Jan 19 6:00 AM

Selma’s missing postscript

In a scene from 'Selma,' David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with Tessa Thompson, Corey Reynolds and Colman Domingo.
Paramount / Everett

Spoiler Alert.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965.

But, seriously, if you haven’t seen the movie “Selma” and don’t want to read about where the film — based on the real-life events of 1963, ‘64 and ’65 — ends, maybe now is good time to avert your eyes. Though, honestly, if the revelation above didn’t blow your mind, nothing said here will come as a surprise.

“Selma” is the story of the events around the infamous, brutal police attack on nonviolent marchers as they attempted to cross Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, the roll of demonstrators in securing passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), and the effect that spring had on the civil rights movement. The film stars David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, and was directed by Ava DuVernay.

Much has been made of the lack of Oscar nominations those three — and the film as a whole — received last week, but as glaring as the absence of people of color is from the Academy Awards is the absence of a bit of information from the end of the film.

This is not the debate about the historical accuracy of what, in the end, is a fictionalized, dramatized portrayal — though that is a worthwhile discussion — and this is not about the elaborate and expensive campaigns for and against films vying for year-end awards, which might have a role in other debates swirling around “Selma” — also an interesting story. This is, instead, about a bit of history much less open to interpretation, and much more within the powers of the filmmakers to convey.

The focal point of “Selma” is, of course, Sunday, March 7, 1965, when roughly 600 demonstrators, including the Reverend Hosea Williams and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and civil rights organizer Amelia Boynton, set out on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demonstrate for full and federally protected voting rights for African Americans. When marchers attempted to leave Selma, however, by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by County Sheriff Jim Clark and a large posse of troopers and local white residents.

As reenacted in what is arguably the movie’s most graphic and affecting scene, the posse, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, some mounted on horseback, charged the marchers, beating dozens as they tried to flee, sending 17 to the hospital.

Lewis had his skull fractured. Pictures of a bloodied and gassed Boynton were featured on the front pages of many of the nation’s prominent newspapers. Television images of the violence were broadcast across the U.S. and around the world.

Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress and introduced the Voting Rights Act, referencing the systemic segregation across the south and state-sponsored savagery in Selma.

“Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination,” Johnson said. “No law that we now have on the books — and I have helped to put three of them there — can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

“In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.

“Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote,” said Johnson, with a faith in the power of federal leadership that seems almost naïve today.

However, LBJ, who was certainly not shy about using the authority granted him, also understood something about his power that would serve many well today — both in and out of government.

“But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

“Their cause must be our cause, too,” Johnson continued, invoking the words of the spiritual that had become a touchstone for the civil rights movement. “Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

The president’s speech to Congress comes near the end of the movie, an emotional climax after two hours of personal trials and public tribulations. As “Selma” closes, in what is perhaps a too-customary coda to docudramas such as this, follow-ups are posted as text superimposed over images: One African-American man voted for the first time at the age of 84; John Lewis would go one to be elected to the House of Representatives, where he still serves today; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated in Memphis almost exactly three years after this great triumph.

President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, 1965.

And that’s where the film leaves it.

And that’s where the filmmakers most pointedly leave their audience short.

Contemporary implications

There’s a saying that period films aren’t about the period in which they take place, but the period in which they were made. That dramatic looks at past events are taken from a point of view influenced by current mores is, when you think about it, not a major revelation, especially when you remember that these movies are — no matter the number of real-life characters and events featured — works of fiction.

There can be no doubt the artists behind “Selma” were aware of the contemporary implications of their historical account. If it is not evident from the portrayal of the power dynamics inside the civil rights movement, inside elected government, and between the two, then it is brought solidly home by the music that rises over the end credits.

The song, “Glory,” a collaboration between John Legend and Common (who also plays James Bevel in the film), is a hybrid of pop, rap and gospel choir styles. “Glory” won the Golden Globe for best song and garnered one of “Selma’s” scant two Oscar nominations (the other was for Best Picture). The sound is contemporary and the lyrics more so, comparing events from the 1950s and ‘60s with 2014. “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus. That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up," intones Common. “Now the war is not over. Victory isn't won,” sings Legend.

Indeed. As the song makes clear, the struggle for equal treatment under the law continues, and nothing makes that any clearer than what has happened in recent years to the VRA. 

