Why Selma Matters Today

The film offers a vital lesson for those who want to confront police violence today.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Paramount Pictures/IMDB and Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

A still from Selma and a prayer during a walk-out outside the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill December 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Paramount Pictures/IMDB and Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

To win reform, you can’t just protest. You need a strategy. And specifically, you need to give your opponents—and your reluctant allies—a way to say “yes.”

In Selma, an evocative look at Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for a voting rights bill, director Ava DuVernay shows just how this looks. King has an agenda. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the formal structures of Jim Crow, but its institutional support remained. In much of the South, blacks were still disenfranchised, blocked from voter registration with poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and elaborate registration tests. (Here’s an example from Louisiana.) Despite contempt from elected political officials and violence from elected sheriffs, blacks couldn’t hold them accountable.

It also meant they couldn’t sit on juries, not only denying a chance at community participation, but also precluding fair trials for black defendants and protecting white offenders who targeted blacks from the judgments of black citizens. Consider, for instance, that both the Scottsboro Boys and the killers of Emmett Till faced all-white juries. For the former, it was a literal death sentence. For the latter, it was acquittal.

In real life, activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, began organizing with local civil rights leaders in early 1963. For more than a year, facing arrests, beatings, and intimidation from Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark and other police officers, they worked to desegregate public places and register blacks to vote. Unfortunately, these efforts ended after an injunction from a local judge barred group gatherings under the sponsorship of SNCC and other civil rights groups.

The film begins after this, in early 1965, with King prepping his campaign for voting rights. He appeals to President Lyndon Johnson, who declines to move with legislation, prompting the turn to Selma, Alabama, and the start of the registration campaign, which provokes the racist rage of local authorities, all aided by Gov. George Wallace. King and allies know that white leaders in Selma will respond to their campaign with violence. It’s, as they discuss, one reason they chose the location. But their goal isn’t to convince them, or to appeal to any other white leaders in Alabama.

No, the point of the marches—including the one that would enter historical memory as “Bloody Sunday”—was to galvanize public opinion and bring to it to bear on President Johnson, with a message. As long as you don’t work toward a solutionas long as you don’t bring voting rights legislation to Congresswe will march, and you will deal with the political fallout of brutal state violence against American citizens.

In other words, King is raising awareness and trying to create a specific outcome through particular pressure points. But Johnson has agency. If he doesn’t want to have to deal with the images of Selma—tear gas, racist cops, and dead volunteers—then all he has to do is say “yes.”

I watched Selma last week, at a special screening. A few days later, I went to Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, D.C., to watch and photograph the “Justice for All” march, organized by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, or NAN, and meant to protest police violence against black Americans. Compared with its counterpart in New York, Sharpton’s march wasn’t large—about 10,000 people, versus 50,000 up north—but it was still remarkable, a diverse collection of people from across the country, united in the belief that “black lives matter.”

Not to say that there weren’t any problems. There was a moment, early in the event, when long-burning tension between Sharpton and the newer, younger activists flared into the open. At the focal point of the gathering were speakers, many with connections to Sharpton and the NAN. The younger activists were disgusted, angry with Sharpton and convinced that this was a march for his aggrandizement, not a protest for justice and radical change. Some took to the stage to demand the microphone, and one woman—Johnetta Elzie, who said she was tear-gassed while protesting in Ferguson—gave a sharp critique. “This movement was started by the young people. We started this. It should be young people all over this stage. It should be young people all up here.” The mic was cut, and the activists folded back into the crowd. The march began, with thousands listening to Sharpton and other approved voices.

It’s noteworthy that Selma had a similar—if quieter—moment between SNCC representatives James Forman and John Lewis and the on-site leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including King. Forman, in particular, was frustrated with King’s attempt to claim leadership and displace SNCC activities. King’s argument—the reason he thought he was right to take control—was that he and the SCLC had a record of getting results. And while they didn’t have the grassroots connections of the SNCC activists, they knew how to channel anger into action and action into accomplishment.

With his checkered past and mixed history of practical and political success, Sharpton can’t make this argument, or at least, it would be hard. At the same time, you can credit Sharpton for his commitment to this traditional approach of outside activism and inside baseball. For all of his faults, he understands that change requires partners, and while he isn’t a compelling figure to young activists, he has knowledge worth knowing.

There’s no doubt that this is a vital moment. With protests across the country and endorsements from major figures in American society, “Black Lives Matter” might be the most significant youth movement in recent history. But right now—and not unlike its contemporary, Occupy Wall Street—it reads as just an exercise in catharsis, a declaration of dignity and a plea for humanity. This isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t a strategy. Not only could “Black Lives Matter” shift attitudes on criminal justice and force a needed conversation about police culture and police violence, it could create political space for changes to law and policy. Indeed, if we want reform, it must.

In other words, as it builds grassroots power, this movement also needs to build an agenda. And regardless of what it includes, it needs to give the other side—the side with institutional power—a way to say “yes.” That may not end in radical change—few things do—but it’s a start, and that can’t be overrated.