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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Selma revisited

If you haven't seen the film Selma, please go — especially if you were born in central Alabama as I was.
At the time of the Selma-Montgomery march, I lived in Montgomery and was 10 years old. My house was near the eastern edge of the city at that time, well away from the action. But my brother had died in the hospital of the City of St. Jude, staging ground for the march's final day into downtown. The march would pass right in front of the house where one of my grandmothers lived. My father's office window faced the Capitol steps where the march would end. We could feel the march coming.

What I remember most was pervasive fear that all hell would break loose, triggered by the Ku Klux Klan. By that point in the Civil Rights movement, most white residents of Montgomery could see that even if they were pro-segregation, the systematic subjugation of black people in the South was doomed. The scary piece was that a minority of white people hadn't figured that out yet. They believed that they could still stop the movement — or, failing that, could fulfill their hatred by beating marchers to pulp. If you haven't seen that degree of viciousness with your own eyes and heard it with your own ears, you couldn't believe it possible. How many black people had the KKK already killed in the South by 1965? Too many to count. Today's radicalized, extremist Muslims are no different from the KKK back then.

Nobody knew what the KKK would do in Montgomery; and despite the official policy of non-violence among marchers, nobody knew how people under attack would react. Even if police, sheriff's deputies, and state troopers refrained from directly attacking marchers, there was uncertainty that the authorities would rush to defend them.

Of course, at the last minute the federal government intervened to authorize the march and to ensure safety along the route. The KKK did kill Viola Liuzzo in adjacent Lowndes County after the march, but the bloodbath in Montgomery that we had feared was averted. The march achieved its objectives: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed the course of local and state politics throughout the South, and soon de jure segregation and discrimination were eliminated. (Attitudes and personal behaviors among whites are a different topic.)

I think the film is great, although much of it was shot in Georgia. Those close to the LBJ administration are upset by historical inaccuracies, and I spotted a few more. It also leaves much unsaid. The fact is, no film maker can shrink a year of complex background and a week of intense, multidimensional action into two hours. Compared to Oliver Stone's controversial JFK or even Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, I see Selma as accurate enough.

Two years ago this month, I happened to drive across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I expected never to return and didn't know that a film about Selma was forthcoming, so I took a long look to ensure that I'd always remember the sight. By the way, the film didn't mention that Edmund Pettus was Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama in the KKK.