Selma – it’s all about the leadership

I hope EVERY trade unionists, activist and anyone who is working to shift political and economic power will  see Selma. Selma director Ava DuVernay has shown little known events, and  how MLK wrestled with the forces against civil rights, that seemed to all coalesce into constant pressure on him.

Selma is about the civil rights movement and about Martin Luther King’s leadership. It is about a struggle for changes to the law, which was a very clear goal and target for the movement. It is a story of self-determination in an episode in the civil rights movement and so rightly a story of black people, unlike previous movies on southern racism with white heroes. Not all roles are equally acknowledged, such as the active women of Selma, the rabbis who joined the marches, and no doubt others. But that should not detract from the power and validity of the film.

I was most interested in and inspired by how Martin Luther King behaved as a leader. What made him SUCH a good leader, beyond the inspirational speeches which many would be leaders might imagine themselves giving. How was he such a great leader?

In Selma, we saw Martin Luther King being brave, resolute and loyal to the civil rights movement under constant threat of physical attack. He had moments of doubt and distress which he expressed to Coretta, and to some of his colleagues in private conversation. But he spoke at large meetings with determination to win, to motivate people to keep up the struggle. In smaller meetings with fellow activists, they spent hours agonising over the right course of action, what to do next, thinking through the huge challenges of winning enforcement of the right to vote in southern states that obstructed and intimidated blacks from registering to vote.

These are the features of MLK’s leadership that stood out in Selma.

1. He did no deal with President Johnson, despite considerable pressure from LBJ for King to call off civil rights protests. LBJ used many tricks, claimed higher priorities, impossibility, yet King did not fall for any of it, and put the responsibility back onto the President to legislate to force the southern states to allow blacks to vote, pointing out that if the US was able to send troops to Vietnam, it must be able to enforce civil rights in the US itself.

2. MLK knew the bottom line with moral certainty, the right to vote. That’s why he did no deal.

3. He understood and kept loyal to the civil rights movement, and the interests of the people who followed him and who he spoke for.

4. He didn’t lose sight of who the enemy was, the white legislators and law enforcement agencies who whipped up racist sentiment.

5. He always spoke of the need for the movement to confront the enemy,  not for the sake of confrontation, but with recognition that this was because of the power of the enemy and their committment to continuing injustice.

6. He took seriously the weight of responsibility to make tactical decisions about when to lay bodies on the line, considered the balance of power. He chose Selma because groundwork by local activists and SNCC meant there was already a will and organisation to work with. He was distressed by the injuries inflicted on protesters in the first of the three attempts to march to Montgomery, but nonetheless he insisted that the second March attempt should not be delayed. Another time he turned away from possible attack, and some protesters challenged that as the wrong decision. He made the decision not because he didn’t have the stomach for struggle, but to resume as soon as possible with better chances of success. He took great care with the concrete circumstances in each decision he made. 

7. He listened and talked about what to do next, about strategy and ideas in long and difficult debates with other activists, especially youth activists.

8. He remained an activist, he refused to be a politician, he certainly wasn’t carving out a career.

9. He appealed to higher aspirations and sentiment for a better society, relating it to the immediate struggle.  MLK drew heavily on the traditions of black ministry and used religious imagery and preaching skills. Socialists and union leaders could learn something from this without resorting to the bible.

A couple of special mentions. Coretta’s encounter with Malcolm X was intriguing. David Oyelowo was totally convincing as MLK. Actor-rapper Commons closing song is a must-stay for, and the opening minutes include an astonishing scene not to be missed.

Selma is highly recommended. We need a movement more like the one Martin Luther King led.


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