I recently had the opportunity to view the much-talked-about move “Selma.” It definitely lived up to the many glowing reviews it has received. The artful and moving way it depicts the struggle for black voting rights that found its epicenter in Selma, Ala., makes clear why Martin Luther King described the events in Selma as, “the shining moment in the conscience of man.” Tragedy was truly turned into triumph.
As the movie ends, it does so with the profound and powerful words of King being spoken in Montgomery, the termination point of the Selma march. A small number had made the majority of the 50-mile journey with King from Selma to Montgomery (the group’s size was limited by court order). However, standing on the steps of the state capitol to deliver his eagerly awaited oration, King looked out over a crowed that numbered in the tens of thousands.
George Wallace, peering out at the crowd through his blinds remarked that day, “My God, it looks like an army.” King’s words to his foot soldiers of peace did not disappoint.
Not only did he speak to the rightness of blacks obtaining the vote, King spoke to the core fount from which such injustice sprang — racial segregation. Yet, racial segregation at its root, noted King, was about economic exploitation, a tool to maximize the profits of rich whites at the expense of poor whites and blacks in the South.
“Segregation of the races,” King observed in his speech, “was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the Southern masses divided and Southern labor the cheapest in the land . . .. If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.”
This was nothing new for King, in many of his sermons and public speeches he often broached the subject of the utter economic despair many Southern whites toiled under, and how their economic liberation was tied up in black equality.
Whether it was the Populist movement of the 19th century when black and white farmers began to come together and form an economic and political block to thwart the economic dominance of the white aristocracy, or a nascent inter-racial labor movement being formed out of the depths of work in the mines and mills of northern Alabama, the appeals to racial superiority and the inherent inferiority of the black man, always allowed rich whites to bring their poorer brethren back into the fold.
As King so eloquently put it, “And when his [the poor white man’s] wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”
When I look at many of the political struggles to advance progressive reforms in our state, whether it be for Medicaid expansion, increased education funding, tax reform, etc…, I’m always mindful of King’s words and how he often expressed the power that lay in blacks and whites in the South realizing their prosperity is so incredibly intertwined. When it comes to the government giving a handout or a hand up we instinctively couch such debates, even if just mentally or perceptually, in terms of black and white. Thinking the former will achieve some sort of advantage, and the latter put at a disadvantage.
But in actuality, progressive reforms and programs are designed to lift all, and in most Southern states, because there is generally a numerically white majority, many more whites will often benefit. Unfortunately though, generations of antagonistic thinking has led to a lack of understanding.
On March 21, 1965, the grand orator articulated a profound and lingering dilemma. He declared, “They segregated Southern money from the poor whites. . . . They segregated Southern minds from honest thinking. . . And they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
On Feb. 22, the movie “Selma” may or may not receive an Academy Award for Best Picture. But I believe one thing it deserves credit for is reigniting “A Call to Conscience,” a discussion and plan of action about how we, the inheritors of the fruits of those who labored for freedom and equality, can create that society of brotherhood and justice that King so passionately believed possible.