I went to see the movie Selma recently. It was quite simply outstanding – utterly engrossing, but also inspiring and challenging. The movie works at a number of levels, including giving us a fascinating insight into Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but simply in terms of reminding us of the brutal racism that gave rise to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s in the US, it is a film that everybody should see.
Not least because racism has clearly not gone away, not in the United States and not in Europe. Just this past week, a French man returning home from work was abused by a group of visiting English football fans on the French Metro. He was bundled off the train and assaulted verbally with racist chanting. The incident was caught on a mobile phone video and then widely distributed. The victim, Souleymane, who doesn’t want his surname known, said, “It’s 2015 and we are talking about black and white skin. Why?”
Why indeed. Yet racism continues to dog our societies. In a telling article in the Guardian, Chris Arnade recounts: “A week after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I walked into my old hometown bar in central Florida to hear, “Well if a nigger can be president, then I can have another drink. Give me a whiskey straight up.” Only one day in the town and I thought, “Damn the south.””
Ms Arnade works in Wall Street in New York City, but recognizes that even there, “the poor side of town in New York is still almost entirely dark skinned.” She makes the point that America celebrates the stories of self-made blacks and Hispanics, the ones who make it, to enable people to forget the others who are not able to overcome the long odds and everything stacked against them in neighborhoods racked by poverty, unemployment, crime and drugs.
“Gone,” she says, “is the overt, violent, and legal racism of my childhood. It has been replaced by a subtler version.” But maybe it’s not so subtle – Black Demographics suggests that over 28% of black families are living in poverty, compared to around 12% percent across all races, that blacks are three times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than whites and they constitute 38% of the prison population whilst only accounting for 13% of the population. And that’s before we start discussing recent events in Ferguson or New York City.
The song that plays out during the credits for Selma is Glory performed by Common and John Legend. It’s spine-tingling, as it looks forward to a day without racism and injustice:
One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is one
Intriguingly its says, “One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us,” clearly a reference to Martin Luther King and his continuing inspiration in the continuing struggle against racism. It’s equally applicable, though, in this context to Jesus, who said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice,” and died at the hands of the oppressive regime of his day, to bring in a new day of peace and justice. His spirit is available to inspire and empower all those who would walk in his way of peace and in the pursuit of justice.
I was greatly taken by the words of Martin Luther King in one of his Selma speeches:
“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right
A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice
A man dies when he refuses to stand up for the truth.”
These are, in fact, words inspired by King’s understanding of the Bible, of Jesus. David Oyelowo who plays King so convincingly in the movie says of King, “This was a man driven by his spiritual convictions. Anyone who has seen those speeches can tell there is something flowing through this man other than just intellect. There is a deep spiritual drive within him to see all peoples experience justice…I share his faith, in terms of being a Christian myself, so I know what it is to be taken up by something else other than your own intellectual thoughts.”
King’s words are a challenge to all of us, of faith or no faith – in a world full of injustice, how are you and I going to stand up for justice, for truth, for what is right?