What's Changed Since Selma?

Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down." 

What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.

Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."

Lee writes in his journal about the making of the film that studio executives in the months before release raised the same fears, pressuring him to rethink and perhaps recut the ending. There's a weariness in his tone even then, months before the film opened, at having continually to defend his artistic vision against such simple misinterpretations -- a vision the same journal, many pages earlier, makes clear he had been carefully and thoughtfully nurturing for many months before he even sat down to write the script. Those who know the film know what sparks the riot: the chokehold killing of a black character by police for playing his radio too loudly.  Many white critics, Lee has justifiably complained in the years since, "were more concerned with the loss of 'white-owned property' than with 'another nigger gone.' "

Yes, it was only a movie. But coming about a quarter-century after Selma, Lee also used it to take a measure of progress since the civil rights era. In his journal he acknowledges what had changed in the intervening years, but he points out what had not. In 1989 New York City, the Howard Beach incident, in which a black male was chased into traffic by a gang of white males and killed, was still fresh in many minds, as were the deaths by police of Eleanor Bumpurs during an eviction, and of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, of a chokehold, while in custody. These victims are given tribute in a litany-like recitation that is one of the most dramatic moments of Lee's film.

What had changed by 1989? The Voting Rights Act had been signed. What has changed since? Well, for one thing, there's an African-American president. Remember that he was months after his inauguration rebuked for criticizing Cambridge police after they arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who'd locked himself out of his house and was trying to get back in. Recall that recently his patriotism and heritage were once again publicly questioned, after six years in the nation's highest office. What's also changed is that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- which Selma directly helped bring about -- has been dismantled by the Supreme Court (with Alabama's help), a decision that immediately loosed pent-up demand in other states to reimpose voting restrictions on certain segments of their citizenry. Fifty years after marchers were attacked by police while crossing a bridge -- a bridge that still bears the name of a former Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan -- an effort to restore key provisions of the VRA is now stalled in Congress

This spring also marks another anniversary, the original release of Freedom Highway Complete, from gospel legends the Staple Singers, recorded live in April 1965 at Chicago's New Nazareth Church. The performance was arranged as a service inspired by the Alabama marches and has been called one of the best live albums ever made. In I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway, author Greg Kot says the concert "connects the themes of gospel music and the civil rights movement more explicitly than ever before. ... Church music was no longer just about making it through this world to get to the next one; it was also about living right now in the streets all African Americans shared." This week, the day before the Justice Department report on Ferguson was issued, a fiftieth-anniversary remastering of Freedom Highway Complete was released, featuring not just the concert but the service as well. It’s undeniably and powerfully moving but beyond that hard to describe, maybe because what the reissue was meant in part to celebrate it must still, a half-century later, also mourn.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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