The Importance of “Selma”

Selma_posterBy Peter Galuszka

“Selma” is one of those fairly rare films that underline a crucial time and place in history while thrusting important issues forward to the present day.

Ably directed by Ava DuVernay, the movie depicts the fight for the Voting Rights Act culminating in the dramatic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. in 1965. It portrays the brutality and racism that kept Alabama’s white power structure firmly in charge and how brave, non-violent and very smart tactics by African-American agitators shook things loose.

Holding it all together is British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo’s subtle and vulnerable approach while dealing with infighting among his colleagues and revelations of his marital infidelities contrast with his brilliant skill at oratory. During the two hours or so of the film, Oyelowo’s booming speeches and sermons never bored me. By contrast, the recent “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg flick filmed in Richmond, was a bit of a snoozer.

To its credit, “Selma” never gets too clichéd even with the extremely overexposed Oprah Winfrey assuming roles as a film producer and also as an actress portraying a middle-aged nursing home working who gets beaten up several times protesting white officials who kept her from registering to vote.

“Selma” has been controversial because nit-picking critics claim the film misrepresents the role President Lyndon B. Johnson played in getting the Voting Rights Act passed. The film shows him as reluctant and the Selma event was staged to push him to move proposed legislation to Congress. A series of LBJ biographies by highly-regarded historian Robert A. Caro show the opposite – that Johnson, a Southern white from Texas — was very much the driver of civil rights bills. In fact, his deft ability to knock political heads on Capitol Hill was probably the reason why they passed. It was a feat that even the Kennedys probably couldn’t have achieved.

One scene in the movie bothered me at first. King leads protestors to the Selma court house to register. When a brutal sheriff stands in their way, they all kneel down on the pavement with their arms behind their heads in a manner very reminiscent of last year’s protests against a police killing in Ferguson, Mo.

I thought, “Hey, I don’t care how they present LBJ, but fast-forwarding to 2014 is a bit of stretch.”

Then I decided that maybe not, history aside, the same thing is really happening now. There’s not just Ferguson, but Cleveland, Brooklyn and other places. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports this morning that over the past 14 years, police in the state killed 31 blacks and 32 whites. Only 20 percent of the state’s population is black. Now that is a disturbing figure.

Another disturbing allusion to the present is the widespread move mostly by Republican politicians in the South and Southwest make it harder for people to register to vote. In one move scene, Oprah Winfrey wants to register before an arrogant white clerk. He asks her to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. She does. He then asks her how many judges there are in Alabama. She gives the correct number. He then demands that she name all of them, which very few might have been able to do. She is rejected.

The moves to blunt new voters today is focused more on Hispanic immigrants but it is just as racist and wrong. And, Virginia is still stuck with the anti-voter policies of the Byrd Organization that was in power at the time of the Selma march. The idea, equally racist, was to keep ALL voters from participating in the political process as much as possible. That is why we have off-year elections and gerrymandered districts.

I was only 12 years old when Selma occurred but I remember watching it on television. I was living at the time in West Virginia which didn’t have that much racial tension. But I do remember flying out of National Airport in DC on the day that King was assassinated. The center of town, mostly 14th Street, appeared to be in flames.

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19 responses to “The Importance of “Selma”

  1. this is a place marker this is a place marker this is a place marker

  2. “It was a feat that even the Kennedys probably couldn’t have achieved.”
    I don’t think the Kennedys really even cared. As some have recently written, it was RFK who encouraged the FBI harassment of King, not LBJ. The depiction of Johnson in this movie is apparently grossly unfair, but that won’t stop me from seeing it. I’m sure it is at least as historically accurate as most other Hollywood productions. Maybe a bit more.

    I’m not sure it is fair to compare the poll tax and the literacy tests once used to prevent voter registration to today’s requirements that people produce a valid identification card at the poll. Is the goal of that voter suppression? Maybe for some. Are concerns about voter fraud without any validity? Well, being about the same age as you, Peter, I can remember tales of voting shenanigans in Southwest Virginia. Let’s talk about absentee ballots in particular some day. There is value in protecting the integrity of the process.

    But as someone else who remembers that era, who was ashamed of his Southern heritage at the time, who had relatives get upset when a home movie of my birthday party including a black friend who attended, who got called a “N—- Lover” because I said out loud how sorry I was about King’s murder in my junior high home room, it is deeply disturbing that King’s beautiful dream of a color blind society is only marginally closer to reality almost 50 years after his death.

