The film Selma depicts Martin Luther King Jr’s efforts to secure equal voting rights for blacks. Black people received the right to vote in 1870 after the ratification of the 15th amendment, however the south kept the black people from voting with policies such as literacy test and the poll tax. During Dr. King’s stay at Selma, he organized a five-day 54-mile march to Alabama’s state capital Montgomery. The film accurately depicts the tension and the events that took place during Dr. King’s stay at Selma. I will be focusing on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s wiretapping and surveillance of Dr. King as well as the March to Montgomery and its impact.
Throughout the film we receive logs of the current event that is unfolding these represent the FBI’s surveillance logs into Dr. King. The Surveillance into Dr. King began in 1957 after a member of the FBI reported to the FBI’s Field Office in Atlanta stating that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was worthy of FBI investigation due to being a “likely target for communist infiltration. For the FBI to deem an organization advocating against segregation and racial injustice worthy of investigation shows the tension during this time period of civil rights activism. With no connection between the Communist Party and the SCLC the FBI tried and succeeded to form connections between them, albeit insubstantial it allowed them to continue justifying the investigation.
The FBI worked hard to discredit Dr. King and his efforts for equal rights. Although Dr. King and his movement were non-violent, I believe the FBI feared his power as one of the greatest civil rights activist of all time. Dr. King had the power to gather tens of thousands in his aims of racial equality with non-violent protest the FBI feared this ideology and Dr. King’s power to encourage people. FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, had a great disdain against Dr. King and black people in general. Prior to the FBI’s investigation into the SCLC and Dr. King he had sent out reports that depicted alleged communist influence within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hoover also believed that Dr. King “should be placed in section A of the Reverse Index” according to FBI regulation anyone who was placed in Section A of the Reverse Index could be rounded up during a “national emergency” because they “are in a position to influence others against the national interest or are likely to furnish material financial aid to subversive elements due to their subversive associations and ideology”. The entire investigation was based on racial bias as William Sullivan, FBI Assistant Director, stated during the Church Committee in November 1975 “I think behind it all was the racial bias, the dislike of Negroes, the dislike of the civil rights movement”.
After Dr. Kings “I Have A Dream Speech” speech Sullivan wrote in an internal memo that “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security”. Throughout the film Selma it is said multiple times that they have the power to shut down or neutralize Dr. King. In one instance Hoover states “Mr. President, you know we can shut man with power down permanently and unequivocally”. I find it astonishing that a man who earned Time magazines “Man of the Year Award”, and who would go on to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize could be seen as a threat. Selma helps shed light on the events that occurred while taking very minimal artistic liberty to present the investigation into Dr. King. The FBI’s investigation only proved one thing, and that is that Dr. King was a true non-violent civil rights leader who truly cared about his people.
Selma focuses on Dr. King’s time spent in Selma, Alabama organizing a march to the state’s capital Montgomery. Perhaps one of the most significant events in modern civil rights movements Selma does a great job in capturing the tension and the emotion that the demonstration had. The first march occurred March 7 when over 600 prepared to march the 54-miles towards Montgomery they were met with state troopers waiting for them in the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” the state troopers charged the peaceful protesters and beat them to the ground with clubs, whips, and tear gas this event was televised on the news with over 50 million people watching as the troopers beat non-violent protesters. Selma shows people watching the event in a state of shock and despair, I myself felt as if I was watching the event unfold in real-time.
This horrible event caused an uproar amongst the people and we see groups of people heading towards Selma to join the march. “It was just heartbreaking to see,” said a teacher who joined the march “One side of me said, ‘I don’t want to be a martyr,’ but the other side said, ‘Put up or shut up.’ ” a nun who flew to Selma said. The second march to Montgomery Dr. King lead 2,500 marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge before turning around. Seeing all these people who decided not to be a bystander while this horrific event unfolded moved me and Selma did a great job at depicting this. The third and final march to Montgomery was underway. President Lyndon B Johnson federalized the National Guard to give the civil rights marchers protection. In this scene, Selma¬ switched to actual footage of the protesters marching to Montgomery we see a wave of thousands both black and white in their pursuit for civil rights. By the end of the march over 25,000 were standing outside of Alabama’s State Capitol where Dr. King gave his “Our God is Marching On” Speech. The Voting Rights act of 1965 was signed into law five months later.
Selma was a great film that helped me greater understand what was happening during this time period and the events that unfolded. Dr. King is one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time and the film correctly depicts that. The smear campaign that the FBI had on Dr. King failed and the march to Montgomery was a successful campaign in bringing equal voting rights to the black people. I had great compassion for the protesters throughout the film and their movement.