I saw Selma with my oldest son a few weeks ago, and his twin siblings saw it independently thereafter. It is an interesting and balanced portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. during his time in Selma, Alabama. He was simultaneously an inspirational leader, flawed family man, shrewd politician and courageous martyr of non-violence. It is the last part that struck me most prominently in the aftermath of seeing the movie.
Last July, I stood in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I looked up to the balcony where Dr. King fell, and back over my shoulder in the direction of James Earl Ray’s fatal shot. I thought of what it must have been like to wake up every day with the very tangible sense that you could be killed before the day ends. Dr. King lived with these thoughts for many years, but in watching Selma, I saw his other burden.
Non-violence carries with it an ostensible air of moral superiority, but non-violence is nothing without violence. The movement’s ultimate purpose is to provoke acts of violence that shock and disturb the consciousness of otherwise nuetral or ambivilent people to act in a manner they previously could or would not.
As Dr. King himself acknowledged, previous non-violent efforts in Albany, Georgia failed because local authorities remained disciplined in handling protestors. In Selma, local authorities took the bait and produced what the Civil Rights movement needed: brutal violence captured on film. Images that resounded through the entirety of the United States, and history itself.
Dr. King’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement is enormous, but so too must have been the sense of rightousness and guilt that he felt in pursuing a non-violent movement that not only took his life, but those of so many others who marched with him and subjected themselves to brutality necessary to advance the cause. Recognize with me, Dr. King, but also those that followed him.