Near the beginning of SELMA, four young black girls are shown in an Alabama church. The year is 1964. These girls are approaching adolescence, and they talk of some of the inane things that school girls are prone to talk about. There is no soundtrack music to warn us that something out of the ordinary is about to happen.
But in an instant a bomb goes off. The church blows up, and all four girls are killed. So has one of the most notorious hate crimes of the twentieth century been dramatized.
This scene typifies the disciplined filmmaking that went into SELMA, directed by Ava DuVernay. Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding, Jr. have smaller roles. David Oyelowo does a masterful job playing Martin Luther King, Jr., the film’s central character.
But all elements in the film are placed in the service of issues involved, and these issues involve racism and the obstruction of human rights. The film presents the famous 1965 march from Selma to the Alabama state capitol for the purposes of ending that state’s obstruction of voting by blacks.
This march was led by Dr. King. Initially it seems that only southern blacks were involved in the protest. But the police response to this march was so brutally horrendous that people, both black and white, came from all parts of the U.S. to join in.
Throughout the story, King urges President Johnson to initiate federal legislation protecting voting rights. Finally, after a judge rules that the march is lawful and constitutionally protected, Johnson introduces such legislation. The march is thereafter also protected by National Guard troops sent by the president.
These events seem to be significant victories. But it is disconcerting to realize how much hasn’t changed. After the girls are murdered in their church, Dr. King comments that the killers of black people go unpunished by the law. Certainly there have been notorious examples of this in recent times. We need only look at the case of Trayvon Martin.
And many states continue to obstruct voting. That the Supreme Court a year ago did not find significant proof still existed shows only how far the Supreme Court majority keeps itself from reality.
On a final note, a large part of U.S. adults still do not vote. Much of this, unfortunately, is due to apathy. But by law people with felony convictions are barred from voting. This severely impacts many poor people and blacks in keeping them from having a voice in their government.
Much education and work is needed to correct this situation. Many convicts do rehabilitate themselves, and go on to useful lives. They should seek to regain their voting rights through either judicial order or, if barriers persist, by legislation.