Profound effects

The effect that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had on African-American enfranchisement — and on United States politics — was dramatic. Voter registration among blacks nearly doubled in just two years, with most gains coming in the south. The number of African-American elected officials in the south went from virtually zero to nearly 200 [PDF] in the 20 years after the VRA was signed, and rose even faster after that. African-American allegiance across the country quickly shifted from Republicans, a holdover from the days of Abraham Lincoln, to liberal Democrats, while white Southern Democrats, in office and in the general population, migrated to the GOP.

That realignment has, in the 21st century, provoked increased and increasingly partisan attacks on the 1965 law, as Republicans, especially in Southern states, have sought to combat demographic shifts with challenges to the enforcement provisions of the VRA. Court cases and congressional amendments chipped away at voting rights’ protections throughout the last dozen years or so, but the profound blow came in 2013 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

At issue in Shelby was a provision in the VRA known as “preclearance.” Preclearance, as outlined in Section 5 of the Act, subjected specific states and electoral districts (most of them in the South) to oversight from the federal government. In areas with a history of voter discrimination, changes in election law, registration practices, polling place locations, voting days or certain district boundaries needed approval from the Justice Department or a federal court. The DOJ or the court had to “pre-clear” any changes before the new laws could take effect.

The enforcement mechanism for Section 5 is actually a formula detailed in Section 4(b) of the VRA, and while the Supreme Court did not directly overturn Section 5, a 5-4 majority wiped out Section 4(b) enforcement, effectively disabling preclearance as a tool for ensuring equal enfranchisement of minority populations.

The changes in previously protected sections of the country were swift and sweeping. Within quite literally hours of the high court’s Shelby ruling, laws were introduced in multiple states (most in the south, but not exclusively so) to pointedly restrict voter access. Though few public officials (there were some glaring exceptions) would say the new laws were designed to decrease African-American voter turnout, the end effect undeniably and disproportionately hit black communities (along with, in some places, other traditionally Democratic blocks, such as young and elderly voters).

Within a year of Shelby, voting laws changed in nine states previously covered by Section 5, as well as in five other states where some counties were previously required to seek federal approval. And turnout in November’s election reflected just the kind of shifts the VRA was supposed to guard against. While midterm participation dropped in most of the country, the downturn was disproportionately felt in communities of color.

Missed opportunity

It is entirely possible the November numbers were not in when filmmakers locked the text for the postscripts at the end of “Selma,” but the effects of the Shelby decision were already quite evident. It would have been simple, and seems in keeping with the movie’s broader objectives, to add a line or two to explain that even though the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed in August 1965, and it had a dramatic influence on Southern black enfranchisement throughout the next 40 years, the Supreme Court‘s 2013 ruling had indelibly weakened the VRA. The struggle continues; “victory,” as the song over the credits tells us, “isn’t won.” In fact, some battles now must be fought again.

As Dr. King observed in his speech at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, “Denial of the right to vote” was at “the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.” After the Civil War, Southern politicians and the business interests that backed them feared a populist alliance between poor whites and recently emancipated former slaves, and so those with power re-engineered a segregated South around the myth of white privilege and the disenfranchisement of blacks to divide the lower classes, hold on to elected office and keep wages low.

“That’s what happened,” MLK said, “when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”

Are those words not filled with profound resonance right now? Just as Johnson outlined a Great Society in his War on Poverty, and King increasingly turned his attention to economic inequality in the last years of his life, so, today, equal access to the ballot and equal opportunity are inextricably linked. The exclusion of some from the “full blessings of American life,” as LBJ called it, eventually drags down many more.

As King said that very day in Montgomery, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Inside that long arc, however, are many injustices — injustices that sometimes seem to tilt the journey away from its righteous end. If the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was a step, or even a leap, in the right direction — as the makers of “Selma” undoubtedly feel — then isn’t the film an opportunity to also note when the journey has been thrown into reverse?

President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965; the Supreme Court emphatically weakened it in 2013. Again, those in power move to implement “ingenious discrimination”; so, again, the battle must be joined.

It seems clear the people behind “Selma” wanted to say as much, but when given the chance to say so explicitly, and in a way that would not have seemed the least bit out of place, they stopped short. The movie’s most up-to-date postscript is missing — and it is missed.

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