By John Else
[Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on BillMoyers.com and is republished with permission. http://billmoyers.com/story/not-your-grandmas-civil-rights-strategy/]
President Johnson sent 2,000 federal troops to Selma as Lincoln had done 100 years before, this time to protect peaceful citizens of Alabama from Alabama state troopers. He went on national television to proclaim, “Their cause must be our cause, and together we shall overcome!” and then dispatched a sweeping voting rights bill to a willing Congress. After it passed the House by a vote of 328 to 74 and the Senate by 79 to 18, Johnson signed the act into law with John Lewis and Dr. King at his side.
By their determined organizing, marching, demonstrating and most of all by their relentless courage, local black people had successfully appealed to Washington, finally brought legalized American apartheid to its knees. Black voting in Alabama jumped seven-fold in the next three years.
Without the media slamming blunt facts in the face of sympathetic (or politically savvy) power brokers in Washington, “Bloody Sunday” might have left in its wake little more than a few hundred broken and bleeding marchers and the Jim Crow voting system still intact. Without the TV coverage and a president and Congress capable of being won over, it might have been the civil rights equivalent of a tree falling silently in the forest, not the engine of sweeping change that it was.
But that was then.
Back in 1965, the charm of Selma was lost on most of us who ventured there. I’ve returned a few times since, first in 1985 to shoot scenes for Eyes on the Prize, including an interview with an unrepentant Jim Clark. The town was, by then, smaller, blacker and poorer.
In 2015, I returned again with producer Orlando Bagwell to work on a film for the Southern Poverty Law Center. From a distance, nestled on a bluff above the Alabama River, Selma looked to me like a picturesque little town in southern France. The air below the Edmund Pettus Bridge, now a national historic landmark, was alive with swallows. Selma’s lovely historic district seemed nicely parked somewhere between 1850 and 1950, but much of the rest of the once-prosperous town had, like so much of small town America, been hollowed out by recession and a changing economy. We could find only one restaurant open for supper downtown. Many of its beautiful 19th-century buildings were boarded up. Gaping bullet holes pockmarked the granite tombstone of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder by a state trooper had sparked the original Bloody Sunday march. The Civil War Battle of Selma is still re-enacted annually on a field outside town, with the Confederates defeated again, each year.
The Voting Rights Act forged in Selma had been a triumph of the classic civil rights movement, the hinge between everything that came before and so much that would come after. But we had little reason to suspect or notice when, shortly after the act’s passage in 1965, conservative organizers began a methodical 40-year campaign to gut it. As black voter rolls in rural Alabama swelled, the state’s young federal prosecutor, Jeff Sessions, brought charges of voter fraud against civil rights organizer Albert Turner, a leader of the Bloody Sunday march. His case collapsed in court, but resistance continued, culminating in a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down one of that act’s key provisions (federal approval of state changes in their voting laws). Ever since, a Republican campaign to put new voting restrictions in place has only gained momentum.
In 2015, however, few had noticed the most profound changes of all, even though they were stirring just below the surface of things: sweeping working-class frustration; previously dormant strains of racism, misogyny and nativism; galloping income inequality; and Democratic Party failures that went unnoticed and uncorrected. All of these factors would help lay the groundwork for the successful candidacy of Donald J. Trump. He was slow indeed to reject the white supremacists and nationalists who rushed to endorse his presidential bid and he was brought to office in some measure by the very forces that the civil rights movement naively thought it had largely silenced. Because the lid had been kept on overt public racism and nativism for so long, many Americans were slow to understand how deeply systemic the problem is.
The citizens of Selma voted for Hillary Clinton by a wide margin, but no matter. Trump’s wave has driven from power the vital center with which mass movements had once been able to partner. Vestiges of the very ethos against which the civil rights movement fought have grown ever stronger and found a welcome place in his White House, their strength buoyed by a growing societal disapproval of media elites. In the process, Trump has inoculated himself against appeals for justice as has no president in our lifetime.
When it comes to any rights appeals in the immediate future, no one with real federal power is likely to be listening. There will be no sympathy for human rights petitioners from majority Republicans in the House of Representatives untroubled by reelection fears in their ferociously gerrymandered districts, nor from the soon-to-be-devastated civil rights division of the Department of Justice. What mechanisms will remain for the activists to activate?
In a country becoming less white every day, Democrats recently stood helpless when it came to blocking the confirmation of the whitest cabinet in decades. Soon enough, the Supreme Court will have a conservative majority and then President Trump will have the run of the table, racking up a political monoculture unknown in our time.
What many Americans think of as the civil rights movement — something in our black and white past, back there, back then — is, in fact, a deep running project launched long before we were born and sure to endure long after we are gone. In one now-historic decade, civil rights organizers brilliantly identified the levers of government power they could seize, but most of those levers are today out of reach.
In response, will activism translate into concrete results the way it once did? Surely, a new generation of organizers now rising with a resolve and passion not seen in years, having broadened the civil rights project into a human rights one, will develop new strategies. Surely, they will discover or invent new means of stopping what threatens to be a contraction of democracy. Surely, with the power of social media — a veritable television station in the hands of every citizen — they will find their own ways of ensuring that oppression can’t dodge the spotlight. Already, the bottom-up strategy championed by SNCC has found new fluency in the ascendance of hyper-democratic Internet organizing and the raw eloquence of #BlackLivesMatter.
Does reform still demand powerful allies, and if so, who might they be? A few centrist Republicans, courageous career attorneys in the Justice Department, billionaire Silicon Valley CEOs committed to pluralism, a mass of determined young people running for office?
As organizers have discovered more than once since the early days of the republic, new levers lie waiting somewhere deep in the grand clockwork of our democracy. The only question is: Where?
Jon Else, series producer and cinematographer for Eyes on the Prize, has produced and directed many award-winning documentaries, including The Day After Trinity and Cadillac Desert. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and an Emmy Award-winner, he is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His new book is True South: Henry Hampton and “Eyes on the Prize,” the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement.