Buzz about Oprah Winfrey’s new movie Selma is shining a light on the Selma to Montgomery March. The film, which depicts the 1965 events in Alabama, drew standing ovations at its screening in New York. Says film critic Roger Friedman, “Watching ‘Selma’ you really feel like all the plays, movies, TV shows, songs– every theater piece about King– all of it culminates in this film.” (Click here to see the trailer.)
Selma was the site of protests over voting rights. African-Americans there and in neighboring counties were routinely denied the right to vote through the use of poll taxes, threats of retribution, proficiency tests, and other manipulations. Today, that all sounds pretty vanilla, but make no mistake, Selma was a terrifyingly murderous place.
Dr. King, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and other civil rights leaders organized a march to the state capital where they hoped to confront then-Governor George Wallace. But when the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of town, state troopers—including many on horseback—violently attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas. It became known as Bloody Sunday. International news coverage of the violence led directly to the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a turning point in the civil rights struggle.
The movie’s release date (Christmas Day) is timed to take advantage of the annual focus on MLK Day in January and Black History Month in February. But this is an important bit of history regardless of one’s race. We live in an era of voter apathy, a time when we tend to take our right to vote for granted. If our students have any hope of changing the world, one would think they’ll need to reclaim the voting booth. Our kids need to know this story both for what it means to America’s history and for what it means for America’s future. “There’s a lump in your throat at the end of ‘Selma,’” says Friedman. Kids need to experience that lump in the throat.
I don’t know what the movie will be rated, but due to its mature content, I doubt any of us will ever be able to share it in our elementary or middle school classrooms. But you can take advantage of the interest in the film by using the read aloud play, Gonna Let it Shine. It depicts the Selma campaign from the perspective of Sheyann Webb, who was eight at the time. Sheyann, along with her friend Rachel West, became known as “Dr. King’s youngest freedom fighters.” Sheyann was there at the rallies, at the funerals, and on the bridge. She experienced the sting of teargas. She ran from Sheriff Clark’s posse. Her story is a great way to introduce students to the civil rights struggle and to help them appreciate their future voting rights.