Selma’s error of omission: The specter of Shelby County

In one of the opening scenes in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s depiction of Dr. King’s quest for legislation that would end decades of disenfranchisement in the American South, Oprah plays a woman jammed up by Black codes prevalent in the South in 1965. A voter registrar quizzes her with questions that neither she nor any educated person of the time could possibly answer. She fails his test and is once again denied the right to register to vote. Right away we learn Selma is clearly not just a biographical film about Dr. King and other Civil Rights legends like Congressmen John Lewis, but also about the pain, shame, and violence endured by these men and women to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.

A group of fellow history teachers and I went to see an early release of Selma last week. I had mixed feelings about it. In fairness to the movie, I admit educators are the worst audiences for biographical pictures. We live in the weeds of history. We’re overly critical of the transmission of fact into entertainment and tend to want to trash a film that sacrifices history for character development or exposition. Put a group of us together to see a movie about an iconoclast such as Dr. King – a character seemingly impossible to do right by any actor – and the peanut gallery is hard at work. Overall, the film was well reviewed by the group. The casting was most impressive. David Oyelowo made the impossible possible in his portrayal of a flawed but human Dr. King. Carmen Ejogo and Stephan James were Coretta Scott King and John Lewis. Both had the likeness and voice impersonation to baffle the mind.

The story in the film moved along much like how I’ve read and pictured it. After the Bloody Sunday incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where roughly 600 protestors were gassed, beaten, and bull whipped by Selma police, King returned to march again from Selma to the steps of the capital in Montgomery and deliver his “Let us march on the ballot boxes” speech demanding legislation protecting the voting rights of blacks. The movie closes with images of Oyelowo crushing the speech, Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, hopeful and satisfied people smiling and shaking hands, while theme music inspiring pride and good vibes plays in the background. Theater goes dark; lights go up, credits roll.

Wait, what? That was the end?

I can forgive a well-acted biopic for most anything, but leaving the audience with the impression that passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated the systematic denial to access ballots, polling places, and voter registration was surprising and downright irresponsible.

I had dinner with a non-teacher friend with whom I shared my frustration immediately after the movie. He told me take it easy and reminded me the spirit of ’65 lives on.

Yes, the spirit of the ’65 Act is still very much in tact. I’ve written and podcasted about this. But the absence of any final print about contemporary challenges to ballot access before the credits roll leaves most people to believe disenfranchisement was an issue solved and settled fifty years ago. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Chief Justice Roberts ruled the “coverage formula” in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and Section 5’s preclearance approval unconstitutional despite its 2006 reauthorization by a shockingly near unanimous House (390-33) and Senate (98-2).

Perhaps the metrics used to calculate the localities subject to Section 4 approval were dated in light of the fact blatant efforts to prevent suffrage, like the poll test shown in the movie, seldom happen. After the movie I went home to look at my copy of the Shelby County decision.

Yep, an original copy of the decision.

My original copy of the decision.

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent reminded me of the insidious ways in which jurisdictions have been imposing barriers to voters, despite the VRA, prior to Shelby. Pages 15-17 of her dissent lists eight ways in which states notorious for disenfranchising African-Americans denied access to voters between 1990-2004. Modern examples of voter suppression, such as racial gerrymandering, increased voter identification requirements, and the movement of polling places, to name a few, are more pervasive in states and lower courts.

The VRA turns 50 this year. Selma could’ve done so much more to inform and push an audience with an already textbook-level understanding of MLK, John Lewis, and the violence on the Pettus Bridge past that historic event. Not mentioning the specter of the Shelby County decision and second-generation voter suppression to willing and attentive audiences was an opportunity sorely missed by Selma’s production team.