America commemorates two milestone anniversaries this spring. The Civil War ended 150 years ago on April 9, 1865.
Also on March 7, 1965–50 years ago—was the day they called Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, which led directly to the Congressional Voting Rights Act in August of that year.
On March 1, 1965, almost exactly 100 years after the Civil War, African Americans comprised 50% of the population of Selma but just 2% of the voting rolls. In neighboring Lowndes County, black people made up 80% of the population and 0% of the voter registry; not one black was registered to vote.
On March 7, to campaign for voting rights, James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and 25-year-old Baptist preacher John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, among other giants of the Civil Rights movement, led 600 people on a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, but got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, where Sheriff Jim Clark and an over-militarized police force met them with nightsticks, bullwhips, and tear gas.
Film Director Ava Duvernay says that while working on the sound design for her current movie Selma, she listened to hundreds of sound samplings, tinkering with bass and treble settings to get just the right sick thud for those nightsticks hitting human flesh and bone. In a memorable riff from a recent song, Taylor Swift raps about getting down to “this sick beat;” she could have been singing about Selma.
Television cameras and print journalists broadcast images and descriptions of the carnage across the globe, which horrified people of good will everywhere.
It was a terrible day, but it was the beginning of the end for voter discrimination in America—at least for the time being.
It seems to be the case, you see, that evil can only be defeated when it can no longer hide in the shadows. When the world sees evil for what it is in the naked glare of sunlight, it begins to die. Evil is like a vampire; it thrives by night, but it cowers and shrivels in the light of day.
That’s why, for instance, we call Good Friday “Good”; that’s why we say “Jesus died for our sins.” Good Friday too was a horrible day, but at Golgotha, we saw with appalling transparency the cruelty humanity is capable of, and as soon as you see malice for what it is, you have to repudiate it. Jesus died for ours sins because once he was willing to unveil them for us, we had to renounce them.
In a similar way, the blood of those protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was shed for the sins of America.
You probably knew this, but if I ever knew it, I’d forgotten the irony that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was named for a Confederate Army General who later became the Ku Klux Klan’s Grand Dragon for the Realm of Alabama.
The irony is that for all practical purposes the Klan was crucified well and good on Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s so shapely and poetic that God must have had something to do with it.
As you know, this coming Monday is Martin Luther King Day. Here’s some homework to mark a sacred holiday: go see Ava Duvernay’s film Selma.
I learned many things, but one thing I noticed is that in the film Dr. King’s speeches are flat and bland.
This is because they aren’t Dr. King’s speeches; the film’s budget couldn’t afford the rights to Dr. King’s genuine words.
This is Ava Duvernay’s first big film. She says that before Selma, she’d made only small films for “two dollars and a paper clip.” Thanks to Oprah Winfrey, the budget for Selma was $20 million, which sounds like a lot, but is really quite modest by Hollywood standards. They couldn’t afford to buy the rights to Dr. King’s ipsissima verba, so they wrote their own paraphrases, which pale in the resplendent glory of the original.
Therefore, go back to the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Find this on Google: “Martin Luther King’s Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.” It is a masterpiece.
Another thing you’ll notice while watching Selma is how far America has come in 50 years, and how far we still need to go.
In the age of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin, this film has an uncanny relevance. Despite the gains in racial equality over the last half-century, over-militarized whites still gun down unarmed blacks.
But, as Dr. King was fond of saying, over and over and over again: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward the light.”
Or in the words of John Legend, from the song “Glory” in the movie Selma, which is probably the greatest rap song of all time:
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up
One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won,
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory
Oh, glory, glory glory.
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!