The movie Selma has been praised as the first major movie on the history of the civil rights movement. Most critics agree that Selma is powerful and impressive, nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. But if there is one area where the movie disappoints, it is in drawing out the connection between the civil rights movement and religion. And if there’s one thing we need to remember about Selma, it is precisely this dimly understood connection between liberal religion and social justice in America. The storyline of the movie follows the civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, in February and March of 1965. It is an important history lesson worthy to be…
The movie Selma has been praised as the first major movie on the history of the civil rights movement. Most critics agree that Selma is powerful and impressive, nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. But if there is one area where the movie disappoints, it is in drawing out the connection between the civil rights movement and religion. And if there’s one thing we need to remember about Selma, it is precisely this dimly understood connection between liberal religion and social justice in America.
The storyline of the movie follows the civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, in February and March of 1965. It is an important history lesson worthy to be recalled, although as director Ava DuVernay maintains, Selma sometimes strays from the facts in service of a larger truth. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King, Jr., spearheaded three marches from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate in favor of voting rights for African Americans. The campaign ended with King’s speech at the Capitol building before a crowd of 25,000 people. While Selma has received some criticism for the way it construes President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role as King’s putative nemesis, the Selma campaign undoubtedly led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
Religion surely plays a big role in the movie. Selma is loaded with gospel music, scripture is frequently quoted, people are kneeling and praying in public, King is depicted preaching and many scenes are set during church services. The movie also shows the slaying of Boston Unitarian minister James Reeb by white supremacists. (Like many other clergy and laity, Reeb had traveled to Selma to aid the campaign.)
But when it comes to the intimate connection between the civil rights movement and religion, Selma unfortunately doesn’t deliver. Despite all the religious iconography of Selma, religion is often little more than a skeletal stage set to provide a little context or drama, and King’s Christian language seems to be little more than the rhetorical flourishes of an artful political motivator. And yet King and his fellow Selma protesters’ faith is a central part of the story. It was the protesters’ shared belief in a biblical prophetic call for justice that drew them to Alabama. Religious faith — their belief in God’s presence in this critical juncture in human history — served as the well-spring of the protesters’ political imagination. The movie misses how a broad coalition of people of different faith traditions who shared a sense of accountability before their God carried the civil rights movement forward.
This insufficiency becomes apparent in one of the key scenes of the movie. In it King cordially welcomes the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, New York Archbishop Iakovos, as a participant in Selma. Next, we find King in the midst of other religious leaders. The movie shows Catholic nuns, men in clerical collars, Archbishop Iakovos and one elderly Jewish person wearing a kippah. The Archbishop and the elderly Jew are prominently placed in the front row when the protest march begins.
This scene alludes to one of the iconic images of the civil rights struggle. The original photograph shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel next to Nobel Peace Prize laureate and United Nations diplomat Ralph Bunche to King’s immediate right, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founders of the SCLC, on Heschel’s right. Just behind King and Bunche stands reformed Rabbi Maurice Davies. The also displays a Catholic nun further to the left of the photograph. All are wearing Hawaiian flower leis — an ancient sacred symbol of peace between opposing clans.
In the movie the protesters aren’t wearing flower leis. I don’t point this out to quibble with the director’s costume choice but rather to draw attention to the curious absence of the spiritual sentiment that held these marchers together. They firmly believed that only a religious faith capable of transcending clannish religious divisions could challenge the deep injustices of American society. This confidence in a divine love that made the overcoming of such religious parochialism possible swelled in the hearts of the marchers and anchored the close friendship between King and Heschel. The activists truly felt that the many faces of God had their eyes on Selma. No statement better captures the essence of this scene than the one Heschel made when reflecting on the event some time later:
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
In those few words we find a pointed commentary on the civil rights movement as well as an explanation of what made it possible. The march from Selma to Montgomery stands as a symbol for the fusion of faith and activism, the merger of deep spirituality with the fight for social and racial justice. This union is precisely what Heschel wants us to understand. When protest and prayer fully come together, the divine is miraculously present among people. In those rare moments, people realize that they are part of something that transcends the now, and that they are part of some greater plan of history. Heschel’s friend King was certain that the divine that reveals itself in those moments is the focal point of all the great religious traditions of the world. As he said in his 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, there is a “Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality” that can be tapped into through love and justice.
Selma does many remarkable things beautifully and powerfully, but the one message it fails to communicate is the one most central to the civil rights movement and most needed in our day; namely, this fusion of the spiritual with the political. In Selma, no religious imagination transcends reality, and no legs are praying. Perhaps this silence has something to do with the harmful connection between religion and politics that dominates the headlines these days — bigoted Christian fundamentalists in America, fanatical Islamic Jihadists in Europe and the Middle East, hawkish Jewish religious nationalists in Israel and irate Hindutva radicals in South Asia. But all of these recent outbursts of religious extremism cannot change the close connection of faith and protest in America’s civil rights movement. In fact, these extremes make knowing this history all the more urgent.
King (along with Heschel and the other interfaith activists in Selma) remind us that protest and prayer do belong together. Faith without activism is selfish, and activism without faith risks running empty. The image of the march still stands as a symbol of the need for broad coalitions across the boundaries of faith and race to bring about social change and justice. The march from Selma testifies to the fact that human legs can indeed pray.