No citizen of this country can call themselves blameless because we are all responsible for our fellow man. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s said that we need to learn from the past lest we repeat it. Certainly, to learn from it, we must first know it. Selma provides an opportunity to do both. It gives us a look into a grievous past filled with heinous, sickening wrongs (I love my Southern roots, but I was ashamed and embarrassed of where I came from when I saw Selma in a way I never have been before). And it shows us the courageous men and women who fought to change those wrongs, and the beautiful way in which they did so. Light shines brightest in the darkness, and so it was that the light and truth and love that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers stood for and themselves were in this dark time shone with blinding brilliance, a stunning contrast to the darkness of hate around them.
It’s an important piece of history, but more than that, it’s an instructive piece of history. We may not be dealing with segregation today or the right to vote, but that doesn’t mean we have matured beyond these issues. The soul of man hasn’t changed. The only thing that has really changed is the face of the issues (not their heart). We still struggle with hate. We still struggle to treat all men as our brothers, women as our sisters. We still struggle to understand and own up to our deep responsibility to our fellow man. The issues in Selma are not issues past, but issues past, present and future, if we are only willing to be honest with ourselves. Not only are the issues the same, but Martin Luther King Jr.’s response to them is still as relevant today as it was then.
Here are 5 key lessons for today we can learn from our past as shown in Selma.
Awareness is Key
Martin Luther King, Jr. was famous for his non-violent approach. He organized marches and protests and sit-ins and encouraged people to act, without acting out. He knew that a key factor to winning the war on racism was awareness, so he urged people to continue to calmly, non-violently, do things that drew attention to the prejudice and double standards that had been so broadly accepted. Doing so often sparked a violent reaction, granted, but that, in turn, brought more awareness. People began to see how wrong things were. Their awareness was raised in two key ways: 1. Saturation. The front pages of the papers were constantly filled with new reports of the brutality railed against the non-violent demonstrators. 2. Indignation. As the stories unfolded, it became evident that the protestors were doing no harm, but were, rather, the victims. More and more, the nation began to feel the weight of the crimes done against the African-Americans and to sympathize with them.
Ironically, the more the racist bigots resisted segregation, the more they endeared the nation to the African-American cause. Had they ignored the march to Selma, things would have taken longer to change. Their hateful, violent, unwarranted response to the peaceful marchers drew the attention of the nation and the president. It made people aware, and when they were aware, they felt compelled to act. They couldn’t claim ignorance or turn a blind eye anymore. In an ironic and surprising twist of fate, it was the ones most opposed to the idea of the equality of man who are most responsible for forcing the issue of equality and bringing it into being.
We ARE Our Brother’s Keeper
Who murdered Jimmy Lee, Jackson? We know a state trooper under … orders …but how many others people’s fingers were on that trigger? Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the bible and stays silent before his white congregation. Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? Every Negro man and woman who stands by without joining this fight as their brothers and sisters are brutalized, humiliated, and ripped from this Earth. – MLK JR.
As violence broke out time and again against their non-violent demonstrations, King had opportunity to speak—to the press, to churches, to the president, to the public… and as he spoke, he reminded people that they were their brother’s keeper. It’s not a popular message. He didn’t make people feel better by telling them that it wasn’t their fault because they weren’t there. When Jimmy Lee was murdered, he didn’t pinpoint the responsible party to the man that pulled the trigger. No. He said that the police chief who gave the orders was just as responsible as the policeman who pulled the trigger. And he kept going—he pointed out how lawmen and politicians and even preachers were responsible. If they preach the word of God but ignore God’s teaching against racism and prejudice, they too are responsible. He went farther than that, however. He even pointed his finger at his own people, at those who chose not to get involved.
It’s reminiscent of something Jesus said. “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand… Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’” (Matthew 12:25, 30).
The second march to Selma was compromised of one-third Caucasian participants. People came from all over the country to stand with King and the other marchers. As one pastor from Boston explained, “I couldn’t just stand by after Dr. King put out that call to clergy. I just couldn’t.” The battle had been going on for a while now, but it was Dr. King’s challenge to the nation which moved people to action. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we DO have a responsibility to our fellow man. We need to remember that their fight is our fight and that we must get involved.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. – Isaiah 58: 6-10
We have a Social Responsibility to Do More
Not only did Dr. King remind America that they had a responsibility to their fellow man to get involved, but he also confronted them when they thought they had done enough—most notably with the President. Johnson had done a lot to help the African-American cause. He had supported desegregation and the right to vote, etc. He had done a lot and was content with that, but King knew he could do more. He didn’t let Johnson believe the lie that he had done all he could do. He was the President of the United States. He could do more. He could stop people from expressing their hatred; he could stop the violence.
