The 50th Anniversary of the Selma marches has once again brought the Civil Rights Movement into public view. The conventional story is one many are familiar with, and always a popular GCSE History topic, as its inspirational and moralistic tale of non-violent triumph over adversity resonates with a range of racial and social issues today. The Oscar-nominated film ‘Selma’ has brought a wave of immense praise and controversy, using artistic licence well to create a powerfully emotive work, whilst remaining largely accurate. However, the issues which can be found in public celebrations of Selma, and our understanding of its traditional narrative, are not necessarily concerned with what is being said. Rather, it is what is being ignored which seems problematic.

Both the film and the commemorations surrounding Selma were understandably dominated by the narrative of Martin Luther King’s triumphs and tribulations. Yet this suggests that there was only one successful way of achieving Civil Rights and Black liberation: the peaceful, gradualist approach that King learned from Ghandi and is rightly remembered for. However, this ignores the multiple forms of resistance to racial oppression that have been historically undertaken. This is not simply another case of teleological hindsight obscuring multiple possible outcomes, but a carefully orchestrated way of remembering a very complicated intersection of ideologies and strategies.

Annie Lee Cooper’s altercation with Sheriff Jim Clark during one of the earlier Selma marches is an interesting example. The images of her attacking the Sheriff were displayed across America  in the days following her arrest. Both Civil Rights leaders at the time and film portrayed her actions as an aberration, an uncontrollable outburst of emotions.

Yet, as even members of the SCLC explained, not all who supported Civil Rights believed in non-violence. The 50th Anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination has brought his militant ‘by any means necessary’ approach back into the public spotlight. Yet the more mainstream and moderate Civil Rights Movement also had a long and controversial history with ideas of self-defence, most notably the large following Robert F. Williams gained in North Carolina for his advocacy of ‘Negroes with guns’.  Popular representations of Civil Rights, however, would suggest that non-violence was not simply the most expedient approach, but the only way of achieving success.

The Civil Rights narrative is told by an easy chronology of events; Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, sit-ins at lunch counters, King in Washington, and white violence in Selma. Campaigners arrived in the 1950s, almost out of thin air, with easily defined goals: to end segregation and allow African Americans to vote freely. The problem with this story is that it overlooks decades of organisation preceding the Movement and figures such as A. Phillip Randolph, who had threatened to bring 100,000 protestors to Washington two decades before King if Franklin Roosevelt did not desegregate all war services.

The film implicitly suggests, in its discussion of John Lewis and James Forman, that such grassroots organising was entirely ineffectual. It is true that SNCC and grassroots activists had tried unsuccessfully to encourage black voter registration in the South, but their hard work convinced many African Americans that this was a struggle which required continual mobilisation and sustained action. Many other groups across the country campaigned for welfare rights, housing, jobs and protection from police violence, issues helpfully removed from the chronology of a story which reaches its satisfactory conclusion in 1965.

This also neglects the fact that Selma was a pivotal point in the splintering of the Civil Rights Movement. In the months following Selma, Los Angeles exploded in flames, precipitating dozens of race-related riots throughout Americans cities. Selma may have solved certain legal inhibitors of black freedom, but it also highlighted how no amount of legislation could eradicate racial inequality and violence entirely. The response was a new, more militant wave of black protest which implemented their own forms of garnering publicity and grassroots mobilisation, and achieved their own successes and failures. Yet we often prefer to forget the controversial legacy of Black Power, relegating it to Civil Rights’ ‘evil twin’, associated with violence and identity politics.

This is not to downplay the importance of King and his incredible work in mobilising national support for black rights. By presenting such a simplistic story of his efforts, we actually obscure the wide range of causes he fought for, just as how we ignore the more radical elements of his most famous speech. Following violence in Ferguson, protesters were urged to act more like King, with the assumption being that the sanitised image was the only effective one for black activists.

Presenting King and the Civil Rights Movement as committed only to destroying legal discrimination through gradual and non-violent means inhibits the range of choices available to black protestors both in the 1960s and today. It ignores uncomfortable questions about what ‘Civil Rights’ and ‘racial equality’ actually means. Yet the recent examples of police violence have once again forced America to acknowledge its own racial discord. Perhaps a re-evaluation of how we celebrate the black past can provide refreshing new insights.


George Francis is studying for an MA in American History at the University of Sheffield.

Image Source: Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. shake hands at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, 1965. Yoichi R. Okamoto/LBJ Library


Tags : anniversariesblack historycivil rights movementFergusonhistory on filmMalcolm XMartin Luther KingprotestsRosa Parksselma
George Francis

The author George Francis


  1. George, thanks for a thought provoking article. In response I would say that Dr King’s most radical message was not one of the merits
    of non-violence versus violence but, rather, one of universalism. His 1965 ‘How long? Not long! speech’s enduring quality was to mark out an approach to anti-racism which saw its end as ‘a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.’ That day, for King, will ‘not be not of of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.’ This summed up his universalist worldview as powerfully outlined in his 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech. King then expressed his desire that his ‘four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
    I feel that, today, King’s universalist appeal to overcome racial differences in order to fight for and achieve equal rights, both in the legal and social spheres, is being seriously undermined. ‘Race’ – the recognition and enforcement of difference in order to justify imperialist domination has been reconfigured by today’s officially-sanctioned anti-racists. ‘Race’, the construction of racists, is today being reconfigured in anti-racist thinking. Indeed, the doctrine of Identity politics, so prevalent on Western campuses, and so central to current ‘progressive’ discourse, is actively reconstructing and inverting racial thinking into a celebration of ‘difference’. This type of approach may be well-intentioned, but it is nevertheless still racial thinking of a type rejected by (non-violent and violent) 1960s civil rights campaigners from Alabama to Free Derry. Furthermore, this approach appears to judge King’s children according to the colour of their skin before the content of their character. Rather than unswervingly fighting for people to be treated as equals, whatever their superficial difference, it divides society into rigid racial and ethnic categories that have the effect of enforcing difference.
    Dr King’s radical message of universalism does indeed ‘raise uncomfortable questions’ about what ‘Civil Rights’ and ‘racial equality’ actually mean today. Perhaps ‘a re-evaluation of the way we celebrate the black past’ can provide ‘refreshing new insights’ for all of us.

  2. Hi David, thank you for the comment. I mostly agree. By ‘Radical’ I was referring to the multiple economic and social themes that underpinned King (and Civil Rights) throughout his career, i.e. how the celebrated March on Washington was actually the ‘March for Jobs and Freedom’, and why we always seem to ignore these elements. By focusing purely on a limited definition of racial equality, we’re downplaying King’s important legacy (in his concern for white as well as black poverty) in fighting for many causes.

    However, I think the idea of Universalism as the best to tackle inequality in its various forms is a bit tired and a remnant of the old left. I think it’s very apparent today that various groups (Minorities, LGBT, Women) have many different, and often specific, inhibitors socially, economically and culturally. This, again, is part of the downside of the celebration of Civil Rights. It would suggest that once legal equality came, race became less of a factor in American life, and would therefore imply that the rise of ‘Identity Politics’ is automatically divisive and disruptive of progress, when this was very rarely the case. I think Robin D.G Kelley writes some really interesting stuff on these kinds of issues.

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