This past weekend, I attended a private screening party of Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, which was held at the Providence Place Mall Cinema. The event was sponsored by the Providence NAACP, and the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
DuVernay’s Selma, focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work and planned marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, and the many working with him, and against him, to further civil rights causes, in particular the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act. Like many who during the post-film dialogue referenced the ages they were during this time period, I remembered how old I was–seven–when Dr. King was assassinated. I remember seeing footage on television of black people being beaten by police, dogs being sicked on them. I remember feeling sad watching the funeral of MLK, knowing something terribly wrong had happened, yet in the way only someone so young could process such a thing. I remember feeling sickened by George Wallace’s words and actions. I remember feeling he was a despicable man, while not yet having that word in my vocabulary.
I carried those remembrances with me as I watched Selma. To me the movie was real, understated, and yet gut-wrenchingly powerful, too. It didn’t feel “Hollywood” to me. I know Ms. DuVernay wished to make Dr. King human, and not place him on a pedestal, as society tends to do with such powerful, charismatic leaders, and she succeeded. I felt as though I had a window into King and Coretta Scott’s King behind-the-scenes lives away from the public clamor. Though I believe Ms. DuVernay had to limit who she could highlight out of the many who worked for civil rights, I got to see the inner-workings of King’s team of civil rights workers. To see his collaborations, at times tenuous and strained, with members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and with the ordinary, who were anything but ordinary, citizens of Selma, as well as the people, black and white who came from the North to be a part of the movement.
Shocking to think that this is the first film to feature Dr. King as the lead figure, it is a hugely important film to see fifty years after the historic Selma marches and passing of the Voting Rights Act. It is of course especially timely, in the wake of Ferguson, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, the protests against police brutality and excessive force, racial profiling, and the dismantling of the Voting Rights act by the Supreme Court and the many states passing stricter voting rights laws. Selma allows younger viewers to learn about the struggle, older viewers to remember, and to recognize the importance of not going back to that place Dr. King and so many fought so hard for to gain equal rights.
After the film, Jim Vincent, president of the local NAACP, addressed the crowd of over 300 people-black, white, and brown, young and old. He began by asking us to hold a moment of silence for Viola Luizzo (noted briefly in the film) and all of the others killed during the civil rights movement. When I heard Viola’s name mentioned, my ears perked up. I had the honor to meet Viola’s daughter Mary Luizzo Lilleboe at the National Center for Race Amity Conference in Massachusetts this past November, when Mary accepted a Gala Award for Viola’s civil rights work and martyrdom. Mrs. Luizzo, white, and the mother of five children from Detroit, volunteered during the Selma marches. Driving a young black man participating in the march, Leroy Moton, to the bus terminal after the final march, a car with three Klansmen, one an FBI informant, pulled up beside her, firing two shots into her head, killing her instantly. (You can read about the conference and Viola and Mary’s work here.)
Mr. Vincent then noted others in attendance like Charles Wilson, past president of the RI Minority Police Association, and current president of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, and Sgt. Terrence Green, of the Providence Police Internal Affairs Department, and the highest ranking black police officer in Rhode Island. Some city officials present were State Representative Raymond Hull, Councilman, Sam Zurier, and Congressman David Cicilline.
Vincent began, “…What struck me about this film was fifty years ago there was police militarization and brutality, and..there is police militarization and police brutality now…the then and now…there were black people and white people working together then, and there are black and white people working together now….voting issues, then and now…bombings then of the girls in their very own church, and there are bombings now, like the one at the Colorado NAACP office, that you may not have heard of…and all that these things symbolize…”
Vincent went on to say, “We’re in crisis here in Rhode Island. There was a recent study that ranked Rhode Island the third worst state in the United States to live.” He cited the study which looked at home ownership, unemployment rates, incarceration, and let the audience know that only Wisconson and Minnesota had it worse than RI.
“We need leadership across the board..,” and as if on cue, Vincent introduced the chair of the local NAACP Youth and College Division, Pilar McCloud. Ms. McCloud got up from her movie seat and without the microphone, projected her strong voice to reach the back of the theater where I and many of the young students in attendance sat, to say, “…You can see in this movie that in this movement, young people were active…Whatever your struggle is, you may not be able to conquer it individually, but you are able to see a movement–that you can make a difference in your school, your block, your church…you do this through unity.” A passionate orator that Dr. King would have been proud of, Ms. McCloud clearly moved the audience, and hopefully the young people there, who she clearly seemed to be speaking most loudly to.
After these words of inspiration, the microphone was turned over to audience members. I noted the races of the speakers in most cases to give a sense of who was in the audience, and the vantage point they were coming from, and realize I may have categorized someone as other than how they identify their race or heritage. Please let me know of any corrections I need to make, and of names I can add that I was unable to capture.