We like to do like to ourselves in this same way. We tell ourselves things like, “I’ve done all I can do.” Or, “There’s nothing I can do.” Or, “It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” We tell ourselves these things, but they aren’t true. We can do more and what we do does matter and does make a difference.
The President, to his credit, realized Dr. King was right. Not long after that, he challenges others to do more. He has a very similar conversation with the powers that be in Alabama. “Try harder, councilor. They’re protesting about the right to vote and the way they are treated in your state. And that’s on your watch.” The politicians and leaders in Alabama had been mimicking his actions. They were saying it was out of their hands, saying they had done all they could do. They just “couldn’t help it” if violence broke out—it was the protestor’s fault for pushing people’s buttons, anyway. The President pulls a Dr. King and calls their bluff. They are the authorities in their state. It’s on their watch. They aren’t victims, they are leaders and lawmakers and law enforcers…they had the power to effect change.
Leadership is a trickle down thing. When the President realized he could do more, he challenged those beneath him to do more… and in no time change became a reality. It didn’t start with him though. It started with someone who wasn’t the president, challenging the president. So, whether you’re the leader or someone who is under the leader, you can do more, and you can challenge others to do more.
Think about your Legacy
President Johnson came to a definitive turning point when he tried to talk to his Alabama leadership. When he saw their bigotry in all its truth, he realized that he had to make a choice—a choice about his legacy. Someday history was either going to say he sided with Dr. King and his call to equality, or he sided with the likes of those monstrous Alabama lawmen and the racists who followed them. “We shouldn’t be focused on 1965. We should be focusing on 1985. What are we gonna be remembered for? … Well I’ll be d***ed if I’ll let the history books put me in with the likes of you.”
If he’d only focused on what would make him popular in the moment, he might have done differently, but President Johnson started thinking about his Legacy. He wanted to be known for doing the right thing, not just the easy thing or the popular thing or the thing that would ensure career.
Obedience to God
There are several moments in the movie in which we see King’s willingness to be obedient to God, no matter what it cost him. He stopped the second march and after a while in prayer, decided to turn around and go back. This was not a popular decision. There were people from all over the nation there to march in solidarity with King, and he cancelled it. But, as the pastor from Boston said, “He kneeled down, prayed to God, got an answer and followed it and I respect him for it.” King was teaching everyone that the most important thing wasn’t stubbornly following through but always, in everything, yielding to God.
Later, the Attorney General pleads with him to make some changes to his plans—plans that would put him at risk of assassination (a very real threat). King’s response, however, shows his fierce commitment to obedience to God, even at the risk of his own life. “I’m no different than anybody else. I want to live long and be happy…but I’m not focused on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. [I may die, but] as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it for me.”
His statement is reminiscent of some of Paul’s writings. For example:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. – Philippians 1:20-24
The ultimate goal isn’t to survive. It isn’t to preserve life—it’s to live well. And the only way to truly live well is to live in obedience to God, the one who made our life and designed us with a purpose. No one would say that Dr. King didn’t live well. His was a life surrendered in obedience to God and it was in that obedience that he changed our world.
What does it mean for us?
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched Selma, what would I have done if I had been there in that time? And then I found myself wondering, what are the issues of OUR time? In twenty to fifty years from now, what will be the issue(s) that they make a movie about? Is there an issue of hatred and racism or prejudice in our time that I need to fight against? Is it an issue within our nation, or is it something at large in the world? What are the great injustices of our time?
It begins with awareness. I must, you must, we must become aware. We must be willing to set aside our comfort zones and be willing to really see the ugly truth. Then we have to help others become aware. Part of that awareness is knowing the issue, the other part is becoming aware of the fact that we have a responsibility to get involved, to be our brother’s keeper, the defender of the weak, the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. We are our brother’s keeper. So we have to be willing to do more. We have to be willing to stand with our brothers and sisters who are suffering in the world and work to end their suffering…even if it means suffering ourselves. We do this because we love our fellow man. We do this because we want to leave a legacy and we do this because we are obedient to God and He calls us to defend the defenseless and spend ourselves on behalf of the poor. We do this because He calls us love our fellow man and to be a good Samaritan and do unto others as we would be done by. We do this because it’s what Jesus did for us.