So far travelled, so far still to go - Keith Roulston editorial
A week ago Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in the U.S., and I thought the current politics south of the border had done much to undermine the great man’s work. But then I pulled the movie Selma off my movie shelf.
Led by pressure to re-elect Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election, it often seems the Republican legislators in various states have been rewriting election rules to make it as hard as possible for people of colour to vote, since they’re more likely to vote Democratic. Often it seems Republicans are attempting to bring back the days when only the white people were allowed to vote.
But although we still celebrate King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, most of us have forgotten just how things were back in the late 1950s and early 1960s when there were far more barriers to trying to vote if you were Black, particularly in the southern states.
Those states broke away from the United States of America in the 1860s because northern states, under President Abraham Lincoln, wanted to end slavery. They lost the Civil War, but they managed to ignore national laws that gave Black people more rights and freedoms.
Early in Selma, we see a black woman (played by Oprah Winfrey) try to register to vote in Alabama in 1964. To prove she is literate and therefore eligible to vote, the
white voting registrar asks her to repeat the American Constitution. When she does that successfully, he comes up with a harder question. When she can’t answer it, he denies her the right to vote. One suspects few white voters could answer the same questions – but they didn’t have to.
Also near the beginning of Selma, we’re introduced to a group of Black children who are going down the steps in their southern church when a bomb, set by the Ku Klux Klan, explodes and four little girls are killed.
The movie kicks into gear when King and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders, and Black Selma residents march to the registration office to register to vote. After a confrontation in front of the courthouse, a shoving match occurs as the police go into the crowd. Winfrey’s character fights back, knocking Sheriff Jim Clark to the ground, leading to the arrest of her, King, and others.
While King is in jail, Alabama Governor George Wallace appeals to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to respect the rights of states like his. Though he disagrees, Johnson has his own priorities and he and King are often opposed.
Following his release from prison, King agrees with other Black leaders that there should be a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, Alabama to to support allowing Black people to register to vote. King wasn’t with the group, however (he was home with his wife Coretta), when they are confronted and attacked by Sheriff Clark and his troops as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dozens were injured, including the future Congressman John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who was beaten.
There were several other interrupted attempts to hold the march but the national publicity of the attack by Clark’s armed police swelled support for the march from across the U.S., with many white people joining the protest. The movie shows that each time they crossed that bridge, the number of supporters grew, until Clark and his men simply stepped aside.
It’s amazing the changes (eventually supported by President Johnson) brought. As more Black people voted, people like Sheriff Clark lost their jobs. Often southern states are now headed by Black governors.
The old sentiments haven’t died out completely, however. People like former President Trump and his supporters often resent that Black, Latino and Asian voters have different priorities than they do. They have done everything they can to make it difficult for non-white people to vote, whether it is restrictions on mail-in ballots or reducing the number of polling places in less affluent neighbourhoods so people have to stay in line for hours (and are sometimes forbidden to be given water or food).
It’s disappointing that after more than 50 years there are still any restrictions to try to make it harder to vote south of the border. (It makes our own system seem so much more advanced.)
The next few years will tell us much about our southern neighbours. It’s possible that Donald Trump and his willing helping hands will turn back the clock and make the U.S. less a beacon of democracy than it has been for the last century. On the other hand, here’s hoping there are enough people who believe in democracy among our neighbours to fight the battles that must be fought – and won. Only time will tell but here’s wishing them luck.