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A call for a better society

All Americans must walk across the bridge together.

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    MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. AND SUPPORTERS CROSSED THE EDMUND PETTUS BRIDGE IN SELMA, ALA., HEADING FOR MONTGOMERY, ALA., MARCH 21, 1965.
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Selma is etched in the American consciousness. Eight days after the fateful encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Johnson called that moment “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

“Selma” is also an important film directed by Ava DuVernay and featuring an inspiring portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. by David Oyelowo. I’m no specialist in movies, so I’m not here to argue about whether “Selma” should have been more decorated at the Oscars, but this is a film that I suspect will leave you neither tearless nor feeling hopeless. 

For generations to come, Selma will be remembered. It was the moment when nonviolent protest was met with police brutality so shocking that it altered the thinking and laws of a nation. What happened on March 7, 1965, might have slipped away as another in a long list of racist incidents in the Jim Crow South except for a crucial new element: the media. Cameras and reporters were watching. ABC interrupted its Sunday night movie, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” to show footage of what transpired. Imagine you were a viewer that night, tuned into the suffering of Jews in 1940s Germany and suddenly seeing the real-time suffering of blacks in 1960s America.

In the days that followed, newscasts, newspapers, and news magazines brought searing images of the indefensible beatings of peacefully marching black Americans into living rooms across the nation. That broadened the civil rights movement into a national cause. (I remember Life magazine’s eight-page photo spread as especially powerful in my family’s home.) Eight days later, when L.B.J. spoke of Selma in introducing voting rights legislation to a joint session of Congress, he compared it to the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Carmen Sisson’s Monitor cover story on Selma (click here to read it)  as it approaches the half-century anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” helps transform Selma from a moment in American history into a present-day community where people live, work, pray, and hope for a better life. Many retain vivid memories of the civil rights struggle. All yearn to build a new Selma untainted by either the overt racism they fought in 1965 or the more subtle racism that followed.

King is remembered today for his courage and eloquence. He was also a trenchant social critic. On March 25, 1965, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, he offered a devastating critique of a system that had forced poor blacks and poor whites to compete with each other and thus remain in economic bondage. If you have time to read his whole speech, you’ll see that he was more than a saint or poet. He saw racism as not born in blood or belief but in calculated exploitation.

The anthem to the movie “Selma” is a moving song by rapper Common and singer John Legend. But King’s message was more than a cry for freedom and justice. It was a call for white and black Americans to cross the Pettus Bridge together, to build a better society “at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” 

John Yemma can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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