When I finally went to see Selma, I was reminded of the American Indian who said of his tale, “Some of the facts may be wrong, but the story is true.”
Certainly the depiction of the Selma march and the abuses by white Alabama officials that led up to it more than justifies and honors the film. Oprah Winfrey’s attempt to register to vote moved me particularly because a month or so before Selma, I had covered the US Civil Rights Commission’s hearings in Jackson MS and reported:
Henry Rayburn, a 63-year-old farmer from near Charleston, was approached by a man with a club when he went to vote. Rayburn says the man told him “he would kill me if I tried to vote.” The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because “the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved.”
Alena Hamlett of Scobey registered in 1962. When her name was published in the local newspaper, as required by Mississippi law, a female effigy was hung near her home.
Dorothy Mae Foster went to register with her husband at Fayette in 1963. She was later visited by three men who presented a card that read: “Thousands of Klansmen are waiting, watching, Don’t be misled. Let your conscience be your guide. Ku Klux Klan.”
When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee attempted to organize a voter registration drive in Macomb, 16 bombings occurred.
Selma records such moments for a wide audience in a country that has an increasingly hard time even bothering with the past.
On a far lesser level, I admit some problems with the film. I never saw nor met Martin Luther King Jr, but he was a strong figure in my life from my 1950s college days when his Stride Towards Freedom was the most important book I read in those years and it wasn’t on any course list. The closest I ever came to King was sitting on the grass with a date outside the chapel at Howard University a few years later, part of an overflow crowd that couldn’t fit in the church as he gave the sermon. But I developed an image of a man far more friendly and approachable than the formal and somewhat pedantic version in the film. The movie’s warmest moment for me was the kitchen scene where the activists ate, chatted and laughed together. There was the King I thought I knew.
I did have slight contact with a few other of the film’s characters. I liked, for example, the treatment of activist James Forman and John Doar, the federal civil rights official. I only got to know Forman later in life but it didn’t take much to like him. And we shared an ironic albeit unmentioned affinity in that he had been removed as head of SNCC because he was too old and I had been kicked out of SNCC because I was too white.
The federal official John Doar also rang true. I had just one phone conversation with him as he took a public interest law suit led by DC homeless activist Mitch Snyder in which I was one of the co-plaintiffs. However, I still remember him, as in the movie, because of a pleasant pragmatism that I hadn’t expected of one not only deeply involved in civil rights at such a high level but later in the Whitewater investigation as well.
On the other hand, as a young reporter in the late 50s, I had seen LBJ up close on a number of occasions and, beyond the film’s factual inaccuracies already reported elsewhere, I found the character to be off base. You didn’t have to exaggerate LBJ, you just had to get the chords right.
But this is a chronic problem of history, especially when it’s written for a movie theater. And especially in an age when exaggeration is our way of getting people to pay attention.
And we can’t be too greedy in our expectations. Compared to the trailers I saw before Selma, whatever its faults, it is a blessed addition to a land which cares so little for what has happened before.