Monday, January 19, 2015

#19 / Selma

I have not yet seen Selma, the movie. There is some debate about how well the movie tracks with the truth. I have read, in particular, complaints about the movie's treatment of President Lyndon Johnson, who is apparently made into a kind of villain in the movie, at least according to some reviews

There is no doubt about the truth of what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, on what has come to be called "Bloody Sunday," an event that President Johnson later compared to Lexington and Concord, calling it “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

The events of Bloody Sunday, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, are shown, above, in a photograph from 1965. The movie version is below. 

For those interested in getting at at the truth of what happened at this seminal moment in our history, I recommend a letter published in the January 19, 2015 edition of The New Yorker. The letter ran under the title "Remembering Selma," and was authored by Danny Lyon, now living in Bernalillo, New Mexico. At one time, Lyon was the college roommate of John Lewis, who is now a member of Congress, and who played a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement as one of the leaders of the S.N.C.C., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

S.N.C.C. helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and Lewis was there in Selma on "Bloody Sunday." After commenting on David Denby's review of the movie, which ran in a previous edition of The New Yorker, Lyon offers the following observation about the events of "Bloody Sunday":

The events depicted in "Selma" happened because of the incredible courage of Lewis and those who were with him when he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in a raincoat, confronting the police. Recently, I was with Representative Lewis in his office when he held up an Associated Press photograph of himself being beaten on Bloody Sunday by an Alabama state trooper. The helmeted officer is pulling Lewis toward him as he raises his baton just before crashing it down onto Lewis's head. Lewis ... was then hospitalized with a fractured skull...."

I think that Lyndon Johnson got it right when he described "Bloody Sunday" as a "turning point," and the fact that they made a movie about these events, fifty years later, is a testimony to that.

What I think we need to see is that this "turning point" in history was achieved not by violence, but by nonviolence, by the incredible courage of those who confronted physical and death dealing violence in the way that Lyon so simply and clearly describes in his New Yorker letter.

It is when we have the courage to die for our cause that we turn history in a new direction.

Killing for our cause takes no courage at all, and makes no history that we will ever want to celebrate.

Image Credits:
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  1. I'm pretty sure the white gentleman prominently visible in the center of the crowd in the historical photograph is my Great Uncle Lotan Harold DeWolf

    Dr. Lotan Harold DeWolf taught theology at Boston University from 1934 to 1965, where he was the dissertation advisor for a young Martin Luther King, Jr. After Dr. King's graduation, Harold continued to correspond with him and accompanied him on the 1965 Selma, Alabama protest marches.

    Dr. King wrote to Dr. DeWolf: “Both your stimulating lectures and your profound ideas will remain with me so long as the cords of memory shall lengthen. I have discovered that both theologically and philosophically much of my thinking is DeWolfian” (Letter from King to DeWolf, 2 June 1955).

  2. Funeral Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta April 9, 1968 By L. Harold DeWolf
    It was my privilege to teach Martin Luther King, to march with him in Mississippi, agonize and pray with him in the midst of the worst violence at St. Augustine, to spend many hours counseling with him, to go through great volumes of his private papers organizing them, to spend many days and nights in his home. I know the innermost thoughts of this man as deeply as I know that of any man on earth. It has been the highest privilege of my life, this personal friendship.

    Martin Luther King spoke with the tongues of men and of angels. Now those eloquent lips are stilled. His knowledge ranged widely and his prophetic wisdom penetrated deeply into human affairs. Now that knowledge and that wisdom have been transcended as he shares in the divine wisdom of eternity.

    The apostle Paul has told us that when all other experiences and virtues of humanity have been left behind, faith, hope, and love remain. But the greatest of these is love.

    Martin exemplified all three in the rarest intensity. Amid the tempestuous seas and treacherous storms of injustice, hate, and violence which threatened the very life of mankind, his faith was a solid, immovable rock. He received hundreds of threats upon his life, yet for 13 years he walked among them unafraid. His single commitment was to do God's will for him; his trust was in God alone.

    On that rock of faith God raised in him a lighthouse of hope. No white backlash nor black backlash nor massive indifference could cause him to despair. He dreamed a dream of world brotherhood, and unlike most of us, he gave himself absolutely to work for the fulfillment of this inspired hope. In that lighthouse of hope, God lighted in Martin a torch of love. He loved all men. Even the hate-filled foe of all he represented he tried sympathetically to understand.

    He sought to relieve the slavery of the oppressors as well as that of the oppressed. While overborne by incredible pressures upon his time and energy, he yet had time to bring comfort and counsel to a bereaved boy he had never seen before or to park a car for a confused woman who was a complete stranger.

    What a legacy of love is left to this faithful and gifted wife and these four dear children. They now share his dream, his faith, hope, and love -- they and the faithful little band of nonviolent crusaders who have been unfailingly with him from Montgomery all the way to Memphis. They are too few, they who have already made such a costly sacrifice.

    It is now for us, all the millions of the living who care, to take up his torch of love. It is for us to finish his work, to end the awful destruction in Vietnam, to root out every trace of race prejudice from our lives, to bring the massive powers of this nation to aid the oppressed and to heal the hate-scarred world.

    God rest your soul, dear Martin. You have fought the good fight. You have finished your course. You have kept the faith. Yours is now the triumphant crown of righteousness. Your dream is now ours. May God make us worthy and able to carry your torch of love and march on to brotherhood. Amen.


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