The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice!
Movies can be such a wonderful way of showing us what is important. Sometimes of course they are just fun or a bit of escapism but the movie I am about to mention is not one of those.
I went to see “Selma” the other night, and was completely engaged in the movie from beginning to end and by what it depicts. An example of how ordinary people can change things.
If you don’t know the story, it focuses on voting rights, an issue that was a part of the civil rights landscape in the 60’s. While all people technically had voting rights in America by 1965 under the constitution many African Americans were denied them. Partly this was because of unreasonable rules related to registration but mostly it was because they were actively and violently barred from participating, particularly in the South.
A protest group was already in Selma, a city in Alabama, agitating for voting rights for its African American citizens when it also became a point of demonstration for Martin Luther King and his group, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)
What ensured was a bloody and violent confrontation with the authorities over a protest march organised to go from Selma to the capital, Montgomery on the 7th March, 1965. It was not violent on behalf of the group of approx. 600 marchers who walked. It was violent because of the troopers and police who used batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd as they passed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The shocking events, televised around the world were called Bloody Sunday and galvanised the movement.
Ordinary people said enough was enough! When Martin Luther King called for anyone from anywhere to come and repeat the march, thousands came, from all over the country. While they were there to walk, not fight, this was still not enough for the State authorities. A second march a few days later started and stopped at the bridge again because state troopers and police were placed in position to violently respond. King, who was leading, turned back, unable to risk further injuries to his followers. It actually took another few weeks for a third and final march to be completed, after the courts legally allowed it to take place and Lyndon Johnson agreed to protect those who participated. Finally over 2,000 people marched, joyously and peacefully on the 25th March, 1965.
When the people gathered in Montgomery at the end of the march 3 days later, Martin Luther King gave a speech. He is heard to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”. He had just seen the arc bend! And he was overcome with hope for a new future.
What happened was a pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement, and in America’s history. But it was not just the march. After the march a federal bill was presented to congress called the Voting Rights Act, enshrining in law the freedom to vote for all people, regardless of colour or race or religion. The speech and subsequent Act, one of the most powerful pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed, means Lyndon Johnson should and is seen as a central figure in the civil rights movement. For it was his leadership that completed it.
Phew, a very powerful movie
The most profound thing for me about the movie, however, was the depiction of those who came to march. Those who stood up when others held back. They were black and white, housewife and student, minister, priest, Jew and Christian, all knowing in their hearts that the injustice experienced by the African Americans could not and should not continue. And they followed a nonviolent way to achieve what seemed at times unachievable.
And it was costly. Two of the people who came from outside the South, a minister form Boston and a woman from Detroit were killed by members of the Klu Klux Clan, together with a black teenager, shot at point blank range by a trooper. It is never easy to go against the status quo.
I have attached some footage of the real march, and of Martin Luther’s speech. And also of the song written for the movie, which is utterly fantastic.
But does this movie and the event it depicts speak to us and our situation?
The problem we have is that movies like this are seen as history and not our history. That was then and this is now. That was America and this is Australia. Yet I think it speaks to us as any universal call for justice does in any age. What about the refugees in this country locked away, and ignored regardless of the overwhelming evidence that there are better more humane ways of treating people who are seeking asylum? What about the aboriginal people who make up over 60% of incarcerations and still suffer after all this time from reduced health and education rates? What about the poor of the world who suffer at the whims of the richer countries, one minute we are generous, the next we withdrawal our support because of political pressures at home? What about those in our own society, our own communities, who suffer from a mental illness and are isolated and alone? The list can go on….
The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
But it requires ordinary people to stand and walk those miles. And to make the sacrifices required to speak up and act on behalf of our brothers and sisters. Whether we are in America or Australia, in 1960 or in 2015!
When I think of Martin Luther King, I think of his overwhelming faith that God was calling him to speak up and act.
Is this the way of Jesus, it most certainly is!