It is January and once again we will observe Martin Luther King Day. It is called a “Day Of Service” rather than a holiday because we do things in the real world that show that we honor not just the memory of the man but the meaning of the man’s life as well. We have playground and neighborhood cleanups, raise money for good causes, feed homeless people, attend religious services or conferences on social justice, have petition signing days, voting registration days, and more. And we have, of course, countless recitations of the “I Have A Dream Speech in school assemblies, prayer services, on the news and everywhere. I have heard that speech for 56 years, and it is always thrilling and moving; I weep a little every time I hear it. But I do wish we would teach more and recognize more than that about King and about the Civil Rights Movement. That we more publicly acknowledged that long before that moment in Washington, there was a young, unsure of himself Martin Luther King in Montgomery, AL, several important mentors who helped and encouraged him, and the willing actions of hundreds of ordinary people consistently doing things in the face of violence and personal sacrifice that led up to that stirring Washington speech and made it possible. To that end I plan to re-watch the film, Selma, in a few days. It is, to me, a very important film, not only about King but also about how movements grow and come to matter.
One of the reasons I love this film is because it showed both King and the movement more fully than either are regularly shown in our classrooms and in the media. In Selma, King is shown more as a real person, with foibles, fears, occasional confusion, and at times, bad actions and decisions. He wasn’t a perfect icon; he was a man, a human. And he did many “human” things, The film also showed the ways some people disagreed with and challenged him, and how there were times when his strategies did not work. Most importantly, the film showed the people who were the infrastructure of the movement. The people whose faith and actions allowed him to accomplish so many of the things he did. He was a great man, yes, but he BECAME a great man. And it took the faith, actions, courage of others to make that growth possible. It was not him just by himself.
Take the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. People know Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus and was arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955. But most people do not know that she had worked with the NAACP for years, was not the first black woman arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, and that she set out to get arrested. Most people also do not know that it was labor leader E.D. Nixon who tricked King into hosting the first boycott planning meeting because King was new in town and the white powers of Montgomery did not know him and had no plans on how to deal with him. And the very first boycott meeting happened not because of King, but because of Jo Ann Robinson, a long-time member of the Montgomery Women’s Council who had been advocating for years to change the Montgomery bus system. She and her family hand mimeographed-not XEROXED or photo copied-hand mimeographed some 52,000 fliers Thursday night after Ms. Park’s arrest that were placed in churches, given to high school students, and placed in barber shops and other places on Friday, December 2, calling people to that first meeting on that same Friday evening. That initiated a one-day boycott of the bus system on Monday, December 5, and it was that walkout that led to the full- blown year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott that we think of today. Those established black political leaders tricked, guided, and put Martin in a position of leadership in Montgomery that led both to the March to Selma and the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice that featured the “I Have A Dream” Speech. They helped make that moment and so many others possible.
Selma also focused on some of these other Civil Rights figures, who though little-remembered today, were vital to the movement and to King’s rise as a leader. Rev Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and John Lewis were all shown in ways that made clear their importance in what came to be known as, “The Movement.” They helped, advised, and sometimes criticized King as he was moving into his leadership position. Yes, the Reverend Dr. King was a phenomenal and charismatic speaker, had wonderful ideas, and said many wise and inspiring things. But without the help, advice and actions of so many others in the early days of the boycott, he would never have emerged as a leader.
The film also makes it abundantly clear that without the hundreds of maids, cooks, shoeshine boys, chauffeurs, mechanics, students, teachers, volunteers and others who marched in the streets for years and were willing to be beaten and arrested, the Civil Rights Movement and King’s emergence as a force for change would not have been possible. It was this collection of “ordinary people” that sustained the boycotts and demonstrations and helped bring forth change. Without them nothing would have changed. They were the bricks and mortar-the infrastructure- that held the movement together.
We are not all great thinkers, orators, or planners. Most of us are “ordinary.” But being “ordinary” doesn’t mean we have to be regulated to the sidelines. We all can be part of the change we want to see in the world. We can all be, in some small, consistent way a part of making change happen. We can be part of the infrastructure. That is what has made changes happen in the world in the past, and it will continue to do so in the future. That is one of the very important legacies of Dr. King’s story and of the lives of the people shown and portrayed in Selma. All of us have roles to play if we are willing. Each of us, even in small seemingly inconsequential ways, can make a difference. Selma shows that. And knowing and believing that gives me hope, even in these troubled times.
(Here are links to biography pages of some important people connected with Reverend King and/or mentioned in Selma
Here is a link to the Philadelphia area’s MLK Day of Service activities: