going to Selma, Alabama to protest the de facto lack of voting rights among the black citizens there. They had the legal right to vote by this time, but in practice they were denied it by the enforcement of all sorts of arbitrary and prohibitive local requirements—like the need to quote the Preamble of the Constitution by heart or answer a series of highly specific legal or political questions at which most contestants on Jeopardy would stumble.

Spearheaded by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who once said that anyone who doesn’t understand the religious underpinnings of the movement doesn’t understand the movement—this arm of the civil rights front was, unlike those in the tradition of Malcolm X, committed to nonviolence. The restraint, wisdom, and courage of this approach is on full display in this remarkable film, which by turns stirs both shameful despair and soaring hope. We can read about such events and be deeply moved, but seeing various facets of the tale graphically depicted on the big screen—a church with four innocent girls blown to pieces, a young man shot defending his elderly grandfather against police brutality, women punched and kicked and beaten, men bludgeoned with a hideous array of blunt objects—carries with it an undeniable new level of poignancy.

The success of the movement would arise from the crucible of anguish and pain and sacrifice—as images of gross injustice, wicked violence against innocents, and beautiful and inspiring courage gradually did their work to capture moral imagination and change and turn the heart of a nation whose conscience had been seared and for which accommodation to evil had become normative—too often draped with the imprimatur of sanctimony. It is remarkably moving to see the tenacity displayed, the hope that survived such adversity, the faith manifested in the darkest of hours and in the face of such systemic and unspeakable violence, only bolstered by a silent White House—or worse, an administration that, to knock the movement from the radar and render silent its most prophetic and erudite voice, used tactics of intimidation, fear-mongering, and character assassination to undermine King’s credibility and resolve.

By certain recurring foibles, King was in fact susceptible to moral criticisms, and the movie doesn’t shy away from this uncomfortable fact; this unflinching honesty is one of the film’s many virtues. As is known, King had several adulterous affairs with other women, and the movie includes this regrettable feature of this great man with feet of clay. David Horner discusses this aspect of King, using “GMT” for “Great Moral Teacher,” writing that

Dr. Martin Luther King is almost universally considered a GMT, despite evidence of his sexual infidelities. … Why is it that we consider Dr. King a moral authority, despite his moral imperfections? Part of the answer, surely, has to do with the importance of what he said. The truths he expressed concerning human dignity were much “bigger” than he was, so to speak, and his infidelities do not cast doubt upon them. … But, of course, anyone—including Adolph Hitler—could have said those things, could have articulated those same propositions. What is it that made Dr. King a GMT, and not merely a conduit or reporter of significant moral truths? A necessary, core condition, I submit, is a special case of what I am defending here, and that is integrity, which expresses the coherence or intrinsic relation between content and character. We consider Dr. King a GMT, despite his lack of complete moral integrity, partly because he never claimed to possess the latter, and partly because there was coherence between what he did claim and how he lived. He uttered profound truths about liberty and racial equality, and he lived consistently and with integrity with respect to them, to the point of being jailed, beaten, and ultimately killed. I dare say, however, that had his central message been the importance of sexual fidelity (or had it turned out that he was actually a secret informer for the Ku Klux Klan), he would not in fact today be considered a GMT—no matter how exalted had been his teaching in other respects.

I remember a civil rights course in college as one of the best classes I ever took. In that class we read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” After watching Selma, I reread the letter, and I would encourage you to do the same if you can find the time. It’s really quite remarkable. So many lines stand out from this letter to ministers who were lamenting the involvement of the SCLC in Birmingham, but I’ll share just a few:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

In that letter King outlined a few of the reasons nonviolence was his favored approach, the sort of nonviolence we see in Selma. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Explaining that justice too long delayed is justice denied, King goes on to make clear that the time for action had arrived:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. … Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Much could be discussed from Selma. This is nothing like a thorough review of this terrific film which offers a painful snapshot of actual history about brave men and women putting their lives, reputations, and bodies at risk to battle grave injustice and be given a voice. The film features people animated by and collectively embodying a rejection of Bentham’s perverse notion of human rights as nonsense on stilts. Their example was a living, breathing refutation of the idea that our only rights are those that government deigns to confer.

More primordial underlying moral truths are the real bedrock on which our legal and political rights reside, and it’s those unchanging moral verities alone that can ensure a trajectory of justice, however incremental and protracted, labyrinthine and excruciating, the political process required may prove. Under totalitarian rule that categorically denies God-given and intrinsic human rights and equality and dignity, callous to claims of justice, victory in this world is by no means an ineluctable, inevitable historical contingency, which reminds us all the more that a sanguine dismissal of the ultimate foundations of morality is a foolhardy, historically myopic, and objectionably short-sighted pitfall we need assiduously to avoid.

Jean Bethke-Elshtain once wrote, “It is interesting—and troubling—that we are in an age of human rights par excellence, and yet there are forces at work in our world that undermine the ontological claims of human dignity that must ground a robust regime of human rights.” So the one take-home I want to emphasize is that the battle to accord human dignity and value, worth and equality, their proper pride of place is one bathed in blood and sacrifice, and that vigilance is necessary to ensure that this labor was not in vain.

As Selma shows.


Photo: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.