Selma and American Amnesia
By Ron Nief
The story is circulating that when many potential viewers of the new film about Martin Luther King Jr. heard it was called Selma and produced by Oprah Winfrey, they assumed it was a story about a woman and her struggles growing up in the South.
As authors of the annual Mindset List that looks at the world through the eyes and experiences of 18 year old high school graduates, we call situations like this “Mindset Moments.” They are the occasions when a comment by an adult to a young person, or sometimes vice versa, is greeted with a blank stare. They are generally inconsequential and even funny—calling a young piano student a “potential Liberace” or a politician as sounding like a “broken record.”
We were recently asked if we thought anybody would remember Elvis when some proposed 30 year bonds by Graceland came due. We maintain that there are some icons that are protected from the ravages of time and the weakness of memory.
But who is responsible for the failure to understand our own critical history, and the revolutionary role of a place like Selma. OK, every year about this time, we hear that there are students who assume Dr. King was buried next to Lincoln and at about the same time. King has been dead for almost 50 years and if you think of yourself at 18 or 20 and try to place an event a half century earlier, you would easily have been off by a bit.
But the key moments of the civil rights movement, even if they are ancient history, need to be understood much as we comprehend the founding of our country. Schools and parents and churches need to add this material into their curriculum and their conversations. There are still heroes of that movement, like Congressman John Lewis and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson still alive and functioning and telling the story.
The Jewish Defense League has a slogan—Never Again. And they realize that the only way to realize that goal is to keep confronting people with the horrific stories, showing the tattooed identity numbers and the barbed wire and the pictures.
African-American Ministers have talked to us of their frustration in the ignorance of their young members on the subject of the Civil Rights era. They talk of the need to teach the civil rights movement and the sacrifices because the churches were at the core of the movement, both in the creation of the goals and in the pews for sleeping.
We didn’t need to be on the Pettus Bridge or in the bombed out church in Birmingham or in the back seat of Viola Liuzzo’s car to understand the critical role they played in the history of this country.
For those who have forgotten it and for those who may never have heard the stories, the new film Selma is one of those important films for young people to see. Whether President Johnson or Dr. King are portrayed precisely, the spirit is there and the pain should be clear (it is a movie after all).
Business groups in New York and elsewhere have raised money to make sure that middle school students are able to see the film. Hopefully that spirit will spread.
And in case anyone is confused, the Freedom Riders were not a folk group.