What Activists Can Learn From ‘Selma’


Selma‘s resonance with current events — its inherent commentary on the ingrained hatefulness of American racism, on our country’s tradition of protests for civil rights, and on aggression by law enforcement towards black Americans — will clearly be a hot topic of discussion for weeks to come. I watched the stunning Selma as a sometime-activist and a longtime reporter on activist movements. And one of the qualities that particularly made this depiction of a sliver of Civil Rights Movement history feel so real and urgent to me was its lens on the organizing process: its debates, its pitfalls, the internal questioning, the way the leaders were jockeying with the press and trying to reach sympathetic ears in places of power.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches in the film are important, but there are just as many intense scenes of the visionary leader at meetings, including impromptu organizing summits in jail and in car rides and the back rooms of churches, in which he and his aides hammer out strategy and provocation and negotiation all at once. Rather than making one side of these internal debates look better, Ava DuVernay has shown the complexity of these processes without overt judgment. And her film has inspired activism already.

The film, and the unforgettable history it chronicles, have so much to say about the mechanics and process of change-making. Since we stand on the verge of a new wave of civil rights organizing, it’s not unwise to break down some of Selma‘s lessons.

1. One person’s “co-opting, showboating” mainstream professional activist is another person’s dangerous subversive. It’s hard to imagine that local SNCC activists found Martin Luther King and his group of seasoned, accomplished colleagues to be unwelcome “appropriators” in Selma, intruding on their territory. But so it was, and so often goes in movements where there’s always someone at the grassroots doing bitter, thankless work, and someone else who has the gift of media savvy and (rightly) receives public adoration. By the same token, it’s equally difficult to picture MLK — whom even actual racists now claim to embrace — being called a degenerate and a radical and harassed by the FBI, but it’s true. Most people in power found his tactics, nonviolent though they were, overtly threatening. As they were.

2. Movements succeed when the people directly affected by injustice are centered. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Selma’s narrative rightly focuses almost entirely on both organic and organized black resistance to vicious oppression, while acknowledging the sidelined role that white people played: for the most part they were late-joiners, there to bolster the cause in the media, protect the group of marchers from the most vicious attacks by police (though not from vigilantes). As the film shows, several white activists cared enough, or were unlucky enough, to die for the cause, but it wasn’t their cause. Allies are important to activism, but they belong alongside and behind the directly oppressed.

3. There are always people “on the inside” who are sympathetic, but they need to be pushed. Selma demonstrates that President Johnson’s aides, both near him and far below him, were at least somewhat more open to King’s agenda than their boss was. But they were still institution-bound people, unwilling to risk their necks: they needed fuel from the marchers and the media to be able to press their case in meetings and decision-making moments. Forging a connection with those key insiders, as King and his fellow leaders wisely did, while also keeping up pressure in the streets, helped push the cause forward by leaps and bounds.

4. Oftentimes, everyone arguing with each other in an organizing meeting is right at the same time. Some of my favorite scenes in the film involve the activists from SNCC and SCLC and local church groups hashing out priorities in terms of safety vs. action vs. optics vs. the morale of protesters. In many of these arguments, King was both right and wrong, and so were his critics. And when we see activists today arguing about tactics in the face of oppression, we (or at least I) can often understand both sides. Activism necessitates trade-offs by its very nature.

5. Militants, moderates, and in-betweens are part of a change-making ecosystem. All kinds of ideologies have a role to play. In the film, Malcolm X acknowledges this to Coretta Scott King, saying that his fearsome radicalism will make people turn to Martin Luther King, Jr., as a rational alternative. And Lyndon Johnson in the film repeats this as a refrain: better King than the more militant alternative. Just as radical socialists pushed government in the Roosevelt era to embrace the New Deal, so did angrier activists in Selma (some of whom were staging their own marches, and less peaceful ones, at that, during the events of the film) make King — hardly an actual moderate — into a more palatable alternative.

6. Our great revolutionary leaders will get sanitized in the next generation, while the public ignores the real meaning of their message. If you’ve actually read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing beyond “I Have a Dream,” you’ll know how challenging and subversive his thoughts and theories were, including condemnation of white liberal complacency and embrace of direct action protests that are meant to disrupt business as usual, spread social discomfort upwards to the protected classes, and provoke “crisis” and “confrontation.” He wasn’t just about personal lack of prejudice, but about confronting a racist system and its white enablers. Only in history has his legacy been sanitized and absorbed into the dominant narrative. But that is a sign of how much his movement achieved.

7. Nonviolent resistance doesn’t mean passivity, timidity or deference to authority. King’s version of nonviolent direct action took safety into account, but didn’t court peace. Rather, by provoking the expected attacks on dignified protesters, his movement purposefully created martyrs. Furthermore, these nonviolent resistors didn’t respect all laws and property. Even the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the scene of multiple confrontations between demonstrators and state troopers in Selma, was deemed property off-limits to marchers. This was an arbitrary distinction that was justly ignored. In other words, just because law enforcement set boundaries, didn’t mean nonviolent protesters followed them. As King himself famously wrote, “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Amen. This is a film that will give comfort to activists and, one hopes, help those who don’t do political organizing understand what goes into the process of making the world a less unjust place.