Social Justice & “Selma”

January 16, 2015

by Leah Ramsay


Shortly before the US presidential inauguration in January 2009, the British newspaper The Economist wrote that Barack Obama “reconciles in his own person one of the world’s most hateful divisions.” It is illustrative of the way America’s black-white race relations are seen from the outside. On the inside, an equivalent perspective can be difficult to grasp, even decades after the upheaval of the 1960s.  It was a defining chapter of a story that is still being written. That is why films like Selma are so important.


Director Ava DuVernay and the producers of Selma could never have anticipated the cultural climate of racial tension and “Black Lives Matter” movement into which their film premiered. After recent, highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers who were not charged, the film’s story of violent oppression and completely vulnerable black citizens feels very familiar.


Congressman John Lewis, who is appropriately highlighted in the film for his underappreciated role in the movement and steadfast belief in nonviolence and American values, reflected on Selma as a turning point in his 1998 autobiography:

Now that we had secured our bedrock, fundamental rights – the rights of access and accommodation and the right to vote – the movement was moving into a new phase, a far stickier and more complex stage of gaining equal footing in this society… Combating segregation is one thing. Dealing with racism is another… In the late summer of ’65, black people everywhere in America continued to be confronted with that lesson every day. Unfortunately, as far as we have come in the thirty-three years since then, that lesson is still being learned by too many black Americans today. (364)

Americans today live in the aftermath of Selma, yet most are more familiar with the peaceful 1963 March On Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech than his fiery calls to action after vicious beatings and murders. The message of Selma is that both histories have value, and remembering the violence of the civil rights movement is an essential contribution to our cultural dialogue about social justice and what it means to be an American.


In their theory of social justice published in 2006, Ruth Faden and Madison Powers carefully elucidate a “nonideal theory” based not in abstraction but in the reality of the “job of justice” and the ends it serves.  This concept is important in that only a nonideal theory can break through the cognitive dissonance that abstract values can allow. For instance, one can imagine white Americans in the south in 1964, if asked, agreeing with the dignity of human life and human rights, and the Constitutional rights guaranteed to them as citizens of the United States, yet simultaneously not applying these concepts to their fellow black citizens. It is easy to support an idea in the abstract, when no action is required, nor facts or details. Civil rights protestors tested the “ideal” of American laws and values by putting them into practice.


Faden and Powers write:

Our theory starts with the assumption that inequalities beget inequalities, and existing inequalities – in the social determinants of well-being and ultimately in the essential dimensions of well-being themselves – can compound, sustain, and reproduce a multitude of deprivations in well-being, bringing some persons below the level of sufficiency for more than one dimension. The disadvantages associated with inequalities in the social basis of well-being in all of its dimensions are various, they often travel in tandem, and they can mutually reinforce and perpetuate one another. In turn, they can and often do affect a whole range of dimensions of well-being. Taken in their totality, the interactive effects of multiple sources of disadvantage add up to markedly unequal well-being, leaving some with greatly decreased prospects in every major aspect of their lives.

Some familiar forms of oppression and subordination, including racism and sexism, are paradigm cases of the multicausal and multifaceted social structural barriers to achieving a level of sufficiency for all of the dimensions [of well-being]. (8)

Selma boiled down and depicted this systematic discrimination in key scenes that help to get at the complexity that is lost in simplified, idealized memories of the movement’s peaceful marches. At one point King’s advisors struggle to agree on what to demand, as the oppression they face is so entrenched. In order to register to vote, a registered voter had to vouch for you. Then there is a fee, and you must be able to read and write to complete a test, and then be prepared to answer additional surprise questions. If one is able to register to vote, their name and address is printed in the newspaper, opening them and their family up to violent retaliation. The same fear would apply to showing up to vote for a candidate that could change these rules, and anyone brave enough to seek justice would face a jury made up of only registered voters, as would anyone accused of a crime.


DuVernay said in an interview, “We often take for granted what voting enables us to do – but one of those things is to sit on a jury.  So if you are black in 1960s Alabama and intimidated to the point that you can’t even register to vote, that means that you can never sit on a jury to gain justice for yourself or for others like you.  The degree to which the right to vote affects the everyday life of people was something I’d never fully processed until I got into the research for Selma.”


The violence DuVernay depicts in the film is similarly revelatory for many viewers.  While King, Lewis and others in the southern civil rights movement were committed to non-violence, the same was rarely true of those who opposed them. John Lewis describes “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, which is depicted as the centerpiece scene in Selma:

I was bleeding badly. My head was now exploding with pain…There was mayhem all around me. I could see a young kid—a teenaged boy—sitting on the ground with a gaping cut in his head, the blood just gushing out. Several women, including Mrs. Boynton, were lying on the pavement and the grass median. People were weeping. Some were vomiting from the tear gas. Men on horses were moving in all directions, purposely riding over the top of fallen people, bringing their animals’ hooves down on shoulders, stomachs and legs. (341)

Without histories that capture this type of brutal violence of the civil rights era, it will literally be white-washed into a successful, brief series of peaceful marches and speeches made by a few symbolic names, a cultural shift that’s time had come. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.


“The more you realize these heroes were just like us the more you see how amazing what they did was.  If you hold them at a historical distance, you can’t really feel that.  But when you bring them closer, as we try to do in the film, that is when you see the greatness of what they accomplished.” DuVernay said. “I think when you deconstruct the myth of him [King], you realize that his inner strength is something that all of us have.  If we could just tap into it, we could do great things.”


Faden and Powers assert that this is not the challenge of a bygone era:

…unjust inequalities will continue to provide the real world context in which questions of justice will arise… Justice, then, is not a matter of conforming society to an antecedently identifiable set of distributive principles, but rather it is a task requiring vigilance and attentiveness to changing impediments to the achievement of enduring dimensions of well-being that are essential guides to the aspirations of justice. (5)

In other words, the work of justice is never done. In the 1960s it was the work of King, Lewis, Nash, Cooper, Hamer, Abernathy, Williams, Evers, and so many others who marched and sacrificed. Today, it is ours.



Leah Ramsay is the staff Science Writer at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

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