There are places that are holy in American history. There is Gettysburg and Shiloh. Lexington and Concord are places where our country began. Ground Zero in Manhattan and a field in Pennsylvania need no explanation. To this list, Americans need to add Selma, Alabama.
"Selma," the movie, reminds viewers in small print in the credits that it is not a documentary. It is Hollywood’s version of history. Still, it is necessary viewing. It tells us that our struggle for universal freedom and justice is not over.
For those too young to remember and for those who have not seen Ava DuVernay's film, Selma was the site of one of civil rights' toughest victories. Under the orchestration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Selma was the gathering point for a march of five days and 54 miles to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery.
The importance is not solely the march itself, but also the prologue and the epilogue. The prologue was the need for unencumbered access to the right to vote for every citizen regardless of race. The epilogue was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the movie, David Oyelowo, a British actor of Nigerian parentage, portrays King as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and an imperfect husband.
While it is a movie about King and the tactics of nonviolence, it is also a picture of violence of the system. LBJ, Gov. George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and Sheriff Jim Clark all represent various gradations of the darker side of American politics.
What is so eye-opening is to see on a giant screen the bigotry of ordinary people. For the residents of the old Confederacy, the blatant prejudice was built into the Jim Crow laws of the post-Reconstruction South. Descendants of slaves were still considered sub-human beings.
When, a generation later, we hear the words of “We shall overcome,” we have to remember what had to be overcome. It was not only the lack of the power to vote and thereby select the leaders who rule over us. It is the continuing gaps in unemployment, education, health and personal security. We remain separate but never equal. A man in his ninth decade tells the story of accident victims of different races having to wait for their separate ambulances. The transportation for the whites left empty in spite of injuries to non-whites.
Our task of universal brotherhood and sisterhood is still undone. There are those who say that the primate in us is programmed to fight anyone not part of the clan. Differences define the enemy. Hair-trigger readiness to attack does not need a specific cause.
The human mind has a great capacity to adapt. To signal safety, our brains will adjust our reactions downward to a lower state of emotional alertness. When strange becomes familiar, we accept it as one of our own. It is like fear of the water until we jump in and enjoy its buoyancy. Exotic food gives off different aromas. Only when we dive into a delicious meal do we start to ignore our apprehensions. De facto segregation keeps the pools apart.
Until we walk, talk, work and live together, we will always be afraid or angry. Anger is the stepson of fear because it empowers the nervous. If people are angry, they project a power beyond their means. Loud laughter does the same thing. Mocking others keeps the subject of the joke as a mirage and not a real person.
Today the University of Alabama is integrated; its sports teams include sons and daughters of parents who were not permitted to enroll. Today, we cheer for them.
In Selma, they screamed and shouted at them.
Yes, Selma is holy.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org