| January 10, 2015

Common, Ledisi, Oprah, David Oyelowo, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Martin Sheen, Dylan Baker, Tessa Thompson, Niecy Nash, Nigel Thatch, Corey Reynolds, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Trai Byers, Tara Ochs and Andre Holland.

All these actors and more—whether popularly known by one name or another—comprise the cast that black female director Ava DuVernay has assembled to make what has been called the only feature film so far about Dr. Martin Luther King–Selma. The movie’s signature event is the historical march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This was necessary for King, along with Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and other civil rights activists of the time, because blacks were being denied the right to vote across the South.

The movie opens up in 1963, and just when I thought I was going to bite into an apple, I was jolted by the horrible scene that depicted the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, where Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were murdered at the hands of racist whites in the town nationally recognized as one under the rule of the Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor. And while I knew the events of the day, the bombing pierced through me and set the tone for my jitters for the rest of the film.

Chicagoan Belinda Silber was born in Birmingham in 1951 and remembers the morning of the church bombing, but things were so scattered. She recalls her mother being relieved when she walked into the house.

“I had attended early Mass and went to a friend’s house. While there, the whole city seemed to shake. It was like nothing anyone had ever experienced before. I lived near Dynamite Hill and was no stranger to bombs going off,” Silber said. “I am not sure how my friend’s father found out, as no one looked at television on Sunday morning, but he told me to go home. There was barely anyone on the streets and I had to take the bus across town, and there were faint whispers. When I arrived home, there were sighs of relief, as my mother told me that whites were ‘killing children.’ My stepfather ventured downtown to get the New York Times to find out what was happening, because you couldn’t trust the local news accounts.”

Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been passed by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, Alabama was reluctant to allow blacks the right to vote, without harsh registration requirements. Potential voters would be taxed; they had to recite the Preamble to the Constitution (you, know…We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America). Who could recite all of this at whim; especially folks who had been denied educational opportunities? Heck, I only remember half of this from grade school.

In one scene, activist Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah and who is later shown in the film punching Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, was ordered to name the counties in Alabama. Enough was enough, and the movie depicts events that occurred in May of 1965, when King and company orchestrated the celebrated Selma to Montgomery march across the bridge to the capital of Alabama to register folks to vote.

Silber also remembers the discussions around the march in her home. But she was not allowed to participate, even though she was 14 years old. “No way was my mother (grandmother) letting me go to Selma without adult supervision. The only person she knew who was attending was the podiatrist who worked next to her beauty shop,” Silber said. “Although I was now 14, mothers back then didn’t let their daughters—no matter how independent and spunky—go off by themselves for five days.” Silber added that she went to a Catholic school, and there was no school for five days, since some of the nuns and her priest participated in the march, which made it seem like vacation. “Oddly enough the thing I remember most was reading a story in the local newspaper that said Viola Liuzzo was found dead in the car with no panties. There were so many stories like that, which aimed at smearing the participants and citing communism and claiming that everyone was some type of degenerate.”

The movie shows the first attempt at crossing the bridge, and the violence that met the group of marchers; the back and forth with Pres. Johnson and then-Gov. George Wallace around protection for the marchers and the burden that Johnson has said was placed on him.

Eventually, the marchers were triumphant after five days and 54 miles in a march that could only be accomplished with intense planning, cooperation and execution, as history tells us. It was thrilling to see the demonstrations, with the folks all dressed up to march and call upon Alabama civil administrators to “right the wrongs” of injustice. But it was equally as sad to see the violence aimed against them, both young and old, male and female.

Selma is a great movie for all ages. It well covers the relationships between King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (Core). It also shows King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and a meeting between King and the other reigning black activist of the time, Malcolm X.  Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey are executive producers of Selma, which opens in theaters everywhere January 9.

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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