SPIGOLON: Press played big role in Civil Rights Era

SPIGOLON: Press played big role in Civil Rights Era

This is an opinion.

The county government was gracious enough to allow me to claim an unclaimed spot in the parking area for the drive-in-styled, free showing of the film “Selma” at Legion Field in Covington last weekend. 

Newton County’s Bicentennial Committee hosted the event, and the early spring in Newton County brought temperatures in the 60s at showtime.

Seeing the movie for the first time laid bare what Black residents in the South endured for simply trying to use the rights they legally had but did not realistically enjoy in much of the South in 1965.

What really struck me was the role the national press played in awakening the rest of white America to what some white local government officials were doing to try to keep everything “normal” in their town by not allowing Black residents to peacefully protest for their rights.

In contrast to one recent president’s best efforts to sew mistrust of the national press, The New York Times played a prominent role in bringing many of the atrocities of 1965 to light, such as the “Bloody Sunday” march in which 58 people were treated for injuries state troopers inflicted on them with a variety of weapons, including bullwhips. 

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It drove home the fact that if we want to avoid the government abuses portrayed in the movie — and which actually happened — then a strong, independent local and national press is required.

The title of the critically acclaimed 2014 movie is somewhat misleading: Its focus is mostly on Martin Luther King’s private and public struggles as he worked to gain full voting rights for Black Alabama residents in the three months between his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway in December 1964, and him leading a five-day march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. 

However, the three marches activists attempted across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama — the latter two led by King who missed the “Bloody Sunday” first march — were climactic points in the film.

King knew he had to use mass protests to gain a reaction from local officials if he wanted to make gains for Black Americans in the Jim Crow Era because such events would be covered by the print and TV media of the day. 

He warned that if protests were done outside the times he knew there would not be coverage — at night, for example — then state officials knew they had free rein to use violence against protesters without the glare of TV lights.

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There were, after all, no cell phones equipped with video cameras or social media platforms like Facebook to get the word out, as is the norm today. This also was before CNN and MSNBC and Fox gave us what some might consider to be slanted news 24 hours a day.

As you would expect, real-life Georgians played a main role in the marches, including former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, longtime civil rights leader Hosea Williams and, especially, Congressman John Lewis who suffered a skull fracture at the hands of billy-club-wielding Alabama state troopers on “Bloody Sunday.”

It also struck me about how far Selma residents were willing to go to try to make things go back to “normal” for themselves — despite a rapidly changing world in which Black residents were fighting for the same rights they legally had but were not allowed to use.

White-run local governments routinely flouted laws with which they did not agree when it came to Black residents.

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In one eye-opening scene, a character played by one of the movie’s producers, Oprah Winfrey, tries to register to vote. 

Backed by famed segregationist governor George Wallace, the Alabama state government in 1965 took a hands-off approach to local governments’ efforts to deny Black residents the political power afforded by their rights.

As a result, it allowed local voter registrars to have the power — as portrayed in the movie — to require Black residents to, for example, recite the preamble to the Constitution or name all the judges in Alabama before they could register.

Yes, it was a serious film about a serious subject.

However, it was nice to see all the Newton County locations used in a nationally distributed film, such as the space now occupied by the Bread and Butter Cafe on the Covington Square converted into the Selma Delicatessen; or the interior of the first floor of the Historic Courthouse turned into the Hotel Albert — where some of the movie props still remain more than seven years later.

Tom Spigolon is news editor of The News. Reach him at [email protected]

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