    It’s also a shame that such a movie depends on British actors so heavily, but that’s another story.

    • re: voter suppression –

      if the folks who want ID worked half as hard as providing to the voters the required ID as they worked to require said ID at the polls – I’d not have a problem.

      But when you have people i who do not have the required ID and no plans to help them get it – like Mobile DMV that they do for drivers licenses – why not for voter ID?

      well then I start to wonder if they are more worried about bogus voters or vaid voters…

      I’m all for photo ID but I’m also in favor of the state reaching out to all citizens who appear on real estate rolls and other census – to go to them to get them their photo IDs.

      I think it is scandalous to spend the effort it takes to collect taxes from them and then pretend it’s too much effort to provide them with a valid photo ID.

  3. larryg’s incoherent reply asks the question: In the last Virginia election, have any potential voters claimed they have been disenfranchised by having to produce an ID????

  4. how many voted illegally compared to how many that could not get photo ids and make it to the polls?

    I support Photo ID by the way – I just think the requirement – makes folks take off from work to get it and then for your lower level workers – it can be difficult to get to the polls.

    I see construction workers show up right a closing time for the polls .. and I wonder how many more just didn’t make it.

    we need to have more convenient ways and hours for folks to get their photo IDs as well as vote.

    Between the gerrymandering, and the stricter rules – it discourages voter registration and turnout but some folks see that as a plus!

    Do the Photo IDs – make it super easy to register and vote.

    • How do these people get medical services? I recently changed my dentist and had to show picture ID to get treatment and to establish an account with the new dentist even though my family has been seeing him for several years? Years ago, I had to show picture ID to pick up my kids from summer camp that was being run by Fairfax County. And not once, but every single day. I had to show photo ID to get a library card here in Fairfax County and to use the library at the Minnesota Historical Society. On one trip on Megabus, they wanted to see both my ticket and a photo ID. There are countless things for which a person needs a picture ID. We seem to be able to navigate this requirement for everything but voting.

      I’m all for waiving fees for low income people. I’m all for advertising the availability of free IDs to low-income citizens. Anyone who brings proof of citizenship and residency should be given a free ID card, suitable for voting, if such person cannot afford it. And I don’t understand if these people can get to the polls, why they cannot get to a voting registrar? I’d support changing the state law to give people paid time off from work to register as well as to vote. I recall anyone can get two hours for voting.

      Realistically, the Democrats would like to charter buses; pick up people on the street; give them a voter’s guide; register them at the polls; and have them vote irrespective of their eligibility. Over a couple of beers one night, one my activist D friends confessed this was the case. He was only half in jest.

      And I heard with my own ears a Democratic volunteer trying to register students at ODU even after he was told they lived outstate and weren’t eligible to vote in Virginia. They were told to vote in both places. And I don’t think this was unique. JFK likely won the presidency in 1960 because of voter fraud in Cook County, Ill.

      • I’m all for photo id.

        you will not be denied medical care at a hospital if you do not have photo id.

        I discount anecdotal reports of voter “fraud? until it is super easy for anyone with a photo ID to vote.

        then I might listen. This is all about the GOP being paranoid that their base of older white guys is shrinking and they are unable/unwilling to appeal to folks besides older white guys..

        sooner or later the GOP is going to have to change – to adapt to the changing demographics and stop relying on gerrymandering and sneaky efforts to make voting harder for people who are not their base.

  5. Peter, I may be wrong, but I have the understanding that odd-year elections in Virginia started in 1851. Mississippi has supposedly been holding odd-year elections since the early 1800s. New Jersey used to hold annual elections for its state legislature and in 1947, adopted odd-year elections. Louisiana switched to odd-year elections in 1974 with a new state constitution.

  6. Including commuting time, if a person will be away from home for 11 hours on election day in Virginia, such person can vote absentee. Fairfax County allows in person absentee voting on Saturdays and also absentee voting by mail. I think there are some special identification restrictions for people who have not previously voted in the state.

  7. “Selma” did NOT mis-represent LBJ as the critics claim. The film got it right. Johnson was a life-long segregationist. He had his own ulterior political motives. There’s a lot more about LBJ that couldn’t be included in the movie…. but it’s here: http://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Killed-Kennedy-Against/dp/1629144894/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1366222431

  8. larryg
    Do you not know that every Registrar’s Office in Virginia has a digital camera that takes your photo Id on the spot–FOR FREE??

