For one retired United Methodist pastor, the movie “Selma” offers a chance to remember his participation in the Selma to Montgomery March
By The Rev. Gillbert H. Caldwell
My family and I recently saw the movie “Selma” at the AMC Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem. I have twice lived and worked in Harlem, first from 1969 to 1973 at The Ministerial Interfaith Association of Harlem, and again from 1994 to 1997 at St. Marks United Methodist Church. It was a joy to view the film, which is about a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, with an interracial group of viewers in the “New Harlem.”
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I was one of the many religious leaders who responded to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to come to Selma and march on Tuesday, March 9, 1965, the Tuesday after “Bloody Sunday.” On the chartered plane that flew the clergy and other leaders from Boston to Selma was The Rev. James Reeb, the white Unitarian Minister who, on that Tuesday evening in 1965, was beaten and later died from his injuries. In the film he was called a “white nigger” for participating in the movement. I chose to participate in his memorial service at Arlington Street Unitarian Church in Boston.
The March to Montgomery did not begin that Tuesday because arrangements for police protection for us as we marched had not been arranged. Instead, we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, said a prayer, and then returned to Selma. That day has since become known as “Turnaround Tuesday.”
Following Turnaround Tuesday, I had to return to Boston, where I was active in the Massachusetts Unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS), led by The Rev. Virgil Wood, a Baptist Minister. He was a member of the national board of SCLC and was instrumental in inviting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Boston to support our challenges of the Boston School Committee for its racial policies. Virgil was also responsible for my marching next to Dr. King on our way to Boston Common and for the opportunity to introduce Dr. King before he spoke to the rally participants. When I rejoined the Selma to Montgomery March on March 24, 1965, the day before we marched into Montgomery, I would present a check of monies raised in Boston to support the March.
Once in Alabama, I would meet Harry Belafonte, who himself had invited several well-known entertainers from Hollywood and elsewhere to participate in the March and share in a rally the night before we marched into Montgomery. I have never forgotten sitting on a make-shift stage with Belafonte and a number of well-known entertainers. Belafonte, in his autobiography, “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance,” describes the rain and the mud of that day and evening, and lists the names of the celebrities who were present. However, he fails to write that on that stage with him and the stars was a 31-year-old Methodist preacher from Boston named Gil Caldwell–a man with no musical, comedic, or acting ability, but with a deep commitment to racial justice–who would never forget that day.
It is important to remember that the film “Selma” is a movie and not a documentary. Whatever squabbles there are about the portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the film ought to fade into insignificance when placed next to the portrayal of Martin Luther King and this key moment in civil rights movement. Dr. King was a great American, and the movement–an American movement–validated the American freedoms of speech, protest, and assembly.
Every American ought to see and discuss this film.
Rev. Caldwell has shared a collection of insights and questions to help guide discussions about the film. You can view them here.
The Rev. Gillbert H. Caldwell is a retired United Methodist pastor. Rev. Caldwell was active in the Massachusetts unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and participated in the civil rights movement throughout the nation.