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By Daniel Lewis
On Christmas Day 2014, Selma, a movie directed by Ava DuVernay, opened in theaters in the United States. The movie was released just months prior to the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma (March 7, 1965) and the Selma-to-Montgomery March (March 21-25, 1965). The movie represents the first major Hollywood motion picture about Martin Luther King, Jr.
The movie has generated a lively discussion in newspapers about the events in Selma, Alabama, in the first half of 1965. Much of this discussion has centered on the roles of Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. (An excellent summary of this discussion can be found in an article in the New York Times by Jennifer Schuessler.)
For students of history, an interesting writing assignment would be to compare books and articles on Selma, as well as primary source documents and oral histories to the film. A quick list of books to consider:
-- Two books by David Garrow consider the Selma campaign in considerable detail. These books are his early work, Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Yale University Press, 1978), and his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bearing the Cross (New York, 1986).
-- Taylor Branch considers the Selma campaign in Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge, the second and third books in his trilogy America in the King Years.
-- John Lewis discusses his role in the Selma campaign in his memoir, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York, 1998).
-- Another very good source for information on Selma is The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (New York, 1991), the companion to the critically acclaimed Eyes on the Prize documentary created and produced by Blackside, Inc.
Another interesting research angle is to compare the events in the movie Selma to available primary source documents. One of the best individual collections is the “FBI Files on Selma” in the ProQuest History Vault module, Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Federal Government Records. This collection offers insight into the voting rights campaign in Selma that actually began in 1963 when several demonstrations aimed at winning fair, nondiscriminatory registration of black applicants took place.
Throughout 1963 and 1964, African Americans continued to organize for voting rights while Selma and Dallas County public officials responded to voting rights demonstrations with arrests and other forms of resistance. The FBI's extremely rich and detailed files on Selma offer excellent documentation on this earlier period of activism prior to the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr., and SCLC in January 1965, as well as detailed day-by-day accounts of the 1965 protests and the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
In addition to the FBI Files on Selma in ProQuest History Vault, another interesting source for researching the events in Selma are the oral history interviews in The HistoryMakers, part of ProQuest’s Black Studies Center. Video interviews (and accompanying transcripts) include:
-- John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). John Lewis received a particularly severe beating by Alabama state troopers during the Bloody Sunday March on March 7.
-- C. T. Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
-- Dr. Alvin Poussaint (medical doctor on the Selma-to-Montgomery March)
-- Julian Bond, communications director of SNCC, can be found in The HistoryMakers. Bond describes a personal photo of him, King, and others at Selma.
-- Reverend Willie Barrow, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Barrow describes her life as an organizer for SCLC, at Selma and other locations, and as a woman on the marches.
-- Reverend Joseph Lowery, who participated in the Selma marches as part of SCLC.
[Image: FBI Report on the “Racial Situation” in Selma, Alabama, May 11, 1964. Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation Files, 157-6-61 Racial Situation, Selma, Alabama, from the FBI Library, Washington, D.C. and included in ProQuest History Vault module Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Federal Government Records, Centers of the Southern Struggle: FBI Files on Selma.]