His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor's note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 


“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

[su_dropcap]T[/su_dropcap]he injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.[su_pullquote]This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.[/su_pullquote]

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

[su_dropcap]J[/su_dropcap]ustice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

[su_dropcap]S[/su_dropcap]elma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

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.