Selma - 50 Years Later

The 1965 Voting Rights Act served as the crowning achievement of the modern Civil Rights Movement. With the release of “Selma” 50 years later, several experts weigh in on the significance of the demonstrations themselves, the timing of the movie, and the lessons that can still be learned given the climate of race relations today.

“The Selma demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were largely responsible for the passage of this legislation,” said Paul Murray, professor of sociology at Siena College in Loudonville, NY. Paul was able to watch an early viewing of the movie this week. “They exposed to the nation the brutality used to perpetuate white supremacy, forced the federal government to face the issue of voting rights, encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to propose a law outlawing discriminatory voter registration practices and pressured Congress to pass this critical legislation.”

“Timing of this movie is remarkable and it is sure to add to the national conversation on race. The problem right now is that there is not much of a conversation taking place as much as a series of monologues,” said John Baick, professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “Films like the superb “12 Years A Slave” won awards and provided a harrowing and humane vision of slavery. “The Butler” added a unique perspective of someone who was painfully aware of how history was passing before his eyes. But did these films shape how Americans see the present? It is quite possible for someone to watch “Selma” and be moved by its depth and humanity, for someone to reflect more deeply on the heroic struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, and for someone to be glad that the “bad old days” are over. “Selma” will not open hearts and minds that are not already open. Then again, no film can do that.”

Meg Mott, professor of political theory at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt., hopes that the changes could be real.

“’Selma,’ I gather, challenges the notion that the government will enforce the law in such a way that allows for black prosperity. The era of revolution that King called for shouldn’t be thought of as a race riot. Race riots are against police brutality and jury indifference,” said Mott. “A human rights revolution is for a world where each human being is given the opportunities to flourish. While I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m guessing that King’s vision of the era of revolution is somewhere in it. If it is, this movie will inspire conversations that put human rights at the foreground of the discussion. Could be the best thing to happen to this country.”

“As troubling as recent events have been, they’ve renewed the still much needed conversation about race relations in the United States and the movie provides an historical lens through which to assess the degree to which society, laws and attitudes have changed,” said Fred Johnson, associate professor of history at Hope College in Holland, Mich. “That same lens also provides an opportunity to make an honest examination of where work is still needed.”

“In hindsight, the Selma marches look like the high-water mark of King’s career, of non-violent direct action as a tactic and perhaps even of the civil rights movement. After 1965, racial issues became more controversial and arguably more intractable,” said James LaGrand, professor of American History at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “As hard as King and others worked to topple legal segregation and to gain voting rights for African Americans, the issues that would arise after King – de facto segregation in the North, school bussing, and affirmative action – proved even harder to address and to gain any kind of consensus around.”

Lori Brown, professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., hopes the movie not only helps progress the conversation in regard to questions of police conduct in dealing with African Americans, but also focuses on another troubling trend she’s seen with the recent changes to the Voting Rights Act.

“Although the protests over policing in the U.S. do tie in with this film and right to hold social protests, my hope is the bigger message would be about the changes in to the Voting Rights Act in these last couple of years,” Brown said. “People protested, risked injury and death and did die, in order to have this law passed and the Supreme Court and many state legislatures have simply diluted or even taken away key aspects of this law with barely a bit of public discussion. So if this film makes clear how much we have lost in terms of civil rights over the last couple of years, then that would be a huge addition.”

“The remarkable progress over the last half-century should not blind us to persistent discrimination,” added Siena’s Murray. “Racial profiling, mass incarceration, widespread poverty and growing economic inequality remain deeply-rooted problems that must be addressed.”

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Source Contact Information

Institution:
Siena College
Title:
Professor of Sociology
Email:
murray@siena.edu
Phone:
518-588-1838 (cell)
Institution:
Western New England University
Title:
Professor of History
Email:
jbaick@wne.edu
Phone:
413-782-1571 (office)
By: Meg Mott
Institution:
Marlboro College
Title:
Professor of Political Theory
Email:
megmott@marlboro.edu
Phone:
802-451-7556 (office)
Institution:
Hope College
Title:
Associate Professor of History
Email:
johnson@hope.edu
Phone:
616-403-1854 (office)
Institution:
Messiah College
Title:
Professor of American History
Email:
jlagrand@messiah.edu
Phone:
717-766-2511 ext. 7381
Institution:
Meredith College
Title:
Professor of Sociology
Email:
brownlo@meredith.edu
Phone:
919-449-6370 (cell)