An elder white woman said that we can be reminded that, “old people were just as valuable as young people, and played just as important role.” She quoted her memory of an elderly woman who marched in Selma, who when asked how she felt about the march responded, “my feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”
John Green, who is black, shared. “My parents came from Selma. I am the son of former sharecroppers. It was great for me to see (in the film) the city and the bridge again. There were people dying then for voting rights. Now the Supreme Court is disemboweling the voting rights laws. I wonder, what did all those people die for? We can’t let this happen.”
As Mr. Vincent passed the microphone to another audience member, he noted that since President Obama’s election we went from having two states, to now twenty-seven states, with tighter voter restriction laws.
Actress, Rose Weaver, spoke next. “I’m sixty-five years old. I used to live here. When I was younger, I lived in Atlanta. I was fourteen years old when this (Selma) happened. No matter how hard things are, we have to vote. When you don’t vote, you give that vote away. Young people–your vote counts. Get out and use your rights. Police brutality–we can do something about it.” Ms. Weaver then turned to Congressman Cicilline and citing his support of the arts, said, “David Cicilline, I love you. I’m back in Rhode Island, and I’m joining the NAACP, and getting involved.”
Congressman David Cicilline shared next. “I was thrilled to have the chance to recently reenact the Selma march with Jim Vincent. And, as we watched footage on the trip down of the actual events of Selma, I thought to myself, this actually happened…in our lifetime..how is this possible? I met the daughter of George Wallace there. She gave a wonderful speech about how she was twelve when she watched her father make his speeches, and she was horrified about it, but was young, and didn’t have the words, and couldn’t do anything about it. This was a hopeful moment for me. But, voting rights are now under attack. The Supreme Court and states are making it harder to access the right to vote. There is an enormous amount of work to do.” In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Cicilline echoed, “We can do it.”
A young, black girl by the name of Samia Nash from Nathaniel Greene Middle School in Providence spoke beautifully about the film, in a way I never could have. Despite her small stature, she mustered the words and presence to speak in front of the large audience. “This movie, presented before me made me feel all kinds of feelings. Martin Luther King…what he has done for us…I really just cried my life out….It is a magnificent thing to see, how things changed before our eyes. I thank Martin Luther King for..seeing everything, for being brave, and showing that we should never give up and that we should always speak up.”
Jim Vincent then commending Ms. Nash for her insight and leadership, led the audience in a standing ovation for her, and for the young people in the audience–“our future leaders.”
An elder white man who had visited both Selma, and Albany, Georgia in 1965, recalled witnessing young people “thirteen, fourteen fifteen year-olds bringing their families in to register to vote…and there were rednecks in cars circling the courthouse with shotguns sticking out of their windows….it was the young people that were the heroes of that era.” Hearing this, Jim Vincent reminded the audience that this was and is “a movement of everyone.”
Next to speak was a black woman, Kimberly Anderson, who told the crowd she was ten years old when MLK died. She went on to tell how she raised three sons, and said that she still “has concerns that this is not the best state for black people and especially young, black men. I had to tell my sons that they’d have to understand that when they went out they were going to be stopped by police…and they were. How do we move forward with policing in a good, solid way?”
Sgt. Terrence Green responded. “If you feel you’re children have been stopped without reason, talk to us. Let us know…we have things in place to deal with that.”
The question of our local police wearing body cameras came up, and to that Green responded that while they “are not a cure-all, they are one thing that can be part of a solution, and are a possibility.”
Charles Wilson then greeted the crowd in a variety of languages including Hebrew, German, Spanish and Arabic. He agreed with Green about the use of body cameras not being a panacea, but said, “I agree with them…I’d sign off on using them throughout the country.” He went on to say, “This profession is not as transparent as we need to be. I’d say to you…it’s sometimes about recognizing how to walk away from a battle we can afford to lose…Our program works with people in communities and people in uniform. Every police officer is not your enemy. Yes, we do have some idiots, black and white, like every profession does….” yet Wilson, in closing offered a way to build trusting relationships. He urged the crowd to “please reach out to the police officers in your community. Talk to them.”
There were many more who spoke–a white woman representing Leadership Rhode Island, urged the audience to use their activism and voting rights to make sure a bill, the Comprehensive Community Police-Police Relationship Act, which sets boundaries on racial profiling, be passed in the House, after failing to do so last year.
An older white man, Mr. West, remembered how important the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference groups were in advancing civil rights, and how they welcomed white people’s help. He said that “white people can’t step away and say it’s not our problem. It’s every one’s problem. And all of us have to not practice racism.”
