The new movie Selma depicts the events that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. There has been some controversy about the historical accuracy of parts of this movie, but I don’t have much patience with those kinds of criticisms. Selma is not a documentary, even though it is based on historical events and does use some documentary footage in one part. Therefore, filmmakers are entitled to whatever artistic license they feel they need for the sake of heightening the drama. The point of the movie, which it succeeds at brilliantly, is demonstrating the power of a social movement to create change. In the process, the movie also puts Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center so that we can understand and feel the leader’s personal struggle to balance the desire for change, the safety of his followers, his family’s needs, and his sense of the most successful strategy for achieving the movement’s goals.
As a lawyer, I can’t help focusing on the role of the courts and the political system in the drama. The movie understandably puts the court proceedings somewhat in the background, except that the court case pops out at one point in the middle of a series of meetings and preparations. The movie offers a somewhat confusing portrayal of the aborted second march (based on the historical record, that day probably was very confusing), seeming to suggest that King obtained spiritual guidance that persuaded him to turn back. That may be true, but it is also true that he was thinking about the temporary restraining order he would have been violating by proceeding. Then we see the courageous Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson (played by Martin Sheen) hearing a parade of witnesses before issuing an order that permitted the third march.
Was there ever an opportunity for peaceful resolution of this conflict? We see President Johnson acting at times a little bit like a mediator between King and Governor Wallace, but no real attempt was made at creating a dialogue that could resolve the dispute. The protesters had demands that could not be denied, and the local authorities were determined to resist those demands as long as they could. What the movie shows is that the state’s violent resistance to the legitimate demands of citizens for voting rights only ended up helping the protesters achieve their goals.
Martin Luther King was not averse to negotiated resolution of conflict. But despite his strategy of non-violence, he did not exactly renounce more aggressive and adversarial methods either. In fact, the strategy of non-violent resistance was deliberately confrontational, and designed to provoke a violent reaction. That is why it worked. This is shown in the movie when King meets with two SNCC organizers and asks whether Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma was more like Commissioner Bull Connor, whose men had been caught on film brutally attacking protesters in Birmingham the year before, or like Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, who had effectively defused protests in Albany, Georgia, by adopting a restrained policy toward the protesters. John Lewis responds that Clark was more like Connor, and that helped King decide that Selma was the right place to organize protests.
In the end, it was not the court case, or the peaceful protests, or the legislative process in Washington, that caused voting rights to move to the forefront of the nation’s priorities in 1965. It was the first attempted march, the one that barely made it across the Edmund Pettus bridge before being met with horrific police violence, that shocked the nation into responding. It was violence that prodded the legal and political system into putting the laws in place that ultimately bring a measure of justice needed to reduce that violence. And it is the tension between the deliberate use or provocation of violence to achieve a movement’s goals, and the desire to use the law to create a more just and peaceful solution, that creates much of the thought-provoking drama shown in the movie Selma.