‘Selma’ reveals the power of serpents, doves

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 11, 2015

By Mark Wineka

SALISBURY — The takeaways from “Selma,” the movie playing to large audiences this weekend, are as complicated as the civil rights era it depicts.

One thing that struck Kim Shropshire was that 50 years isn’t that long a time.

“Really, it was yesterday — and it’s today,” she said.

Close to 30 people who saw a late matinee showing of “Selma” in Salisbury Saturday joined Mission House pastor Anthony Smith afterward at the Firewater restaurant to discuss the movie.

“Selma” held nothing back in showing the violence inflicted on the black residents of Selma, Ala., and their supporters from across the country as they fought for voting rights in a state making it almost impossible for blacks to vote.

“If love is being a Christian and turning the other cheek,” Chris Sifford said, “I don’t know if I can be a Christian.”

Time after time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others had to resist striking back physically to follow a strategy of non-violence in the face of outright murder.

Smith and others remarked on the strength, and in the end, the wisdom behind the civil rights movement’s not responding to violence with violence. The movie conveyed their feelings of helplessness, along with their resolve to stay the course, he said. He said King demonstrated the power of both a serpent and a dove.

The dove power came into play in staying non-violent against some horrendous acts. King resorted to serpent power when he continually pressured President Lyndon Johnson to introduce legislation to help the civil rights cause.

Smith also spoke to the organization displayed by King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“They just didn’t show up and start marching on the street,” Smith said. Instead, the leadership planned things weeks and months ahead of time, even sending advance people in to instruct protesters on non-violence tactics.

When Smith asked for other takeaways from the film, he heard words from the audience such as “white supremacy,” “unity,” “organization,” “protest,” and vote.”

Miriam Keller, who said she loved the movie, spoke of how impressed she was that one man — King — fought so hard to give people what they were supposed to have anyway — the right to vote. People were persecuted and died in the fight, she noted.

“Yet so many of us don’t vote,” Keller said.

Smith noted that half the population of Selma at the time was black. King wasn’t just trying to make it possible for blacks to vote in Alabama, Smith said, he wanted them to have political power and an instrument for change.

Smith said “Selma was “a very powerful movie,” and it reinforced for him the importance of not standing on the sidelines.

“It’s always been a struggle,” he said. “Nothing falls from the sky. People have had to do something.”

Ken Foxx said the movie showed him again the steep price for freedom and change.

Many of the people who saw the movie kept coming back to a scene in which President Johnson and Ala. Gov. George Wallace are at the White House, discussing what to do about a planned voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Alex Clark said the scene reveals “the psychosis of racism” that was at play, especially through Wallace, who told Johnson he didn’t care about blacks or even what his legacy would be in relation to African Americans.

“He said, ‘Their lives mean nothing to me,'” Clark noted.

In the end, it was Johnson who introduced the Voting Rights Act, which also cleared the way, after two previous attempts, for a successful 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. But overall, the movie does not paint a flattering picture of the president. Many at the restaurant thought that was refreshing and probably realistic.

Nick Means said LBJ didn’t make his decision to go with the Voting Rights Act out of the goodness of his heart. Rather, it finally made sense politically. Normally, Hollywood would hide that, Means said.

Several people mentioned that in many movies about African Americans done by white directors, producers and writers, the protagonists annoyingly always turn out to be white people.

That kind of thing will keep happening “until we write our own movies,” Mercedes Harrington said. “Only we can tell our stories. They portray us in a way they think we are.”

“Selma” has a black director. Smith said it took Oprah Winfrey, who has a role in the movie, to stand behind “Selma” for the project to see the light of day.

Several of the people at Firewater mentioned how they had taken their children or grandchildren to see “Selma.” Cynthia Bailey said she pointed out to her grandchildren how blacks in that era dressed smartly and carried themselves with pride.

Smith and others mentioned the spirituality displayed by King and asked why King’s kind of Christianity, which focused on things such as poverty and injustice, was not present in today’s black churches.

Jeanie Anderson said the movie showed how King “really needed his times of solitude.” Toni Smith said one thing she learned from the movie was King’s close friendship with singer Mahalia Jackson. One scene has a sleepless King calling Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing one of his favorite hymns.

Overall, some of the moviegoers said “Selma” downplayed the tensions among the various civil rights groups, such as  the SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating. Committee.

Russell Swilley said the contradictions behind racism 50 years ago were clearer. There were “white” signs and “black” signs, he noted.

Today, African Americans are still searching for ideological clarity, Swilley said, but one thing has always been true — a black agenda is all-encompassing and lifts everybody up.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.