“Selma,” the film about the 1965 marches in the Alabama city, opened in theaters today and should top your list of films to see. The film’s passionate, detailed portrayal of the Selma marches has already drawn critical acclaim. While Dr. Martin Luther King is the main character in the film, many other activists and politicians shaped the events in Selma. Here are some key players and their roles in history:
Andrew Young (played by Andre Holland) was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and helped with coordinating the organization’s protests and marches. He was a mediator in crucial moments of the Civil Rights movement and attended many of the conversations between the White House and Civil Rights leaders. Before that he worked on voter registration drives in the south, and assisted with organizing citizenship schools which taught protest tactics to young people. During the movement he worked closely with Dr. King, and was with King the day he was assassinated.
John Lewis (Stephan James) was the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. He was involved in the Nashville Student Movement and was one of the original Freedom Riders. He was at the Bloody Sunday march in Selma and suffered a fractured skull from police attacks, and famously went on TV and publicly called for President Lyndon Johnson’s intervention before seeing a doctor. Along with Dr. King he was one of the “Big Six,” leaders of major organizations in the Civil Rights Movement.
Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) was a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and the chief architect behind the March on Washington. He and other early civil rights leaders tried to stage a Washington march in 1943, but abandoned their plan when President Franklin Roosevelt integrated the defense industry. He proposed the creation of the SCLC and advised Dr. King on the tactics Gandhi had used. His role in the movement was downplayed because of his sexuality and ties to communism.
Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) was a protester and deacon at the St. James Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama. On February 18, 1965, he marched with people in Marion to visit a jailed activist, but local police ambushed the group of protesters. He tried to flee with his family but was shot twice by police, and died several days later. His death became the catalyst for the marches in Selma.
Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) was a Civil Rights leader and part of Dr. King’s inner circle in the SCLC. Along with John Lewis he led the famous Bloody Sunday march where police attacked protesters headed from Selma to Montgomery. He was teargassed and hospitalized that day, but the televised police brutality accelerated the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Before that he was involved with voter registration drives during Freedom Summer, and was an organizer for the NAACP.
Amelia Boynton Robinson (Lorraine Toussaint) was an activist and key figure in the Selma marches. Her home in Selma was a base of operations for civil rights leaders, and she was at the historic Bloody Sunday march. She was knocked out by police during the march, and a photo of her unconscious body instantly drew international attention. When President Johnson signed the Voting Rights bill into law, she attended the historic moment as a guest of honor.
James Bevel (Common) was the SCLC’s Director of Direct Action and orchestrated some of the organization’s key campaigns. He was part of the Nashville Student Movement and strategized efforts to desegregate theaters in Nashville. His tactics, which sometimes involved using children in protests, succeeded in getting President John F. Kennedy to meet with Dr. King about the Civil Rights act. A few weeks after the March on Washington, he and Diane Nash started organizing the Alabama Voting Rights Project. This and SNCC’s Voting Rights Project became the Selma Voting Rights Movement, which coordinated the Selma marches of 1965.
Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) was a student leader and one of the most successful tacticians of the Civil Rights Movement. She led the Nashville Student Movement that integrated lunch counters in Nashville, and Nash and other young protesters played a crucial role in the Freedom Rides. Enraged by the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, she and James Bevel developed a plan to have every black person in Alabama registered to vote. The SCLC was reluctant to support their idea at first, but eventually joined their efforts that led to the marches in Selma.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) was the 37th vice president of the United States, and became the 36th president when Kennedy was assassinated. He signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts into law, and pushed them through a congress and senate that had previously opposed the bills. He wanted to postpone passing the Voting Rights Act, but the Selma marches and larger Civil Rights Movement forced him to act. When he was a senator he voted against every piece of civil rights legislation from 1937 to 1957.
George Wallace (Tim Roth) was the 45th governor of Alabama and an opponent to the Civil Rights Movement. The Selma marches were staged to meet with Governor Wallace about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Wallace denounced the protesters and said he would not allow them to march. He stopped the first two marches by ordering state troopers to arrest protesters, but the third one succeeded with a court order against Wallace and when President Johnson used Alabama’s national guard to protect them.
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