“Selma” and America’s Struggle With Admitting Our Problems and Facing our Past

As I sat in the theater watching Selma yesterday, I physically reacted more than once. I gasped, I curled my fingers into a fist and dug my nails into my palm without realizing it, I grabbed my friend’s arm, I cried, and I clapped. I resisted throwing my box of Red Vines at the on-screen Alabama Governor George Wallance.

This movie was phenomenal.

(And, I’d like to add, directed by a woman of color, which is awesome.)

The acting was phenomenal, the directing and the costumes and the music was phenomenal, but most importantly, the timing was phenomenal. Selma is about a great many things, but the main plot is about the struggle of gaining voting rights for black Americans in the 1960s. But they already HAD the right to vote, you say? Well sure, in words, but not in practice. In one unforgettable scene, the white man at the registrar’s office asks the black woman trying to register to recite the preamble to the Constitution. (Could you recite the entire preamble? No matter my love of reading books about the American Revolution, I know I couldn’t). She does, and then he interrupts her with a question of how many of a certain kind of judge there are in Alabama. She answers correctly. Then he asks her to name them, but there are 67 of them and how could she possibly? She’s denied. “But we’re past that!” you say. But the thing is, we’re not. Earlier this year the Supreme Court gutted a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the courageous men and women depicted in this movie fought so hard to get passed. They were beaten bloody and killed to get this passed, and now voting restrictions are being surreptitiously implemented to stop all sorts of minority voters from making their voices heard, because they largely vote Democrat and the GOP cannot have that. What’s the voice of the people to them, anyway? They claim to adhere to that, but what they adhere to is the voices of the rich, the white, the male, the conservative, and the powerful. Almost anyone else stands in their way.

(Selma tells of a racist sheriff, Jim Clark, who never got voted back in once black Americans were allowed to actually vote, so yes voting does matter.)

Or at least, they should.

But these kinds of politicians are excellent at getting people to vote against their own self-interests, and they have been for generations. In his speech at Montgomery after the march from Selma finished, MLK spoke on the Populist movement toward the end of the Reconstruction era after the Civil war, a movement which “began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.”

But of course the powerful in the South couldn’t have that, because what would they do if black and white joined together? So Jim Crow was born, which MLK emphasizes in this excerpt of the speech and what he called “the vicious, vicious lie” in the film:

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.

Let me be absolutely clear here: the effects of this are still going on right now. An overwhelming amount of poor white people across the country, and arguably now the white middle class, which struggles more and more with each passing day due to rising Guilded-Age type economic inequality, vote against their own interests. They vote for the party that sides only with the wealthy and they disparage the current Black Lives Matter movement calling it “disorderly” and “thuggish.” There are of course a good number of white allies in the movement but there aren’t enough. There need to be more, and white Americans need to wake up and realize what we could accomplish if we all worked together, the good that could come. There could be equality for the races, there could be food in the hands of hungry children, there could be so many, many things.

Ever since the flashpoint of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and all the cases following, I’ve watched the so-called national conversation about race take place. To be honest, most of what I’ve seen is black Americans asking for the basic human right of not getting shot dead and harassed by police officers, and those police officers never answering for it, asking for an acknowledgment that systemic racism affects every part of their lives and in return a bunch of white people kicking, screaming, and stomping their feet that racism isn’t a problem. Let’s get something straight here: people who don’t experience racism don’t get to say it doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem. (I should note that this post is American-centric, I know racism works differently in Europe and other parts of the world and that white on white racism can definitely be a thing in other places). White Americans do not experience racism personally. We can experience prejudice, but not racism. We can witness racism happening and be disgusted and horrified by it and we can try to stand up against it wherever possible, but we cannot experience it. Racism is systemic oppression that is in every institution we can think of. As white people, we have no idea what it’s like to be constantly judged and thought of as lesser human beings because of the color of our skin, or historically, be thought of as only 3/5 of a person. We do not know what it’s like to have a country that built itself on the backs of the slavery of our ancestors. We do not know what it’s like to have to sit at the back of the bus or be called “animals” or have our sons and daughters incarcerated at alarming rates or get shot by the police without even a question. I could go on for a really long time with this but do not say you know how that feels, white America. You don’t. I don’t. Human empathy is a powerful and wonderful thing, and it is called for here, but we are still not standing in their shoes as much as we might try to imagine it. Our support, our solidarity, and our willingness to listen, however, are absolutely required.

America has a long history of shouting people down when they ask for rights and then years later patting themselves on the back for giving out said rights and pretending like those in power were the heroes of the whole thing, pretending like it wasn’t a long, arduous fight on the part of the oppressed. Ending segregation was once considered radical, and now we stand back wondering how we ever allowed such a thing to exist. We also forget that segregation happened in living memory. My parents and my aunts and my uncles and my grandparents lived under it and witnessed integration. Yet now people criticize black Americans for protesting against police violence or voter restrictions or whatever the case may be in the same way people criticized them for protesting segregation.

THERE’S NOT A PROBLEM people insist. THERE’S NOT, they scream, trying desperately to drown out the voices of the people who need to be heard.

