A March to Freedom
The second cultural artifact I have chosen is the 2014 film Selma. The film chronicles the story of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march of 1965, which were organized by civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and James Bevel. The movie begins with Dr. King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and then meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss the civil rights issue. Following his meeting with the president, Dr. King helps organize and lead a march from Montgomery to Selma with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition” (IMDb) which “culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement” (IMDb). Selma stars David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey.
I was drawn to select this movie as my cultural artifact because the events portrayed are extremely significant to the civil rights movement and I felt that the movie powerfully depicted the events. Also, the events occurred during my grandparents’ lifetime, and they have told me stories about what the country was like in those days and their experiences. As such, I thought Selma would be an appropriate film to exemplify my grandparents’ description of those times.
The director of Selma is Ava DuVernay, who is the first African American woman director to have their film nominated for Best Picture. There are also multiple producers of the film, and they are Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner. Colson is a British producer who also produced Slumdog Millionaire. I’m sure we all know who Oprah is, as she does amazing philanthropy work and has her own broadcasting channel. Dede Gardner is the president of Plan B Entertainment, the production company founded by Brad Pitt. Jeremy Kleiner is also a key producer in Plan B Entertainment, as he also produced 12 Years a Slave. What all these producers and their director have in common is that they all have either a connection to the Civil Rights Movement or they are also philanthropists who have a shared interest in portraying the important events of the Civil Rights Movement in cinema.
The film itself began production in 2008 and was released on Christmas Day 2014. The events depicted in the movie occurred in 1964. This time period was hugely significant for African Americans, as it was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. It was during this era of the 50s, 60s, and 70s that African Americans fought actively for their civil rights, for desegregation and against racism.
It could certainly be argued that this period of time was the most significant for African Americans in their entire history. It was during this time that African Americans made huge gains in their own economic, political, and social freedom. They formed coalitions, committees, and organizations to organize boycotts, protests, public speeches, and marches (as in Selma) all with the goal of achieving desegregation, the end of racism, and equal civil rights for all. It was during this time period that African American made the most gains and strides toward their freedom.
Selma is significant to the time period it reflects because it depicts such a crucial event of the Civil Rights movement. At this point in the 1960s, Southern legislators had in place legislation preventing many African Americans to register to vote. In response to activist Jimmie Lee Jackson being shot and killed during a peace march in Marion, Alabama, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) coordinated on a massive peace march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing and the discriminatory legislation that prevented many African Americans from voting. The march took place from March 7th to March 25th, 1965 in a series of marches. The first march, the one prominently depicted in the film, resulted in violence when the African American protesters attempted to cross the county line, “Alabama state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas rushed the group at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and beat them back to Selma” (history.com). The violent scene was captured on television, “enraging many Americans” (history.com) and inciting acts of civil disobedience across the country. The Selma to Montgomery march played a huge role in influencing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, “which guaranteed the right to vote (first awarded by the 15th Amendment) to all African Americans” (history.com). This ensuing political victory was hugely significant because it ended de jure voting segregation and disfranchisement for African Americans.
The events portrayed in Selma have not had their significance change or been lost over time. The freedom marches carried out by the SNCC and the SCLC influenced federal legislation to be passed, legislation that was never repealed, and so these marches have had a lasting impact on American society. Also, the film itself was released in 2014, almost fifty years after the events portrayed occurred, and so it would suffice to say that the significance of the Selma to Montgomery freedom marches has not been lost with the passage of time. The fact that Hollywood produced a movie regarding a significant event of the Civil Rights movement suggests that the effects of events from fifty years ago still hold importance today.
When the SNCC and the SCLC conducted their freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery, they met all five of the themes of the Civil Rights movement that Dr. Pittman identified and we discussed in class. They addressed the urgency of their political and social situation, by engaging in a massive march of over sixty miles to their destination, showing that they demanded change to happen as soon as possible. They appealed to specific audiences: other African Americans to join them in their marches, the legislators of the state of Alabama by marching to the steps of the Capitol building in Montgomery, and to Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who advocated for them in front of a joint session of Congress on their behalf, “calling for federal voting rights legislation to protect African Americans from barriers that prevented them from voting” (history.com). The marchers did this while setting aside their differences, despite some belonging to different peace organizations with different objectives, with the SCLC being centrist whereas the SNCC was more left. Their demands were simple: end institutional disfranchisement for African Americans so that they could have the rights that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed to them. Finally, their political stance was one of peaceful protest despite the fierce initial violent backlash.
In class, we learned about several African American civil rights organizations, and three kinds of political stances that the organizations tended to make. Those three ideals were liberal, conservative, and centrist. The conservatives, which included the NAACP, sought “inclusion in the system” (Pittman, 2015) and “wanted black integration to be acceptable to liberal white corporations and Democrats” (Pittman, 2015). The centrists tended to be nonviolent and sought to “achieve full citizenship rights, equality, and integration” (Pittman, 2015). Organizations that were considered centrist were the SCLC and CORE. The liberals included the SNCC and black nationalists. Some liberals were nonviolent, while some were more radical, such as Malcom X. Some liberals, like the black nationalists, thought that “whites had no interest in ending racism” (Pittman, 2015) and sought an exclusively black state. In the film Selma, the SCLC and SNCC combine their forces to execute a huge civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The SCLC, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was nonviolent and centrist. The SNCC was also nonviolent, but leaned more toward the liberal. Despite these ideological differences, the two organizations brought themselves together to peacefully advocate for the enfranchisement of African Americans with the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
“Selma to Montgomery March.” History.com. The History Channel, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/selma-montgomery-march>.
“Selma (2014).” IMDb. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1020072/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ql_6>.
Pittman, LaShawnda, Ph.D. “The Second Reconstruction.” AFRAM 101. Savory Hall, University of Washington, Seattle. 3 Dec. 2015. Lecture.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Perf. David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey. Paramount Pictures, 2014.
Selma – Trailer. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Perf. David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey. Youtube. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6t7vVTxaic>.