Rich Lowry: The real lesson of Selma

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, January 4, 2015 10:47pm
  • Opinion

It is not 1965.

That is the implicit message of the new movie “Selma,” a stirring depiction of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting-rights march told from the perspective of Martin Luther King Jr.

The story is a familiar one, but never loses its power. King and his forces descend on a rural Alabama where it takes an act of courage for a black person even to attempt to register to vote. Through peaceful marches, they show for all the nation to see the desperate cruelty of the Alabama authorities, most infamously at Edmund Pettus Bridge when marchers are set upon by state troopers in what becomes known as Bloody Sunday.

These events changed America forever, which is part of their beauty. But the people involved in the making of the film insist that these events didn’t change America fundamentally, and indeed, they could be ripped from today’s headlines.

The movie’s stars showed up for the New York City premiere with “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, and held their hands up for photos. One of its producers, Oprah Winfrey, says of the film, “It is here for a reason in this moment.” The actor who plays Martin Luther King Jr., David Oyelowo, calls the parallels with Ferguson “indisputable,” and the rapper Common, who plays activist James Bevel, pronounces, “Obviously, the story took place in 1965, which is almost 50 years ago, but we know that it’s happening now.”

Picking up on this theme, a critic in The New Yorker writes, “These times are different from 1965 but not different enough — and, in some ways, they are even worse.” Worse? He needs to sit through another screening.

Whatever you think of the merits of voter-ID laws — often brought up to make the case that the struggle for voting rights is not over — they are not the least bit redolent of the Deep South of the mid-20th century. No one asks anyone to recite the preamble to the Constitution to get a driver’s license or some other valid ID.

Voting as a black person in the rural South 50 years ago didn’t involve the minor inconvenience of reliably establishing your identity. It was dangerous, and all but impossible.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, it was thought that perhaps the last attempt to register to vote by a black person had been in 1945, and no one could recall a black person voting, even though the county was 80 percent black. In Wilcox County, the last time a black person had voted was 1901, when a compliant barber had been granted the privilege. The courthouses in such areas were hostile territory that blacks had to fear even to enter.

As for policing, the worry in 1965 wasn’t ambiguous encounters or tragic accidents. It was beatings, or worse. It was whips and forced-marched by cattle prod. It was the violence of police who were the oppressive instruments of a lawless authority.

The protesters who faced off against the police in Selma didn’t shout abuse, although they would have been amply justified; they didn’t burn down local businesses; they didn’t randomly fire guns, or throw rocks or stones. The difference between demonstrators in Selma and Ferguson is the difference between dignity under enormous pressure in a righteous cause and heedless self-indulgence in the service of a smear (that Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he surrendered).

The temptation for the left to live perpetually in 1965 is irresistible. It wants to borrow the haze of glory around the civil-rights movement of that era and apply it to contemporary causes. It wants to believe that America is nearly as unjust as it was then, and wants to attribute to itself as much of the bravery and righteousness of the civil-rights pioneers as possible.

All of this is understandable. It just has no bearing on reality. The movie “Selma,” by portraying a real struggle against a racist power structure, should remove all doubt of that.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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