By Kim M. Keenan
Selma. For those of a certain age, the word Selma is evocative of a time when people stood against insurmountable odds. It is an ever-lasting illustration of why the right to vote must never be taken for granted. People of all colors bled and died so that we might exercise that quintessential American right to choose our elected leaders. We must feed this spirit to a new generation so that they might experience the freedom that comes from knowing their history, so they are not doomed to repeat it.
I watched the movie Selma through the eyes of my teenager and it hit me that they do not understand who they are because they have not been afforded the luxury of understanding how we got here. Here, meaning a society with Black mayors, senators and even a president. Here, in a society with major cracks in our “post-racial” America. To see a teenager try to make sense of the bombing of four little girls in a Birmingham church is to see innocence and armor in the eyes of a young Black male eager for a post-Trayvon society.
Ava Duvernay’s Selma is more than a movie. It is a call to action to reclaim our history in our own words. When I saw it, all I kept thinking was she took the women out of the kitchen and restored them to their pivotal role in history. Today, it seems so obvious that Black women had to be omnipresent in the struggle. I still remember hearing that Dorothy Height always placed herself in the middle of the picture lest she get cropped out later when the picture was printed. Duvernay captured all of this with a subtly so exquisite, one wonders how this story could have been told any other way.
Her critics claim that she portrayed Lyndon B. Johnson as George Wallace-light, but of course, if you change the lens, you change the view. PolitiFact, the fact-checking site, affirmed that President Obama was correct when he asserted that during LBJ’s first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote.
The fact-checking site quoted Johnson biographer Robert Caro as saying, “He had been a congressman, beginning in 1937, for eleven years, and for eleven years he had voted against every civil rights bill – against not only legislation aimed at ending the poll tax and segregation in the armed services but even against legislation aimed at ending lynching: a one hundred percent record.”
Caro added that while running for the U.S. Senate in 1948, Johnson had assailed President Harry Truman’s entire civil rights program as “an effort to set up a police state.”
It was only in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination that Johnson, picking up the torch of the slain president, rose above his past. He deserves credit for that, but he did not, as some of his supporters claim, come up with the idea of the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
Let’s celebrate Black history and not let others revise it.
February is the “season of blackness,” a time when the nation lifts up our inextricable role in American history. This is fine and well, but every day we need to remember and heed the lessons of Selma. We have a Voting Rights Act that is broken. Some of us can vote easily, some of us face challenges no less daunting than poll taxes, and others have been stripped of their right to vote or even worse coerced into believing that our vote does not matter. At the heart of the American dream, whether it is educational or economic opportunity, equal justice, or net equality, is the right to vote. Until the right to vote is automatic, permanent, portable and convenient to every adult citizen, then none of us will truly be free. We have the technology, we have capacity, we need the will.
I understand why the Oscars overlooked Ava Duvernay. She is not a director from a sexy foreign country, or a darling of the one-dimensional Oscar set. She is a woman, who like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to stir the pot in a world where voting rights have been unnecessarily curtailed, and unexplained murders and urban unrest is on the rise. Maybe her real reward is telling our story, raw and uncut in a world that sees Black images predominately through the lens of non-Black eyes. She is a reminder that we must tell our own stories, in our own words so that we can be reminded that history has a way of repeating itself when people forget. It does not mean others cannot tell our stories, it just means that our voice must be soar above the mix. Selma must march on.
Kim M. Keenan is the President and CEO of the Multicultural Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC). Prior to taking the helm at MMTC, Keenan served as General Counsel and Secretary of the NAACP. She is a past president of the National Bar Association and the District of Columbia Bar.