Recently, several SEBTS faculty together watched the new movie “Selma.” We asked Walter Strickland, Special Advisor to the President for Diversity and Instructor of Theology, and Nathan Finn, Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies, to provide their shared yet unique perspectives. In this first post, Walter gives his thoughts. Come back next week for Nathan’s thoughts.
My nerves had already gotten the best of me before arriving at the box office. As I responded “Selma” to the question, “What movie would you like to see tonight?” my anxieties were piled high as I anticipated experiencing the struggle that affords me the opportunity to write this very review. In addition, as a Christ-follower, I wondered how Hollywood film writers would portray the role of Christianity in such an important historical epoch. As an African American, I feared the exaggerated dramatization of black stereotypes. As an American, I hoped the Selma narrative would be carefully placed into the larger story of the 1960’s. With every passing scene I was able to let my guard down and develop a new respect for the ongoing journey toward civil rights.
Selma is a reliable and compelling account of a three month vignette of the larger civil rights movement. Since the basic framework of the historical account is depicted, I am not particularly interested in mulling over the amount of artistic license taken in the dialogues with Dr. King and President Lyndon B. Johnson, and between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X, although it would be a fruitful study. My purpose is to draw our collective attention to the influence of the Christian faith in the Selma story, the “foot soldiers” of the movement, and the tensions between black civil rights organizations.
Christianity and the Movement
Selma wonderfully depicts the significance of the Christian faith among the participants of the movement. Secular historians and conservative Christians alike have a tendency to strip MLK and his followers of their Christian motivations and relegate them to being merely political figures. On the one hand, non-Christian historians tend to uphold King’s phenomenal humanitarian efforts as a sterling example of the power of the human spirit. On the other hand, conservative Christians discount the doctrinal fidelity of King’s faith because of its social and political orientation.
King once stated, “[In] the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.” Selma masterfully captures King as a powerful orator whose powerful speeches were laced with biblical imagery and accented with a sermonic flair. King’s pastoral concern was exposed in an intimate encounter with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather as he reassured him that God grieved first when his grandson was murdered. In a vulnerable moment, King himself was shepherded by a dear friend, Ralph Abernathy, in a Selma jail cell.
The film demonstrated that King’s commitment to nonviolent methods was not a pragmatic application of a theory, but a commitment rooted in Christian love. Elsewhere, King declared, “Agape [love] is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. Biblical theologians would say it is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level you begin to love men not because they are likable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them and here we love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”
The Foot Soldiers
Selma subtly, yet powerfully, captured the oft-unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, the foot soldiers. Foot soldiers were the students, homemakers, janitors and construction workers who faithfully marched and sat-in at the call of the celebrated leaders like MLK and Ralph Abernathy. Without the nameless masses that fought for justice, there would have been nobody for MLK to lead to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and no large demonstrations of solidarity – including the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Selma began to give us a window into the untold number of personal sacrifices made for the sake of racial justice by common everyday folk. This is captured in Annie Lee Cooper’s tireless pursuit of the ballot box before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to town, and the stream of tears cried by Jimmy Lee Jackson’s mother on a lonely porch after the crowds dispersed. The bodily injuries sustained by the marchers on Bloody Sunday and the death clergy who heeded Dr. King’s clarion call to converge on Selma. My own grandparents sacrificed deeply on a black teacher’s salary to make the trip from Chicago to Washington to March with Dr. King 1963.
The burden of the foot soldier is seen especially in Coretta Scott King. Although she admits in the film that she wishes to do more, the reality is that every area of her life, like so many others, was affected by the movement. Large portions of her married life from 1955 to 1968 were lived at a distance, she lived under the constant threat of violence to her family and the lingering cloud of death haunted her daily. The film made clear that the reality of oppression was a grueling act that never came to an end. It was their lives.
Division in the Ranks
Lastly, Selma also captured the reality that the black community did not unanimously accept MLK’s methods of nonviolence. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began in 1960 as a student segment of the nonviolent movement under the encouragement and oversight of the SCLC. Whereas the SCLC was committed to nonviolence because of its theological convictions, it seems that SNCC espoused nonviolence because it was a proven political tactic. SNCC began to lose faith in nonviolent methods as they sustained more bruises, broken bones, attended a seemingly unending string memorial services and alternative voices like the more radical Malcolm X came onto the national scene.
By 1965, the year of the Selma campaign, SNCC was only a year away from appointing Black Power proponent Stokley Carmichael as chairman. Although SNCC was the only dissenting group depicted in Selma, other groups like the Congress on Racial Equality and the Nation of Islam grew weary of Dr. King’s belief in American ideals and his stalwart faith in the American people to do what is right.
In summary, Selma offers hope as we continue in the marathon for racial equality. The resources of the Christian faith are as available to us now as they were to those being attacked by dogs on Bloody Sunday. The film allows us to see how far we’ve come since 1965 and although progress may seem slow at times it is possible. Lastly, I’m encouraged by brave citizens “fighting” for their ideals. I walked into the theater nervous and I left nervous because like those in Selma, I need to be ready to stand for what I believe when the time comes, at great costs to myself and my family.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 1. ed. Clayborne Carson, 1.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Power of Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 13.