A few days ago, I saw the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma and I want to share my thoughts about what we should take away from the movie and from MLK’s legacy.
Selma is about the 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital Montgomery, AL fifty miles away. It’s about the nonviolent struggle for the right of southern African Americans to vote, which was finally enshrined in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Southern African Americans had the right on paper since the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, but practices like poll taxes, impossible literacy and citizenship tests, grandfather clauses, other obstructionist rules, and physical intimidation made voting impossible for virtually al Southern African Americans.)
At the center of that struggle was Martin Luther King, Jr., but I think Selma does a nice job of demonstrating that this particular march, the struggle for voting rights, and the entire Civil Rights movement involved far more people. Though MLK might have been the face of the movement, he was only one of millions who fought for justice as part of this movement. In fact, I don’t really like referring to Selma as a biopic, because it’s about much more than Martin Luther King Jr.
I think that’s an important point to remember, because it reminds us that while MLK is rightly remembered as a hero, he wasn’t superhuman. As Selma’s director Ava Marie DuVernay said on the Daily Show: “He just a brother from Atlanta who got swept up in history and was able to step into that greatness. But truly he was just a human being.” There was nothing that MLK did that we are not capable of doing, and I believe there’s nothing that MLK did that we have an excuse to not do.
I think the danger in how we remember MLK today (as a hero of mythological proportions) is that we believe he set a commendable standard that is impossible to meet. We think we should honor him by remembering and being amazed by what he accomplished, when really we should honor him by stepping into his shoes, learning from his successes and shortcomings, and carrying forward his legacy.
That’s why I liked Selma. It doesn’t show him as a giant, it shows him as a human being. He sinned, he made mistakes, he had doubts, and he needed support from the people around him. He was just like you or me. Or, rather, he was just like who you and I can be, and should be. When we remember MLK, let’s not put him on a pedestal and in so doing take ourselves out of the hot seat. MLK doesn’t only belong on a pedestal, he belongs in the streets, marching for justice. So we have to take him there.
Here’s a few more takeaways that I have from Selma:
- DuVernay also pointed out during her interview with Jon Stewart that when MLK won the nobel prize, commentators used that evidence to say that racism was over in America. It’s a similar claim to what we hear nowadays, that racism is over because we elected a black President. The myth of a post-racial society is pervasive and nothing new, but it’s very dangerous, because it gives us the opportunity to excuse ourselves from continuing to fight against racism. Obviously, racism was not over in 1964 when MLK was awarded the nobel prize, and it still isn’t today. In his iconic “I Have A Dream Speech” MLK lists a series of grievances towards the end, and the first that he lists is police brutality, which is obviously a huge civil rights struggle today.
- Other modern civil rights struggles faced by black Americans include severe economic inequality, poverty, and (like in Selma) the right to vote. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that systemic, government sponsored racism was no longer a factor in American society, and it struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, the very act that the marchers in Selma fought so hard to pass. Today, voter ID laws disproportionately bar black citizens from voting, and congressional redistricting (called gerrymandering) minimizes the voices and votes of black Americans by squeezing as many minorities into as few congressional districts as possible. Remember that “post-racial” America is a myth, and always fight nonviolently on the side and for the cause of justice.
- In the kingdom of heaven, civil rights does not stop at the borders of the United States. Black people across the world are marginalized and exploited, through force, through economic exploitation, and through our obsession and love for western culture. One example I can think of is the terrorist attack in Paris, which received an enormous amount of media attention. The terrorist attack in Paris was of course horrendous and horrible and deserving of media attention, but at around the same time, Boko Haram massacred as many as 2000 Nigerians in the village of Baga. Another example is trades that exploit African goods like coffee, oil, cocoa, and diamonds. Buy fair trade items. Demand that workers around the world be treated with dignity, respect, compassion, and humanity. And of course many more examples abound.
- Nor does civil rights only apply to black people, or just to race. In the United States, many minorities (in terms of ethnicity, gender identity, and religion) are marginalized. Unfortunately, much of this marginalization comes at the hands of Christians. My biggest prayer for the Dunker Punks movement is that we be the Christians who fight for justice, not the Christians who stand for oppression. Across the world, people are marginalized and even killed for the same reasons. Just because we live in the 21st century, doesn’t mean we live in a society or world free from injustice. If anything, the interconnectedness, opportunity, and technology of the world make injustice all the more visible, all the more potent, and all the more our responsibility to combat. In MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” he said, “We will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” When I look at the world, I am not satisfied, and if you aren’t either, let’s do something about it.
- MLK spoke most harshly not of those who did evil, but of those who saw evil and did nothing. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and we should have no other allegiance other than to stand with God on the side of love, justice, and mercy. If we see something wrong with the world, it is our responsibility to stand up, step forward, say something, pray something, and take action.
- In Selma, MLK pointed out that the Johnson administration was spending billions of dollars to fight the Vietnam War, but was doing nothing to protect the black citizens of the United States from racial violence, poverty, and oppression. It was a hypocritical war, ostensibly fought to certify the ideals of democracy in Vietnam, when those same ideals weren’t being played out in the United States. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How does war and military spending today interfere with the domestic and global cause of civil rights? Not only does it directly lead to suffering, death, and destruction worldwide, but it also draws money, time, effort, and attention away from standing up for peace, justice, mercy, and righteousness. Not only do we betray our Christian ideals by waging war, but by waging war we suffocate the cause justice.
I’ll conclude with this thought. Selma is an inspirational movie. It should be. MLK was an inspirational figure. But the point of inspiration is not to feel good about what we have accomplished. The point of inspiration is to feel empowered to finish what still needs to be done. This MLK Day, let’s remember that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has not yet been realized. Let’s remember that he was guided by the words, teachings, and commandments of Jesus Christ, and so should we. When I look around, I am not satisfied, and I hope you aren’t either. So let’s step up and step forward. Let’s talk about it. Let’s pray about it. And let’s do something about it.
Emmett Eldred is a sophomore Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.
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