A white man who had marched in Selma recalled after watching the film what a big step forward that was, but worried that “it seems we’ve taken many steps back..” He went on to say, “there is still institutional racism in schools–students of color are disciplined more often, arrested more often.. we need to take more action to stop that.”
Next, three students from the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy got up to speak. Again, I know I was not as poised as they were at that age.
A girl spoke first stating she “hadn’t realized how bad it was back then. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have, and that our school is multi-racial.”
Next, BVMA student, Cesar said, “In this movie, we saw struggles of people who weren’t equal. We now have a chance to be anything we want to be. We need to be appreciative…they risked their lives to just go to school, to enjoy their community. Now we can’t go back there. There is still racism, and we have to see how we can not go back to that.”
The third student, William, added, “The film was very inspirational and emotional, but sitting watching thirteen and fourteen year olds get killed over a disagreement is incomprehensible. It has not all gone away. We have to make sure every step we take is a step forward, and not a step back.”
Patty January, a black woman originally from New Orleans spoke of how the film brought back a lot of painful memories from her childhood. She shared about having to go to the “white school” after school desegregation laws were enforced. I couldn’t help but imagine her fear and horror, when she first saw her new high school, where a large rebel flag hung, where the school’s mascot name was the Nichols Rebels, and where the school’s white parents met and sent letters with illustrations showing black boys as having tails and horns like devils.
In a childhood so clearly segregated, Ms. January wondered how her grandchildren, now a large group of many different races and nationalities, with friends of many races who “don’t have the notion of being separate” would think and care about working for true equality. She shared her other concern that “I don’t let my grandchildren outside for safety reasons. How do we understand police and politicians, and work together for equality?”
An elder white woman got up and recalled the movie scene where President Johnson said that racism and voting rights was “an American problem.” The woman said, “It’s an American white problem.” She recalled how she worked years ago to bring black history into the public school curriculum in Rhode Island. She was once told, “there is no need to integrate the curriculum in East Greenwich schools. We gave out a survey and asked students if they were prejudiced. Since the answers were “no,” there is no problem.”
A bi-racial girl, whose name I unfortunately don’t remember but who I recognized as the sister of a girl my daughter Darla went to pre-school with, bravely got up to speak some words of wisdom. “We still have a lot of work to do. Because others have cleared the way, some people today think they don’t have to do anything.”
Lucy Rose, the final speaker from the audience urged the crowd to practice civic engagement. “…from making sandwiches to talking to your neighbors about what’s important to you. If this (movie and discussion) hasn’t ignited a flame in you..this is a hopeless society. Do something…do something!”
In wrapping up the vibrant dialogue, Diane Russell, chair of the NAACP Voter Empowerment Committee, who along with Jim Vincent and Shemika L. Moore, president of the RI chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, was one of the primary organizers of the event, reminded students of the Selma Speech and Essay Contest for high school age students ages 14 – 18. Details for the essay contest can be found at www.libertymuseumselmacontest.org
Ms. Russell also encouraged the audience to become engaged locally–to join the local NAACP. She finished by saying, “…as MLK said, “never stop marching,” and challenged us to”become a part of of things.”
Leaving the theater, I was moved by the film Selma, and most certainly by bearing witness to the community dialogue happening in the place that I now call home. As I walked through the mall on the way back to my car, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the group of beautiful black girls giggling as they rode the escalator, followed by beautiful white children doing the same, followed by a group of young people of a variety of races doing the same. White families, black families, bi-racial families eating side by side in the food court. People of many races together in one public space–something that just fifty years ago was not a common scene to be taken for granted. Of course it is a simple thing, a basic human thing, for all of us to be able to share the same public space together, and I am not suggesting that, “wow, look how far we have come–we can shop at the mall together,” because that is one miniscule form of equality. And even though I could appreciate the black girls giggling freely as they rode the escalator, their hands clutching the side rails, I was just as easily haunted by it as I recalled Ava DuVernay’s handling of the scene of the young girls who lost their lives in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.
There are still barriers, many invisible forms of structural racism that the mall itself may represent, including the urban development decision on location of the mall, ease of access to its location by black and white patrons, and access to job opportunities within the mall based on race. And, what about the visible racial issues mentioned during the community dialogue, like racial profiling, police brutality and voting rights?
I am an optimist and believe, as demonstrated by this event, and the recent active participation in the fight for racial equality, that there is great hope for positive changes to be made. I thank Ava DuVernay for making Selma, and reminding us that we don’t want to go backward, and in light of the progress made, today we share similar struggles to those in Selma, and there is still much work to be done. I thank the local NAACP and the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women for showing us how we can become a part of that positive change.