Saturday, January 31, 2015

Selma: America’s War at Home

Library of CongressImages: civil rights marchers in Selma

The historic march for civil rights featured in the new film, “Selma,” was sparked by the death 50 years ago this February of a Vietnam veteran, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by an Alabama state trooper. As chilling scene after scene in the film shows, Alabama in 1965 was a dangerous place for a black-skinned war veteran to join a peaceful demonstration for the right to vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death in seeking to exercise the rights of democracy he fought for in Vietnam was the tip of cascading war casualties at home.

“A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said at Jackson’s funeral. “He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law… He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote…”

As noted by historians and featured on the King Center website, “Jackson’s death was eulogized by Dr. King and was the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery March that occurred a few days later, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

“Selma” is a rare feature film that puts viewers into the harrowing setting of Americans demonstrating peacefully for a just cause and taking vicious beatings from police officers and fellow citizens who hate people challenging long-established traditions. 

While critics debate aspects of the film, the events it depicts were the real deal—an historic clash of cultures in which hard-eyed men with guns lost the battle to peaceable protesters willing to endure brutal violence and death for their cause.

Exhorting the crowd of angry black people infuriated by a state trooper shooting Jackson as he tried to shield his mother and grandfather from troopers chasing down and beating demonstrators, King said, “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution … We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliation with violence.”

This is not typical Hollywood fare, in which the hero saves the day with guns blazing. 

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