By The Rev. Gillbert H. Caldwell
It would be helpful to view the film “Selma” not with chips on our shoulders or a wish to revise the history that is being depicted in the film, but rather with the purpose of engaging in meaningful, vital conversations, which is best done with open hearts and open minds. The following insights and questions can help guide discussions.
- The Selma to Montgomery March took place in 1965. When viewing the film and engaging in conversations with others, please note that in 1963 two Methodist bishops, along with other white clergy, posted a newspaper statement asking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to leave Birmingham to allow them to resolve their racial issues. Dr.King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was his response to those members of the clergy.
- In 1965, The United Methodist Church was segregated; ie. the Central Jurisdiction. The General Commission on Religion and Race was instrumental in responding to the resistance to racial integration in the denomination in a multiplicity of ways that are worth remembering. Brown’s Chapel African Methodist Church (AME) in Selma was an important meeting place and worship center for the March. It is helpful to remember that the AME and AME Zion–historically black denominations–were formed in response to the racial insensitivity/racism of The United Methodist Church. A discussion about the movie “Selma” by United Methodists would be enriched by remembering, not denying or revising, the debates in Methodism over slavery and the owning of slaves that resulted in the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in the 1800s.
- “Selma” not only offers historical significance, but it has contemporary significance as well. This is a moment in our national history when the police abuse of black men and boys, too often leading in their deaths, is front-and-center. The police violence of “Bloody Sunday,” which is depicted in the film, is linked by many of us to today’s police violence. It is important to remember that previous generations of blacks, as well as some who are younger, remember through experience or awareness of history, the state-sponsored violence against blacks. Some members of our communities do not understand why many of us who are black, as well as our allies, have respond to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner not as isolated events, but as reminders of past violence against blacks.
- Years ago, white journalist John Howard Griffin chemically darkened his skin in order to experience the response to blackness by many non-black Americans. His book, “Black Like Me” describes his experience: would that every person who is not black seek to walk in the shoes of blacks.
- Those of us who are black would be helped if we allowed the film to help us imagine what it is to be a white advocate in the black justice journey. Unitarian Minister James Reeb was called a “white nigger” during the beating that led to his death. And, at the end of the film, we are reminded of the killing of Viola Liuzzo, a white mother, who was killed as she drove persons to their homes from the March. My son, Dale G. Caldwell has written a book, “Intelligent Influence” that suggests on matters of race and all of our human experiences, greater understanding is achieved if we explore what were the influences in our lives that are responsible for what we think, say, and do. And, in asking others, what were the influences in their lives. We have not spent enough time in prayer, reflection, study, and introspection to understand what we do and do not do in response to race. The Apostle Paul’s “good that I do, and do not” might be a helpful text as we discuss “Selma.”
- Finally, viewing and discussing “Selma” is about race and much more than race. It is the “much more” that people of faith bring to the table on any issue that makes us unique. I frequently paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr in the statement: “Most of the evil is not done by evil people, but by good people who do not know that on some issues they/we are not good.” Why or how have people of faith as well as people who rejoice in democracy allowed race, which is a social construct, to demean, diminish, and divide us in this country and around the world? What does this say about our biblical interpretation, theology, and Christology? What does this say about the foundation principles of equality, equal access, and justice? The film “Selma” could enable United Methodists as well as others to have an authentic, “what’s it all about?” moment. We are more often recognizing that historic, cultural, and institutional racism–unchecked–has justified other inequities in our nation that affect and harm persons, regardless of their race and ethnicity. An appraisal of the educational and economic life in our nation reveals that it is not just blacks, but others as well, who are victimized by the idea and practice that some persons are “more equal than others.”
I suggest and hope that a viewing and discussion of “Selma” will enable all of us to consider my paraphrase of those oft-quoted words of Martin Nieomoller; “When they came for the Jews (and others) I did not speak up because I was not a Jew or one of the others. But then when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up.”
My paraphrase shaped by “Selma” is: “When they came for the blacks, I did not speak up because I was not black. And, for those who are black, I did not speak up because I thought ‘the way to get along is to go along.’ But, when they came for me, I realized that my silence about the plight of blacks, opened the door for me to be oppressed and I am not black. Or, I am a black person who thought that distancing myself from the black struggle would allow me to escape the struggle.”
I have come by to tell you today, that “Selma” is about more than race and Selma. It is about how faith-based and justice-focused human beings can turn the nation upside down so that it will be right side up, not just for some of us, but for all of us! Is that not what Luke 4 means, when Jesus reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”?
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. Rev. Caldwell shared his experience in Selma in the post Selma: More Than a Movie.