“Selma” takes place in 1965 when the fight for civil rights was mounting increasing pressure on the U.S. rulers. It came 10 years after seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a Caucasian man, sparking the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Pushed by E.D. Nixon, a local NAACP leader and unionist, a reluctant Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to be the movement’s spokesperson. After a year of struggle, they won and the buses were desegregated.
A new stage in the battle came in 1963 when tens of thousands, including Black industrial workers — coal and iron ore miners and steelworkers — entered the fray in what became known as the Battle of Birmingham.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a former truck driver and leader of the Birmingham movement, convinced King to support the desegregation fight there. In the face of attacks by police dogs and fire hoses, wave after wave of youth took to the streets. But after more than 2,500 people had been arrested and Shuttlesworth himself hospitalized after one attack, King tried to call off the protests at the urging of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Shuttlesworth bolted from the hospital and told King in no uncertain terms the demonstrations would continue.
The victory in the Battle of Birmingham made Selma and Montgomery possible. It helped force passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, prohibiting racial discrimination in public places.
Jim Crow segregation was crumbling, but not yet defeated.
King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made winning passage of a Voting Rights Act their next national campaign. Thousands of protesters met Selma police violence and arrests with discipline and courage, vividly brought to life in the movie.
Malcolm’s revolutionary course
One major distortion in the film can’t be left unchallenged.
King — in jail at the time — and his aides were alarmed that members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had invited Malcolm X to speak in Selma. They were worried that more and more Black workers and youth were beginning to question King’s insistence on nonviolence and reliance on the “good will” of Democratic Party politicians like President Johnson
The movie portrays Malcolm as telling Coretta Scott King not to worry, that “my eyes see in a new way,” giving the false impression that Malcolm’s views were moderating. “Allow me to be the alternative to your husband that scares them so much that they turn to Rev. King in refuge.”
But King and Malcolm X put forward two irreconcilable and clashing class outlooks, King’s built on winning reforms from friendly politicians and Malcolm’s on advancing independent revolutionary struggle of the oppressed and working people of all colors against the capitalist world order.
“I frankly believe that since the ballot is our right that we are within our right to use whatever means is necessary to secure those rights,” Malcolm told the press.
Unable to stop Malcolm from addressing 300 young civil rights fighters Feb. 4, Coretta Scott King took the stage after him in an attempt to limit his impact.
In Harlem a week later, Malcolm said that he explained in Selma that fighters for Black rights can’t rely on the federal government to stop racist violence and the Ku Klux Klan. “The only way the Klan is going to be stopped is if you and I organize and stop them ourselves,” he said.
While you’d never know it from watching “Selma,” it is Malcolm’s writings that remain a powerful tool today for those looking to make revolutionary change. Not King’s bourgeois pacifism, commitment to the reformability of capitalism or his support for the Democratic Party.
Johnson supporters object to the film’s portrayal of the president as a racist and reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation.
But the film captures the essence of Johnson’s role. Television pictures seen around the world showing Black protesters attacked by police dogs and beaten by cops won further support for their fight to overthrow Jim Crow from Caucasian workers and others. And it was an embarrassment to Washington, which was trying to make inroads among the newly independent nations of Africa and other parts of the colonial world.
The U.S. propertied rulers saw the handwriting on the wall. They had to end Jim Crow or face a deeper radicalization that could threaten the interests of capitalism itself. Johnson, who came from a political era when the Democratic Party was built on a bloc between northern big city political machines and racist Dixiecrats in the South, tried to make the shift in a way that would allow the Democratic Party he led to maintain its dominance in U.S. politics.
“Selma” helps show how the heroic battles of the 1950s and ’60s changed U.S. politics forever, tearing down the barriers that prevented Black and Caucasian workers from standing together. Working people of all skin colors would never accept a return to Jim Crow. We stand on the shoulders of the combatants of Birmingham and Selma.
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