Thoughts on Selma

Selma movie posterI know I’m way behind on this one, but we finally went to see Selma. Best movie of the year for me, although I’ll reserve any comments on how big of an Oscar snub it was since the only of the Best Picture nominees I saw was Birdman (hated it) and part of Grand Budapest Hotel (I think I was way too tired that night to understand it).

No Whitewashed MLK

The overall aspect that I loved is how MLK was not whitewashed. He was not tamely petitioning for change the way most white people tell the story. He did not play well with the rules of respectability politics. He was firm in believing nonviolent resistance was the Jesus way and the most effective way, but he definitely stirred up a lot of trouble and was pretty unashamedly abrasive in getting his point across.

The Effectiveness of Nonviolence

Sometimes we think of nonviolent resistance as ineffective but something we should do anyway. Yes, I think it is right for Christians to start with asking what Jesus teaches, since we do call him Lord. But there’s also something to be said about how effective it actually can be.

Early in the movie, there’s a confrontation between King and his people and a couple of local Selma students. They get upset that King just comes in, causes a lot of drama, and leaves, without any recognition of what they’ve already been doing.

King starts by pointing out everything they were doing right. Specifically, he talks about how they are slowly raising black consciousness, helping them become more aware and more brave in standing up for their right to vote. Anabaptists can probably sympathize with this approach. This group was the quiet in the land, steadily doing important work mostly unnoticed.

That’s not enough on its own, though, when in these kind of scenarios of widespread systemic oppression. King and his group were focused less on raising black consciousness as they were on raising white consciousness. As King points out, that requires drama. Working within the status quo does not give any motivation for white people to pay attention.

To me, this is clearly a lesson of Jesus. Jesus did a lot of quieter work as well (more on that in a later section), but the culmination of his work was the cross. Don’t be confused by how we wear crosses as jewellery now. The cross was as dramatic as you could get. They were designed that way by the Romans, much like the public lynchings of blacks in America were designed to be public. When that violence is clearly unwarranted, however, it has a tendency to wake up those who may not do the violence themselves but were completely ok with it.

We could also line up this idea perfectly with Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek, giving up your clothes, and walking a second mile – all things that were nonviolent but affirmed your dignity while creating a dramatic shaming of the oppressor.

God First to Cry With You

When one of the protesters is killed, MLK shows up at the hospital and tells the grandfather that God was there crying with him. This is a huge statement. It demonstrates God’s affiliation with the oppressed rather than calmly cheering on the violence of the oppressors, which is what the oppressors typically assume. The police officer who killed that protester probably thought he was doing God’s work putting a member of an inferior race back in his place. We generally don’t use the language of inferior races anymore, but we do still often have the similar assumption that God is on the side of the powerful, not mourning with the powerless.

LBJ’s Tough Position

I felt a little bit sorry for Lyndon B Johnson. It’s hard to know what he personally felt about civil rights, but strictly from a political perspective, it was a tough spot to be in. Does he cater to the oppressed minority or to the oppressive majority? He could easily have widespread uprisings on his hand if he chose wrongly. It must have been a tough line to walk.

The Malcolm X Alternative

Malcolm X makes a brief appearance in the movie. He expresses how he disagrees with King’s nonviolence, but he also saw how it was working and so he wanted to support it in an interesting way: being the alternative that made King more palatable for whites, particularly white legislators.

It reminds me of a psychological study I’ve seen. If there is one bottle of wine on the shelf at $20, there’s a reasonably high chance that you’ll conclude it is too much money. If there is are three bottles of wine at $12, $20, and $30, you’re most likely to buy that exact same $20 bottle you thought was too expensive before. It’s all about comparing the options.

Malcolm X made MLK palatable. If MLK was the only leader, he probably would have been dismissed much easier by white leaders, but because of fear that dismissing him would empower Malcolm X, they chose to work with MLK.

Of course, this is not always true. We could look at how events in Ferguson were perceived as a good example. There were very few rioters/looters/otherwise-violent-protesters. Most were and are very similar in their strategy to MLK. Yet the media has successfully portrayed repeatedly that all of the protesters are violent looters. I never heard any of the same comparison logic urging cooperation with the peaceful protesters to make sure the looters weren’t too strong.

MLK’s Turning Back

MLK summons people from all over the country to Selma to march on the bridge, and it works! Law enforcement backs off and they can walk to Montgomery. MLK kneels to pray, then gets up and turns around. At first, I was like many of the leaders in the movie, angry that he passed on what seemed like a huge victory. And maybe he did. But I later saw the analogy to Jesus’ Messianic secret.

Jesus’ often made a point of telling people he healed not to tell anyone about it. He didn’t want word getting out about him too quickly, which would force the hands of the Roman authorities to kill him. He needed more time to lay the foundation that would be carried on by the Church after him. In time, he continued to push until he was killed.

I wonder whether MLK was thinking the same thing, that it would have been too big of a victory too fast, resulting in worse beatings and more deaths among his fellow marchers. It seemed to work out that way, as they soon after won the legal right to complete their march.

This probably has to be one of the hardest elements of being an activist: knowing when to hang back, laying the groundwork for another day or whether to seize every chance you’ve got to spread your message.


Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.