Spoiler Warning: There are a lot of spoilers in this post (albeit the film is based on history so you should know the events anyway, but that’s beside the point) Should you wish to see the film before reading this post the author will not be offended.
“Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson…who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson…every White preacher who preaches from his Bible on Sunday but remains silent in the face of hate.” – MLK
I watched Selma for the second time this week and cried far too much for it to be justifiable. From the opening scenes to the last part where the director tells us what happens to the characters that we’ve been following for the last two hours, I did a lot of weeping. For me, Selma was not only a great dramatic retelling of events that transpired when my parents were toddles, Selma is an allegorical retelling of more recent events of race-based violence.
Ava DuVernay chose to end her cinematic masterpiece with a peaceful protest, a march from the low-income Black neighborhoods in Selma to the halls of power in Montgomery. The only way she could have more closely tied the peaceful protests of MLK to the peaceful protests in Staten Island, Ferguson, LA would have been to loop footage of them into the film. Whether or not she meant to do it, when the state troopers in Alabama put on their gas masks, to the audience they became the state troopers of Missouri who tear gassed Black neighborhoods in Ferguson; when the police chief of Selma beat the woman played by Oprah, he became the officer that shot the praying pastor; the film brought to life events of the past, so that the present could be more fully understood.
The film starts with MLK preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but immediately transitions into the murder of the Birmingham 4, in the 16th street Baptist Church bombings. The first time I watched it, I knew it was coming, 4-6 sweet Black girls walking in church talking about how their afraid their hair will get messed up when they get baptized, I knew immediately who they were and what was going to happen to them. But when they died I still twitched, it wasn’t until the second viewing, when one of my classmates pointed out to me that it was baptism they were discussing that made me think of the theological implications of them being killed. Our baptisms are a sign of dying with Christ and being raised to new life with him, these girls were on their way to be buried with Christ and were killed on the journey. I thought of all the times I got to walk up and down the stairs of my childhood church without fear of being blown up. I got to be buried with Christ and raised to new life in him without fear.
The film depicts a governor of Alabama who is racist and ignorant, but doesn’t tell the whole story. When George Wallace first ran for governor he ran with the support of the NAACP, he had openly spoke out against the Klu Klux Klan but after he lost that election, he turned to a staunch segregationist view – blaming Black people and integration for the poverty that plagued Whites in Alabama, he “sold them a vicious lie” King would say, and it got him elected and re-elected. Wallace has the third longest tenure in the gubernatorial post of in the US, serving for a total of sixteen years. All it took was a little racism.
This film also depicts a very human MLK, one who makes great mistakes, who cheats on his wife, who fights with other leaders, who is afraid. It show LBJ as a champion for civil rights, but also as a realist and a man who wants to be in control. It shows how women were at the front lines and the orchestrators of the civil rights movement. It shows Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man working with Black Baptists leaders in the struggle for racial and economic justice. It shows White clergy and Jewish rabbis joining in the battle for justice, not by taking charge, but only doing what they were asked to – show up and be present, experience the suffering with this minority community.
“Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” MLK asks a room filled with grieving people. The answer is not only Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler, it is a system of race-based injustice that has yet to be undone. When a White man can strangle a Black man on video and not face charges for it, the system is still tainted with hateful racism. When a seven-year-old Black girl is shot to death in her sleep because she may have been a threat to heavily armed adult White police officers, the system is still tainted with hateful racism.
We live in a country that loves violence and hates to be made uncomfortable with truth. Until we turn ourselves into a country that loves truth and hates to be made uncomfortable with violence, we will continue to see girls like Aiyana Stanley-Jones and boys like Tamir Rice get murdered – we will continue to create vigilantes like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and State Troopers or Police Officers like James Fowler and Daniel Pantaleo. The truth is that our nation was built to be racially preferential to White people, our churches were willing to divide over this truth, our schools even now remain racially segregated and grow more so every year, our churches remain racially divided and focus more on their declining numbers than their declining in being Christ-like through racial inclusion. The truth makes people uncomfortable because it reveals to them the reality that were they there with MLK they would not be marching, because the march of Selma is still happening today and most Americans are ignoring it, just like most American ignored MLK.
The Bible says “the truth shall set you free”, but in this case the truth the movie Selma reveals to us is how much we are really enslaved. Enslaved by a love of violence, a love of racism, a love of comfort, and a love of self. Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson? We did.