By Dan Carson
My wife and I recently saw Selma, the Oscar-nominated movie recreating the series of civil rights protests, led by Martin Luther King, that led to breakthrough federal legislation making it possible for black citizens in segregated Southern states to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
The flick packed remarkable emotional punch, especially considering that it depicted events from fifty years ago. Its abrupt opening sequences captured the national shockwaves from the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, amidst efforts to integrate public places in that city, and the tumultuous events afterward that rolled across the South.
Interspersed with actual news television footage from “Bloody Sunday,” Selma reenacts the savage billy-clubbing and tear-gassing by white authorities of peaceful marchers crossing the Andrew Pettus Bridge to protest voter registration practices that had persistently shut them out of the right to participate in their government.
Selma also captures some emotional high points, including the glory of victory for the interracial protesters who were finally allowed to march to the Alabama state capitol, U.S. troops at the ready to protect them, after a federal judge ordered state and local authorities to stand down.
Some viewing the movie will rightfully celebrate the real progress that has been made in civil rights in this country. (These hard-won battles for civil rights in the South are described in greater detail in a trilogy of books written by journalist and historian Taylor Branch.) The poll taxes and “voucher” requirements that hindered black voter registration are long gone. We have an African-American president today, in part, because black citizens are no longer disenfranchised and because a more open and integrated society allowed a poor kid from Hawaii to attend one of the country’s most prestigious law schools.
For me, though, the movie triggered another emotional reaction – the disappointment that our society’s racial tensions persist so virulently after all this time.
The recent eruption of rioting and anger in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and the continued infighting over immigration policy, have stirred up raw feelings about the state of racial relations today. We seem intermittently preoccupied with issues of race and ethnicity, such as whether law enforcement practices are discriminatory and whether and how undocumented immigrants should be integrated into the U.S. economy and health care systems.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I cut my teeth as a college journalist in a racially integrated newsroom. We celebrated the appointment of a young woman as our managing editor, and I took pride in my first-ever appointment of an openly gay colleague to a prominent editorship. Surely, we thought, if we can push aside the onus of discrimination, we would move on as a society beyond such differences once “we” were running things. As a college student and young working adult in the 70s, my friends and I idealistically (and naively) thought that America’s racial problems would fade away once “we “ took over.
Of course, “we” (and I) were wrong, as we now know. The release of Selma seems like a good moment to dwell on what, if anything, can still be done to create the colorblind society many of us hoped for. Is there something in the fiber of human beings that dooms us to be forever preoccupied with our differences instead of our common bonds? Are there specific actions we can take as a society– collectively or as individuals–that would ameliorate these resurgent racial tensions?
One can argue that the hyperbolic world of cable TV news and social media is making things worse by constantly harping on race as a front-burner concern. Are we the collective victims of a media-driven apartheid that divides us by promoting stories about racial conflict as a way to satisfy cravings for attention and good ratings? Would things get better if we quieted down about this disharmony and focused more on…anything else?
I wish it were that simple. This country’s racial divide is not as severe as it was in the era depicted in Selma, but racial problems linger and are real. Ignoring real problems doesn’t solve them, and indeed often makes them worse in the long run.
Part of the solution may be governmental actions that promote an economy that gives everyone a piece of the action, that address festering disparities in educational quality, and that build bridges between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
But sometimes well-intended government actions unintentionally make things worse. Sometimes, the most important things we can do are personal and small in scale, our daily efforts to bend over backwards to be even-handed and considerate of others regardless of our differences. Role-modeling positive and non-discriminatory attitudes for our kids might be the most effective way to resolve these kinds of conflicts over time.
What is the root of the problem here? What’s the best approach to solving it? I suspect that Davis Vanguard readers have a lot to say on this subject, and I look forward to hearing your views.
Dan Carson graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 15 years, including a decade as the paper’s Capitol bureau chief. He also contributed to California’s now-defunct journalism review magazine, called “feed/back,” for many years.