I was in seventh grade in Cleveland when the images of Selma, Alabama in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, flashed across my parents' black-and-white television screen on March 7, 1965.
Rev. Hosea Williams, played by Wendell Pierce in the film, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) led nearly 600 coming straight from church in that March march. Lewis wasn't a congressman back then. He was a student and a co-founder of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also referred to as "snick." Rev. Williams, a WWII decorated Purple Heart veteran.
In his 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Lewis remembers the attack's aftermath "awash with sounds of groaning and weeping" inside the church from those daring, caring, crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge with Alabama state troopers, arms akimbo, waiting on the other side at US Highway 80.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of this American tragedy, the Ava DuVernay/Oprah Winfrey/Brad Pitt/Christian Colson/Jeremy Kleiner/Dede Gardner/Pathe-produced, Academy-Award-nominated Selma, hits movie screens in time for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's federal holiday. Alabama's vale of tears and fears, tear-gas-masked law enforcement officers on horseback and on foot, smashing heads, bashing backs of unarmed protestors, seeking enforcement of equal voting rights for all Americans, regardless of color.
For his trouble, John Lewis, played by Stephan James, had his skull cracked open, scars still borne. President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6.
Our nation's finest not so fine that day, Bloody Sunday, shouting ugly racial epithets, including the N-word. Oh, there was a special word, too, for white protestors, considered traitors to their race. The voice of Sheriff Jim Clark, could be heard on ABC-TV news footage yelling, "Get those goddamned niggers! And get those goddamned white niggers." Sheriff Clark's quote heard on ABC News footage is not in the film. It can be found in Rep. Lewis' autobiography, previously mentioned, published by Simon & Schuster, p. 331 and also, excerpted in Living Through the Civil Rights Movement, edited by Charles George, published by Greenhaven Press in 2007.
Selma! Seeing Oprah, playing activist Annie Lee Cooper, haul off and slug Sheriff Clark, played by Stan Houston. What wallop Winfrey wailed! Annie, it turns out, an Oprah fan in real-life, eating her tuna sandwich every afternoon, watching Oprah's show. Dear Annie passed away a few months after reaching her hundredth birthday in 2010.
Selma should be shown in every civics, social studies and history class in this nation at both public and private schools. But will it be? It's doable, but will it be done?
Why don't the filmmakers take the initiative on this one and provide Selma DVDs free of charge to schools nationwide, funding this effort through some of the film's profits? Just asking.
It's oft been said that those who don't learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. But you need to know what your history is before you can learn from it. Selma DVDs in every classroom is a start.
As a personal aside, I booked comedian/civil rights trailblazer Dick Gregory with the help of longtime friend, George O'Hare, honored by Chicago's Roman Catholic Archdiocese with the St. Katharine Drexel Award for his civil rights work. My then-sophomore niece Jacqueline, Bryn Mawr College's Co-Chair of Black History Month had asked for help getting a keynoter. Gregory singularly paved the way for black comics to get equal treatment in comedy clubs nationwide starting with Chicago's Playboy Club and to get equal treatment as guests on NBC's The Tonight Show.
Yes, it was Dick Gregory, paving the way for comics/satirists Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Anna Deavere Smith, Maya Rudolph (daughter of soul singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton), Wanda Sykes and even Bill Cosby.
On February 28, 2013, 80-year-old Gregory performed for three hours straight without a bathroom break to a packed house at Bryn Mawr College for Black History Month. Two standing ovations.
However, to my astonishment, most of the students didn't know who Dick Gregory was until they Googled him. Dick Gregory, who is called by name in Selma. Gregory's appearance at Bryn Mawr, was a teaching moment and the college did a great thing in providing the venue to make this event happen. We need more of these teaching moments. A Selma DVD in every classroom would provide a teaching moment.
The best and the brightest students in our nation attend Bryn Mawr, a highly selective and very competitive Seven Sisters school in a Philadelphia suburb, boasting a student body from all 50 states and from many countries around the globe; yet despite this tremendous geographic diversity and outreach with students coming from many different schools the world over, the vast majority of the students weren't being taught about Gregory, a living civil rights legend in their elementary and secondary schools before attending college. Who and what else has been left out?
Growing up in Cleveland, the first American big city to have a black mayor, Carl Stokes, who was not only elected in 1967, but re-elected, the civil rights history of the 1960s wasn't in our school books because we were living it. It wasn't history yet. It was now. Excellent books like Ivy League University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas J. Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2008), were yet to be written.
Today, 50 years later, what's the excuse for Dick Gregory, who will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 2, 2015, and others like him, not being taught in classrooms? Or the roles of women and Hispanics and Native Americans in our nation's civil rights struggles left out of students' studies on their way to getting their high school diplomas?
Selma tries to rectify these startling omissions somewhat, including real-life Selma activists Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), Richie Jean Jackson (Niecy Nash), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) married to James Bevel (Common), and giving a larger role to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) and representing Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), a white Detroit housewife and mother of five, murdered by the Klan for her Selma civil rights work.
Lynne Olson's Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (Scribner 2001), a book I stumbled across on a library shelf, researching the civil rights movement in preparing to see Selma, goes into greater detail than the film on many of these civil rights heroines as does John Lewis' fine autobiography.
As an attorney myself, I especially appreciated the performances of Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. playing civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, whose clients included Rosa Parks, and Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson, the federal judge whose rulings made the march from Selma to Montgomery eventually possible. They are role models every student should see and learn about. The excellent all-star cast includes David Oyelowo with a pitch perfect rendition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tim Roth (Gov. George Wallace), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover).
What if Selma producers Oprah, Brad Pitt and director/producer Ava DuVernay were to step it up a notch and tour the nation's schools, giving an in-person introduction before the viewing of the Selma DVD, talking about their experiences and those of their families watching the civil rights struggle unfold? Like what it meant to them as schoolchildren. Now that would be something. What an impact that would make. Especially if parents were invited who might share, too.
Lonna Saunders may be reached at email@example.com.