I remember many years ago I read Coretta Scott King’s account of life with her husband, Martin Luther King Junior. I recall at the time thinking how hard it must have been, living as a wife and mother to the children of a man who was constantly living under death threats and intimidation. As a man of principle and conviction, King led a non-violent movement fighting against injustice and seeking to secure a better future for an oppressed people, who looked to him to stand up against the racist cowards and bullies, wielding power in the southern states of the USA. Whilst leading the civil rights movement and campaigning for the freedom of black people and other oppressed minorities in America, King committed himself and his followers to non-violent direct action. But as had earlier been the case in a similar approach adopted in India by Gandhi, he and his fellow protesters were often confronted by opponents who saw physical force rather than debate as the means of stating their position.
I have on many occasions listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, made in 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. I particularly remember hearing a recording of this being played at Coventry Cathedral during a visit a couple of years ago. It never fails to stir emotions and to make one think of the situation in which it was delivered. I suppose it is one of the most quoted speeches of the twentieth century. However, it is the quote from the great man presented at the head of this page, that has always seemed to me to most accurately sum up his life:
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve”.
Last night Sara and I visited a local cinema to see the film Selma, released this week in the UK. This powerful drama tells the story of the marches led by Martin Luther King Junior from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery in 1965. At times I found myself struggling to watch this vivid depiction of the events of those dark days in American history, as scenes were enacted in which unarmed men, women and children were attacked, wounded and in some instances killed by men who regarded themselves as law abiding citizens of the southern states. The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, cannot be accused of over emphasising the level of violence for effect, but still I found myself wanting to turn away from the screen as the appalling assaults were so vividly portrayed.
The film has masterful performances from all the cast, but particularly from David Oyelowo who plays King, Carmen Ejogo his wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth as the bigoted and somewhat sinister Governor George Wallace, and as with all good films of this nature I found myself immersed in the story line and emotionally drawn in right from the start. Even knowing of the historical events depicted and having read the accounts of the marches as reported by writers such as Clayborne Carson who was close to the King family, I was unable to relax for more than a few moments at a time throughout the film.
Whilst I suspect many other film goers from my own generation will be very well aware of the civil rights struggles led by Martin Luther King Junior, there may well be a younger audience for whom the horrors of this time, perpetrated in a country proud of its constitution and democratic values, will be a source of shock and disbelief. I certainly hope so, because to simply write this off as a historical account would be to fail to appreciate the important messages within the film.
Two specific themes within this drama seem to me to have been particularly well addressed and might easily have been passed over in a more superficial telling of the story. The first concerned the personal anxieties and doubts of Coretta Scott King, as she feared for the life of her husband and family, and the tensions she experienced in balancing what she saw as her duty to a cause and these more personal responsibilities. Within the depiction of this complex and loyal woman, superbly portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, there was a perpetual nervous frisson that penetrated the film, and conveyed the message that within any struggle for justice, personal sacrifices are inevitable. Sadly, the worst fears of Coretta Scott King were eventually realised in April 1968 when her husband was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39 years.
Equally evocative is a second theme, that of the duty of action, which is referred to several times in the film. The point is strongly made by Martin Luther King Junior and several other leaders, that whilst those who oppress their fellow men and women are guilty of an unacceptable evil, others who simply stand by, refusing to speak out or take action are equally culpable of perpetuating crimes against the oppressed. Throughout the film it appears that a silent majority, including many who were in positions of power and authority, believed that the civil rights campaigners had a just cause, but lacked the moral courage to speak out or stand with them as they were being abused and denigrated. Standing next to Martin Luther King Junior must often have been an uncomfortable place to be, but as he himself said:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I can’t help thinking that whilst this film is set within an historical context, the messages that it contains are as important today as they have ever been.
The film link below will enable you to hear the famous “I have a dream.” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Junior in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.