Because how dare they demand to be treated like human beings when we want to pretend that’s already happening? As if progress is some stagnant thing that doesn’t continue over time, as if it’s something that doesn’t have to be fought for. We’re backsliding in a big way thanks to the rise of the regressive right wing (I’m not talking rank and file Republicans. Sure I don’t agree with them, but I’m talking about the Tea Party and worse that have sucked in so many people) and Americans want to believe so hard that we’re this untouchable bastion of freedom that we strike down people who speak up because if we don’t that means we’ve done something wrong. That means we aren’t the ideal we wish we were, the ideal we should be striving to be, the ideal that was the spirit of where this country came from in the first place but never quite realized. There were moments, windows where it was possible, but progress is a continual, permanent effort. We don’t reach a point and say “This is it. We’ve achieved equality now we can stop” because we can always do better. The path of human progress is never ending and should always strive to be more inclusive. We’re slipping now, but I believe we can start moving in the right direction again. There’s no reason why we can’t.

There was a particularly moving scene in Selma that showed the events of Bloody Sunday being broadcast across American televisions, scenes of white families crying over the black protestors being beaten bloody by Selma police officers and cheered on by white spectators with confederate flags in their hands. It was an unceasingly powerful moment, and people of all races, religions, and creeds showing up for the march to Montgomery a few days later was all kinds of tear-jerking and filled me with the kind of warmth only a scene of human unity can bring. Seeing an honest portrait of what was happening to black Americans in Selma drew out their compassion. And it was important: it is crucial for everyone to stand in solidarity with those that are being oppressed and to help in any way they can. While I watched that scene, watched all of those different people of different skin colors marching together, I thought of the Justice for All March in DC I attended, and the diversity there, white and Asian and Hispanic standing in solidarity with black America and their struggle. And then I thought of how many people I’ve seen condemning the movement, I thought of how many people are trying so hard to pretend as if these problems don’t exist that they literally forget how to be compassionate even when it’s right in front of them, and that could not be more frightening. Because honestly, I don’t know how anyone could resist tears at hearing the parents of the young black men killed by police in recent months and years speak. I’ve never heard something so utterly heartbreaking. Hearing Tamir Rice’s mother say “he was 12-years-old. He was a baby. He was my baby” made my soul shake in my skin.

I hear a lot about various things that are going to destroy this country: often it’s terrorists (and yes of course groups like ISIS and the like are terrifying and what they do is surely NOT OKAY, but deciding to ignore domestic issues entirely because of them is well, playing into their hands and it’s pretty damn irresponsible), sometimes it’s women, sometimes it’s the LGBTQA community, sometimes it’s immigrants. It’s so many different things, depending on the day, and so often what will “destroy America” (terrorists aside) are groups simply asking for equal rights groups that make Fox News pundits shout THEY WILL DESTROY OUR VALUES AND WAY OF LIFE. But let me tell you something. What will truly destroy this country aren’t bad guy Islamic extremists sitting in a cave in the Middle East, who while yes, attack Western countries (like the recent tragedy in France) are far busier decimating entire villages in Nigeria or killing countless people in their own countries, which is something that for some reason, we tend to ignore. What will destroy this country is right here on our doorstep. The apathy and the cruel words, the chosen blindness toward  the struggles of our fellow human beings and our cold hearts and the people insisting that there is not a problem because the fact that there is a problem is so incredibly hard to face, is what will ensure the destruction of everything we claim to hold so dear. The scariest thing is not even the blatant acts of racism that most certainly exist, but in so many people’s insistence that racism isn’t an issue at all. The scariest thing is the victim blaming. It turns a blind eye to the struggle of so many Americans who only ask that they’re treated like the human beings they are and find themselves denied.

This mentality is sadly not just related to America’s racial struggle. We shun our poor and cut money from programs meant to help them and yell at them to pick themselves up by their bootstraps when there aren’t any bootstraps left. We forget that from one day to the next, we could be just as poor as they are. Women are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and we’re blamed for “invading” men’s spaces. We’re told that the sexual assault epidemic on campuses is caused by there being too many women in school and that the lack of priests in the Catholic church is due to female altar servers and women “feminizing” the liturgy (I was a female altar server, so this enraged me A LOT). We as a nation of immigrants are cruel to anyone trying to emigrate here, particularly if they aren’t white or if they come from poor South and Central American countries.

And now this place that’s supposed to be the land of the free is telling black Americans to be quiet. We’re asking them to forget that Cleveland police killed a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun, we’re asking them to forget that people watched Eric Garner get choked to death on video and the police officer responsible was not charged. We’re asking them to be quiet because it makes us uncomfortable.

People wanted Martin Luther King Jr. and all those who marched with him to be quiet, too.

Imagine what would have happened if they listened.

The truth is, racism is beaten into us from a young age, and even the most well-meaning person can have racist thoughts without being what we think of as a racist. Think about the stereotype of the young black man and how we’re taught to fear that. They have baggy pants and dreadlocks so clearly they must be feared, and yet when a white man has the same we don’t feel the same way. We all have embedded things like this, and it’s those personal struggles to overcome the racist stereotypes we were taught by society from a young age, that day-to-day fight to be better and more understanding, open-minded people, that are just as crucial as us marching down the street. We must admit our personal mistakes and our prejudices just as America must admit its national ones. Both of these playing fields is where change takes place, and change is, no doubt, what we are in desperate need of.

So, go see this movie. It will make you angry, it will make you cry, it will make you smile, and it will fill you with resolve to stand up in the face of people screaming and shouting at you that America’s racism problem is solved. Because when you sit down in that theater and hear Common and John Legend’s Glory playing over the credits and hear the words “that’s why we march through Ferguson with our hands up” you will know the struggle is not over. The least we can do is stand up and fight.

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