    In order to vote, one needs to Register to vote- a process that has nothing to do with photo ids.
    There is a space on the form which states that the applicant is a US citizen. There is also a provision that warns the applicant about filing fraudulent information, with specified penalties. Try to find how many folks have been prosecuted for giving false information.

    So, if a potential voter has filled out the Register to Vote form, shows up at the Registrar’s Office and has no photo Id, he/she gets one on the spot.
    How much easier can you make it???

    • the registrar should be going out into the county – to the community centers, to the libraries, to farmers markets, etc.

      it should make registering easy and convenient.

      the same should be true of voting. Many people these days work at service jobs , 10-12 hours, split shifts, construction jobs, independent contractors. and unless they get to the pools uber early or late – they have trouble.

      Do you work at the Polls El Sidd?

  9. larryg,
    For a number of years I was an Election Official in my county.
    Then I was a member of the Electoral Board- a judicial appointment, for thee years.
    No, I did more than “poll watch”.
    I do that now.

    “it should make registering easy and convenient”.
    It cannot be made any easier –UNLESS-YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATION.
    What you suggest- going into the community— is already being done- to libraries, high schools, senior events.
    Voter Registration is part of all Social Services/Health Dept. activity. When a young woman applies for WIC benefits, she is asked point blank- “Are you registered to vote”.

    I must live in one hell of a ” progressive” community.

    I’d say you don’t know what you are talking about.

    • re: ” “it should make registering easy and convenient”.
      It cannot be made any easier –UNLESS-YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATION.”

      I actually did provide specifics.

      “What you suggest- going into the community— is already being done- to libraries, high schools, senior events.
      Voter Registration is part of all Social Services/Health Dept. activity. When a young woman applies for WIC benefits, she is asked point blank- “Are you registered to vote”.”

      is she registered?

      “I must live in one hell of a ” progressive” community.

      I’d say you don’t know what you are talking about.”

      you would but it would be a totally ignorant view.. but expected as demonstrated by you. got more? I do too.. batter up.

  10. El Sid – I’m going to give you an opportunity here to back up what you say.

    show me a registrar website that lists out where they will be in the coming weeks and months to register voters.

    every county has schools, fire and rescue, community centers and libraries as well as parks & Rec, DMV, etc.

    show me a county/city registrar website that “works” like Red Cross where you can go to to their website (or get emails) that tell you where they are going to be in the next few days..

    got one?

  11. Larryg,
    I won’t bother as this has become a sophomoric exchange.

    Ever see OR read a Public Notice about registration in your local newspaper?

    Ever heard of civics? A subject which used to be taught in school to prepare-every individual- to become a responsible citizen understanding the voting process.. . as an expression of the participatory experience. We now teach rage and victimhood and how that must be somehow compensated.

    That’s all for me on this.

    • re: ” I won’t bother as this has become a sophomoric exchange.

      Ever see OR read a Public Notice about registration in your local newspaper?”

      I’m asking you about convenient and easy sign up. how is that done?

      “Ever heard of civics? A subject which used to be taught in school to prepare-every individual- to become a responsible citizen understanding the voting process.. . as an expression of the participatory experience. We now teach rage and victimhood and how that must be somehow compensated.”

      you were regaling me with how social services helps to sign up people.

      and I asked you if they registered her – and you run away ..from the issue.

      I did ask you if we make it easy and convenient to vote – like we do for DMV or paying taxes or other responsibilities that we do get provided convenient and easy access to do.

      That’s all for me on this.

      it sure is. you have proven that you’re not really for easy and convenient registration – and you’re saying this as someone who was an election official.

      that pretty much demonstrates your view towards voter registration.

      you’re all for photo id but not so much for getting folks registered.

      shame on you. we should work JUST AS HARD at registering voters as we do at collecting taxes and why not if you really believe in our system of governance?

  12. larryg,

    Read this for information that you are seeking an answer to:

    Designated State Agencies | Virginia Department of Elections
    sbe.virginia.gov/index.php/registration/designated-state-agencies/

    Virginia
    The purpose of the National Voter Registration Act is to: … provide the opportunity to register to vote not only at the original application for your services but also …

    • El Sidd – if you collect taxes from people – you owe them an easy way to vote just as you provided them with an easy way to pay their taxes.

      we’re just playing a game here to NOT provide easy and convenient voter registration.

      this should be no harder or inconvenient than checking out a book from the library or getting a dog tag.. and yet… it’s not.

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